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19 August 2017

Owning My Summer

I did a bit of an experiment over the summer, and as I'm ready to get back into the fall routine next week, I thought I'd share. Like most faculty, I am on a 10-month appointment. That means that I am technically only employed by the college between August and May. I am on my own for June and July. Traditionally, academics have used the summer to do research. I find this arrangement highly problematic[1]. Regardless, there is an administrative creep, whereby students, colleagues, and administrators increasingly expect faculty to be responsive during the summer[2]. To hedge this a bit, I set up the following automatic reply from my work email account:
I am away from campus conducting research and will only be checking email sporadically until August.
Indeed, I did my best to only check my work email once a week. I'll admit that I didn't always hold to this goal, though. I was quite adamant, however, about not checking email during the two weeks during which I was on vacation with my family. Sadly, people continue to send email, whether I'm checking it or not, and I often had dozens of emails waiting for me on the days when I did check.

Overall, my approach, the auto-reply and checking email infrequently, was pretty successful. I will do it again next summer for sure. I made a lot of progress with my new research project, though not as much as I had hoped. More importantly, I spent a lot of time with my daughter and wife. Starting next week, I'll get back to the grind. I will not be checking my work email on the weekends, though.

[1] The roots of this, I believe, are more political than anything. John and Jane Q. Public think that professors are teachers and are not fully informed about the research and service requirements of the job. Since teaching generally happens between August and May, those are the months during which, from that uninformed perspective, professors are working, and paying them during the summer when most are not teaching is unjustifiable. While it's true that most of us are actually paid a salary over those ten months that amounts to a fair 12-month salary, the symbolism is important: what I do is neither understood nor valued. I have found that the psychological effects of this are that I am not as motivated during June and July as I might otherwise be if my employer signalled to me that my productivity during that 17% of the year is as valuable as my productivity during the other 83%. That may sound almost adolescent, but I would argue that it is only human.

[2] There is a quote that the interwebs attribute to Bob Carter that goes, "Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine." I love this sentiment, but I think it might be a bit simplistic. Like us, administrators have their bosses, too, so the "poor planning" is possibly more institutional or organizational than it is a personal failing. The problem is created not by any given administrator but by the bureaucratic system of administration itself in which it is literally people's jobs to create work for others and to delegate tasks to subordinates. Because capitalism. Thanks, Obama.

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