Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Radical Notion about Summers and Work

So as I was revising yesterday, I happened upon a provocative idea. What if, instead of beating myself up from May to August for all of the research and writing I'm not doing, what if I just said at the outset that I don't do research and writing in the summer? Because here's the thing: I don't really do research and writing in the summer. I make grand plans about doing those things, but in reality what I do in the summer is whirl around in a spiral of shame and self-recrimination about all of what I'm not doing. This, it occurs to me, is stupid. Because whether I *say* I'm going to do work and don't do it or whether I *say* I'm not going to do work - give myself permission not to do it, ultimately - and don't do it, I'm not doing work. It's just if I don't have it in my head that I'm supposed to be doing work I can spend that time when I'm not working doing stuff I actually enjoy rather than feeling guilty.

Now, this seems preferable to what I've done since getting this job, which is the whole guilt thing. But is it really a viable plan? Let's consider.

First, since getting this job, I've done the bulk of all of the research and writing that I've accomplished during the academic year. This at a teaching-intensive university that doesn't value research all that highly. This includes:

  1. 2 full-length articles.
  2. 2 short articles.
  3. co-editing a special issue of a mini-journal.
  4. My book proposal.
  5. Revising and polishing the book manuscript.
  6. Somewhere around 5 or 6 conference papers.
What have I done in the summers?
  1. Maybe 4 conference papers.
  2. Minimal work on the book (and most of this during a summer when I had a fellowship that motivated me).
So clearly, when I've got all of this unstructured time in the summer, I don't accomplish a hell of a lot. The work that I have accomplished has all been very deadline-driven.

That's the first piece of this puzzle. I am a person who is motivated by deadlines. I believe in deadlines, and I tend to respect them. I don't view my research as something that's just something I do for myself, something akin to going to the salon for beautification or watching a movie. Because I don't, I don't just wake up on a sunshiney day in the summer and say, "wow! I'd really like to write an article!"

Another piece of the puzzle is that I tend to accomplish most when I have a bunch of things going at a time. If I have something I feel like procrastinating about (prep for teaching, grading, etc.) I'm much more likely to be motivated to do research stuff because it feels like I'm playing hooky by focusing on that rather than doing the other stuff. Along with this, I feel like teaching really energizes my research - not so much the inverse. In some ways this is a chicken-egg sort of question, but I know for some people the research is ultimately what drives teaching, and whatever their current research project is heavily influences what they do or plan to do in the classroom. For me, research has tended to emerge from a tangent that happens in the classroom or an idea that pops into my head when I'm prepping something. When I've developed courses that come out of my research, I find that I'm doing something totally different with that material and it ultimately bears little relationship to (the usually quite developed) ideas that I'm exploring on the research side. This process strongly resembles the process that I used as a student, in which I would sit in class and the margins of my notes would tend to include tons of potential paper titles that would come to me in class (for I tend to begin with a title and to go from there). In other words, research ideas for me come out of conversation - they don't happen in isolation.

The final piece of the puzzle is that I know that the teaching stuff and the service stuff that makes up the bulk of my work during the academic year is going to get done no matter what else I'm doing, mainly because teaching and service, unlike research, have finite expectations and goals. This means that even if I give myself permission to put teaching and service on the back burner for a day or two that ultimately I KNOW I will return to those things because I can't NOT return. In a weird way this gives me space to do research during the academic year because it gives me a break from that stuff while also putting a finite limit on how much time I actually have for research, as opposed to the summer when there is no limit of time so one can procrastinate and procrastinate until the summer is lost.

Now, in proposing this idea, I'm not saying I'd not think all summer (because how can one stop oneself from thinking?) nor am I saying that I wouldn't do things like conference papers if I had a summer conference. And I'd still use the end of the summer to prep for classes and to do syllabi and assignments and that sort of thing, which I do now. So what I'm describing is not a true summer vacation, but rather being more realistic about what I actually motivate myself to do in the summertime. This seems possible to me, even though I have a strong impulse to call myself crazy for even considering the notion.


Ancarett said...

I'm with you on the need for concrete deadlines to motivate me. Summers are rarely as productive as term time. On the other hand, the first part of summer is often spent both recouping from the punishing term and organizing the no-brain stuff (textbook and library orders) that will support my work in the fall.

Kjerstin said...

