Imagined as a blissful break from university administration, teaching and marking, summer is an unparalleled opportunity for academics to bash out as much publishable prose as possible. Yet for many, the long vacation is a source of anxiety and ultimate disappointment.
Scholars in full-time employment who complain about the unstructured nature of the summer months must seem to their growing numbers of adjunct colleagues – who must endure the period unpaid – like pampered aristocrats complaining about their diamond shoes pinching. But the anxiety is real nonetheless.
In the UK, the gears of the research excellence framework are spinning once again, and academics are all too aware of the need to produce high-quality outputs ahead of the submission date looming at the end of the decade. University managers are well aware of it, too. Those at the University of Sheffield recently provided academics with door signs reading: “DO NOT DISTURB…I’m getting ready for the REF”. That may have been ham-fisted and overbearing, but it merely reflects a message that academics have already internalised.
No wonder many academics feel paralysed by anxiety. I know all too well the frustration of running out the door to fetch my daughter from nursery at the end of a long summer working day, unsure of how I’ve spent all those hours. And it is a vicious circle. Research shows that anxiety increases distractibility, so anxious people take longer to complete tasks. Hence, even if such people churn out lots of words over the summer, they may return to term-time duties feeling burned out – with obvious consequences for both their psychological well-being and their longer-term productivity.
There is no shortage of published advice on how to maximise your output over the summer. But these articles focus on making use of all available time. They fail to address the fact that, for academic parents, there may not be much available time. The lack of affordable childcare means that many children will be at home all day during the school holidays, and if only one parent is an academic it is likely to fall to that person to look after them. There is only so much writing you can guiltily cram into swimming lessons and too many episodes of Peppa Pig.
Academic duties also continue over the summer. While some postgraduates are left unsupervised for three solid months, many conscientious academics will still be holding supervisory meetings and reading thesis chapters. Meanwhile, in many fields, the bulk of academic conferences are crammed into June and July. This summer, for instance, I organised one, attended two and had to turn down several other interesting options. Then, before you know it, August comes around and it is time for the two-week family holiday.
But only the worst kind of misanthrope would wish that away. Rather than joining the chorus of voices suggesting ways to cram more writing hours into the day, I would suggest that we rethink what it means to have a productive summer. Rather than gluing ourselves to the keyboard, we should seize the opportunity to connect with our colleagues in more meaningful ways than distractedly discussing exams and timetables in the common room. We should also take the chance both to broaden our horizons and to reconnect with the people who matter most in our lives.
Returning home from the conference I had organised, I was exhausted but exhilarated. I came away with pages of notes and new ideas, and had turned many Twitter acquaintances into real-life potential collaborators and even friends. Another day, I put my writing aside early so that I could take my daughter out for ice cream simply because it was sunny and I missed her.
A summer vacation should surely count as productive if it leaves you full of creative new ideas about how to approach your scholarship. It should count as a success if it leaves you feeling healthy and relaxed, ready to face the new academic year with enthusiasm rather than dread. And it should count as a triumph if it infuses you with the energy and impetus to keep writing even once the undergraduates return.