Embracing the Summer Vacation Myth: What’s Not Working?

Jeremy Birnholtz
Sep 23, 2016 · 4 min read
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About three months ago I said I would try taking what non-academics believe I was doing anyhow: a summer vacation. Not a measly 7- or 14-day break during the summer, mind you, but a flashback to grade school attempt at not really working at all. It sounds decadent, I know, but — as I said in that post — the goal was really to improve my work.

Now it’s 3 months later. I’m sitting on a plane headed home from a week of cycling in Tuscany, and quite conscious of the fact that I’ll be on campus every day this week, start teaching on Tuesday and have a conference paper deadline on Wednesday. Back to reality, but did my experiment work?

In terms of real impact on my work, I have no idea yet. I’ll have to report back on that. More interesting, though, may be the implied question of whether it’s even possible to take a real summer vacation while doing the things expected of research-intensive faculty at R1 institutions.

The short answer is: yes, I think it’s possible in that it seemed to go very well. But it was harder than I expected. And I learned quite a bit. For one thing, I know now that I can mostly go away without my world falling apart. Now that I know this, what will I do differently? A few things: 1) I’ll think more carefully about what I really need to do and what I don’t, and probably be even more jealous in guarding my time (and saying ‘no’); 2) I’ll back off a bit, having learned that the way that I’d do something isn’t the only way to do it; and 3) I’ll try this again in the future.

It’s easy to not show up on campus; it can be hard to not do work. I was in my office a total of 5 days over the summer, and tried to concentrate the bulk of the work that I did on those days. The much harder problem was figuring out what actually constitutes work. If I’m bored waiting for a friend and I look at my email, that’s ok…right? But what if I then see an email about something on campus I’m dreading or that’s stressful, and it drags me into thinking about that dreaded thing for the whole afternoon? That’s not actually doing work, but it sure does surface work-related stress and I tried to avoid it.

My best week by far was the one I spent with family where I didn’t bring my laptop and looked at my phone once or twice a day, and never once looked at my email. At times when I would have read email or tried to get stuff done, I did other things instead. Mostly hanging out with people (lunches with beer!), reading (news and catching up on books) and cycling (~2300 miles Jun — Sep).

What about the responsibilities you are judging me for shirking? Another promise I made to myself at the outset is that I really didn’t want my summer experiment to hurt the 3 graduate students I supervise. This got me thinking a lot about how I work with them. In the past I’ve taken a pretty hands-on approach. I cleared my calendar around paper deadlines and took a heavy hand in editing, for example, in no small part because my career also depended heavily on our collaborative papers. Importantly, I also thought it was the right thing to do for the students. I’m less sure of that now.

Stepping back and watching the great work my students did without me really got me thinking about how I work with them. There’s a tough balance between giving them the space to develop their own styles as writers and researchers, and also being a hands-on mentor to help them along when they run into trouble or just need to chat. I probably wouldn’t have thought about this otherwise, but now it’s something I’m going to work on over the next few years with direct input from students. I kept joking at our one summer lab meeting that I should go away more often (because such great stuff happened while I was gone), but I think there’s some truth in the joke.

Of course I also have other administrative and service responsibilities. Some of these were hard to avoid, especially when administrators were emailing or conferences I volunteer for needed things done. For non-urgent tasks, I wasn’t shy about saying that I was mostly sans laptop and wouldn’t get to them quickly. I also let co-chairs and collaborators know when I’d be away and when they could have my attention. It’s another thing that got me thinking hard about what I actually need to spend my time on and when it was ok to ask others for help. I sometimes felt guilty for saying no or delaying response, but otherwise I didn’t see much backlash. I think open communication is key; it would’ve been different if I ignored people for weeks on end.

Finally, yes, I will do this again. I’m not sure I can do it for the whole summer, but I’ll definitely take weeks away from work in the future to accomplish my own goals, clear my head of work stress and also give the people I work with space to do their thing.

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