What I Did on my Summer Vacation

Michael Z. Newman's picture

Fall is practically here. The public schools are back in business and a fresh crop of freshmen have appeared at UWM, wandering the campus in packs and wearing those lanyards they must give out with room keys and ID badges, but which no one seems to need once classes start. We don’t begin the semester until after Labor Day but my course syllabus has been ready to go for a few weeks. I’m starting now to think more clearly about what the course will actually be like. It’s an advanced new media course which I am adapting from a graduate seminar I taught last fall. I have just begun a year-long fellowship at the Center for 21st Century Studies, which is the reason I’m teaching only one course each semester in 2011-12, and on Monday I claimed the keys to a new office with a view of the city and the lake.

I love (ok, enjoy and get various rewards from) teaching, but I also love the annual summer break from teaching. From May to September I have been granted 122 happily classroom-free days. Academics get irritated when civilians think we have the summer off, but this kind of conversation is so familiar and in my experience well-meaning. Actually, I say when feeling like talking about myself, I’m kind of busier during the summer. Graduate students are hurrying to finish MA theses, sending me work to read chapter by chapter and thesis by thesis. Service is supposed to pause but it doesn’t. I worked this summer on an assessment for the large lecture course I taught for many semesters. If teaching a new course or even a modification of an old one in fall, books and articles need to be collected and ordered and requested from the reserves at the library, but only after a process of deciding which to assign. Peer-reviewing manuscripts is an all-season task, though I am still not asked to do very much of it. Research has the biggest claim on my time, and I have spent much of this summer reading, taking notes, writing and rewriting, editing, revising, looking up dates and names on Wikipedia and IMDb and Google Books, corresponding with coauthors and editors, planning future research, and more generally managing a number of ongoing projects. Since May I have been juggling work on a couple of journal articles, a couple of book chapters, a co-authored book soon to be published, and two large projects in the early stages of research. I’ve been making conference plans for fall and spring. I also spent some of my time researching a project that I decided to abandon despite having spent a lot of time thinking about it and shlepping to the library to claim ILL books (maybe it will linger in the deep archive of my mind, some day to be integrated into another project or brought back to life on its own).

Summer is also a time of leisure, though, and I always feel a tension between the need to “be productive” as an untenured prof, and the desire to enjoy the season, the welcome visits from friends and family, the outings and trips and times of recreation and fun. This makes the summer not only busy but unfortunately stressful. I know this is a “white whine” and I don’t really work for a living like the vast majority of people who toil at jobs that really feel like work all day, all week, all year. But time is finite and an afternoon at the beach sometimes, perversely, looks like a missed opportunity to “be productive.” An afternoon of “being productive” can also seem like a missed opportunity to have fun, which is after all why God gave us summer. Even supposedly multi-functional fun+productive time, like a weekday afternoon at the movies (privilege of the film scholar!), can seem like a decadent indulgence. One day in early August I was going to spend an afternoon writing an essay while my sister and brother-in-law, visiting from out of town, took our 7 year-old son to a water park. After waffling briefly I opted for the water park and was pretty glad. But at the change of seasons I always feel frustrated by the incompleteness of the summer’s work, by the inevitability of goals unmet (even if I knew they were unrealistic all along).

Despite the prevailing cultural mandate of summer exuberance, my favorite time of year lately is actually the first few weeks of January. Our campus wedges a three-week winterim session in between fall and spring, and if you don’t teach winterim (I haven’t and will avoid it until we feel like we need the money) you have a nice month-long break from the classroom. The Christmas-New Year’s week is a wash as school and daycare are closed, but the first three weeks of the year are almost perfect. The kids are occupied all day, the weather is shitty, there is no sense that January ought to include leisure, and the weekdays are free for reading and writing, which is how I prefer to spend them most of the time. But the afternoon at the movies or the long lunch can be that much more pleasurable in winterim, when the rest of the world is really at work, the grind of teaching isn’t making every week into a struggle just to get to Friday, and there is so little expectation of fun. When I say that I wish the summer would be more like the winter it’s not just that I like indoors better than outdoors and sweaters better than shorts.

The problem with the academic summertime is a problem of how to think about academic work. Academic time (at least in my experience) has to be seen as fluid and multidimensional. The interest lately in promoting “work/life” or “work/family balance” is misguided, for a number of reasons, one of which is that work and life, business and pleasure, aren’t separate. (Another reason is that it depends on a gendered conception of both life/family and of work, requiring women to shoulder an unfair share of the burden of an inequitable system of academic labor, childcare, and domestic responsibility). The idea that time is spent either on business or on pleasure, and that time spent on one is stolen from the other, is deeply ideological, rooted in an ethos of productive labor and industry that ultimately serves the interests of capitalism and class stratification. It is the right-wing politicians and neoliberal culture that sees the individual academic’s productivity in terms of quantifiable return on investment, and questions the value of teaching and study as an end in itself. This is the same culture that makes academics eager to demonstrate their long working hours and quantify their productivity to answer the call that higher education pay, that it be economically accountable rather than an institution worthy of pubic investment. But even putting the deep ideological problem aside, it’s also wrong to think of productivity in terms of the typical quantifiable metrics of an academic worker in hours of labor or courses taught or scholarly output.

