As summer rolls around, many faculty members find themselves with the unthinkable: time to focus on research. After spending months keeping an enormous number of balls in the air -- teaching, committee work, service -- and feeling that their research suffers as a result, the idea of juggling fewer is a relief.
Yet, ironically, summers can be stressful for faculty members trying to decide how to use this limited time most effectively. Far too many faculty members come to the end of summer feeling anxious that they accomplished less than they had hoped and resentful that they did not spend more time relaxing.
In this column, we provide some suggestions for how to plan a summer of both productivity and leisure -- and argue that the two should be linked. By allowing yourself time to breathe, you will create a fertile environment for your research, just as sabbaticals can help boost creativity. Of course, our advice does not pertain as directly to many faculty members who teach in summer sessions or who have 12-month appointments involving continuing service and leadership. Nonetheless, we hope that some of our recommendations will be useful.
We view the summer months as having three distinct phases, described below.
The Wind-Down Phase
During this phase, most faculty members are completing grading and catching up on all of the dropped balls from previous months. We recommend the following steps to center and align yourself with the flexibility that summer can bring.
Complete your grading and pass along any comments to students who are waiting for feedback. After posting grades, write notes to yourself about any changes you want to make to the courses you have been teaching. Keeping a shadow syllabus throughout the semester -- noting student responses to readings, class sessions or assignments that went particularly well or tanked -- is one way to make note of future revisions while the class is fresh in your mind.
To keep the momentum, you might want to return to this shadow syllabus as soon as the semester ends and quickly revise or write your syllabi for the following term before you dive deep into nonteaching reflection and work for the summer. Consult your notes, as well as evaluations from students or colleagues from previous iterations of courses, to ensure that you learn from your experiences. Choose and order required books, identify course assignments, and polish your syllabi so that you can stop thinking about teaching until a week or two before the following semester.
Some people recommend instead saving syllabus preparation for just before classes start to avoid the trap of spending too much time on it. But we believe containing syllabus preparation to one or two weeks at the front end allows you to order required books in a timely way, as well feel a sense of calm at the end of the summer.
During this phase, you should also identify vacation days for the summer and communicate those limits to any students or collaborators who may be expecting to work with you. By giving them advance warning, as well as timetables for when to send writing if they expect feedback before your vacation, you can avoid feeling resentful at the end of the summer. As one colleague told us, “Unless I block out time proactively, things trickle onto my calendar, and I end up with one meeting per day all summer long.”
We argue that taking vacation time is good for your body, mind and spirit, and will give you the space to re-engage in creative work. Even planning your vacation can be a wonderful reward for finishing your grading. Some research suggests that simply planning vacations boosts happiness for eight weeks, a nice pick-me-up after a grueling year.
Another key step in this phase is to clean your office and computer. Even the tidiest faculty member can acquire piles of papers, both digitally and in hard copy, during the academic year. Spending a little time recycling unneeded materials and filing those that will be useful in the future helps create a clear, calm workspace. If you had substantial material uploaded to a course website, download and archive any material you may want to use again or create backups in case the university server crashes. Go through your email folders, saving important attachments and information, and deleting or filing everything else, so that your email becomes as well ordered as your office.
This experience can be a cathartic one, as you let go of the annoyances of the previous academic year and document what you accomplished. We recommend alternating cleaning with pleasurable activities, like lying in a hammock or turning up the music while you recycle files.
Once you’ve completed these tasks, you are finally ready to begin planning the summer months. Taking one or two weeks to put your work in order should mean that your brain is beginning to fire on more cylinders, and you can give more attention to how you want to spend your summer. This time spent centering yourself also creates a breathing space between the intensity of the semester and the excitement of the summer months.
The Research and Writing Phase
Before rushing into an unrealistic idea of all of the research you can complete over the summer, we encourage you to set up a plan for the writing months (which may depend on your academic calendar). This plan requires a sense of both what you would like to accomplish and what leisure activities you would like to incorporate into your summer. We believe in daily writing practice (on weekdays) but also emphasize identifying days and weeks when you will take breaks. It is crucial, as Kerry Ann Rockquemore has emphasized, to create a summer plan.
While most academics are not paid for their summer months, many still work on their research over that time. Early in the summer, identify some ways that you will ensure that you take time for leisure, giving your mind and body a chance to rest and recuperate from a demanding and taxing job. That may mean that you spend more time exercising, gardening, listening to music or reading books unrelated to your research. Keying these pleasures to accomplishing reasonable and manageable goals is a win-win strategy. For example, if you allow yourself 30 minutes of dancing to Prince as a reward for 90 minutes of writing, you will get work done and do something fun -- with no guilt attached.
