What do we do in the Long Vacation?
A few years ago the canny person who designs the Cambridge University Pocket Diary (an essential tool for life in this place) decided to rename the summer. No longer did the months of June, July, August and September go under the banner heading “Long Vacation”. Henceforth they would be called the “Research Term”.
The reason for this is obvious: to dispel the idea that the summer is one long holiday for academics – a nice excuse for lazy afternoon on the river, picnics, garden parties or extended trips to the South of France. Not that it has been wholly successful. I still meet people who say “Ooh, I do envy you the long holidays you get in your job”. Even students, amazingly, sign off their summer emails with a cheery “Hope you’re having a good break!”
So what do we do in the Long Vac (as it used to be called)?
Well, like the new title says, “Research”. I don’t believe that there ever was a time when this was an optional extra for university teachers, something you did if you felt like it, but pottered about in the garden/on the river/golf course, if not. But it certainly isn’t an optional extra for any of us now. For better or worse (and in my view emphatically for worse, but that’s another story) a very large part of our funding comes via the Research Assessment Exercise – a cumbersome system which “peer reviews” our “outputs” (that’s mostly what we used to call books and articles) and gives more money to the best research departments.
So why the long stretch from June through September? For the simple reason that if you actually want to think anything through in my kind of work (it may be different, or more difficult, in science, I’m not sure) you need hefty stretches of time to do it in. There are all sorts of things you can do in the odd half hour between lectures (checking footnotes, for example). But you can’t get industrial quantities of reading done. And you certainly can’t have good new ideas.
But there’s another catch. If we really did have the Long Vac for research, and all we had to put up with was a few bits of sarcasm about our long “holidays”, then all would be well. Increasingly though, it’s not like that.
For a start, it’s a bit of a myth that we get June through September anyway. Everyone knows that Cambridge has eight-week terms (“…aah so you actually only work for 24 weeks a year then”). True enough in a technical sense. But those terms are eight week bursts of undergraduate lecturing. All kinds of other teaching happens outside that, not to mention exams, interviewing prospective students and so on. This year my Faculty was still in full swing, with mopping up exams, graduate teaching and admin up the middle of July. And at the other end of the vac, a lot of our students now come up for “pre-terminal” courses. This year about half the first year classicists will arrive in Cambridge on 23 September and they reasonably expect to have their teachers on the job.
But even if you narrow the Long Vac down to mid July to mid September, it still isn’t quite what it seems. My colleague Ruth Scurr wrote a nice piece in the THES a few weeks ago pointing what it was like for academics with young kids. (She generously suggested that both men and women suffered pretty equally here. That’s not what I observe. I know there are honourable exceptions – but it seems to me that it’s more often my young female colleagues who have their Research Period curtailed by child-care, pleasurable as that may be.)
The rest of us don’t get off scot free, however. There’s no such thing any more as what we used to call “the depths” of the Long Vac. Most of us are scurrying around the summer long doing all manner of – admittedly useful and important -- things: from fixing up individual funding packages for new graduate students to teaching on summer schools. One of my colleagues has spent a large part of his summer working on the Faculty’s submission for the Research Assessment Exercise (which seems rather to undermine its aim of promoting research).
So when do you get to do your research? Well there is regular sabbatical leave, on which Cambridge I’m happy to say is a lot more generous than most universities. But more and more, people are applying for extra leave from “external” funding bodies – to take terms or even years off their regular university duties. Now I myself have been a very grateful beneficiary of these schemes. And I reckon that at my post mortem they’ll find “Leverhulme Trust” engraved on my heart. But I can’t think it’s a good way of running a university system (or good for the students, for that matter) to erode research time so dramatically that the only way of clawing it back is to buy yourself out of the job entirely for a while.