How to respond when a non-academic wants to talk about how you “don’t have to work in the summer”

I’ve been meaning to write something about summer work in academia along the lines of what Alex Reid did back in mid-April. But I hadn’t gotten around to it until now (and this post took me over a week to write, off and on), I suppose because I was on a vacation for three weeks in May, right after the Winter term ended at EMU. That’s not meant to be ironic or anything in terms of a post about “work” in the summer; it’s just the way it is.

Alex was initially responding to an article in CHE (now behind a firewall but I think I recall at least skimming it) called “Making Summer Work” that was offering advice to academics about how to make their summers “more productive.” Alex’s points are all spot-on, about how it’s weird that professors are characterized by the rest of the world as having cushy/lazy jobs as it is– and you don’t work in the summer!– but how professors themselves focus on the intensity of the 60+ hour work week and how it just keeps going and going and going in the summer too. It’s a losing battle; “[n]o one is going to sympathize with the plight of academics trying to figure out how to make their ‘summers off’ productive. Not even other academics. I would be reluctant to play into any of these commonplaces about working harder, putting in hours, and increasing productivity.”

I can relate to all of this. Back when I was in graduate school and when I was just starting down the tenure-track, my mother (or some other well-intended but not academic-type) would say something like “it must be nice to have such a long summer vacation like that” and I’d go on a tirade about how there was no such thing as time off in academia!

Now I’m a lot more likely to say something like “Why yes; yes, it is nice,” or “Yes, though I don’t get paid to work in the summer.” Though it’s still complicated.

For starters,  I used to teach (e.g. “work”) in the summers. I didn’t teach two summers ago because I was on sabbatical, but other than that, this summer is the first since I came to EMU in 1998 where I am not teaching and thus contractually not obligated to do anything. Summer school here is divided into two 7.5 week terms, and I usually taught two courses during one of those terms– or sometimes three courses, one in one term and two in another. The reason I taught in the summer is simple: money. EMU pays faculty 10% of their base salary per summer course. You don’t need to know my salary to know that being able to make 20% of my base salary for teaching two courses in a little less than two months is a good deal.

I’m not teaching this summer for two reasons. First, summer teaching at EMU– at least in my department, but I think this is broadly true across the university– has almost entirely dried up. Second, I’ve gotten to the place financially where I can afford to not teach/work for EMU for the summer. I mean, I’m not saying I’m never going to teach in the summer again because never is a very long time and I still like money. But I’m not planning on it.

Then there is the definition of “work.” I work all the time (including in the summer and while on vacation) doing stuff like planning classes, meeting with students, reading academic things, and writing academic presentations/articles/books/blog posts because I’m a professor and it’s my job, but also because this is work I enjoy and it brings me a great deal of personal satisfaction and meaning. It’s not the kind of “work” that Tim Ferriss has in mind in trying to avoid in the 4 Hour Work Week, the kind of work one does only for the paycheck.

So all those caveats and qualifications aside, yes, I do not have to work in the summers. Or maybe a better way of putting it is I don’t get paid to work in the summer when I’m not teaching, so I only do “the work” I want to do. This summer, I’m working (too slowly) on my MOOC book, I am reading things that might be interesting for future projects, I’m meeting with students about their MA projects, I went (briefly) to the Computers and Writing Conference in Findlay this past week, and I might even agree to go to a meeting or two. “Work” I won’t be doing includes program review/assessment documents, attending official department committee meetings (there aren’t any in the summer because I’m far from the only one who won’t do that), doing writing program administrator stuff, responding to irrelevant paperwork requests, holding specific office hours, and so forth.

The “contractual obligated” part of things with the EMU faculty union is taken quite seriously around here. I was in a discussion on Facebook with someone at another institution about all this and this person insisted that faculty should think of themselves as year-round employees no matter what. I understand that perspective, but that is not part of the local culture. I had a colleague a few years ago (this person has since retired) who left at the end of the winter term, did not come back until the fall term, and was completely absent in the summer. This person had an auto-reply on their email that said “email me back in the fall.” I was on a university-wide committee several years ago and whatever administrator wanted this committee to meet in June. The only way that faculty on that committee would agree to that meeting was to be paid a couple hundred dollars each to show up– and by the way, that was clearly a waste of money since nothing got done at that meeting anyway.

Besides, my base pay really is for eight months of work a year. I’m not complaining about my salary, but I also know that if I was an administrator and working 12 months a year, I’d be making much more money than I’m making now. The same is true if I had a “real job,” too. As an academic, I already do too much work for free; that doesn’t need to include the summer.

Anyway, to sum-up:

  • If you’re a graduate student or tenure-seeking/relatively new faculty member, you legit probably don’t have your “summers off,” at least not entirely. You’re probably doing something like writing a thesis or a dissertation or something to help your tenure case, and perhaps teaching as well. Work at this stage of your career is a mix of pleasure and pain, and it’s undeniably harder to explain to non-academics how you actually do have to work in the summer. Try “yeah, but if I don’t finish my thesis/dissertation/homework, I won’t be able to graduate next year;” that might work. But try to take at least some time “off,” even if that only means reading academic stuff while sitting in a park someplace once in a while.
  • If you’re newly tenured and a non-academic tells you “it must be nice to have your summer off,” reply “hey, I’ve been working my ass off for the last 10 years finishing my PhD and then getting a tenure-track job and then getting tenure. So yeah, it is nice having a summer off finally!” Seriously, take some time off. Do those home repairs/remodeling you’ve been putting off until you got tenure. And/or go on a trip, take up golf, etc.
  • If you’re an established academic-type, tenured and promoted and such, and you’re still working 16 hour + days, including in the summer: why? Why are you doing that? There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the work, but no one is going to think any less of you for giving your garden some attention. Except for those non-academic-types who think you never work; just tell those people that having summer off is really nice, thank you very much.
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