Note: I wrote this just before the pandemic situation started to impact academic workloads in the UK, US, and Canada. I am publishing it as a reminder that things would already have been in transition at this time of year. I will be publishing more about the specific impacts of the pandemic response over the next few weeks.
I’ve started thinking about the end of the semester and the transition into summer. The academic year is usually thought of as having 2 main seasons: term-time and not-term-time. When you are teaching, things are busy. There is also a lot of service and admin. The time available for research and writing is limited in quantity and quality. Summer falls under not-term-time. And yet, there are periods that are neither one nor the other. At the end of every semester, you have a period after scheduled teaching finishes in which you still have considerable teaching related tasks to accomplish. Some of them, like grading assignments and exams, require substantial time and effort and may be constrained by tight, immovable, deadlines. You may also have additional administrative work and meetings to complete the semester. The students in your courses may require support as they complete assignments and prepare for exams, and you may need to meet with advisees to help them make decisions about the following academic year.
During these periods, the schedule that was the framework of your weekly routine is no longer there but you aren’t really in summer either. You can feel a bit unmoored and overwhelmed. You can’t act as if it’s not-term-time. And yet your normal term-time routine isn’t there either.
Depending where you live, the cycles of your academic year may be further complicated by the periods of not-term-time being distributed amongst several “holidays”, which may or may not match up well with the cycle of activity in the term-time periods. Those working in UK universities will be familiar with the frustration of the Easter break (which may be anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks) falling before you’ve completed all the scheduled teaching for the semester.
If you have children, the tension between career and family may be felt particularly intensely at this time of year. You may have devoted considerable time and energy earlier in the year planning and booking activities for your children so that you are able to take advantage of the quantity and quality of not-term-time to prioritize research and writing. You may also really want to devote at least some of the shared not-term-time to spend time with your children enjoying other activities that benefit from this kind of time.
One reason I focus so much of my work on supporting you in maintaining a writing practice throughout the year is to take some of the pressure off summer, but there is still something important about the quality of the time and attention available during summer. Research and writing benefits from a certain intensity of focus that is difficult or impossible to find when you have other types of work to juggle. Summer is your annual opportunity to give it that intensive focus.
However, you may feel like the summer is never long enough, especially when you consider the need for a vacation and the ways in which other work responsibilities creep into this season as well.
It would be a mistake to think that research and writing can only happen in this intensely focused way, though. Just as teaching can be broken down into 9 distinct types of work, happening on different timelines and requiring different types of cognitive and emotional resources, research and writing are also complex. At the most basic level, some academics think of research and writing as separate areas of activity while others do not. Not only do you produce different written outputs (e.g. articles, conference papers, grant applications) But the production of any of those involves a range of tasks that require different kinds of cognitive, emotional, and physical labour.
Given all of these things, the question for planning at this time of year becomes “How can you make the best use of the quality of time and attention you have in the summer?” A corollary to that question is “What can you do between now and then so that kind of work is possible?” Or, put another way, “How can you ensure that you don’t end up doing things you could do in term-time or that in-between-time during the rather limited not-term-time?”
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This post was sent to both the general newsletter and client newsletter on 13 March 2020.