I was a bit baffled by why Inside Higher Ed published a piece about a faculty member communicating his expectations to his students. Why was this newsworthy, I wondered. But the number and diversity of people who posted links to it on Facebook suggested that it resonated with many people in one way or another.
Is it really that rare for faculty to articulate to their students what responsibilities academics have and what this means for optimal communication practices? If that is indeed the case then perhaps it would be helpful to make a list, or at least start one, of the many tasks we perform in our jobs.
This can be a valuable exercise for other reasons as well. Academics seem to do a horrible job of communicating to the public (or their families, for that matter) what it is that we do. This then results in off-the-cuff comments and assumptions about how free we must be if we are only teaching a few hours a week, leaving us frustrated and scrambling for explanations as to why we can’t just address a person’s request immediately, especially during our summer "vacation."
So let’s have at it. Below is a list of tasks academics perform over the summer, which, for most of us, is a relatively low-key time. Given the length of this list about what I did over my summer "vacation," I have decided to separate out activities that are more likely to come our way once the academic year kicks off and publish those in a follow-up piece. I invite readers to supplement this list with other things we do over the summer that I may have missed, including ones that may be more common in different types of faculty jobs.
The common categories for research-active academics in terms of tasks are teaching, research, and service. While some types of institutions may emphasize one of these over the others, most tenure-stream faculty get evaluated on all three regardless of the institution. The three often blur, but I will use them to guide the list.
Even though many academics do not teach courses during the summer, that does not mean that we are not performing various tasks related to teaching and mentoring (the latter meant to signal interactions with students outside of formal class time). First, courses do not materialize out of thin air. Even if one will be teaching courses one has taught before during the coming academic year, a responsible teacher – and I know few in academia who aren’t – will reflect on what worked and what did not last time around, will update assignments and readings accordingly and will also consider what new materials have come out since the course was last taught. The last point is especially relevant for those of us who teach in ever-changing fields like my focus on digital media. Why do this during the summer? Because a syllabus has to be ready to go by the time students arrive on campus for the fall term.
If one has a completely new course on the books for the coming academic year then that requires considerably more work in terms of preparations. Makings plans for how to fill 10-15 weeks of class time meaningfully requires substantial effort. Either there are way more potential readings to assign for a topic than is realistic for one syllabus or there is barely anything to choose from, resulting in quite some time looking through the literature and communicating with colleagues for recommendations. Creative and helpful assignments and tests don’t grow on trees either. Reflecting on what has and has not worked in the past in other courses, faculty can spend quite a bit of time contemplating how to make the best use of students’ time outside of the classroom.
In the realm of mentoring, we are busy advising students on their independent work from senior thesis preparation to dissertation proposals, from work needed to convert a grade of incomplete on the student’s transcript to discussing graduate school and job applications. Those of us in departments with Ph.D. programs are going to proposal and dissertation defenses. Of course, this does not simply require showing up for the two-hour event; it requires hours of reading the material and reflecting on it carefully, not to mention meetings with students and reading as well as commenting on their drafts before they finalize these documents.
Often considered part of research, but I will mention it under student advising for reasons I will explain, is communication with the campus Institutional Review Board (IRB) for human subjects research. This is likely most relevant to those in the social sciences and medical schools, but others may have related tasks as well. Why bring this up under teaching? IRBs require that faculty serve as principal investigators (i.e., the ones with ultimate responsibility) for all student projects. This means that if you are advising an undergraduate or graduate student whose study requires IRB approval, you are responsible for going over, approving, and standing by all details of the project, not to mention making sure that the student follows all outlined procedures carefully. If any noncompliance results, you are the one who has to answer to the board. This is precisely the type of behind-the-scenes work that few realize faculty have on their plates, yet is the type of task that can suck up quite a bit of time.
This is a good segue to discussing research. If any of your own projects require IRB approval, you are handling those as well. For those not familiar with IRB, it is important to note that getting approval is not the last of this process. Any revision to the project requires a new approval and approvals need to be renewed periodically (on my campus, annually for many of the types of projects I work on). Summer is often a good time to start something new, which is precisely when you would have to be filling out such forms. They require having a clear sense of what the project will entail and thus having any related documents (such as surveys) ready to go, which themselves of course take quite a bit of time to put together.
Summer can be a good time to catch up on recent additions to the literature in your area or any new area that you have been meaning to learn about. This can often mean going down the rabbit hole, of course, because reading one piece will point you toward others of interest and the next thing you know, you have a reading list longer than when you started. Summer is also when people try to finish writing projects to send the results off for review.
