Is There a Cure for the Summertime Blues?

Brian Taylor

June 03, 2010

Question: This spring I wallowed in misery. My classes were much too big, everyone wanted me on committees, our budget is a mess, and I didn't get any writing or research done. But now that graduation's happened, and the whiners and grade grubbers have disappeared, I feel very sad. Am I crazy?

Answer: No, just human. After spring semester, many mammals are sad. No one likes being a has-been.

Imagine that you are the star of a big stage show called, say, Hamlet. Every day for four months you mount the stage, meet a ghost, declaim about "incestuous sheets," drive a lovesick young woman to madness, run your sword through a hapless old man lurking behind a curtain, are slain yourself—and then rise again for a wildly enthusiastic curtain call.

Then the play closes.

So it is with the end of a semester. You lose the high-wire fear and excitement of live performance. You miss the possibility of singular shocks that occur nowhere else. (Ms. Mentor has never seen anyone interrupt Hamlet's soliloquys to ask, "Are we gonna have to know this for the test?")

But my semester was so ferociously awful, you say. Colleagues around the country agree. According to contributors on The Chronicle's forums, students in the spring of 2010 were exceptionally rude, distracted, or truant. One bewildered professor had an entire class of students who either earned failing grades or simply stopped showing up.

Still, semester's end is the close of a major project—a little, deathlike, postpartum blues. Now you look around and see piles of books, papers, and dirty laundry. Your nonacademic friends feel neglected and angry. Even your Facebook friends are snooty.

You also have time to brood about the Crisis in Higher Education (which has always existed in some form, but now it's your crisis). There have always been wandering students, bitter colleagues, and coldhearted administrators. We are always getting stupider.

But now, if you're in Arizona, you're fighting to keep ethnic-studies courses, which Ms. Mentor considers essential for Americans of all stripes. If you're in Texas, you're going to have to put your syllabi online, and someone's going to rant about "hegemony" and "theory" and wonder why they should be taught at taxpayers' expense. And there's continuing grief, expanding like an oil spill, about the misuse of adjuncts everywhere.

During your first week of postsemester melancholy, you may want to write some scathing letters to newspapers, networks, legislators, or other sinners. It will be good, and make you feel good, to use your education and literacy to inform real people outside of your courses.

"So you've got the whole summer off now, you lucky [expletive]," yells your neighbor. "Days at the beach, eh?"—and guilt washes up over you, in waves.

"Tom," a psychology professor, never does errands during the day because he doesn't want his neighbors to think he's lazy. He also won't admit that he needs time to depressurize from the semester. He doesn't want to think about how tired he is, or that teaching is a mental combat sport, as well as a gutsy performance art.

Who else but teachers put on 150 standup routines every year?

Nevertheless, like all A students, Tom gets nervous if he's not frantically preparing something ("Am I a fraud?"). And so he makes a summer list: Throw out old cartons. Read War and Peace. Buy some cool ties. Try online dating one more time. Find the cure for narcissistic personality disorder.

Ms. Mentor thinks he'd do better to throw out the self-punishing idea that Each Summer Must Be a Symphony of Accomplishment.

Ms. Mentor thinks one should finish one smallish task a day (an article, some PowerPoints), and celebrate adequacy, not perfection. Then reward yourself (call it research) with academic novels, which Ms. Mentor always recommends for summer acculturation, amusement, and solace.

Academic novels used to be about murders in English departments (Amanda Cross, Joanne Dobson)—or about ridiculous midlife sexual adventures (Richard Russo, Zadie Smith, Francine Prose). The protagonists were rarely guiltless, sometimes loony, and often crass, like the character in Bruce Gatenby's Kingdom of Absurdities who muses about "the fresh faces and bodies of the coeds on whose youth he fed like an aging vampire."

For summer 2010, Ms. Mentor's novel readers especially recommend Lisa Genova's Still Alice, P.F. Kluge's Gone Tomorrow, and Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic. David Lodge's Small World (1984) remains amusing, but now as a period piece about jet-setting academics, frolicking from one conference to another, at a time when there was money to do so. Now such shenanigans also seem crass, a bit of "Let them eat cake." Lodge himself has turned somber in his latest novel, Deaf Sentence, about a professor who retires because he can no longer hear.

Academic novels have become much less predictable. Marcus Borg's Putting Away Childish Things takes place in a Midwestern liberal-arts college where eager, articulate students and dedicated professors think deeply about ethics and religion, and a beloved teacher is attacked by evangelical talk-show crazies.

If Borg's book is a cathedral, Jim Harrison's The English Major is a honky-tonk, about an English teacher-turned-farmer who still loves reading and explodes at the spelling of a bar called the "Lacoona." The bar owner fires back: "What are you, an English major?"

The hero's wife leaves him, he loses the farm, and his dog dies—and, as in a classic country song, he takes to the open road, where he finds a sexy woman and a lot of trout. Ms. Mentor laughed immoderately and imagined a banjo sound track on a hot summer night.

But to return to her duties: Even if you don't learn to play the banjo, read ponderous texts, or throw out those old Nietzsche printouts, your unstructured time will soon be over, and people will be asking, "How was your summer?"

You'll remember the free-fall feeling of May, and start to feel trampled by people and duties. You may close your office door and whimper, yearning for the twitchy solitude of summer. The rhythm of the academic year is always full of yearning for the time that isn't.

We look before and after, and pine for what is not.

And that's why they call it the blues.

Question: I know I can't do it all this summer. Should I run five miles a day, write five pages a day, learn Indonesian cooking, design a rock garden, and get started on a baby—or take a nap?

Answer: Nap.

Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor invites more summer reading suggestions. As always, she welcomes gossip, ruminations, and queries. She rarely answers letters personally and never immediately, and disguises identifying details. Confidentiality is guaranteed, and no one will know what a nervous fraud you really are.

(c) Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. She is the author of the recently published "Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia" (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her e-mail address is