by Catherine Armstrong
University teaching jobs generally use a three-term or two-semester model. This leaves a portion of the year, over 20 weeks, in which a lecturer is not in teaching-mode. So what should academics do with their holidays, and how can they use these periods to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Not teaching, but still working: research
Just because lecturers are not teaching at university every day it doesn't mean they are not working. Many lecturers use the university breaks to catch up on their research. That means visiting libraries, archives, or research institutions in other towns or countries. Social scientists perhaps use this time to conduct field research, such as interviews. Scientists might spend more time working in labs at their own institutions. Research can also be done in an increasing number of subjects using materials available online, so no travel is needed. This type of research takes place either in the university office or at home.
Outside term time many scholars are busy writing up the fruits of their research. The long summer break is a particularly good time to write an article or finish work on a book project. Many people find it challenging to write up their research when they only have short snippets of time available. It often takes many days of dedication to write well, so the holiday period, when commitments to teaching and students are less time consuming, is an ideal time for writing.
University holidays are the best time to go to academic conferences because the teaching schedule is not disrupted by arrangements for colleagues to cover your classes. Although many institutions will give special dispensation to their staff to go to conferences during term time, many scholars have a summer conference circuit where they attend a number of events in the months of July and August.
Preparing for teaching
Many lecturers use the summer holidays to prepare new courses for the next academic year. Running a new course involves starting from scratch: deciding what you want to teach and when, what the assessment will be, creating reading lists (if appropriate to your subject area) and putting together handbooks and other course materials. Many courses now include an online element, so you will also have to put together Web CT materials.
Even if you are not starting any new courses the summer period is a good time to revise and consolidate existing ones. Did your course run well last year? Is there anything you would like to change? Perhaps student feedback suggests that something didn't work and the summer holiday is the time to change that. Many lecturers like to update their reading lists at this time of year too, so anything that has been recently published can be added to your student handbooks and requested in the library.
Clearing and resits
Any number of things can call an academic back into their university during the holiday period. The two most common summer commitments for lecturers are helping out over the clearing period (usually mid August) when school leavers get their A level results and try to find university places, and the ‘resit' period (usually early September) when students who failed your courses in the last academic year have the chance to retake their exams.
What about a real holiday?
With all this work to do in the university breaks when do academics get to take a real holiday? The answer for many is ‘rarely', but it's important not to allow the flexible working arrangements of academic life to overwhelm you. Maintaining a healthy relationship with work is vital. Allow yourself time off that is a genuine break from work altogether. Whether that's sitting on a beach with your family or going to some romantic Italian ruins alone, take that time to recharge your batteries.
Many academics carry out research and writing projects during their annual leave. It is difficult to find time to take a break, especially in a task-driven job like lecturing as opposed to a culture where people work set hours. But personal and family commitments are also important and many employers now realise that their employees will be able to perform better at work if they keep a happy work-life balance. So, as well as the many things that academics get up to outside term times, try to make taking a proper holiday one of them!