Summer is just around the corner (sigh), so now’s the time when many people’s thoughts turn to lazing on a warm beach somewhere, curled up in a hammock with a novel. Not so professors. Despite the public’s (mis)perception that professors get summers off, in reality a professor is more likely to spend the summer break with a laptop than a good book, wrote Kevin Dettmar, chair of the English department at Pomona College, on the Awl, a New York City-based Web site about politics, culture, and ideas.
“In the public imagination (or at least, my imagination of the public imagination), we’re supposed to have essentially three months’ vacation every summer. My experience has been rather different,” Dettmar wrote.
A professor’s life sounds “luxurious,” and no doubt in some ways it is. But here’s the rub: Full-time professors are paid a nine-month salary, and the summer months “when we’re unemployed are, for most of us, the most productive time of the year, in terms of our research,” he wrote:
For those of us with significant teaching and/or administrative responsibilities, summer is the only time when we can turn our focus almost exclusively to that book project, or that research. Hence this central, animating paradox of the professor’s existence: The work that “counts” the most in terms of professional advancement—the work that is the real currency of the profession, the scholarly and creative work—is done when we’re off the clock and off the payroll.
(And let’s not forget, as Isaac Sweeney pointed out in a recent Chronicle Review article, that many adjunct professors don’t even have the luxury of working for free over the summer; instead they may have to cobble together one or more minimum-wage jobs just to get by, leaving them with little time for research.)
What’s more, the idea of taking a “real” vacation fills Dettmar (and many an academic) with “guilt and embarrassment,” he noted. (His “luxurious” summer holiday plans total up to a mere nine days.)
Why? Taking time off “violates the spirit of [the academic] calling,” Dettmar explained:
When your job is “the life of the mind” (scare quotes as thick as you want ‘em), there really isn’t supposed to be any downtime. Take that impossible expectation, multiply it by the fact that most Americans think college teachers only work nine months a year, and the result is a mess of confusion, misunderstanding, and guilt.
When professors do take a holiday, they usually follow some unwritten vacation rules to assuage their guilt, Dettmar said. Here are a couple of the highlights:
1. They must be cheap. Scholars, after all, do their work for the glory, not the money, and we’re meant to have none extra to burn. Extravagant vacations suggest that one isn’t serious enough about one’s work. [...]
2. If they’re not cheap, they must be work-related. Many scholarly organizations provide this kind of front for their members: The Beast Fable Society always seemed to me to have the best gig, meeting at various tropical locales for the summer months to share their research on—um, beast fables, I guess. Tahiti is absolutely forbidden as a vacation destination to the true scholar; but if there’s a conference—well, that’s altogether a different thing.
What else would you add to his list? Are you taking a “real” vacation this summer?