This may require analyzing data you have already collected and writing up the findings. There are also lots of logistics associated with submitting articles for consideration from the arcane practice of formatting files in very particular ways to meeting various other requirements of specific journals and conferences. A task seemingly as simple as recommending potential reviewers for your piece can take quite a bit of reflection and discussion with colleagues.
If you are in a field where book writing is the main way in which scholars communicate their work, you may be busy writing a book proposal and courting editors at presses. If you have the good fortune of receiving an offer, or perhaps more than one, then that also involves negotiating the contract’s terms.
Some conferences meet over the summer so there may be travel involved. These often also mean preparing presentations including what to emphasize in the short 10-15 minutes you have and how to convey it best with visuals. In addition to the logistics of registration, reserving hotel rooms and booking flights, there is also the prep of communicating with those who will be at the event and setting up meetings. And then there is the trip itself, of course, plus the paperwork once you return home if you are fortunate to get reimbursed for your expenses.
Few disciplines and institutions have been immune to the increasing need to bring in outside funding. To get grants, you have to write proposals. Shocking as it may be, those don’t grow on trees any more than syllabuses or journal articles do. Preparing grant proposals requires coming up with a project plan, summarizing relevant literature, detailing the research design and compiling a budget not to mention communicating with various offices on campus that are involved in the logistical part of submitting the proposal.
Some of us also organize and host workshops. A considerable part of my summer involved putting together the agenda for a doctoral workshop I was hosting for the first time. I was fortunate to have funding for a graduate and an undergraduate assistant who were immensely helpful, taking much of the logistical burden off of me. Nonetheless, there are 250 (!) e-mail threads in my workshop e-mail folder. We hosted the workshop in August and it went off swimmingly, but lots remained to be done after participants left, including the evaluation forms and the summary report to be submitted to the foundation that funded the project.
I have now segued into discussing service although organizing a research workshop is precisely the type of activity that is hard to pigeonhole as research versus teaching versus service as it involves aspects of all three. I mention that simply to highlight that it is not always obvious what to emphasize when someone asks what you have been up to in one realm or the other.
An oft-unseen task many of us do concerns the refereeing of others’ work. This comes in various shapes and sizes ranging from conference papers to grant proposals, journal articles, book proposals and entire book manuscripts. Some of us sit on advisory boards of foundations that may also send us materials to read, not to mention attending the in-person meetings to go over them. There are also recommendation letters to write for students applying for fellowships and jobs. Depending on your level of engagement, you may also be providing these students feedback on their applications.
If you are a senior (i.e., tenured) scholar then you will have additional responsibilities. One of the most important responsibilities, yet one of the least visible due to confidentiality reasons, is the writing of tenure and promotion letters. Much of this gets done over the summer as departments prepare promotion cases and approach letter writers. In some cases you may already know the work of the person whose case you have been asked to review, but in many cases you will need to do considerable reading to get a sense of the work and be in a position to evaluate it. Given that your letter is going to be part of the process by which the person’s employer decides whether the faculty member will get to keep his or her job, this is not a task to be taken lightly.
Finally, there are miscellaneous items harder to classify. I frequently receive e-mails from people asking about survey instruments I have developed and papers I have published. I field inquiries from the press. I consider invitations to give talks, to be on editorial boards, to serve on student committees at my own institution and elsewhere. It is gratifying to know that people are interested in my work and opinions, but all of these take time to address.
Every single to-do item I listed up until now is something I did over my summer "vacation" this year. I want to be very clear: I am not complaining! This is what we do as academics and those who don’t like it may consider seeking other career paths. But most are tasks of which most students and certainly the public are unaware. It would be hard to argue that the entirety of tasks I outlined does not make for a very full schedule. And I haven’t even mentioned what I did for fun (my favorite was the watercoloring class I took), something worthy of including in conversations with students so that they realize that there is such a thing as a balanced life.
Not communicating how we spend our time as academics is a disservice to students, especially those on the academic career track. I regularly share with my graduate students things on my to-do list precisely so that they have context for what all comes up during an academic’s day and so that they understand why I may need more than a day to read their paper. (That said, I make it a point to respond to my students’ messages usually within 24 hours, but certainly 48 at least to acknowledge its receipt so that they know I received their material.) I also have a practice of asking students to report to me what they have been doing in addition to working on a specific paper or a particular project so that I can have a better sense of their list of obligations and have an opportunity to comment on the particular tasks suggesting angles they may not have considered.
In the next installment of this piece, I will discuss the additional obligations we have once the year kicks off. My original plan was to cover it all in one piece, but the above seems like quite a list to digest on its own and should give non-academics and academics-in-training a good sense of how we spend our summer "break."