Summer Thoughts -- II

Shari Wilson tries to avoid making this the season of sloth.

June 20, 2006

By the time I turn in final grades for four classes, I feel exhausted -- physically, emotionally, and mentally. I go home, drop into bed and sleep for 12 hours. Even that does not heal my fatigue. The next day, I cannot even get my mail from the mailbox. If I am smart, I have stocked enough food and toiletries that I will not have to move from my apartment for the next few days. I shovel in bacon, eggs and raisin toast at every meal, too tired to rewrite my own menu.

Finally, three or four days later, I awaken to boredom. The television does not keep it at bay. Even sleeping loses the ability to make me sharp. Afternoon naps make me feel dull, rather than relieved. Books from the library lay on my coffee table unopened. Titles I have spent months coveting no longer catch my eye. Strangely enough, I find that I am looking forward to the next semester. I start to pull papers out of my attaché, set my new textbook on my desk, and write a few notes to myself about changes to be made in my syllabus.

I can’t believe it. I finally have real time off and I am not appreciating it. This is not in-between time. This is not a Saturday afternoon during a full semester when I have no grading. This is not an hour at night when I am done marking up papers. This is a real break. This is summer. This is weeks and weeks off. Time to do all the things
I had hoped to do during the semester: write, study, go to local events, see friends, sleep in late, and even do a short road trip. Yet I cannot lift a pen, break open a book, skim the newspaper for community happenings, call friends, sleep past seven a.m., or get in the car for anything other than buying a newspaper or soda.

Why can’t I successfully switch gears? What happened to my list of things to accomplish? Why can’t I get to all these important things? Why am I already thinking of my next classes? Can’t I appreciate time off -- time that I have earned. Time that others use well, I chastise myself. What’s wrong with me?

The truth is I get bored. Although I thought this free time would let me do all the things I don’t usually do during classroom times, this is an illusion for me. First, I do outside work during semesters.  My best writing is done when my mind is already engaged. And going to community events or seeing friends seems easier when I am already on the road. My mind is already working, as is my car, and making time to swing by the dry cleaners or the bookstore is easy when I’m already moving.

Second, short periods off -- say, weekends, or even a week -- are more productive for me than long weeks or months with no discipline in place. Not having a regular wake up time leaves me feeling dislocated. Sometimes I am grateful if a friend calls at 7:30 or 8 a.m. -- if only to give me a start time for my day. Even when I schedule activities for a day, they don’t seem pressing. I move events from page to page in my calendar -- even calling to reschedule a chiropractic appointment because I am too lazy to put on decent clothes and drive the half-mile to his office. Regular dog walks are the only constant. And my dog sometimes looks as though he’d like to sleep a few of those off, too.

Yes, I’m a workaholic. Yes, I’m more of a "Type A" personality than most. Yes, I have what Buddhists describe as a "monkey mind." So this problem may not be universal. Many professors reading this will laugh. Imagine not being able to take time off successfully! Imagine not enjoying the summer that one has been waiting for, even praying for! They will think I am crazy. And in a way, I am. But to the few, like me, who have trouble getting going during long stretches of “not-teaching” time, I want to offer some hope. Even without scheduled
classes and departmental meetings, we can be effective. Here are a few things that have worked for me:

Volunteer work. This sounds crazy, but volunteer work or an internship has helped me stay intellectually challenged enough to write, do research, and prepare for the next semester. Two years ago, when faced
with an empty four-week period before summer started, I signed up to become a page at my local library. Friends and family were surprised when I checked in for the unpaid one-day training and prepared to
shelve books properly. Yet, being able to dress in business casual clothes, talk with new people, and learn new tasks kept my mind from turning to slush. Knowing I had a four-hour shift each day kept me from falling into poor habits -- such as that passive non-intellectual cable television that chewed up hours of my time and left me tired. I not only had a reason to wake up each day, but found myself excited by my new duties. I was delving into the secret world of the library. I was allowed to spend hours around books -- the love of my life. This kept my mind stimulated. I felt alive. In the hours around my short shifts, I was able to write articles, read and underline a textbook I’d never used before, and prepare for classes in record time. I was surprised. I
thought that these shifts would take away from my time; technically they did, but somehow, they made the time that I had left far more productive. And I made some new friends. One librarian still e-mails me from her new position at a university library in the Bay Area. It’s a nice friendship based on the love of books.

