Challenges for Beginning Scholars: Those Summer Blues
In holiday conversations about my work as a tenure-track professor, my family and nonacademic friends love to run a tired old witticism by me: “What are the three best reasons to be a teacher?” I’ve heard the answer many times before, but I play along. “June, July, and August,” they say.
In the case of higher education, though, a more accurate reply might be “Monday, Wednesday, and Friday,” if you’ve been fortunate enough to have a Tuesday/Thursday teaching schedule. Summer, by contrast, isn’t the glorious season of freedom that my family and friends imagine. My deliberately confusing allusions to ongoing publication and service projects may keep those family members satisfied that I have real work to do, but their jokes strike a nerve because they make me recognize that I may not, in fact, have much of a summer plan. Indeed, I’ve found that summers have been exceptionally full of periods of anxiety and depression.
More from Dr. E. Clair after the jump! Image of summer sangria by Paul Irish from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons license.
During the summer months, adjunct faculty need to supplement their income with ill-paid courses, while both tenure-track and adjunct faculty need to worry about getting publications done. I’m attempting both to teach and research this summer. Living on a low salary in one of the most expensive cities in the country, I’ve agreed to take on some summer teaching to pay the rent, even as I’m coming up for tenure review. Based on past experience, I’m worried now that the summer won’t turn out too well, but I’m hoping this time that the teaching will provide a source of enough happiness to keep me going with my research. Yes, that’s right—that the teaching will provide the happiness that research rarely provides.
Maybe it’s the exclusive research focus that has caused some summers past to be a less than wonderful time for me. Don’t get me wrong—the sudden gain in free time is wonderful, and it’s ludicrous (by the standards of the 9-to-5 world) to turn it into a complaint. But I’ve found that the transition from performing in the classroom two or three days a week to making my own schedule has rarely been psychologically positive. I’ve actually gotten more done during those summers (about half) when I’ve been teaching courses. In one of the least structured of professions, the lack of self-motivation or realistic goal-setting that comes with having too much free time can be a severe roadblock, especially when it merely increases up the constitutive status anxiety of our profession. All too often, I’ve been astonished at how much time I’ve lost during those blessed three months. How simple and deceptive those little alternative sources of contentment can be: rearranging bookshelves or file cabinets, perfecting the moussaka recipe, betting on baseball (via fantasy, not real money, of course). And with what disgust do I taste in September the schemes I’d cooked up in May: the articles I was going to write, the book I was going to outline, the monographs I was going to review!
So maybe we’ve gotten the relationship between teaching and research all wrong. When we think about their relationship, we sometimes accept the view that many of us heard from our own prolifically published advisors. (I recall one who boasted to me that he “hadn’t talked to an undergrad in twenty years, thank god.”) Far from being the chore that our advisors imagine, it’s teaching, with its relatively immediate challenges and rewards, that satisfies the professional libido. It is the rare and self-driven individual who can take satisfaction out of an article that maybe ten people will read. For all the prestige that our profession attaches to research, it’s hard to see my life being hugely changed by getting another obscure line on my c.v.
So, in a funny way, I’m hoping my summer course will provide the energy and fun to keep me working on those research projects. To be sure, teaching a 4:4 schedule with a couple of summer courses leaves zero time for research, and no one on such a schedule should be expected to do any. But take away all the teaching, and most academics have lost their reason for being.
What does that mean for my summer plans? That I should take the teaching of my course in stride, allowing it to provide the structure (and the cash flow) that I need to stay out of that summer funk. I’ll report on my progress as the summer moves along. How have those summer months been for the rest of y’all?