This is the first in a three-part series about the temporality of academic life. While I do believe certain kinds of academic exceptionalism can be dangerous—such as those that turn academic labor into something other than labor thus thwarting graduate students who are trying to unionize—there is one striking difference between our labor and some other kinds of labor: when we work. And when we work ultimately dictates both how we work and what activities we consider work. (See, for instance, Dr. Crazy’s “When Pleasure Becomes Work.”)
How do the academic year, the semester, and the day affect how we construct our work and our lives? How does it help to delimit the work we do?
Happy New Year
About two weeks ago, people all across the world, and Texas, counted the final seconds until the clock read 12:00 and the ball in Times Square dropped. The next morning was spent nursing hangovers or looking optimistically forward to that list of resolutions with the knowledge that “this will be the year that I’ll stick to them . . . or at least to the really important ones . . . at least until April.” The last week of December always brings the perfunctory “Have a great New Year’s” from sales clerks and gas station attendants; the first week in January is dedicated to asking and answering the ubiquitous “How was your New Year’s?” I have to admit that a lot of this is lost on me because my “new year” doesn’t start until the end of August. In fact, January is smack in the middle of my year, when it’s too late for resolutions. When I or my colleagues refer to “next year,” it’s understood that we mean sometime after 25 August, that date off on the horizon after that long expanse of time that we once called “summer break.”
The Truth About Breaks, Holidays, and Being “Off”
Summer vacation, winter and spring breaks are, for anyone in graduate school or in the professoriate, the most egregious misnomers. I know that when talk to my non-academically-scheduled friends about having to get final grades in on 15 May, it conjures up images of lazy summer days sipping drinks on the beach, wandering lonely as a cloudy, or perhaps lying on a hammock at William Duffy’s farm. Raise your hand if you are an academic and this describes your summer. Go ahead. I’m waiting. That’s what I thought. Summer is often the time to scrounge for scut work and to obsess about how many days you’ll have go without a stipend check. Or if you’re lucky, you get to teach . . . every day, for at least half of your “break,” in a room that’s not air conditioned.
As a grad student, what summer also does is give you enough lack of structure with which to hang yourself. You don’t have to be anywhere. Not on campus and certainly not at your desk reading and writing. (This may be one of the reasons that the average time to a PhD in English is 8.2 years; a very optimistic average in my program.)
Other jobs I’ve held during my years outside the university were very different. I always had to be there, somewhere in the claustrophobic triangle made up of my desk, the bathroom, and the water cooler. From 9-5, Monday through Friday, 50 weeks a year. You might as well work because, hey, what else are you going to do? (More on this in Part III: The Academic Day.) Even if you decided not to do anything all summer, say, take your private jet to Guadalajara and wile away the days drinking Dos Equis, would you have fun? Would you be relaxed? Or, would you be thinking about that unfinished chapter, a conversation with your advisor, all of those books and articles you’ve not yet read? Worse, what if your colleagues are holed up in their offices reading and writing while you’re lazing about the beach? You know they read and write more than you anyway. I’ll bet they’ll have written a monograph each before you even finish your second beer. And so it goes. Down time becomes time to think about what you should be doing.
If you are a junior faculty member, especially at an institution with a heavy teaching load, summers are spent, like grad students, working to supplement meager wages or, more likely, doing the research and writing that’s impossible to do “during the year.” In fact, for people whose job is research, the work is never really done; the shift is never over, the final product never rolls off the assembly line. Sure a widget gets finished, but there is another coming down the conveyer belt . . . at least there’d better be, and if there's not, that's another reason to worry. There is the new project, the ongoing project, the accepted-with-revisions project that needs to be revised, and of course, the future project. Rarely can we dust off our trousers and proclaim ourselves done. For me, this is one of the wonderful things about teaching. Things get done. Papers get graded, averages get tabulated and entered, the natural progression of the semester runs its course, and another herd of undergraduates ride off into the sunset. Until next semester.
How does the peculiar academic year affect the way you work?