My student neighbours have departed for the summer – stereo, guitar and all. There won’t be any more parties out on the roof of the add-on kitchen, no more banging of doors at 5am, no more cigarette stubs in my back yard. The whole street is getting eerily quiet, the queues in my local Tesco’s shorter, the university gym deserted. The classrooms at the university are taken over by summer courses, and disoriented looking Chinese students have replaced the cocky Geordies.
But what are we academics doing, now that the exam board is over, and the notes on last year’s teaching filed away?
When I tell people what I do for a living I usually get some puzzled faces, some commiserations for having to deal with obstinate youngsters, and finally a slightly jealous or snide remark about the wonderfully long holidays I have over the summer. The teachers among you will know this one. Several months without teaching, an entire summer to myself. What could I possibly be doing with all that time? Little do they know what really happens over an academic summer, teaching prep for next term aside.
The first few days will be spent coping with the exhaustion left after the stress has gone. Since I was on sabbatical last term I only had a few postgrads to look after, so my exhaustion mainly comes from the research travel I have been doing. Hence I’m not keen to go anywhere far away this summer. The sheer sight of an airport currently makes me feel queasy.
But I’ll be off to a conference in Durham, some research down in London, seeing my family and visiting some friends in Berlin. Most of the time I will be carrying my laptop with me and a few things to read. But the most important thing is: I have finally time to write.
All the notes I’ve been taking in archives at home and abroad need sifting through and ordering. Maybe there’s a story here or there, maybe a book chapter or even an article in that. Other stuff will be laid aside for later. When I’ve gathered the pieces together the jigsaw puzzle can begin.
When a piece is missing, I have to start reading again, fill the gap. Then I have to find which piece goes where, try this side, try the other, put it aside, try another. Looks wrong, looks odd, doesn’t fit. Wrong colour, wrong shape. Start at the other end, do the edges first, then fill the middle. Sleep on it, take it apart again. Then over the weeks, a picture begins to emerge. It won’t even half be done come September. I’m not even sure I will be able to see what it is going to be. But I will have tried, probably failed and got some new ideas.
So you know: the summer is when books are written.