Posted tagged ‘holidays’

Breaking away?

July 26, 2016

Academics are well used to being asked some time in early June at the latest whether the are now off until September. As I have mentioned a number of times, this is never the case now (and anyway never was the case in most universities) – few manage to take more than 2-3 weeks away.

However, I can report that I am now on a two-week break, and right now am travelling between the United States and Canada (tomorrow I shall be in Halifax, Nova Scotia).

As I travel I get a chance to read things I don’t normally have the time to tackle. This time it has been Pnin by Nabokov; Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; and The Silent People by Walter Macken. Alongside that, and for real entertainment, a book on monetary economics.

I hope some of my readers are also enjoying a break. Back to normal service for me next week.

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Where do the children play?

December 18, 2010

A week or two ago in the afternoon I was walking down a residential road in Dublin in rather unpleasant wintry conditions when I was hit by a snowball which came flying over a front garden hedge. This was followed almost immediately by another snowball that went out on to the road, hitting a passing car; the driver was startled and the car swerved dangerously before driving on. I decided to investigate, and inside the garden I found four young boys who were having what they thought was great fun throwing snowballs at passing pedestrians and motorists. They were all probably in the 12 to 14 age range.

After we had got over the barrage of four-letter insults that they decided to hurl at me instead of snowballs, and when I didn’t move away, they got a bit nervous and started to apologise. I engaged them in conversation, pointing out the dangers of what they were doing, and suggested they go inside. It turned out this wasn’t the house of any of them. They had been sent home from school because of the weather, but their various parents were at work and none of the boys could get inside their houses. So they decided to pass the time with their little snowball fun.

Of course our schools are for education and learning, but in an age when we must anticipate that in most families both parents work, they also play a vital role in childminding. However our school timetables, and their holiday schedules, assume something quite different in terms of social structures: they assume that the mother is at home. So we have children sent home because of staff meetings or other events, and holidays are totally inconsistent with the reality of modern working life.

It is not possible, and it is not desirable, to turn the social clock back and have a labour force in which only men and unmarried women can expect to work. That being so, it is time to re-think how we organise the school system, and how we frame its academic year. It is time to change the school day, and to adjust (and significantly shorten) the holidays. We should have done that more than a generation ago.

Someone else’s summer holidays

July 8, 2010

Yesterday in Dáil Eireann (the Irish parliament’s Lower House) the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen TD, indicated that the House would not reconvene for normal business until September 29, some two weeks later than has been normal practice in previous years. Given the difficult state of the country’s finances, this does not seem easily justifiable. Perhaps I am also motivated to write this as, just today, I heard a member of the Dáil voice strong criticism of academic workloads (based on ill-informed views).

I do not begrudge parliamentarians, or anyone else, their holidays, which are, I believe, an essential part of maintaining motivation and energy. But this particular decision may not be sending the right message at this time.

Holiday times

July 5, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Yesterday I was at a reception and chatted with a group of entirely pleasant people whom I hadn’t met before, and who came from various professions and walks of life. One of them said to me, very pleasantly: ‘It must be so nice for you and your colleagues to have this lovely holiday between now and September.’ Everyone nodded. As I said, they were very nice people. In fact, I had to keep telling myself they were very nice people, because unless I convinced myself of that on the spot I was going to have to hit them, causing a nasty incident with journalists present. So instead, putting on my most patient and friendly voice, I pointed out that university lecturers certainly don’t have three months off in the summer, and that overwhelmingly they wouldn’t be away for more than three weeks or so, and some a lot less. ‘Of course, of course’, they replied in an indulgent tone. They didn’t believe a word I had said, but they weren’t going to provoke an argument.

I suspect this is the kind of infuriating moment that many academics experience. And while I stand over my reply to these nice people, I also know that my case is weakened by the fact that a lot of people in the education sector do have a lot of time off in the summer. I remember that when I returned to Ireland from the UK in 2000 to take up the presidency of DCU, I took our children from their English school and transferred them here. And at first I simply could not believe that the summer holidays here began at the end of May for most secondary students. I really couldn’t believe it. In the UK it would have been late July. When I went to secondary school in Germany the summer holidays were exactly six weeks long, and teachers were only able to take just under four of those.

