We’re all going on a holiday…

For the past four days I have been away from the university, taking a break – and as I write this I am on my way back. Last week, however, I was at work as normal – but when I was at a function the person I happened to be talking to started the conversation by saying: ‘I presume you’re on a break’. ‘Why would you presume that?’ I asked. ‘Well, it’s the Easter holidays,’ she responded.

I don’t know about other academics, but this kind of conversation always has the capacity to irritate me profoundly. I keep discovering that there are many people out there who believe that if the students are on holiday, then all university staff (including the President) must be also. There is, it appears, an assumption that university faculty and staff have four or so months vacation every year, during which time they do nothing of any consequence as they laze on the beach or pursue their hobbies.

This was never true in any real sense in the universities. Even when I began my lecturing career in 1980, in my first year I took a total of three weeks off. During the time when there was no teaching I settled down to do my research, complete administrative tasks and prepare my courses for the coming year. I would readily admit that some took rather more time off than that, but absolutely nobody was gone over the summer for the whole time. And noawadays, in times of much greater pressures, very few people in DCU would be able to or want to take more than three consecutive weeks off, at any time of year, and many academics take less than the statutory minimum holidays per year.

This is not necessarily the case across all higher education institutions, and I am aware of the fact that outside the university sector some higher education institutions are more or less closed for two or more months during the summer and at other times of the year. But that it decidedly not the case in the universities.

What this reinforces is that the academic (and university) life is not a life of low pressure and comfortable lifestyles. As I have mentioned before, that has not been the case for a very long time. But in the public mind there is still a suspicion – quite unjustified – that university staff under-perform in terms of their dedication and commitment to the job.

As the regular questions I get from well-meaning people about whether I am ‘off’ demonstrate, we need to get better at showing the public how we work and what we do. At this time in particular, we need the confidence and support of the wider society.

And when university staff do take a vacation within these constraints, they should do so unapologetically: some rest and recreation is as necessary for them as for anyone else.

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3 Comments on “We’re all going on a holiday…”

  1. Kelly Says:

    I also find misconceptions about university ‘holidays’ hugely irritating. There are lots of related issues, such as the unpaid overtime that academics regularly do, and the unsociable hours that academic work often requires (e.g. late nights in the lab; Sunday afternoons writing an article). Being successful in an academic career these days usually means giving up any firm commitments to maintaining a work/life balance. This is easier for some people to do (hence, it has been argued, there are fewer women in senior positions in universities than men).

  2. Jilly Says:

    Yes, I think this is a universal complaint for academics! Even our own students seem to think that we have the same ‘vacation’ as them: I routinely get messages from students in, say, late May, which begin by apologising for interupting my ‘holiday’!

    I think that one of the apparent luxuries of academic life – the fact that much of it isn’t tied to a 9-5 office culture – can be quite damaging to individual academics if they’re not careful. Because we do so much of our work at home, the division between work and leisure becomes very blurred indeed, and almost any time spent away from work (evenings, weekends, bank holidays etc) can induce feelings of guilt and stress. As Kelly says, we all tend to work evenings and weekends routinely, and the supposedly long summer period can often become especially intense because of the consciousness that it’s our ‘only chance’ to get certain kinds of research done.

    I’ve certainly found myself returning to the new academic year in September feeling burnt-out and stressed because I haven’t taken a holiday and have been scrambling to get unfeasible amounts of research done, and therefore feel that I’ve ‘failed’. These days I try to avoid that by designating certain periods as ‘holiday’ in advance, and making myself stick to it. I’ve also taken to doing the same with weekends, deciding to work Saturday but not Sunday, for example, in order to avoid feeling guilty on the day I’m not working. It doesn’t always work, mind you, and if my partner goes away for a weekend I almost always backslide into working both days. It’s when you catch yourself doing footnotes at 10pm on a Saturday night that you realise something’s very wrong…

  3. cormac Says:

    It is the same assumption that because university lecturers have a low number of teaching hours (at least in some universites)they’have it easy’. Except that teaching may be less than 50% of their true workload…
    The IoT situation is more complicated. Overall, staff have far more holidays – partly because of an increased teaching load during term, partly because only a minority are involved in research and partly because of a very srong teacher’s union. The summer break in particular makes sense for 2nd level teachers with huge contact hours – but for 3rd level?

    It seems to me that either the hols should be reduced or the nature of the job should change..(personally I’m trying to write a popular science book but am making little progress!)Regards Cormac

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