Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to August. The sun is shining, the air is thick with the scents of cut grass and barbecues, and after a thoroughly enjoyable but rather busy July, I am on holiday. Or, if you want to make it sound more official in out of office messages, ‘on annual leave’.
What’s that? No, no, I’m not going abroad. I’m not even going to a tiny cottage somewhere in the UK where I can ignore everyone and go walking every day. (That’s what I do in January. There won’t be a blog post then, because there’s no internet connection, which is absolutely part of the charm of it.) In fact, I’ll be at home, taking day trips to the surrounding countryside and nice places to visit, and otherwise reading, doodling, and getting on with some research.
This might not sound like the perfect summer getaway, but for those working in full-time higher education, it’s a much-coveted period of the year – and it’s under threat. It seems that with the increasing fondness for even more meetings and committees, academics who were previously able to dedicate their summers to quietly advancing their research are now losing that valuable, uninterrupted opportunity to get on with it. Given the pressure put upon scholars to produce world-leading research in time for the next REF – by the very same institutions who are now eating into their summers – this seems like something of an own goal on the part of the institutions.
There is also the question of precisely when, given all of that lovely research time some might have whilst the sun is shining, academics are supposed to actually have holidays in the way that other humans understand the term: lolling about in the sun, drinking cocktails in far-flung locations, paddling in the sea and having your burger swiped from you by homicidal gulls, that sort of thing. That, of course, is important too – and in any kind of profession that is also vocational (performing artist, composer, writer, teacher, and so on) there is already an element of the individual wanting to do the best they can and loving engaging with their work, even before their employers (or national bodies) start adding the pressures of research assessment, time auditing, summer meetings, and so on. The end result? Creatives too exhausted to create, academics too frazzled to have the time and headspace to undertake proper research, and finding their reputation within the establishment affected accordingly.
The recently introduced Twitter hashtag #AcaDowntime, promoted by Academia Obscura, is an important reminder to those in higher education that having time off is not something they need to feel guilty about, or push to the bottom of their to-do list. As Gemma Aherne recently pointed out on the AO website, an academic career allows for flexibility in work schedules – but that flexibility should not become code for ‘working all the hours it’s possible to work’, to the detriment of your health or you relationship with loved ones. Time off is not a privilege, it is absolutely needed, and it’s what keeps us all sane. And at the end of the day, the hardest thing for people who love their jobs to admit (I speak as one of them) is that actually, for all you love it, it is just a job. And there should be room for other things to happen in your life besides your job.
So there’s the tightrope. Summer can be about research, and getting ahead for the autumn, or tying up loose ends from the year just passed. But it should also be about walking in the hills, going to a show you’ve always wanted to see, lying on the beach with a trashy novel, gesticulating wildly with full pint glasses after a night of excitement at the Proms. It’s about other people, and spending time with them. It’s about making the conscious decision to leave the work on the desk, untouched, until you feel ok with the idea of dealing with it again.
As for me, part-time academic and already in control of my time in a way it’s only possible to be if you’re your own boss (and I’m a pretty hard task-master, I can tell you), this is my chance to spend a little time reading and dreaming, researching new projects, and gently planning for the future; and also to relax. I refuse to feel guilty about this, because I have earned my time off, financially and conceptually, and I intend to enjoy it. And now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get this posted and switch off my computer. That Pimm’s won’t drink itself.