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Adventures in the New Humanities: Ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

The Adirondack chairs on campus are a sure sign of summer at St. Olaf.

This post is part of a blog series, ‘Adventures in the New Humanities,’ by Judy Kutulas, the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities.

Yes, you read that headline correctly: I’m writing about summertime blues, something I have the audacity to suggest we faculty members might feel as we sit perched on the verge of what every non-academic in our lives persists in calling a vacation. I realize that that assertion is akin to that long-ago August day when your mother opined you were looking bored and would be eager for school to start back up again — but wasn’t she secretly correct? Moms are rarely wrong. Boldt Chairs might be, but humor me as I attempt to deconstruct the summer ambivalences of professors and propose what I intend to try to make my summer both more productive and less guilt-ridden. Don’t worry. You, fellow faculty members, are involved, too.

Faculty members fantasize about summer all year long, live for the moment we finally post grades, finish year-end reports, and wake up to the blank slate of summer. And that, frankly, is where it all starts to go wrong. We’re academics, so we’re also overachievers. We love summer, but have a secret fear we’re not doing it right, or at least that somebody else is doing it better.

If it’s any consolation, I don’t think it’s our fault. Our culture designates education as a nine-month activity in a 12-month year, with the remaining three months called “summer vacation.” Once most adults make the transition into the 12-month world of work, they recall those extra three months as a magical time of popsicles, car trips, and neighborhood-wide games of kick-the-can, a game nobody has actually played in living memory.

Transitioning into adulthood isn’t easy, and letting go of summers is especially hard. Academics, however, don’t have to let go of summer, even though summer comes to mean other things to us. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, we still have our summers off.  Others employ a variety of words to describe our summers. The two most common might be “lucky” and “undeserved.” Both make us anxious.

It’s hard not to feel defensive about our privilege. Inevitably, we are forced to explain loudly and often that our summers are not prolonged hammock naps, but times of great busy-ness for us. While the world might think we are lazing around, we are trying to enhance and advance our careers.

Professors may not be prone to prolonged hammock naps in the summer, but St. Olaf students — like this duo relaxing outside Tomson Hall — certainly are.

As per our implicit contracts with the ivory tower, we have projects to complete and larger disciplinary conversations to join. If our wise mothers were still to offer commentary on our summers, they might suggest that some of us feel a bit of guilt about such seemingly selfish endeavors as doing our own scholarship or somewhat nervous about trying to keep up with the Professor Joneses in our ranks. Would they be wrong? Even two college psych courses suggest I may be on to something.

Pivoting from the busy-ness, purpose, and discipline imposed on us by the academic calendar to summer is a complex emotional transition, especially for people prone to overthinking everything. We take teaching seriously. We invest considerable psychic energy in teaching. The trade-off is the satisfaction of knowing we are educating youth and they will take what we teach them and build a better tomorrow. We reap the biggest benefits of doing our jobs as the school year ends. Who isn’t going to feel like Super Prof after getting a standing ovation at graduation? After all that hard work for noble purposes and celebrating, it’s hard to refocus.

We take teaching seriously. We invest considerable psychic energy in teaching. The trade-off is the satisfaction of knowing we are educating youth and they will take what we teach them and build a better tomorrow. We reap the biggest benefits of doing our jobs as the school year ends. Who isn’t going to feel like Super Prof after getting a standing ovation at graduation? After all that hard work for noble purposes and celebrating, it’s hard to refocus.

I’ve known a lot of summers by now and while I have no trouble sleeping in later, emotionally, I’m still something of a wreck those first couple of weeks. I’m not alone. Some people get depressed. Others feel initial aimlessness. Still others can’t take it down a notch at all. My husband, for instance, approaches summer with more vigor than the school year. One year, on vacation, we celebrated our anniversary in three countries on two continents. I’m the opposite, relaxing too quickly but then panicking somewhere around August 1 over what still needs to get done. I have already shed my professional skin and donned my summer uniform of flip-flops and shorts. Already I feel guilty about it.

In addition to carrying the guilt that comes from shifting from teaching (social-sanctioned goodness) to our own scholarship (culturally coded selfishness), humanists especially confront the gap between socially useful scholarship, like ending global climate change, and how others perceive our summer endeavors. We generally don’t need labs, crunch numbers, or have businesses seeking us out to improve their processes. We think, read, write, and spend time in libraries and archives (i.e., doing what others regard as leisure activities). We just don’t fit into established categories of “working.” We tend to have inferiority complexes about this too.

Cultural studies scholars employ the term “unruly” to describe someone or something that is disruptive and undisciplined. In summer, humanists can appear unruly. Some of it is the shedding of professional clothing and its replacement with what might be graciously described as ultra-casual wear — hence my guilt at the premature donning of the same summer uniform I’ve been wearing since kindergarten. I feel guilty about that too, mainly because I might be too old for flip-flops and shorts.

Professor of History Judy Kutulas (left) enjoying the summer with her sisters as a child.

Our unruliness complexes run deeper than wardrobe (at least mine does). All my discipline and most of my good intentions fade at the prospect of unstructured time. Far too often, by mid-July, I’m curled up on my front-porch futon binge-watching chipper vicar’s wives from Somewhere-on-Thames energetically turning out scones and Victoria sponges on The Great British Baking Show. I get things accomplished. I just don’t get as much as I think I ought to get accomplished, year after year after year.

Earlier this spring, I saw a new book reviewed, Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, which the New York Times reviewer, Jonah Engel Bromwich, said advocated “taking time out of one’s day to engage in an activity without considering whether it’s productive.” That sounds pretty good to me. Rebranding unruliness as, to paraphrase the book review, a political act of refusal, might just revolutionize my summer. Maybe I’ll add reading the book to my mental summer to-do list.

I’m also going to build in some structure or balance to my days. I’m going to try to write in the mornings so that I won’t feel so bad if I end up on my front porch in the afternoons. I’m going to add reminders to my Google calendar so that Week Zero won’t find me syllabus-less and wailing outside DiSCO in an unruly fashion about video files or Word Press sites. I’m going to try and order my fall textbooks before the bookstore tattles on me to my department chair.

Two parts of my doing-summer-better project involve you, fellow faculty members. First, I’ll continue to write this blog — but I want to use the summer to highlight your adventures in the new humanities, so I need your input. I’ll try and contact some of you, but don’t be shy; e-mail me if you’ve got something you’d like to share. Just to be clear, though, this does not mean I am volunteering to look at your vacation photos; this is strictly about academic adventures.

Second, I need a summer support group.  I’m going to try, most Wednesday mornings after I finish my writing goal (say, 11 a.m.), to be sitting at the Cage. Look for me. I’ll be in shorts and flip-flops, probably looking a bit unruly. We can order popsicles and talk about new humanities, our summer scholarly endeavors, my British Baking Show obsession, or maybe Google the rules for kick-the-can. We can practice the political act of refusal together, defying expectations and resisting guilt. We can try and feel some summer joy, just as Provost Marci Sortor urged us to in the report there was no time to deliver at the last faculty meeting. (Marci, by the way, you may want to occasionally join us on Wednesday mornings since I believe the provost’s job is a 12-month position). Come, live vicariously through us. We might let you join our kick-the-can league, as soon as we figure out exactly what it is.

Judy Kutulas is a professor of history at St. Olaf College, where she teaches in the History Department and the American Studies program, along with American Conversations. She is the Boldt Family Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities, charged with helping to revitalize humanities teaching and learning at the college. Read her inaugural ‘Adventures in the New Humanities’ blog post here.