The Shame of the Professor's Summer Vacation

by Kevin Dettmar


We’re looking at a modest vacation this summer, Robyn and me. Our oldest daughter and her husband live in Portland, Oregon; we’re going to take the better part of a week to drive lazily up the coast in a rental car, spend a few days with Emily and Blake, and fly home. Sounds pretty good right about now, as I’m scrambling to complete my grades for the spring semester.

Nine days: that will be the extent of our summer vacation this year. But honestly, that’s fairly luxurious compared to what many recent summers have looked like. I’m a college professor; and in the public imagination (or at least, my imagination of the public imagination), we’re supposed to have essentially three months’ vacation every summer. My experience has been rather different.

I grew up in an upper-middle-class family, the child of a professional man; my father was an attorney, then a judge, and we had a decent “disposable” income, and took serious vacations. Attorneys make no apologies for their vacations: in fact, quite the opposite. They work hard and play hard, and living well is the best revenge, as they say. So too, in my limited experience, doctors. I’ve often had my physician, or dentist, brag about his vacation; it seems to be part and parcel of his success, and I’m meant to feel proud that the guy probing the soft spots in my enamel takes upscale vacations. Damn, he must be good.

No so professors; at least, not so me. With my family, we’ve taken some mostly ramshackle vacations: a long weekend at someone else’s place, a shared condo at a lake, camping. As a graduate student and then young assistant professor, we didn’t have a lot of money, and these frugal holidays were simply a matter of living, and relaxing, within our means.

My brother-in-law was married on the beach in Maui a few summers ago-wait, no! It was five years ago!-and under some explicit family pressure, and with a bit of financial incentive from my mother-in-law, we Dettmars (all six of us) decided to go for a week. If not for the wedding, we never would have considered so lavish, so self-indulgent a holiday; indeed, when the wedding plans were announced, we had to postpone plans to stay with a retired colleague at his home in Maine. (For free!)

But today, along with my professional wife (physician assistant), twenty years into my career, we enjoy a good household income. As much, I’d guess, adjusted for inflation, as my father did; as much, certainly, as many public defenders and public health physicians do. But unlike them, taking a vacation-a “real” vacation, to a recognizable vacation spot-fills me with guilt and embarrassment.

Whither (or, ideally, wither), embarrassment? I’ve been thinking about it, and I think it comes down to this: when your job is “the life of the mind” (scare quotes as thick as you want ‘em), there really isn’t supposed to be any downtime. Take that impossible expectation, multiply it by the fact that most Americans think college teachers only work nine months a year, and the result is a mess of confusion, misunderstanding, and guilt. In the public imagination, the groves of academe are groves of privilege: and certainly, there’s a great deal of truth to that picture. But at the same time, there’s an awful lot of shame at work.

I’ve never discussed this with colleagues, but my understanding of the implicit rules of faculty vacations is something like this.

1. They must be cheap. Scholars, after all, do their work for the glory, not the money, and we’re meant to have none extra to burn. Extravagant vacations suggest that one isn’t serious enough about one’s work. (Similarly, for most of us, sartorial splendor is out. Some flashy colleagues get away with a more than thrown-together wardrobe; but for most of us, properly clothing the body suggests an insufficient dedication to the life of the mind. And I bet you thought we were all just fashion victims!)

2. If they’re not cheap, they must be work-related. Many scholarly organizations provide this kind of front for their members: the Beast Fable Society always seemed to me to have the best gig, meeting at various tropical locales for the summer months to share their research on-um, beast fables, I guess. Tahiti is absolutely forbidden as a vacation destination to the true scholar; but if there’s a conference-well, that’s altogether a different thing.

Thus London is available to scholars in my field, because the British Museum is there, and one might need to “do some research.” New York has the New York Public; Paris has the-uh, I’m sure it must have something that I need desperately to see. For my work.

3. If one insists on having a vacation then, by all means, be discrete about it. Indeed, if caught, or questioned, be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

4. One must pay for them by working that much harder in the weeks preceding and weeks following the vacation. That time off the clock can’t just be time off the clock: it must be compensated for somehow. Indeed, one perennial funding strategy is to teach summer school: six weeks of three-hours-a-day teaching will compensate both economically and sort of karmically for one’s frivolous outing.

Clearly, professors need to get a life. It is the nature of our profession-perhaps of all professions-that it has no very firm boundaries; certainly in the humanities, and I suspect in all disciplines, PhD students quickly learn that not only is theirs not a 9-to-5 job, but it’s a job that has no posted hours whatever. You always could, probably always should, be putting in more hours. The best people in our field can work very long hours; and a natural corollary of this, perhaps, is that we’re paid for nine months of work, but work all summer “for free.” Taking a vacation, of course, violates the spirit of this calling.

Part of this has to do with the relative invisibility of much of a professor’s work. If an engineer who makes my salary takes a real vacation, no one begrudges it her.

And here’s the dirty little secret of those vacationing professors: the summer, when we’re “off”? Don’t get too jealous. We’re also off the payroll. Professors work nine months a year, ordinarily; and we’re paid a nine-month salary. Many, probably most, of us choose to have that salary paid out in twelve monthly installments; certainly I always have, since I’m a terrible saver, and wouldn’t budget nine payments well enough to make it to the fall. But I work for my college for nine months a year, and I have a nine-month salary. Indeed, in contractual terms, I’m a nine-month employee.

So if we’re “off” all summer, we’re also unemployed. But wait, it gets better: because those three months when we’re unemployed are, for most of us, the most productive time of the year, in terms of our research. For those of us with significant teaching and/or administrative responsibilities, summer is the only time when we can turn our focus almost exclusively to that book project, or that research. Hence this central, animating paradox of the professor’s existence: the work that “counts” the most in terms of professional advancement-the work that is the real currency of the profession, the scholarly and creative work-is done when we’re off the clock and off the payroll. This is true even in a larger sense: that work is almost entirely done outside the 9-to-5 of the nine months we’re employed. One’s scholarly reputation, it’s not too much to say, is built as a form of moonlighting.

My grades now submitted, I’m “off” for three months: we’re back in class on August 30th. I’m eager to dive in; I’ve got a lot of reading and writing planned, as well, I’ll say without guilt, as a trip up the coast to see my daughter. Don’t begrudge me, gentle reader: I’m doing it entirely on my dime, and on my time-not yours.

Kevin Dettmar is W. M. Keck Professor of English and Chair of the department at Pomona College. He blogs daily on the delights of contemporary culture at Fake Chinese Rubber Plant.