Academic Summers I: Cocktails and Prioritisation

Like so many other academic summers, mine started with great intentions. In early May, at the height of the essay and exam marking period, I distracted myself by building a very precise work schedule for the summer.* Towards the end of the second semester I always start to feel physically, and as a result intellectually, run down, so I’d decided that the best ‘pick me up’ might just be some extensive archival research during the summer months. (As it turns out, I was right) So my schedule included archival trips, writing research papers for a couple conferences, going over past archives and starting on a draft of a grant application. It even included… ‘reading time’. Because the academic year rarely allows you to read history books – not related to immediate teaching or research needs – for pleasure. So now, the whole summer lay ahead of me, and if I carefully organised my time I could easily have hours and hours of weekly reading time. (Yes, I was ambitious. I can hear the lolz from here.)

Then, life happened: an unexpected pregnancy, a renovation project, a bug at nursery and, of course, extra admin. Some of this was very welcome albeit tiring (pregnancy and house); some was less welcome and just tiring. Obviously, the first thing to go was this reading time I’d been looking forward to. Then, it was looking over past archives to push on with my work on non-white resisters. By mid-July, I knew that my summer plans had gone up in flames. But some of them did, however, stick. I’m a glass half-full kinda person so yes, I want to focus on those. But the reality is that, as an academic, overambitious work plans is one of the things I’ve had to deal with my entire career; one has to either make more realistic work plans, or roll with the punches and not get too anxious about not accomplishing absolutely everything we wanted.

One of the things I’m particularly happy about was finishing a draft for a grant application. Let it be said that I went through close to 50 drafts before getting to this ‘final’ draft – it was certainly time consuming. But it was also really intellectually exciting. I’d given a paper on my Merci Train project in late June (having unfortunately had to cancel an earlier paper due to pregnancy-related medical appointments) which changed the way I conceived of my project: I was no longer seeing it as a micro-history of the Merci Train, but rather as a historical study of gratitude and its societal and political significance in the mid-20th century. Of course, as I generally do after conferences, I go away with a combination of excitement and anxiety, a cocktail of new ideas which get me buzzing and looming fears of the work that lies ahead. So there was no way of knowing, at that stage, that this conference paper and post-conference buzz would morph into a full draft of a grant application.

Around the time I was coming back from this particular conference, I happened to read a tweet by another academic discussing prioritisation. The general gist was: ‘Look at your CV. What is missing? What is missing that is actually important for your career? Focus on that.’ And suddenly, as the punches continued to roll in July (a temporary move, my son catching every virus under the sun, more admin), this advice re-surfaced. I had a cursory look at my CV, not really thinking I’d get much from it, and then something jumped out: although I’d got research grants and fellowships in the past, it’d been a few years since I’d had one. In the meantime I’d published more than ever before, which was great – but now, the urgency was perhaps less on publishing, and more on grant-writing. Grant-writing is extraordinarily time-consuming and intellectually-demanding, and I had underestimated the time and effort it would take for a few years now, which is probably why I kept pushing back my self-imposed deadlines. I thus harnessed almost every hour I got to focus on my grant application. My post-conference buzz soon surpassed anxieties about all the work I still had to do, and became the driving force behind my grant application. I have submitted the application internally, and will submit it to the funding body in in a few weeks time. Obviously I would love to get it as I think the project is great. If I don’t, though, this work will not have gone to waste, as I’ve been able to spend several weeks thinking seriously about my next book, a history of gratitude. And I’m excited.

So grant application drafts is what most of my academic summer looked like. But there were also French mountains and seaside, with one particular little boy running around in tall grasses and rough sand, splashing in pools and waves, and getting ‘princessed’** twice in one week. And, obvs, because it’s summer after all, I also drank cocktails and read non-work books. The cocktails were delicious (Virgin mojitos = big win) and the books were Emily Oster’s empowering Expecting Better, the enticing newly-released Ministry of Utmost Happiness, and the slow and moving American sixties novel, Stoner.

I even got to go to the archives – but more on that later.

 

* Brief reminder for those (mostly my family members) who, every year, ask me what I do with all that time in the summer, and seem really confused when I tell them I had lots of work to do: Yes. Academics work in the summer. We don’t sit on lounge chairs by the pool with cocktails in our hands. OK, we do, a bit, sometimes – but we also do a lot of work. Mostly research- and writing-related work, but also ongoing administrative tasks, conferences and papers, book reviews, and so on. What changes fundamentally, in my view, is that the summer provides a more flexible schedule which allows you to organise your time more freely and efficiently.

** involves playing with older little girls who decide to dress you up like a princess. And you become addicted to tiaras.

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