By Douglas L. Howard
My black polyester gown, with its dark-purple hood, hangs in the back of my closet in a white garment bag, looking vaguely like a body on a hanger. Its “severed head” — my black velvet, gold-tasseled cap — sits in a weathered cardboard box on the shelf underneath. Regardless of what a cap and gown meant to the initiated in the Middle Ages, to me now they are stark symbols of beginnings and endings.
I first wore them when I completed my graduate education — the long march to my degree was over, and I was starting my faculty career. I wear them now twice a year, usually when the weather is too hot for long black robes and heavy velvet hoods. I drag them out when the academic year officially starts, at our convocation ceremony in August or September, and I dust them off again in May at graduation, when it all ends and my students finish their own degrees.
Now that it’s June, and I’ve submitted grades and returned the corpse to its home in my closet, I certainly feel that familiar cycle — that sense of an ending, a closure. The problems that made their way onto my desk during the previous months are fading into the summer sand. Faculty members are cleaning out offices; custodians are cleaning out classrooms and hallways. The parking lots that struggled to hold all of those cars on the campus now seem eerily vacant, like the setting for some postapocalyptic movie.
The signs are everywhere; the school year is over.
For those both in and out of academe, this is part of the allure of working in higher education — that it comes with such identifiable milestones, that it comes with the “summers off” (though it really doesn’t for many), that the work year is something finite and neatly divided into these concrete blocks of time. (Quite often I find myself using those neat blocks of time to keep track of various personal, historical, or cultural events. I remember something because it took place during “that” fall or at the end of “that” spring semester.)
While people outside higher education might bemoan that their jobs seem endless and that one day blends blankly into the next — like their own personal Groundhog Day — the academic calendar is full of renewal for all involved: the promise of learning, the attraction of new schedules/courses/majors, the opportunity to improve your GPA or your teaching, the possibility that comes with new students, classes, lectures, and teachable moments.
If there’s not enough time to recharge in that break from December to January, there is always the long, blissful stretch of summer — time “for a hundred visions and revisions/ Before the taking of a [single paper]” (apologies to Eliot).
But the truth is (and always has been) that those beginnings and endings — like the ones in most narratives — are something of an illusion. An academic sleight of hand conceals the reality of our jobs and the fact that we are always doing them and always a part of them, regardless of how much we try to forget that during backyard barbecues or in faraway hotel rooms.
And summer isn’t a break for everyone in higher education. Some might even consider it the busiest time of their year. That is often the case for those faculty members who have to teach in the summer and pull off the Herculean feat of squeezing 15 weeks of learning into five, or for those administrators who work on 12-month schedules and see the summer as a time to focus on curricular and financial measures, assessment updates, data collection, or even maintenance and construction plans. Folks working on any campus in admissions, advising, and student affairs barely catch their breath in May/June before new-student registration and planning for fall orientation begin in earnest.
Even for those of us who are able to step away from the campus and “wonder what we’re gonna do” this summer — during long, enviable days of freedom and mental recharge that highlight the privilege of tenure-track and tenured positions — these months really aren’t the end of anything.
Especially for those of us who work on teaching-intensive campuses, summer is when we get to all of the writing, research, and other projects that we had to put off during the commotion of the academic year. It’s when we develop new programs and new ideas for the year to come. We can finally sit down to rework that syllabus that begged a rethink during the semester, or write up that conference proposal that was brewing during a grading crunch or a committee meeting. Promises we made to ourselves in November and March come due in May and June, like those credit-card bills in January after the holidays.
As much as we may try to detach in the summer, we often can’t. For it is precisely during the blissful moments of peace and vacation that all of those nagging little things left undone come crashing back to mind. When the academic year ends in May or June, we may hide some of that paperwork in a drawer, bury that email in a folder, sweep that file somewhere under a rug or in a flash drive — but, psychologically, the clutter is still there, waiting for summer to set it free in our minds.
Those Zen-like moments of calm are often when that idea for a new course or angle for a new article presents itself. Sometimes that self-indulgent summer reading turns out to be a text we can bring to our students in September.
In short, every time we give ourselves permission to let go, we end up floating back to what we know, to what is familiar, to what we are — academics with new content to teach, articles to write, grants to apply for, skills to improve and/or acquire.
The end of the academic year probably works much the same for our students: College is at the back of their minds, no matter how much they try to use the thrill of summer vacation (or the reality of needing a summer job) to erase the stresses of the spring.
The eternal optimist in me wants to believe that summer break could be when the lessons of the fall and spring, as onerous as they seemed at the time, actually gel for students. I’d like to think that in the summer, even the most resistant students somehow start to see the sense in what they learned or to incorporate some instructor’s point into their worldview.
So while my wife talks with me about vacation plans, I admittedly entertain these fantasies of an ending — that the year is over, that summer is some kind of departure. But I also know that that thing hanging in my closet isn’t really dead. Like the bodies that litter the streets and fields on The Walking Dead, it’s only biding its time, waiting for its chance to return. In the meantime, I have work to do.
Douglas L. Howard is chair of the English department on the Ammerman Campus of Suffolk County Community College. He is editor of Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2010), and co-editor of The Essential Sopranos Reader (University Press of Kentucky, 2011) and, with David Bianculli, Television Finales (Syracuse University Press, 2018).