The plan, however, also needs to include vacation days, as we noted above. In most wealthy countries, people take about 30 paid vacation days each year. The average in America is much lower -- 10 paid vacation days a year -- but most research suggests that productivity declines without vacation. Researchers also find that mental and physical health improves when people take vacations.
We recommend identifying at least 15 vacation days early in the summer that fit within your budget. That could mean traveling to a country you’ve never visited, spending time at the beach, going to a family reunion or taking a staycation. The key is turning off work during those periods and planning your summer around the idea that you will not be working during your vacation days.
Use the vacations you have planned to reward yourself for the work you have done. You may plan to not check work email during this period, perhaps using a vacation responder. While you may expect that this will lead to too much email to process upon your return, you might be surprised by how many of those emails have already been addressed by the time your vacation ends. But depending on the responsibilities you are leaving behind (and chaos that might ensue), you may instead decide to allow yourself one email check-in a day.
If you are working on an article that needs about four weeks of focused work, plan a vacation after that period as an incentive to complete it (perhaps giving yourself a week’s wiggle room). If you do not complete the article, take the vacation anyway; you may find that when you return to the work postvacation, challenging snafus will seem more manageable. By setting a goal and moving toward it, you will be creating time to work and allowing yourself to take breaks without feeling like you do not deserve it!
Once you have a plan worked out, plot out your summer by breaking down your goals into manageable bite sizes. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to vaguely promise yourself that you’ll “do it all” during the summer, without a clear sense of what this entails. Keep in mind that you need to schedule time for summer service obligations, such as writing tenure assessments, reviewing scholarship for journals, reading books or articles for award committees, mentoring students and the like.
You may have a book manuscript you would like to complete. Spend time at the beginning of the summer thinking about whether you really can finish the manuscript, or if you can finish a certain number of chapters of the manuscript, and how that fits into your larger research plan. If you have three articles on the back burner, decide which one you want to work on when. It helps to be as specific as possible, marking on the calendar which weeks you plan to focus on which projects, and what hours of the day you plan to focus on research. As one of our colleagues said, if you don’t dedicate specified time in your calendar for writing, “the days whip by, while you keep saying, ‘I’ll write at noon,’ then ‘2 p.m.,’ then ‘after the kids go to bed,’ then ‘tomorrow.’ Planning your research time is time well spent.”
Establishing accountability for writing may also be key. Many faculty members find writing groups invaluable as a regular source of support for their writing as well as feedback on it. Other scholars prefer writing groups that meet up in a library or coffee shop and ensure that you engage in writing for those hours each week. Another approach is enrolling in an online writing program that has you check in daily with writing goals and the number of minutes during which you’ve written, getting encouragement from members of the writing group. Other academics use external deadlines, such as grant proposals or conferences, to enforce writing accountability. Experimenting until you find the right sort of support for writing is fine. Yet, research by Robert Boice suggests that increased accountability greatly improves how much you write.
If you have children to care for and you either do not want or cannot afford summer camp/child care, you can still make a plan for daily 30-minute writing blocks. Knowing that you have planned days and weeks of vacation makes it much easier to allow yourself writing time without guilting yourself with “bad parent” tropes. If you have parents, friends or partners who need attention, you can still plan for writing time, as long as you communicate clearly to them when you plan to take time off.
We argue that key to the writing phase is a sense of balance between work and leisure that allows you to write without feeling guilt about friends and family, and conversely to enjoy life without feeling guilty about work.
The Wind-Up Phase
The final phase, the wind-up, allows you approximately one to two weeks to get ready for the fall term. If you have followed our advice about completing your syllabus early in the summer, you might use this time to prepare the course website.
The wind-up phase is also a great moment to revise your CV or change your professional website and various social media sites -- updating the face you put out to the world. Corralling all the work you have done over the past year into an updated CV or portfolio will give you a sense of accomplishment and remind you of your goals for the upcoming year.
Another important task is to set up your calendar for the upcoming semester. Block out your times for teaching preparation, teaching classes and office hours. Set up lab meetings or regular appointments with students who are doing theses or directed readings with you. Identify at least one 30-minute block each weekday that will be reserved for research. If you are chairing any committees, set up the schedule of meetings. As much as possible, use this time to get prepared for the new semester so that you enter it with a plan, just as you entered summer with a plan.
We argue that by being proactive rather than reactive, you will be able to get the most out of your summer. That will give you opportunities to accomplish the things that are most important to you and your career goals, while balancing those with time to rest and relax. While structured planning of the summer may seem at odds with the notion of leisure, we believe that summer is best enjoyed by faculty members who are making informed decisions about their time.