At some time in early September, a bell goes off in the head of every academic unblessed with a sabbatical. It signals the recommencement of the teaching year, and is loud and annoying: the opposite of a Pavlovian bell since, rather than salivation, it typically inspires lethargy, whimpering and despair.
If you are anything like me, you’ll subsequently spend as much of the month as possible determinedly ignoring it until a peculiarly commingled panic and guilt shakes you from your summer slumber.
Listening to me complain about September, a more sanguine colleague reminded me that Keats loved the autumn, rhapsodising about its “mists and mellow fruitfulness” and marvelling at its ripened fruit, swollen gourds and plump hazelnuts. But since Keats died only a year after writing his ode To Autumn – as I tartly retorted – I’m not sure his judgement ought to be trusted.
It’s not true, of course, that September is entirely grim. Being back at work means colliding with cheery colleagues in the corridor, each of us ruefully clutching course-packs and exchanging sympathetic smiles; it also means spotting suntanned students with newly stylish “second-year haircuts” sauntering around all the familiar spaces. I’ve missed them all. But there is a certain pang that strikes you like the memory of a lost youth – or, more precisely, the memory of an article you were meant to finish, a book proposal you intended to start, a research proposal you thought you would concoct and never did as July sank into August and then, whoops, suddenly September started impudently banging on your door.
But the summer vacation is so rarely wrapped up satisfactorily, even for the best of us. From the very beginning, it has all the qualities of a teenage romance, all desperate longing, thwarted ambition and broken promises. It breaks your heart. In June, those long months ahead of us present an unbroken vista of possibility, but always underwritten with a niggling awareness that the teaching treadmill will be upon us again soon enough and we should frantically think, write, do all we can before the sun sets. All things seem possible and impossible at once. As soon as we are unburdened of administrative tasks, we reload with a new cargo of anxiety and self-accusation. And we do it because the stakes are high. In the summer, we might refashion ourselves afresh and recover a scholarly identity that was submerged in semester time. We might get ahead (of what, exactly, is never quite clear). We remember the covetous ways in which we carved out an hour of research here or there during term-time, and resolve to greedily gorge ourselves in this unadulterated time to ourselves.
The summer vacation has all the qualities of a teenage romance, all desperate longing, thwarted ambition and broken promises
If we’re lucky, we’ll glory in an Indian summer – not necessarily because we relish good weather but because the residual heat of an extended summer has the delusory effect of a reprieve, somehow elongating our fantasy of freedom. The phrase itself derives from Native American usage, referring to a period of fine weather that permitted the reaping of a harvest plentiful enough to carry the community through the winter. The summer holidays in the UK had a similarly pragmatic function: the academic calendar, established about 500 years ago, reserved this three-month period to release sturdy youths from study so that they might return to the fields and harvest the crop.
And in some way this notion of a summer in which one builds up reserves remains a salient one. We might upbraid ourselves for inefficiency, for having spent too long “settling” into our library and fiddling with fonts, but these are all part of a process in which we reacquaint ourselves with our atrophied research brains. The truth is that research takes so many forms: it can be the films you can suddenly make time to see, or the conversation you finally complete with the colleague you only managed to brush past in corridors the rest of the year. And this precious period is also for things other than research. Our punitive, pushy academic brains will not always permit us to acknowledge this, but it is also a time in which we might actually allow ourselves to be ill and properly recover, or repair relationships fallen by the wayside while we’ve been busy with teaching.
Perhaps, most crucially, the summer reminds us how profoundly our ability to relax about research is directly correlative to our ability to actually carry it out. For so many of us, our ability to write and think and do is bound up with our well-being, so research plays some therapeutic role in our lives. Being away from work gives us freshness in place of fatigue, equipping us with a plenitude that carries us through the winter and enriches those we teach and who teach with us. And recognising this might, in some way, also provide us with additional resolve to battle encroaching administrative burdens, increasing managerialism and the tyranny of teaching-only contracts. The right to research is not something claimed with a singular kind of self-concern: it is a way in which we ready ourselves for all other aspects of our profession. And, like Keats, Emily Brontë knew that when our summer romances end, September holds its own promises:
“Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.”