Paid work. This year, I not only had four weeks before my first summer session, but another five weeks before fall started. Horrified at the thought of lounging in my pajamas and eating breakfast foods three times a day for months, I started to examine my options. First, I rewrote my résumé in several formats: one, for working a retail
job -- focusing on local bookstores; two, for administrative and clerical jobs -- targeting temporary and seasonal work; and third, for design firms, advertising agencies, and companies that support those
industries. I realized that my “previous life” working in private industry was going to help me here. I had worked retail. I had been a secretary for years. I had managed people and products. And finally, I had written copy, created ads, and supervised other creatives. This experience was going to be of use. I immediately sent out unsolicited résumés with custom cover letters to every ad agency, design firm, and copy house in town.

While those résumés were in transit, I applied online to jobs at the local Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. The following week, I received a call from a small marketing firm that wanted to interview
me. After showing him my portfolio, the owner said that he would like me to work at his office on contract, designing logos for a few of his clients. I shook his hand, happy that a few of my “non-teaching” days would be full. Knowing that would leave me weeks and weeks of down-time, I started to work on my back-up plan.

I re-read the Sunday paper, looking for clerical jobs. Stumbling on a few jobs that listed temporary or seasonal work gave me hope. I made a list of those firms, and added a few from the phone book -- looking at companies that seemed to focus on office jobs rather than factory work. I checked these firms out online to find out more. Several directed applicants to e-mail résumés; I did this immediately. I then sent my résumé and cover letter to all of these temporary employment agencies. By the end of the next week, I had not received one phone call. No bookstores had called. No temporary agencies had jumped at the chance to hire me. Even the marketing man hadn’t called. Concerned for my mental health, I didn’t give up. After calling the owner of the marketing firm and receiving a vague promise of work, I made a list of the four top temporary agencies. The next day, I woke up early, dressed in a suit, and made the rounds. Two companies brushed me off. What they said was that there were no jobs.

What I sensed was that they saw me as another overqualified applicant who, unwilling to take any work available, would not only be difficult to place, but would expect wages that none of their clients could pay. The two other firms, one a national temporary agency, were somewhat encouraging. While I worked through spelling and grammar tests, timed typing skills tests, and software tests that took hours, I reassured the office staff that I would work an assignment of any length -- a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks -- at any wage. While interviewing with bright, young women who seemed far more capable of doing office work than I did, I emphasized my earlier secretarial and administrative work in offices rather than my years in the classroom. I talked about transferable skills -- not only simple office work (answering phones, typing, copying, filing), but softer skills, such as working well with others, problem-solving, and balancing many tasks successfully. I was
confident that I have done all I can. Now it was my job to wait -- and call to recheck—with the hope of having something to do during the long, long hours that would stretch out in front of me.

I was lucky. Four days later, I received a call for a day’s worth of work at an industrial office on the north end of town. I was asked to answer phones, type out client orders, and page workers in a warehouse. I laughed with the office manager, a woman with orange-red hair and a sarcastic tongue. “You’ll never get these guys to answer your page like that,” she said, tapping the microphone button, “do it loud.” At lunch, I had to wolf down a ninety-nine cent hamburger on the ride back to the office. Finally I sat back down at the front desk, surprisingly comfortable in my new surroundings. At the end of the day, I logged my hours online with the temporary employment firm.

The fact that I would make a few dollars was not the primary reason that I did this simple job. It was the feeling of being useful that I craved. I realized that studies of the brain were right. I needed stimuli. New experiences help me to feel fresh and interested; this has resulted in increased productivity at home. Not only am I forced to
schedule my time better -- I feel “up” before and after I work. I also feel more active during what would have been “down-time” had I not been working. Excited, I contacted another temporary firm and was assured that I will be placed for a full-week’s worth of work if I can come in for a 10-minute face-to-face interview with the office manager.

I like the idea of the small paychecks -- which may be enough to buy a new attaché or even a badly needed laptop. The other side benefit is that I am reconnecting with the working world. This is not only good fodder for the columns that I write -- but a way to start to really know the constituents that I am working for in this town. Without planning it, I am getting to know students and parents of students in these offices. I realize that I will start to think of them as real people when my semester starts in a few weeks.

I also realize that working in private enterprise is chipping away at the "us vs. them" attitude that I’ve subscribed to as a college instructor. When I set my pride aside, I realize that I am a good secretary, a passable typist, and a receptionist that holds up well under pressure. This helps me feel more “part of” my community in this town. I start to see transferable skills as just that -- things that we all do. These activities exist not only in the academic circles, but in the real world, too. And at the very least, it gives me confidence that if I ever find myself without a teaching contract, I can make it in the outside world. My fast typing fingers and quick mind guarantee me some sort of paycheck.

