Fall semester is literally just around the corner, and like many of my colleagues, I'm gradually pulling myself out of my summer work mode. This year marks the first time in my professional life when summer translated into 3 very distinct activities: travel, research, and writing. (Research-related travel meant that I spent 4 weeks in Brazil and I also saw more music than I normally am able to do. It was awesome.) Since I am now living 3 flights away from my wife, recreational travel was very important to my emotional health even if it took a toll on other aspects of my life. For those who don't know, my partner and I both live about an hour or so away from the nearest regional airport and visits mean 8-14 hours of travel time. Now I am becoming one of those seasoned travelers contemplating expensive, travel-related purchases like noise-canceling headphones, an airport wifi package, and an ereader. All of that travel aside, writing actually happened, and very soon an article will be off to a journal. All of this is exciting.
I have been thinking about how much we academics need summers to get our research and writing done. Many academic bloggers "go dark" during the summer months, and many others get out of town with laptops in tow to web-challenged locales just to get some work done. I've found that I am the opposite. I actually tend to do worse with unstructured time and prefer to have some sort of constraint on my time, but not too much. During my fellowship-supported grad school years, I would often volunteer for various non-profit causes, and I wrote most of my dissertation while being a teaching assistant. A big appeal of a loose structure is the feeling of productivity and accomplishment. On the days when I have tangible results from my other demands, I feel more motivated to sit in front of a computer and tinker away at whatever project is before me. It really is too bad that the academic year is structured in feasts and famines of free time. I think the trick is that the other demands need to not take very much time of my day. In the real world, however, most demands take over when given the chance. And this is why so many young faculty fall into the trap of spending too much time on teaching or service.*
In other words, I am currently neck-deep in a self-assessment mode. As I face another year of clear structural demands on my time, I wonder if my anxieties about the daily grind of sitting before a word processing program will slip away? Or will they just change? In the distance I can anticipate the demands of students, colleagues, and more travel on my time. And let's not forget another year on the academic job market. It's going to be an interesting ride.
* Most of Robert Boice's Advice for New Faculty focuses on this problem. See also Kerry Ann Rockquemore's advice columns for InsideHigherEd.com.