Summer Thoughts -- I

Alex Golub considers the differences between how students and professors experience summer.

June 20, 2006

Being a teacher means never having to give up summer break. While other people graduate from college and go on to a professional life punctuated only by holidays and weekends, many professors get the same time off as their students: breaks in winter, spring, and of course the break most of us are now well and truly into: summer.

As someone just starting out my teaching career the experience of summering as a professor is novel. But what really makes it so earthshatteringly new is not how different it is from my summers as a student but just how long it's taken me to get from one to the other. Like many Ph.D.'s, I've been in school so long I can't remember a time of my life that didn't involve summer vacation. So while I can count the number of summers I've spent as a professor on one hand, I'd need not only an extra leg, but a third arm to have sufficient digits to enumerate the summers I've spent as a student.

In mid-May, the difference between the student summer and the professor summer seemed vast to me. One approaches the student summer the way Evel Knievel approaches a line of Ford Mustangs -- a burst of frenzied acceleration as one heads up the ramp of stress and procrastination, a brief moment of giddy release as one floats tantalizingly close to success in the course of an all-nighter or three, and then a crash-and-burn landing in which one turns in the finished product which earns one notoriety but isn't quite as successful as you had hoped it would be.

Entry into the professor summer is much more apocalyptic. You announce to your students that the end times are coming. Panic ensues as all and sundry suddenly realize -- despite your jeremiads to the contrary throughout the entire semester -- that they shall all be judged when the last days come. What follows is typically a period of intense activity as students undertake the scholarly equivalent of cashing in their lifetime savings and spending it on kerosene and canned goods (or, to keep the metaphor straight, jumping over a line of Ford Mustangs). Are there extra credit assignments available? Can papers due months ago still be turned in for credit?

Eventually the final is handed out and the End Times begin. The class is over and yet the final ascension to summer has not occurred. There is a period of eerie calm. Finally the due date arrives and good students turn in papers, in reward for which their grades are instantly raptured up into WebCT. As for the late papers, no one knows the day or hour on which they will arrive. Eventually there is an intensely unpleasent tribulation in which you must put the The Grade upon the brow of all assignments, and then you are finally free to ascend into your summer.

The professor summer differs in several other important ways from the student summer. The most different is the way it fits into the life course of the people involved. The student summer is part of an upward trajectory that leads the student (however sluggishly) through school to graduation so that then can then enter into "real life." There is forward movement and a sense of growth.

The professor summer is part of the eternal reccurence of the same, a momentary pause. Have classes ended? No, they have only paused. Soon they will begin again, and the same classes will be taught to the same students who visit upon the use of semicolons the same violence the last students did. It's like the movie Groundhog Day, but without Andie MacDowell trying to hide her Southern accent.

But of course this is not strictly true. The professor summer is more a corkscrew than a circle. There are wheels within wheels and professors experience their careers as an increasingly upward spirals, moving ever closer to the (supposed) nirvana of tenure, retirement, or a salary large enough to summer in a rustic cabin on the edge of the large body of water near your university. Summer is where it is supposed to happen: professors embrace the summer as the time when they can perform the meritorious deeds necessary for them to attain a position close to the hub of the wheel of academic samsara.

But as the summer progresses I am beginning to realize that perhaps these differences between the student summer and the professor summer are illusory. My sense that professors are just grad students with health care grows. For while summer is supposedly a time of growth and improvement, it actually gets frittered away using the same techniques of procrastination and denial that one perfected during graduate school.

For instance, in the fall I will be teaching my first intro level course at a large state university rather than the small liberal arts college where I usually adjunct. For the first time -- ever -- I will be teaching from a textbook and lecturing rather than running a small seminar-style class. This freaks me out and I've spent a lot of time thinking about it. I want the entire summer to really read the textbook and prepare everything -- if it comes on the first of August then I'm going to be in trouble.

As a result I badgered my sales rep and finally got a copy of the textbook in late May and I have not even opened it. Now that it has arrived I can create my own emergency! As an expert procrastinator I am all too aware of just how much lead time I have before I have to get down to work. By putting this off until the last minute, I can take on some of my other summer projects, writing a best-selling follow-up to Guns, Germs, and Steel and learning Ugaritic.

Yeah right. What have I really been doing this summer? Most of my time has been spent catching up on Beat Takeshi flicks and playing Oblivion, Bethesda software's award-winning follow up to the popular computer game Elder Scrolls III: Morrowwind. My level 14 Orc brawler not only has a heavily enchanted katana, he can cast destruction spells as well. Oblivion's state-of-the-art game engine makes the marble in The Imperial City gleam with incredible realism, and my character's progressive advancement through quests allows me to wallow in a fantasy world similar to grad school, where my life was full of quests with defined goals and directional motion, not the recurrence of the same.

In the final accounting I don't think this is such a bad thing. We are one of the few professions in the United States that still gets a sizeable vacation. Why not enjoy it? Even professors need to stop and smell the flowers every once in a while, even if doing so means that come August we will be mentally putting on our Evel Knievel costumes and eyeing our classes as if they were a line of Ford Mustangs.


Alex Golub teaches at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He blogs at Savage Minds, a group blog about cultural anthropology.


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