Audio tapes. It sounds odd, but as a person who lives alone, I sometimes crave the sound of a human voice. Unless I call family in California, have lunch with friends, bump into the mailman, or go into the office to check my mail, I start to get a little strange being alone for days at a time. Even the television no longer amuses me. I
need contact that encourages me to use my brain. So, in addition to working (paid or unpaid), I have started to check out audio tapes or CDs from my local library.

A month ago, I checked out a James Lee Burke fiction novel to keep me awake on the way to a local airport. The narrator, Will Patton, had the ability to do a number of voices -- creating a cast of characters that were easily identifiable. I was riveted. By the time I arrived at an airport two hours later, I was disappointed that I could not finish the novel on CD. I was captured by Burke’s writing. And I enjoyed the narrator’s voice -- and his ability to create a number of different characters simply through inflection and tone.

I realize that listening to the spoken word requires more from my brain than listening to music. Music tends to relax me rather than get me moving. When I am driving tired, even hard rock may not keep me awake. But if I find a mystery theater on the radio, or pop in a CD, I must process information. My imagination is asked to work and the pace of the recording keeps me from stalling. This keeps my brain awake.

There is something intrinsically different about listening to a book read on tape than traditional reading or watching television. I will say that when I can focus, I prefer reading books. This allows me to pace my reading, re-read when I want, or take short breaks without being penalized. Traditional reading also forces me to remember details and visualize -- a form of intellectual activity.

Watching television, on the other hand, is usually a completely passive medium. All interpretation and visualization is done for us. We simply turn on the box and sit. With many stations (and shows), our imagination is not fired. Unless I am watching a documentary or other form of edu-tainment, I am often just floating along. I feel as if my brain is half asleep. That is why when watching, I often feel that I have taken more time than I wanted to watching television; I am in a state between awake and sleep-watching. It is not productive time. When I use it as a time-waster during non-teaching breaks, it can become destructive -- eating up hours and leaving me feeling fatigued. Books on tape or CD, however, are a different story. They ask something of me -- yet give me the sense of “having company” which relieves loneliness. Ideally, I need to be in company with others who use their brains.

Academic activity. Knowing that a syllabus needs to be updated or that I need to create a course outline does not always motivate me to spend my non-teaching times wisely. I sometimes act like my students. Dragging my feet, I often leave materials until the week, or worse yet the weekend, before class starts to get materials together. A dozen colleagues have confessed to having trouble getting started, too. Only the threat of a deadline will get some of us moving.

Still, I know 50 or 60 professors who use summers and inter-sessions to do research, write articles, attend local conferences and workshops, and review texts. Somehow they get going without a regular schedule. One friend who teaches business in California tells me that he uses this time to set up internships and service work for his students. For a five-week period, he schedules a few appointments each day with local businesses. Armed with information about the campus, his students and his courses, he chats with business owners, general managers and supervisors.

The result? He has detailed lists for students outlining service projects and contacts for the coming semester. Not only is the information up-to-date, but also seems to reflect trends in business that textbooks can’t capture. A dozen of his students will land internships -- a valuable addition to their résumés. Yes, my friend sounds like a man who puts too much effort into his job -- but when I see him, he is always enthused about his work. For him, scheduling appointments is not only a way to structure large blocks of time, but also a way to keep his mind active.

As an undergraduate, I did my best writing in the mornings. Knowing this, I wrangled afternoon or evening shifts waiting tables at a local restaurant. The next semester, I worked on staff with the campus as a secretary; my best schedule was one to five p.m. every day. This was ideal. I wrote from 8 a.m. to noon every day and then dressed for my office. Having spent the most productive time of day on something as important as my education and future career somehow put me in the perfect mood to type, file and produce budget reports all afternoon. My academic activity was paramount; the work secondary, but necessary for survival.

I realize that I am not like many of my colleagues. For them, summer and inter-sessions are valuable times to recoup, re-energize, and recommit to teaching. Time to invest in one’s future with research and writing. My fault is in having a mind that does not easily rest. And a laziness that prevails when I do not have activities scheduled. With volunteer work, part- or full-time temporary work, I can do less intellectually demanding work, leave it at the door, and go home to be productive. I even sleep better after a day’s work in an office.

Listening to tapes lets me multi-task without falling asleep. I’ve been lucky enough to “listen” to a half dozen books I otherwise would not have made time to read. And after attending a local writer’s conference, I not only updated two syllabi, but also outlined several articles for publication. I feel ready to teach my summer class which does not start for another two weeks. And knowing that I work better when already working, I’m sure to be ready for fall before the third weekend in August comes.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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