Vacation? Not from vocation

August 8, 2003

Terry Eagleton once spent August teaching hippy nuns and recovering from doing very little during term. But, he says, today's academics are more likely to scale a mountain of books than the Cairngorms.

A vacation, so our tutors used testily to admonish us, is not a holiday.

The idea is that you vacate the university to study elsewhere, not swan around Corfu or climb the Cairngorms. In fact, rather than simply lug our books to a new location or wander the souks of Marrakesh, most of us packed soap, pulled pints and waited on tables, as students do today. Technically speaking, then, we neither vacationed nor holidayed. Summers were neither intellectual nor exotic.

The phrase "to go on vacation" is grammatically deceptive. It sounds like going on a cruise or an expedition but actually means nothing more enthralling than getting out. It refers to what you are leaving, not to what lies ahead. "Vacation" comes from the Latin vacare, to be empty, though few academics these days need an etymological reminder that summers tend to bring nothing more exotic than leaving the office to work elsewhere.

Holidays, from the Old English haligdaeg or holy day, concern a different sort of emptiness: they really are about the delights of doing nothing, rather than just shifting your locale. The Jewish sabbath was originally about rest, not religion. It was a way of freeing yourself temporarily from the fetishism of work, promoting enjoyment over endeavour. Words such as holiday, leisure, break, hobby and vacation are all defined in relation to labour. We have precious little vocabulary that grasps the idea of free time as a thing in itself. In academia today, freeing yourself from work tends to involve breaking your own ankle by repeatedly dropping heavy weights on it, going flamboyantly mad or - for those sybarites seeking a permanent cessation of labour - dropping heavy weights on the head of department.

As the summer vacation continues to shrink like an overwashed sweater, clipped at both ends by examining or administrative chores and shot to bits in the middle by summer schools and children's holidays, its end begins to seem distressingly near its beginning, like a scrappy student essay. You have to snatch a holiday, then find time to recuperate from it. The idea of being stuck at home in August (though why August particularly?) has always struck me as strangely humiliating and uncool, like being at home on Saturday night at the age of 16 because you can't get a girlfriend. I would even consider paying someone a modest sum to report that I was "away" in August (I like the vague, evasive resonance of that word) even when I wasn't. Yet August these days is probably the only time when you can finish the review you promised that journal whose editors either are now long dead or cannot remember their own names, let alone the fact that you owe them a review.

It is true that the line between labour and leisure in academia was always pretty blurred. It is just that the labour has now swallowed up the leisure, whereas in traditional Oxbridge it was the other way round. When I first became an Oxford tutor, the memory was still fresh of colleagues who had no set times for teaching. Nothing as soullessly schematic as a timetable tarnished their spontaneity. Instead, an undergraduate would just drop by his tutor's rooms as the fancy took him, hoping not to find the tutor in the bath, erotically engaged or speechlessly, rather than merely leglessly, drunk.

Sherry at tutorials is a surviving symbol of this seamless unity of life and learning. "Men must be taught as if you taught them not," Alexander Pope cautions his fellow poets, and a lot of Oxbridge dons were experts at such dissimulation. So suavely oblique were their teaching methods that after three years of tutorials you could have sworn they hadn't passed a single memorable remark. As with a skilful surgeon, you never felt a thing, apart perhaps from the post-tutorial hangovers.

Being a fellow in those days was a notable improvement on having a job. You could wander from college breakfast to a spot of agreeable horticultural discourse with your fellow members of the tree committee, then have a couple of undergraduates read their essays at you, by which point it was time for lunch. There would be no teaching in the afternoon, since the men were on the river, but you might decide to doze to the soporific murmuring of another essay before hall. It was left to the philosophers to determine what, in these circumstances, the summer break was actually from.

Mrs Thatcher, however, went and spoiled all that. Now academics are like sculptors who spend so much time repairing the studio roof or haggling over a chunky bit of Cumbrian sandstone that they hardly ever get round to setting chisel to stone. The means of life have taken over from life itself, as Marx observed of capitalist society in general, so that summer becomes the time when you might actually do some work, if you weren't so depleted by everything that prevented you from doing it during term.

And then there are summer schools. Where I live, in Ireland, the summer schools traditionally divide between those where you drink between the lectures, and those where you lecture between the drinks. Any Irish man or woman who ever penned a sentence on the back of a beer mat now has a summer school devoted to their literary career, complete with oil-rich Texans called O'Reilly and squads of Japanese Joyceans.

My first academic summer vacation in 1970 consisted of teaching in a New York summer school of about 200 nuns (lip-sticked, hippy-loving ones, not the old-style penguin type) who turned somersaults during mass and let out cryptic, life-affirming, semi-orgasmic cries such as "The bread is rising!"

Lecturing on hermeneutical phenomenology in Heidelberg was a bit of a let-down after that.

My scariest summer school was one where I was the only critic among a hundred or so poets, which is to say the proverbial eunuch at the orgy, in some remote reach of Minnesota. There are poets who make Naomi Campbell look like Mother Teresa, and most of them seemed to be present at this event. Some of them wore flowing white robes and strummed small home-made zithers. They recited poems of formidable length and unforgiving tedium, beat tattoos on their own or each others' chests, and in their imaginative way drew some suggestive analogies between criticism, indeed critics themselves, and portions of excrement.

The old cliche that you never stop learning means that academics never stop working. It is in the nature of their vocation to be without natural limits, unlike a barber or a busker. Historians will never run out of history, nor critics run out of literature, since like hashish or carbon dioxide the stuff is being mass produced all the time. There seems to be enough universe to keep astrophysicists in business for a fair while, and nature in general seems as bottomless and enigmatic as art. Thought has no natural breaks, and if we run out of problems we can do what my old Cambridge college used to do when it ran out of feast days: invent a few more.

After a lifetime of examining and administrating, I have been graciously relieved of both tasks by the University of Manchester. This is almost as good as not having to put the dustbins out for the rest of one's life. When I told my dean that I wanted to offer a course that led to no degree and involved no grades, credits, essays or exams, he shouted in self-ironising indignation: "But youcan't do that! That's pure education! This is a university, dammit!" It was like offering to do free cosmetic surgeryin California.

So now I need my summer vacations less than most. The friend of mine who turned out to need one most of all got his lectureship in the 1960s, when jobs were falling from the trees, and was informed in June by his future head of department that he would be teaching the modern German novel that autumn. He was, in fact, a German medievalist. The appointment committee had made a mistake and hired the wrong man. They were now aware of this, and so was he. Moreover, he was aware that they were aware that he was aware of it. But it was all signed and sealed and, in impeccably English fashion, nobody breathed a word. So he spent his summer vacation exactly as you would expect, stumbling his panic-stricken way through Thomas Mann.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester.

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