Summer Boundaries

If you are only being paid for nine months of work, and you need summers for research, you need to set some limits, writes Nate Kreuter.

June 30, 2014
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written in the past about the need to get away from it all during the summer months, to leave work behind for a while. I’ve also noted the harsh reality that for most of us on nine-month appointments (by far the majority of teacher-scholars in academe) summer is one of the few opportunities to make dramatic progress in furthering one’s research agenda. The three-month “vacation” from work is, as you already know, a myth. Even though it is impractical for most of us to ignore work for the duration of our “off” months, we do need to take steps to protect our time away from campus and the classroom, in order to preserve time for relaxation, and also for research.

There is also the issue that we should not be working for free. Historically, it has been relatively common for some faculty members, particularly those with lower-level administrative responsibilities, to  be sort of informally on the hook during the summer months, expected to respond to email and keep up with loose threads, but to go uncompensated for their work during that time period. In addition to being a form of de facto exploitation, such patterns contribute to the gradual but steady marginalization of academic labor across multiple fronts. In addition to the well-documented “adjunctification” of academic labor, expecting something for nothing, which universities increasingly do in such scenarios, further reduces the value of academic labor in general.

Unfortunately though, while many of us are on those nine-month appointments, which means that our salaries only reflect nine months’ worth of work, obligations from our colleges and universities often do leach into our summer time, time that is ostensibly our own. I’m not referring here to that pesky research and writing stuff that we have to conduct on our own time. I’m referring to much of the routine and mundane work that, while not necessarily difficult, can shred our scholarly productivity and our vacation time over the summer months. I refer to the likes of emails from within our universities that cannot go unanswered until August, curriculum revisions that cannot be undertaken during the primary academic semesters of fall and spring, the minutiae of keeping up.

How do we preserve the boundaries between the work that we are paid to undertake during nine-month appointments and the routine business that keeps the university running and cannot be ignored for one-quarter of the calendar year?

Some universities handle these situations in more ethical ways than others. Often, in states where faculty are unionized, faculty members with administrative responsibilities that create work over the summer months are often converted into 10- or 11-month employees, which prevents them from having the 40-hour-per-week accountability of 12-month employees (such as department chairs) but also compensates them for the inevitable work that they will have to carry out over the summer. Such arrangements, while not shielding the faculty member from summer work entirely, are at least fair in that the individual is compensated for the work during the summer months, work that is not expected of most of their colleagues.

Barring those situations, how do we, as individuals, hold the boundary between work and personal time during the summer months? How do we protect that boundary without also neglecting work that will haunt us in the upcoming academic year if it is ignored all summer long? These are difficult questions, and, frankly, I don’t have the answered as thoroughly worked out for myself as I would like do. I do have some ideas though. During the summer:

  • Don’t work in your office if you don’t have to. Being present on campus sometimes means getting roped into tasks simply because you’re around. It also sets the expectation, implicitly, that you are “on the clock” even during those months when you aren’t supposed to be. In some states, union rules actually dictate when faculty members can be on campus, to prevent the sort of responsibility creep that occurs when faculty are wrongly expected to be productive outside of the timeframe of their appointments.
  • Differentiate tasks. Can it be put off until fall? If yes, then do so. If not, are you precrastinating, beginning a task earlier than necessary, and at the expense of more immediate responsibilities?
  • Limit your work email. My university email and my personal email are segregated accounts. I use my personal account for all business except for the official business of my university, communicating with students and colleagues at the institution. All other correspondence, to include article submissions and communications with colleagues at other institutions, I handle through my personal account. By only checking my university email once a week or so during the summer months, I can avoid some of the summer time drain. (Note: this is purely theoretical — I have yet to achieve the separation described, despite my segregation of email accounts.)
  • Out of office reply. I’m going to try this someday. I swear.
  • State the parameters of the boundary. Let colleagues, particularly those whose responsibilities require them to work through the summer, know explicitly what your summer boundaries are, what they can expect from you, or what work they shouldn’t expect to see completed until fall.

The most frustrating situation to be in is to know that you are being held liable by supervisors and colleagues for work over the summer, but not to be compensated for the additional work. Supervisors and administrators have a large role to play here. If members of departmental or university leadership do not allow faculty members their time away from campus, and create unnecessary demands or demands that can wait until fall, they are almost certainly cutting into time that the faculty member would otherwise be able to devote to scholarly productivity. In the ranks of the untenured, unreasonable summer demands from university leadership, summer after summer, can hurt the junior faculty member’s opportunity to build a viable tenure case. If a faculty member’s time and attention are needed during the summer months, that individual, ethically, requires compensation beyond that of the standard nine month appointment.

Much of what I argue here doesn’t apply to research scientists. Quite often, productive scientific researchers must maintain labs and experiments through the summer months. But because their research is often funded in whole or in part through grants, those grants often permit the primary researcher and affiliated researchers or graduate students to be funded through the summer months. Often, and permitting the rules of the grant, they are compensated for the summer work with additional salary. In short, they are compensated for their summer time, and appropriately so.

Many disciplines and the faculty working in those disciplines though are not nearly as likely to have access to grant funding, and rarely at the same scale as scientific grant funding. We, I think, are more likely to find ourselves in the pickle I describe here.

Of course, if you opt to teach during the summer months, the decisions here shift dramatically. I have not opted to teach during the summer since I was a graduate student. I always sought out appointments of one variety or another then because the lean times of graduate study became impossibly lean otherwise. With a faculty appointment, I’ve since decided that the time away from campus afforded to me by my nine-month contract ( in theory) is more valuable than the summer salary that my university offers to those who teach breathtakingly paced summer courses.

As the economic viability of the possibility of an academic career erodes — adjuctification of faculty ranks, a paucity of appointments, the “do more, make less” economics imposed by state legislatures —it becomes more essential that faculty members of all ranks hold the line on their labor. Some may feel this column is crass, and huff to themselves that we are professionals, and not hourly employees who need to be concerned about clocking out precisely at five and what are, essentially, wage-shaving practices. Perhaps they’re right, for now, but we’re quick on our way.


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