Sometimes it’s hard to allow ourselves to relax. We rush through the academic year, dealing with the inevitable crises of the spring and fall semesters, putting out the fires that students and colleagues sometimes set, torching a few things ourselves along the way, creating more work for ourselves from time to time. The summer offers a break from the cycle of crisis-and-response, from the dulling routines of the working year. Summer offers a chance to slow down. But it takes a lot of patience and commitment, oddly enough, to allow ourselves a period of genuine relaxation. It takes, in a weird sort of way, permission.
I need a vacation. I bet you need a vacation too. Some of my colleagues begin their relaxation almost at the moment that they have submitted their final grades for the spring semester, escaping immediately to the beach. I sort of envy them. It takes me a little more time to wind down, to even begin to allow myself to breath and relax. It takes my brain a while to make the switch from spring-semester-survival to shade-sitting and recreational reading.
The curse of an academic career is that the work is never, ever done. No matter how caught up with our day-to-day work we may get, there is always research or writing that we could/should be doing, or a course that could use an overhaul. The boundaries of academic work are ill-defined, and so work follows us from our offices to our homes, in the evenings, on the weekends, and even in the summer. This is precisely why, after a year of hard work, you deserve, actually quite need, some sort of a vacation.
I’m not a fan of the so-called working vacation, which seems common among academics. I tried it once. After my first year on the tenure-track, I traveled from my mountain home in the East to different mountains in the West, to a small, unheated, unplumbed, un-electrified shanty in northern New Mexico where I take refuge annually. My plan was to combine work and play for several weeks, spending a few hours each morning at the local library writing, and then biking, fishing, and tinkering on the shanty in the afternoons and evenings. Instead of a mix of productivity and relaxation though, I got neither.
The scholarly "work" I produced was distracted and haphazard, not entirely incoherent, but also not up to standard. Neither did my efforts at relaxation succeed. I left the Western mountains as tired and nervy as I had arrived. The attempt to maintain a working routine each morning meant that I never allowed myself to slip in the slower, wholly distracted state of vacation that helps to refresh us after months of hard work. The desire to be on vacation undermined the work I produced, while the attempt to maintain scholarly productivity sabotaged my chances for relaxation.
I’ve written recently that academics cannot afford to neglect their scholarly agendas during the summer months. I stand by that admonition. But I add the caveat that we all need a legitimate break, a genuine removal from the environment, routines, worries, and demands of the working year. We all need time to relax. Naturally enough, what constitutes a relaxing break will vary from individual to individual and from family to family. While I love to travel, I don’t find much about traveling relaxing. If I could park myself in one locale for an extended period of time, maybe then traveling would feel relaxing. I know though that some people find a whirlwind tour of four cities in six days both refreshing and invigorating. The point is, do your own thing, whatever that relaxing thing is. We all need it. Taking a break, even though it requires us to suspend work for a while, can make us more efficient when we return to work, mentally and physically rested.
Vacations certainly don’t have to involve exotic locales or large expenses. But it does seem to me that they should involve significant changes, breaks from typical routines. The recent recession has generated the horribly named phenomenon of the "stay-cation." And even though I detest the moniker, I love the idea, wherein vacationers commit to themselves to break from their normal routines for few days or a week and explore their own communities, the museum they never normally have time to visit, or even just the shady tree in the park that they always meant to picnic under. Maybe simply taking a break from e-mail and cell phones and drowsing in a hammock in the backyard with a book for a few days is enough.
Simply by making it through another year, we’ve all earned a break. No matter what your ideal break looks like.