My summer of self-delusion

September 23, 2005

Despite the absence of students over the holidays, Kevin Fong was too distracted to make inroads into his to-do list. Roll on Christmas

The tell-tale signs are there - the shorter days, the cooler weather, the darker mornings. Yes, summer is all but officially over and those pesky students are back again cluttering up the library, choking the corridors and generally making the place look untidy.

It is tempting at times to regard undergraduates as though they are an infestation whose sole purpose is to prevent the smooth running of what would otherwise be a lean, mean paper-producing machine, and even though the university exists ostensibly for them, we kid ourselves that it runs better in their absence.

There is a lie that we all tell ourselves every spring that goes something like this: "When the undergrads have gone from this fair campus I will finally have time to get down to the nitty-gritty of the research I'd have been doing if I hadn't been preoccupied with teaching duties and babysitting."

Operating under this delusion, we attribute special properties to the undergraduate-free white space in our diaries for June, July and August. We come to regard it as a virginal, unpolluted hiatus during which order and focus temporarily return to the universe. We believe we can leap long grant applications in a single bound, type faster than a speeding bullet and move more paperwork than a powerful locomotive.

So the summer break becomes a repository for all those tasks that need a bit of courage to face in term time and before you know it, you are overbooked and underresourced, sweating it out in listed buildings in which the estates department aren't allowed to fit air conditioning.

If you don't believe me, try getting hold of just about anybody during the break. You'll more than likely find them running around like decerebrate chickens telling you that things have never been busier and they don't have time to stop for idle chitchat. Unless they fall into that category of really savvy, switched-on, tuned-in academic, of course, in which case you can't get hold of them because they have decided to pack up shop and go on holiday.

Funnily enough, most of the things I thought I'd get done once the summer arrived haven't happened. My to-do list is as long as ever, my in-tray is in danger of structural failure and, worse still, I have a continuous three-month period of sustained underachievement with only myself to blame.

The problem, I guess, is that hard drives still crash, samples still get overcooked and vital papers still go missing even when the undergrad gremlins aren't there to point an accusatory finger at.

I have at last come to realise that having a class to teach, rather than distracting you from important and potentially Nobel prizewinning work, offers a cathartic escape from the everyday frustrations of research. Come back, my dear undergraduate friends, all is forgiven.

It took a while for me to work this out, but the penny finally dropped when I was in the supermarket and noticed to my horror that they were already selling mince pies. It was then that it came to me: I've been kidding myself all along. There's no way in hell you can hope to catch up over the summer holidays, it's a mathematical impossibility - anybody who knows anything about anything will tell you that catching up is what you do when you're free of distractions over the Christmas holidays.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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