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Academic Summer’s Double-Edged Sword

Kirsten Fermaglich

I remember my introduction to the double-edged sword of academic summer. At lunch my very first week on campus, my search committee chair (now a good friend) asked me excitedly: “How was your summer? Did you get a lot of work done?” Internally, I reeled: I had gotten married, gone on a honeymoon, and relocated to Michigan that summer. I had gotten no work done. It had not occurred to me to get work done. Was I expected to work while I was dancing or hiking or swimming or sightseeing?

The answer, I quickly learned, is yes. Sort of. Because so many of my colleagues are married to other academics, they have the luxury of combining work and pleasure during their summers, travelling to Brazil or Japan for a month or indeed a whole summer, conducting research while also enjoying wonderful food, a new culture, a slower lifestyle (This is what their lives look like in my imagination; I am willing to admit that I may be wrong, since in my imagination, they also write their chapters effortlessly while drinking pina coladas by the beach).

But since my spouse gets only 3 weeks of vacation each year, 2 of which must be spent visiting grandparents, and 1 of which must be spent during the winter holidays, summer becomes a time of hasty compromise for us. Vacations are mad dashes of fun (I just got back from a whirlwind week of driving through Canada) punctuating long weeks of writing at my computer. Or vacations are spent slowly, one week at a time at a grandparents’ house, with 1 or 2 quick surgical day-trips to the archives in New York, with or without the family in tow. I take longer weeklong trips to the archives myself painfully, leaving my kids home without me.

Yet despite all the compromises of an academic summer that is not really a summer, I still find it a paradise. When I am on vacation, I try to really be on vacation: I let my emails stack up and text only my friends. I let co-workers know that I will be out of touch for a week. I stock up on fun novels at the library and rent 80s movies with my kids. I don’t bring my computer with me and I don’t do any work.

When I stay home, I have fully embraced my friend’s enthusiasm: getting work done over the summer has become a pleasure in itself. I now eagerly await the chance to return to the research I love: the chance to read new books, find new documents, write, edit and think differently. I look forward to the slow rhythm of writing at home. And friends have created writing groups and boot camps that make the process of writing social and fun: writing my chapters over summer shandies on the patio of my local bar seems every bit as exotic as going to Sao Paulo—and is much more cost-effective!

Kirsten Fermaglich is Associate Professor of History at Michigan State University.