The plan sounds perfectly sensible to me. I can't work without deadlines either, and that's in part (I think) because deadlines help me get the work off my hands when it's good enough even if it's not the best work the world has ever seen. If I have no deadlines, I tend to aim for the best work the world has ever seen, and we all know that's rarely achieved in one lifetime. Still somehow, in summer, I always imagine I can do better tomorrow. Or next week.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I've been doing what you're describing, in a slightly revised way, every summer since getting my academic job. Here's how I work best -- my DH and I plan several weeks of vacation (backpacking and scuba diving), so I plan the rest of my summer around those high-priority activities. The next priority is getting myself ready for the next fall, because I'm always doing stupid, crazy things like completely changing the text, adopting new assignments, throwing out old ones, etc. I usually have one or two writing projects that I plan to make progress on over the summer, but I rarely plan to complete a WHOLE thing. That way I enjoy the summer and don't make myself too crazy, but I can still get a bit of writing done and feel progress has been made.
Good luck on your new plan. It sounds like a healthy one.

amuffins said...

My first semester of gradschool, I did something kind of like this. I set aside a day every week where I wasn't allowed to work. It was mostly because I was in a new city, didn't know anyone yet, and I wanted to see everything there was to see. So I thought, why not have an adventure once a week! Granted, there were many other days that I didn't work, but at least there was one day where I got to not work without feeling guilty. And I had a lot of adventures! I agree with you that the unstructured time during the summer and lack of deadlines does really slow the pace down. I just plain can't work without deadlines. At the very least, instead of planning for all the things I'm going to get done during the summer next year, I think I will instead plan how much time I'm going to dedicate to work in general, and then spend the rest of the summer guilt-free. I would probably end up getting just as much (or little) done, as when I have all these grand illusions of writing all these things.

Marcelle Proust said...

If it works for you, go for it. It wouldn't for me, because I still have energy issues that mean teaching & service take over the school year. What helps shape a summer, for me, is to do a research trip or conference (something energizing) early on, so that then I want to come home and write about the trip or the conversations. Also writing dates. Also setting up deadlines with mentor-type people (i.e., people I'm slightly afraid of). I still don't do as much in the summer as I'd like, but it's where I can do the big-picture planning that can be hard to get my mind around during the hurly-burly of term time.

Liz said...

I make grand plans about doing those things, but in reality what I do in the summer is whirl around in a spiral of shame and self-recrimination about all of what I'm not doing.

Yes! That's what I do, too. It's not that I don't take time off, it's that I don't allow myself to take time off. So I disobey myself all summer.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

This is really interesting, because I hear so many people say the opposite, that they only get research done in the summer. OTOH, it reminds me of something ianqui posted recently about what she called her academic ADD - that she can't concentrate on any one thing for more than an hour or two - and how that actually helps her get a lot more done than the folks who want big chunks of time (and that academic ADD sounds much more helpful for the school year than the reverse). So it sounds like you're not alone!

I totally agree with amuffins comment about the value of having one day a week that you're not ALLOWED to work - because usually I do what you describe, not work when I think I should be, not enjoy myself, and beat myself up about it. On the days when I say, right, I canNOT work today, I suddenly feel like the days are so long!

I don't know that I could give up on doing research in the summer, though - I've had really productive summers and completely unproductive summers. This summer, unsurprisingly, was a complete wash, and I didn't even try to do research and didn't care (which is why I now have 3 overdue book reviews :-P). Last summer, I got a ton done by setting up a semi-rigid schedule in which I got up and went to a coffeeshop or the like and worked for a few hours. So it varies. Similarly, last fall I got a lot done on my research, and last spring I accomplished nothing. Depends on what's going on that particular time.

(And of course, summer research trips to the archives are totally different.)

Dr. Crazy said...

I've heard so many people say the opposite, too, NK, and that, I think, is why I've resisted the model that I describe for so long. I agree with you that all of this stuff is situational. What I'm wondering, though, is if it might be liberating for a great many of us to think of most of the summer (if not all) as actual "off" time. My thought is that it doesn't matter *when* work gets done, but that the work gets done. I'm thinking that a lot of the pressure on summer comes from a grad school ideology that work *can't* get done while other things are getting done, too, which is, I think, a lot of where my habits have come from.

Clancy said...

Thank you for saying this:

I don't view my research as something that's just something I do for myself, something akin to going to the salon for beautification or watching a movie. Because I don't, I don't just wake up on a sunshiney day in the summer and say, "wow! I'd really like to write an article!"

I feel the same way. I might feel like writing an article or creating some other piece of scholarship, but I don't get excited about the onerous review process. I'd get a lot more excited about it if I could just put my work online.

litprof said...

I think that work style has a lot to do with this. I am much more productive when I set my own schedule/deadlines, for instance, but most people I know do not work this way. In the summer it helps to set deadlines for yourself as you plan out your summer, but of course you have to stick to them for that to work...

In academia and in grad school especially, I feel like we're really taught that if you can't self-motivate and make your own schedule/work productively with unstructured time, you need not apply. I've seen that shaken lots of times depending on how folks function. But I think the initial idea causes the guilt you're talking about.