The only chair we yearn for is a deckchair...

July 30, 2004

There was once a time when academics were perceived to be always on holiday but, my, how things have changed

Do academics have holidays? Do pigs fly? Well, maybe sometimes.

Opinions vary depending on whom you ask and rarely it seems has a profession been so widely misrepresented in popular attitudes to the divide between work and relaxation.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the common perception was that academics (and schoolteachers) had it easy. Spouses, partners and friends would each in their own way cast an envious eye over the in-built flexibility of our jobs, a quality that in effect camouflaged the fact that in some senses we never quite stop working the way that other people do when the office door closes.

Although flexitime is now more common than before and attitudes have moved on, most people still work in a commercial world that is governed by a 9-to-5 regime. They jealously guard their precious two-week summer vacation or long weekend - a time defined by sitting, reading or whatever they consider to be not "working". To them, our lifestyles used to appear relaxed, especially if we sat and read, marked essays, or prepared lectures at home.

How times have changed, however. Today, our partners and friends are long-suffering and we are more likely to be accused of never having any time off rather than always seeming to be on holiday.

All things are relative of course. Most careers have times when deadlines must be met, and other things - often families - take second place.

Sometimes research and publishing opportunities have to be grasped immediately, and students are human beings who cannot be shoved into a filing cabinet marked "pending". The problem for academics is to keep things in perspective and not to get into the habit of prioritising everything. This is not always easy; while others are preparing for the summer break, we have the frenzy of early summer exam-marking, maybe field work, last-minute dissertation supervising, or finishing the final chapter of a book.

Like everyone else, we need holidays - a break from the norm and a chance to recharge batteries. Yet the relaxation we seek can also be conducive to clear and creative thinking as well as being ideal for writing. Once again a balance has to be struck and here is where we sometimes benefit. If we are lucky with families and friends, we can take a holiday at an unusual time of year, or combine a foreign conference with a few days sightseeing.

Academics need flexible friends of all kinds to capitalise on a lifestyle that does not chain them to the same desk or office for 11 months of the year.

Some are luckier than others, too. Historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, geographers and some scientists can sometimes weave together a standard family holiday with something of professional interest.

For some, a holiday can inspire an interest, reinforce a commitment or simply clarify issues by virtue of not thinking directly about them. For those with supremely tolerant (or like-minded) partners, a holiday can be designed to cap a piece of research by adding first-hand knowledge of a place or person. In other situations, a holiday is any time spent away from the symbolic chains of email, and the more glorious for it.

Holidays mean different things to different people. At the end of the day, we all get out of a holiday what we bring to it. What makes academics different from other holidaymakers is that they are professionals at bringing prior knowledge to bear and so can squeeze more out of (or into) a period away from whatever it is they consider "normal work".

Nick Saunders is reader in material culture in the department of anthropology, University College London.

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