The idea that producing articles, chapters, talks, books, blog posts — and more generally work to be lines on a vita or entries in an annual report — is “being productive” is a consequence of a flawed system for qualifying academics and establishing reputation and value. We can’t easily change the system, but we can change how we think about our work. It’s true that publishing is a sine qua non of academic success today, and that it is unfortunately more likely than teaching to lead to many people’s professional fulfillment. But quantity isn’t quality, and sometimes it’s more productive to spend your time taking a walk or watching TV than forcing words out of your miserably typing fingers. One really good paper should be a more impressive accomplishment than half a dozen mediocre ones. My summer’s aborted research project, which was going to be a series of brief essays on Billy Joel songs (maybe blogged, maybe to become a short book), led me to a number of really good articles and videos, and inspired me to listen to the entire catalog of a recording artist I have felt strongly (positively) about (well, until An Innocent Man, after that I can’t really take that much of him) for almost thirty years. It helped me clarify in my own mind what I find so interesting about Billy Joel (this must wait for another time), which was satisfying in itself. Another of my big new projects, a book about taste in popular culture, might accommodate some of my ideas on this topic, so this research could prove “productive” down the road. But if it isn’t, I don’t really care. I liked reading and listening and thinking about Billy Joel these past few months, and I refuse to see it as a waste. I refuse to force myself to write an article or chapter on this when I don’t know what shape it would take, who would read it, what scholarly conversation it enters into, and whether I have enough expertise to analyze the material as I might want to and interest to see it through to completion.

Sometimes I find the most useful and rewarding scholarly experiences are these kinds of meanderings, readings in topics that I decide are wrong turns, obsessions that come and go. Some inform my work in some way, eventually, and some turn out to be diversions, hard to know. Sometimes as a media scholar you can get into something seriously for months or years, and figure out what to do with it later. This seems to be my habit. I’ve watched cooking shows fairly avidly for ten years, sometimes more avidly than others. This summer I wrote an essay about a Food Network show, Everyday Italian with Giada de Laurentiis, for an edited book. I didn’t realize six or seven years ago when I started watching Giada that this time was ultimately to be “productive,” except maybe in practical culinary ways.

My other big new project, the one I proposed in my application for a Center fellowship, is research on the early history of video games in the home and the connection between games and television especially in the 1970s and early 1980s. I have been reading up on this for almost a year, trying to discover scholarly literature on this topic (it’s scant) and assessing what primary sources could prove useful in a social and cultural history of games. To the extent that my childhood experience playing Atari and Intellivision in friends’ basement rec rooms informs this work, that time was also “productive.” But I see this project as something I intend to spend years doing. I don’t know if I will write anything this year, as I collect, read, and make notes on popular and industry press and try to get my hands on the games themselves. That’s why I also have the taste project, which is more writing-ready. Scholarship can be like slow food. I’m not just cooking a dish all day, I’m growing the vegetables, raising the hog, waiting for the wine to get to be a better age. The payoff will come much later. But even thinking of the reading and note-taking as productive is too limiting. Time I spend thinking about it while driving kids to lessons and practices and half-watching youth soccer games, while walking across campus or riding my bike to a coffee shop, or while telling friends about my work are also part of the process. And sometimes it’s more productive to take a nap or watch a baseball game or bake a cake and come back to work later.

Some of the most tedious labor of the summer was the work Elana and I did on proofs of our book Legitimating Television, which is supposed to be coming out in a couple of weeks. Some of our standard academic practices, like conforming to Chicago style, insisting on knowing the place of publication of books we cite (who needs to know?), determining the dates of film releases (you weren’t sure which North by Northwest I was talking about?), are actually counterproductive. They suck our time and energy and divert our attention from more worthwhile activities. But when you do them you’re “being productive.” The proofs required long and careful attention to small details, and this took effort and put other pursuits on hold. But we’re happy the book is coming out and eager for people to read it. It’s the product of years of “being productive” in the usual various ways, and our process in writing it will — I hope — be the toping of another blog post soon to come.

Other things I did on my summer vacation:

-Watched 2 seasons of The Good Wife, and a fair bit of thirtysomething and Parks and Rec.

-Read A Visit from the Goon Squad and House of Holes.

-Listened to Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest.

-Went to see Tree of Life at 2pm on a Thursday, and watched The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on DVD one sunny morning.

-Read Walter Everett, “The Learned vs. the Vernacular in the Songs of Billy Joel,” Contemporary Music Review 18.4 (2000): 105-129.

photos from recent summer vacations are by .michael.newman. published under CC attribution, noncommercial, no derivative works license

Publication date (from feed): 

Thu, 01 Sep 2011 14:27:00 +0000