Sunday, June 13, 2010

Small summer funk

by J J Cohen

Something I love about no longer being department chair: when the school year comes to its termination in mid May, it truly ends. For the past four cycles, May into June had been time to obsess over faculty annual reports, the departmental annual report, requests for new positions, and the closing out of the fiscal year budget -- among other things. I was often in my office. This year, I turned in my final grades, attended a few stray meetings, closed out the MEMSI budget, and wrote an essay about the ominous rocks in the Franklin's Tale. Now I'm on to thinking about the sex life of diamonds, with a two day break at the end of the coming week to spend some time with Katherine and Alex (their school year ends Wednesday, and we are celebrating by hiking Sugarloaf, a monadnock not far from DC, on Thursday and by doing sweet NOTHING on Friday).

Unexpectedly, though, I am feeling the let-down of the sudden lull in daily activity as well. Maybe it's that last night I had dinner with my teaching partners from Myths of Britain, and that reminded me of the spring semester's frenetic pulse, and the unaccustomed calm that afterwards descended. And maybe it is a little bit of loneliness: my work day has been transformed from one in which I see people all day to one in which I am by myself for long periods. Of course, such is the scholar's life, and such has been my life for much of the past couple decades ... but for the last few years I've had at most a day or two of this solitude at a time, never as many as (say) three days of writing together. It's been a challenge to adjust to being alone for these daytime stretches. I suppose it doesn't help, either, that Scooby died before we moved back to our house this April, so there is no one else here when the kids go to school and the spouse to work. Even when I do go to my office, very few people are around.

I try to schedule at least one day a week where I meet someone for lunch, coffee, a drink. Holly Crocker and I got to hang out at the Hawk n Dove on a beautiful evening last Tuesday, drinking Hawk ale; the day after tomorrow I'm rendezvousing with Eileen at Busboys and Poets; the following week it's lunch with one of my favorite colleagues, Tom Mallon. I love to write; I love to research; I love being lost in my projects, and I'm happy this summer offers me some of that luxury. But I feel the (relative) seclusion as well, and I'm wondering: does anyone else get this way in the summer? If so, what do you do about it?


dtkline said...

I have absolutely the same reaction during the summer, Jeffrey, and during other lulls in the academic year. Sometimes it seems the more I have to do, the more I get done, but when I have time on my hands, I get lost in the luxury of not having a set schedule and host of blazing deadlines singeing my fanny and moving me forward. It often leaves me feeling kinda guilty, if that's the right word.

It's a particular oddity up here at the 61st parallel, as daylight piles up upon daylight. It's very easy to lose track of the days and allow my sleeping schedule to fall apart. I'm still a four season guy at heart, so my body tells me I can go to sleep two hours after the sun goes down and can get up two hours after the sun rises, but when there's nothing but a heavy dusk between the two, my circadian rhythm goes all disco on me.

So, I wax and wane between thinking I should be more disciplined and forgiving myself for not being as energetic as I'd like. But I'd like to think that I - or we, as academics who likely have been overachievers most of our lives - need to allow ourselves these lulls, which often herald a renewed sense of personal thought or movement. Particularly when weighed against our personal relationships, there is always another article to read or book to review (!) or draft to massage, but there are only so many lazy, lovely summer days to loll about with a child or partner or friend and just let the day pass as it will.

Wendy and I bought and moved into a house back in April, and it's the first time in a decade I've had a house, yard, garden, and the chores that go along with all that. And I love it. I bought a propane-fired grill. Never had one before. I bought a set of horseshoes. Can't pitch 'em worth a damn, but it's a lovely way to pass an hour or two, with a neighbor or friend.

In the back of my mind, it seems like I'm always weighing opportunity costs - the time I spend doing this (lounging about, lolling, napping) is time I can't spend doing that (often scholarship or writing). I'm trying my darndest to quit tying time to any economy and just let it have these varying textures, contours, topographies rather than an end.

I'm with you though. It's damn hard, and I think that's why academic terms are so alluring. They have their own structure and sociality, a built-in narrative, that we know so well and when that structure is absent it can leave us - me - bereft, in a way.

So, I don't think you're alone in this. I feel it too and struggle with the internal conflicts it raises for me. I'd be interested in knowing how others feel (and deal) with these ebbs, particularly the emotional contours. This is another area that we've been talking about on ITM and BABEL and other venues for awhile, those things that so profoundly move us as scholars but that we never get a chance to share.

As always, thanks for asking the question, Jeffrey, and providing a venue.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

This is one of the reasons I go to London, other than to see the family and friends -- I can surround myself with people who are working, and run into colleagues who are working on interesting stuff. I tend to get actual work done there, which I just don't at home, because if I go to campus, there is stuff that catches me up (for instance, I am now giving a workshop during our in-service week), and in any case, I don't really have many resources available. Seeing colleagues being busy is the best way for me to be busy.

Myra Seaman said...

I'm wondering, Jeffrey, how this will change when your kids are on "summer break" too? In my world, Robert's also working at home, but even then we need some external human interaction so we head daily to our favorite coffeeshop, Metto, and work there for a while, pretending to be part of a community that at some point actually materialized. Meanwhile our daughter happily spends the day up in her room reading and writing and more of the same, after early morning swim practice, making me feel like she's more of a natural scholar than I am. I'm with Dan on this one, indulging myself and delighting in summer freedoms and then feeling I would've accomplished 20 times as much in the same amount of time, during the semester. And following him, I'm doing my best to "quit tying time to any economy and just let it have these varying textures, contours, topographies rather than an end."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Dan, Myra and ADM, for your comments. They mean a great deal to me.