But it’s not just schools. Our colleagues in the Institute of Technology sector in Ireland have contractual rights to summer holidays stretching over two months and more. And so, because there is no contractual position we could cite when having annoying conversations like mine yesterday, absolutely nobody believes that the position in universities is different. And yet, it is – emphatically. Over the summer my staff in DCU are expected to work on their research, organise or attend or speak at conferences, prepare the next year’s syllabus, supervise research students, teach on postgraduate programmes running over the summer, and do countless other things that they will need to get done in order to progress their careers. But the world outside believes they are all sitting by some swimming pool in Tenerife or perfecting their golf. And because we have been so unconvincing, those who comment on academic performance and sometimes take decisions on pay and other matters often conclude that university academics work less and less hard than those employed by institutes of technology.

This is another one of those cases where we have to gather and publish reliable data that can be used to rebut such comments, because if we don’t we will continue to be treated as work-shy. But we must also face up to the fact that the terms of employment in education more generally as regards summer vacations are no longer really acceptable and will have to be re-thought. The time is right for reform.

Holiday reflections

August 6, 2009

This blog is coming to you from a small cafe in the village of East Hampton, Long Island. For those not familiar with the geography, East Hampton is on the tip of Long Island, about three hours’ drive out of New York city. I am always surprised when I meet people who have no idea that there is any Long Island outside NY city, but actually most of it is rural and rather quaint. The area where I am now, known as ‘the Hamptons’, is particularly pretty. It was founded not long after the Pilgrims landed in America, and it has a number of old monuments and buildings, including two very picturesque windmills. Just outside is a vineyard producing very drinkable wines you won’t get in Europe. The town beaches are rather busy, but drive on five miles and you’ll find quiet coastlines with deserted strands. 

The town is not only pretty but also very safe. There is a lively but friendly police presence. And do they have much crimefighting to do? Well, that depends on what you are used to. When we arrived the shock-horror story of the day was that the police had been called out to deal with an incident in which one citizen had slapped another. And in today’s East Hampton Star newspaper, the top crime story is this:

Richard Drew was walking his black Lab on the beach off Mile Hill Road on Sunday when his dog was attacked by another dog he described as a pit bull. The owner of that dog allegedly refused to stay at the scene for Mr. Drew to file a report. Mr. Drew said that his dog is missing neck hair but otherwise appears to be uninjured.

Horrific though that story is, I think I shall sleep soundly in my bed tonight.

I hope that this kind of narrative tells you I am on vacation. There is of course a view about that academics take off months over the summer. Well, my family and I are here for 12 days, after which it’s straight back into the fray in Dublin. And I don’t think that I am unusual, I suspect that very many of my colleagues will get away for only this long or less. In fact, we should stop tolerating a commissariat that tut-tuts at academic holiday practices: everyone, including lecturers and professors, need a break, and we shouldn’t encourage anyone to feel guilty about that.

There are still things we will need to change and reform, but this isn’t one of them. The days of long summer holidays were over many years ago, in the universities.

So if you are on holiday or preparing for one, my wish to you is that you take the time to relax, and enjoy your break.

We’re all going on a holiday…

April 16, 2009

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.

Is anyone there?

July 8, 2008

This is the time of year when, invariably, I get asked several times a day by well-meaning people whether my work is over for the summer and whether the DCU campus is now completely empty. There is still a widespread assumption that when the students have completed their exams in June all university faculty and staff disappear for a couple of months and have a long holiday. And they also assume that there will not be anything much for me to do during this time.

It was probably never quite like that anyway, but in most universities it certainly isn’t now. Indeed, for some academics June and July can be particularly busy, as conferences get under way and as people focus on their research.  However I suspect that this is not the image that some people have of higher education, and it is possible that in some institutions the summer months may actually be fairly be quiet.

The working patterns of university life are now very different from what some may imagine. At one point in my career I recruited a solicitor to a job as a law lecturer, and after her appointment she confided that she had decided on the career change because she felt that the pressures of a law practice were too severe and this was affecting her family life. She later returned to the the firm of solicitors because she found that the life of an academic lawyer was actually more stressful than that of a legal practitioner, but with considerably less pay.

Certainly the DCU campus is not empty at this time. However, we need to become better at explaining this to the wider public, and probably also at finding ways of dealing with the stress that, unfortunately, has become part of university life.