Making the Most of the Summer

(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)

This time a year ago, I finished my degree and headed into the summer unsure of what to do with myself. It was only in hindsight that I thought critically about how to invest one’s time and energy over the summer. (Those thoughts are documented here.) This year, I’m taking a more proactive approach and creating a plan for the summer before it begins. Here, I describe the decisions I’ve made in terms of my teaching, structuring my time for research, and reading for professional enrichment.

To teach or not to teach?

Like many other junior faculty, my contract reflects the length of the academic year and, despite being a tenure track job, is for a 9-month appointment. Sometime in January, I was asked whether or not I was interested in teaching this summer. In the spirit of full-disclosure, I’ll admit that I had not previously realized teaching was an option that was even available to me. When the possibility of summer teaching was introduced,it turned into a curveball I wasn’t expecting. The more I weighed the pros and cons of my options, the more uncertain I felt about the best way to bridge the gap between spring and fall semesters.

I strongly considered summer teaching for the following reasons:

  1. It presented an opportunity to boost my income. I’m currently only a year out of graduate school and have, thus, only been making a living wage for the last 9 months. The option of teaching during the summer and opening a savings account or paying down graduate school debt is probably a common consideration for many junior faculty.
  2. The program needed me. I was, quite literally, the only person who could teach this summer for a variety of reasons. All other faculty in my department have administrative duties, are on sick leave, or received research grants that prevent them from committing to other work obligations.
  3. Teaching helps me structure my time. Like so many of us, I tend to be one of those individuals who struggles to time-manage without rigid deadlines, accountability, and a structured environment. If my goal is to write during the summer, teaching might have actually helped me stay focused by creating pockets of time during which my only option was to write.
  4. I enjoy working with students. Oftentimes, the solitary nature of our work in academia gets to me. Students break that up. They provide a source of dialogue and often serve as a reminder of one of the reasons I love what I do.

In the end, I turned down the opportunity to teach after considering each of the following corresponding counter-arguments:

  1. The sensation that I need or could use more money will likely never go away. While an extra paycheck certainly helps and might be the right choice for some, teaching this summer would not be the silver bullet solution to my financial woes.
  2. The program will always need me. In a conversation about summer teaching, a mentor from graduate school said, “you cannot look out for your institution because your institution will never look out for you.” I struggled with a lot of guilt at the idea that my department would have to either cancel the classes or hire someone. After a lot of hard deliberation, I ultimately decided there’s a reason these administrative concerns aren’t part of my job description and that by saying “no” in the face of departmental pressure, I might be making it easier for someone else to do the same. I want to support the needs of my department and program but, for lack of a better metaphor, need to remember to put on my own oxygen mask first.
  3. Rather than resign myself to this professional struggle, perhaps it’s time I address it. To mitigate the struggles of unstructured time, I am going to create additional sources of accountability. (More on this below.)
  4. Burnout will not serve my students. If I want to stay energized for them in the fall, I need a break from them this summer.

I suppose the moral of the story is not that one should or shouldn’t teach over the summer but rather that there are lots of considerations when making the decision. Perhaps the most salient reason “not to teach” (for me) wasn’t in the shape of a counter-argument: the courses didn’t excite me and I didn’t really want to. I know many faculty have used summer teaching to try on a new syllabus, teach a community-engagement course, or take students abroad or into the field. The courses I was asked to teach were set before I was ever offered this job and they don’t check any of the aforementioned boxes. Perhaps now that I know summer teaching could be an option next year, I will take the time to propose a course related to my research for summer 2020.

(A note for more senior faculty who might be mentoring the newbies on campus: have a conversation about summer teaching. This is an area where I believe many of us could use the counsel of a mentor to think through the specificity of our circumstances.)

Research – structuring your own time

With regards to my institution’s research-based tenure requirements, I would describe myself as “right on track.” That being said, it will be important for me to hit certain research benchmarks this summer to stay on track.

To make sure I reach my goals, I’m structuring my time hyper-intentionally. My summer goals are rooted, at least in part, in the thoughts I’ve outlined in my Guide to an “Active Scholarly Research Agenda.”

First, I’m setting reasonable goals. Unreasonable goals are disheartening when you don’t reach them; in my experience, lofty goals are the fastest way to tank your research plans. Instead, setting small goals and reaching them consistently or even getting ahead of them gives you the motivation to keep plugging away at them.

My plan is to take two days a week entirely off from research. On the days I work, I will spend 75 minutes a day reading for work, 30 minutes a day looking for the next article or book I will read, and 60 minutes a day with a word document open (either writing or editing). I’m also scheduling pool time, reading “for fun” time, happy hours with friends and coworkers, and outdoor/hobby time. The largest change here is that I’m reframing my own perspective on these activities: they are not the reward for getting research work done but, rather, an important prerequisite for it.

Second, I’ve varied my research projects for the summer. Instead of one mammoth project (i.e a goal like “I will revise my book this summer”), I’m going to work on several smaller things. So, for example, I’m going to write a handful of conference papers, revise my book proposal, and develop a solid writing sample to accompany the book proposal. I’ll break each of these things up into smaller goals and set weekly deadlines for each one so that I’m progressing toward each of them on a week-to-week basis. Those weekly goals are then broken up into daily goals and penciled in to a paper agenda. The largest acceptable daily goal is “develop supporting point A” but some of them are as small as “move paragraph 4 up to the top of the page.”

Third, I’ve created accountability in the form of a very extensive post-it note system on the front of my refrigerator. I chose this high-visibility spot so that it would serve as a daily, visual reminder of my summer goals. I submitted abstracts to several conferences for the 2019-2020 academic year and am hopeful that, as those solidify, the commitment to present papers at each of these conferences will prompt me to draft the papers during the summer. I asked a colleague to be my “summer research buddy” and we will check in with one another every Monday about our previous week, current headspace, and goals for the upcoming week. Perhaps the scariest source of accountability of all, I emailed the chair of my PhD committee (someone I admire, respect and continue to see as a mentor) and asked him if he’d be open to reading my book proposal and writing sample at the end of the summer.

With a little luck, this is going to be my most productive summer yet.

Junior Prof’s summer reading list

The last thing I plan to do this summer is a lot of reading. The books on my list are partly recommendations for professional development in higher education. However, the last one has been sitting on my “I wish I had time to read this” list for the last six months and this summer I will finally get it done. Make each of these, or some other reading, a part of your summer schedule!

Small Teaching and/or Small Teaching Online

Recommended for teaching. Small Teachingmade a huge splash in the higher education community when it suggested that small, intentional changes make a big difference in our impact as educators. The version tailored to online teaching is coming out in June! (I’ve already pre-ordered it.)

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Although not written specifically for academics, I recommend this book for research productivity. A lot to be learned about habit-building and time management.

The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux

Recommended for professional development. Are we working for institutions that are stuck in the past? Cathy Davidson argues we are. How can we better serve our post-secondary education students for the world that awaits them at the end of their studies?

An Orchestra of Minorities

Recommended for fun. This is Assistant Professor of Literature and Creative Writing and Man Booker finalist Chigozie Obioma’s second novel. I haven’t read it yet, but I can’t wait because it promises to get a lot of critical attention on the literary scene this summer.

Regardless of what you choose to do with your summer, join me in making it intentional. And best of luck getting final grades in on time – it’s shaping up to be at least semi-grueling on my end.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s