The Mythical Academic “Summer Vacation”: What If We Embraced It?

Like many of my academic friends, I have often felt that intense inner twinge that happens when a non-academic friend or relative says something like, “What are you doing for your summer vacation?”. Some of you just felt it, I’m sure.

It’s painful partly because it’s just not true. I run a research lab, supervise 4 doctoral students, chair my department’s curriculum committee, serve as associate department chair, am developing a computational literacy education program and run an undergrad curriculum module in digital media. (And that doesn’t include my teaching.) None of those things stop entirely in the summer, and research is often more intensely paced during summer because grad students and undergrad research assistants are working full time and are less distracted. So in the normal order of things, there’s no such thing as summer vacation. It kind of sucks when people think you have a summer of leisure, but you don’t.

Another reason it’s painful is that there’s a popular narrative of faculty having cushy jobs where they show up for a couple days a week to teach during the school year, and that’s about it. In this era of declining funding for universities and scorn for out-of-touch elites, I think it’s important to make clear that these things simply aren’t true. Lots of other people have written about this, though, so that’s not my focus.

Rather, my focus is on a third reason the “summer vacation” myth hurts: the pressure we academics put on ourselves to act as if we’re destined to be part of some sort of perpetual motion machine.

Why do we do this?

I’ve actually spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I can’t figure it out, at least as a long term strategy. Short term, I get it. It often takes lots of publications to get a job or tenure or a raise (for those fortunate enough to get raises), and it takes external funding to do some types of research and support one’s students. Plus rejection rates for all of these things are absurdly high (and the review processes often feel arbitrary), so a common strategy (yes, I’m guilty of this too) is just to spit out lots of stuff and hope something sticks.

But is that really why we’re here? To endlessly crank out mediocre prose with an 80+% chance of rejection? To take on the editing/reviewing responsibilities largely created by said glut of mediocre prose? Where does this get us as a field? How does it advance an argument that what we do is useful/beneficial?

Is there any evidence of correlation between time spent being busy and the quality of one’s work? My inclination is that there’s not, but I’d love to see studies of this. I’ve been on several search committees and interviewed quite a few candidates. It has frequently been true that the most interesting candidates did not have the longest CVs. Lots of papers can be a good way to get noticed, but not a great way to get hired. There are other ways to get noticed, though, such as conference talks or networking.

I could say more, but my real point here is that I worry we’re doing this to ourselves. As grad students we get trained to be part of the perpetual motion machine. At every stage the system seems to reward those with these values. People take on more and more because that’s what everybody else seems to be doing. We create more work for ourselves by believing we need to write and produce more. And then more work needs more reviewers. And then we need to review those papers. Even with tenure, we keep doing this because…that’s what we do.

But…what if we didn’t?

Seriously, what would happen? I’m curious enough that I’d like to find out, at least for me. (Your mileage may vary, of course.)

I’m starting a multi-phase participant observation experiment. Hypothesis 1 is that there may actually be something to this “summer vacation” thing. Could it actually result in better quality work?

Ok, I’m saying it:

I’m an R1 academic who is (mostly) taking a summer vacation this year*.

My goal is 1/2 day of work effort per week, on average, this summer. This time will mostly be spent meeting with grad students, catching up on email and touching base on a few ongoing projects. I’ll also be doing some reading and chewing on thoughts I haven’t had time to process in a while. When not working, I’ll be doing other things I enjoy but don’t get enough of during the year: cycling, cooking, traveling, seeing friends/family, etc.

I’ll be informally collecting data via blog posts like this one, reflecting on my own experience and looking at the work I produce over the next few years.

More hypotheses and more experiments to follow. I welcome your thoughts.

*For those interested in such details or wondering how funding agencies might react, I’m drawing no summer salary this year. And, for the record, I spent a fair bit of time in the winter and spring configuring various projects/responsibilities so this would be possible (i.e., I wasn’t lying when I said that this isn’t ordinarily possible).

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