Life in the Stacks,  Musings

Confronting an Academic Summer

The end is nigh! The end of summer that is, and I for one cannot be happier even though the start of the school year brings anxiety and stress.

Growing up I was always that kid who eagerly anticipated the end of summer right after July 4th. The anarchy of summer and the freedom to do whatever was great – at first. But it got exhausting in the way you feel when you’ve slept-in too late. So the end of summer meant a return to normalcy and regularly scheduled days. The start of school was always a wish come true. It didn’t hurt that fall is also my favorite season.

Given my history with summers it really shouldn’t have surprised me when in June I was ready to go back to work. However, anarchy prevailed and that frightened me.

The horror of the summer slump

Academics are no stranger to the concept of the “summer slump.” In fact, it could be the next summer blockbuster horror film to come out of “University Studios.” Lack of daily structure. Isolation. No external motivation. The silence of days filled with possibility instead of meetings on meetings. It’s terrifying!

And I fell into the trap.

This summer, my first as a doctoral student, was supposed to be productive. In my love of organizing and planning, I developed a research and writing calendar in May. On the to-do list: research and write three conference papers, plan and execute graduate student orientation for my college, public scholarship research for my center fellowship, publish two podcast episodes a month, travel (2 times abroad, 2 times domestically), and start this blog. Oh – and let’s not forget socialize, have a personal life, hike, exercise, and explore my new home of Colorado.

Now I’m exhausted just looking at that list!

Show of hands – who thinks I accomplished even half that list? The traveling sure happened and I’m thankful for that. I was finally able to see the world again after summers upon summers spent moving in the past. One of my trips was also productive, as it assisted me in the first steps of developing my dissertation project. I also made significant progress on the paid work. But my personal research and writing, that work which has the longer-term impact of potentially getting me a job….how about them Yankees?

You’re here, but all you can think about is that you should be researching.

Most of this summer, in between my frequent forays into the world of travel, I found myself literally in a slump – on the couch. Work would occur in spurts. One day I’d be productive and feel the reward of progress. The next two days or so would be a parade of naps and television. Not to brag, but the list of shows I binged this summer is pretty impressive.

A fair number of academics from graduate students to faculty have all experienced a summer like mine. I bet they also mentally chided themselves on a regular basis while simultaneously choosing to watch just one more episode. Many peers and Chronicle articles offered advice, such as aim for just two hours of solid work a day or remind yourself why you chose your field in writing.

Both ideas were solid suggestions and I initially aimed to make the first entry of this blog my personal manifesto on why I study religion and media and why I care so much about public scholarship. As I sat to write that post multiple times, I came to the conclusion that my motivation issues this summer weren’t because I had lost sight of my original desire to pursue academic work. The problem was that I never thought I should be resting.

You should be doing something else

It’s difficult when you work in a “should” environment to give yourself a break. You could always be working on another item on the to-do list. In fact, you should be working on that article instead of going to the movies. You should be reading the stack of books for research instead of enjoying brunch with your friends. You should, you should, you should….there is always something.

This nagging “should” voice lives with me throughout the academic year. It’s the perpetual accountability buddy that pushes you through term papers and conference proposals. In these cases the voice is helpful. But what about when you cannot turn it off?

Graduate students and faculty have begun to open up about the impact of the academia on one’s emotional life. Having been raised by a psychologist, I value conversations about mental health and have always found them to be lacking in the academic world (at least publicly). So I make this promise as I embark on cultivating a blog, or mediated musings, about my research and academic life – nothing is taboo, especially not mental health!

And because I love answering questions with more questions (my students must love me), I am going to end this initial post with an observation and no answers. Academics live in a world of “should” and seldom allow themselves the respites needed to continue their work. The need for breaks and rest is not one of down time or more time with friends and family. It is an issue of a being in a mental state of rest. If we are always thinking about the next item on the to-do list or that research we should be doing, we cannot enjoy the society, cultures, and world so many of us seek to better.

Thus, I pose the following questions – how can we change the mental state of the academy? Too big of an undertaking? How about something smaller…how can we teach graduate students to leave work at work? How can we remind faculty and students that appreciating and being present in the world outside of the academy improves our work? Bonus points if you can suggest something other than exercise, meditation, and yoga.

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