Shortening Your To-Do List

Question: “Lucky you, you get the summers off,” my nonacademic friends often say, not really joking. I don’t tell them how much I worry about time and money, and I don’t admit that every summer I think I’m a total fraud. Do I need time management? Image management? New friends?

Answer: Too many academics are riddled with guilt, Ms. Mentor knows. Most of you have been fueled by it all your lives.

You’ve gotten a lot of good mileage out of it: high grades, teachers’ praise, honors, fellowships, and awards. But still the backup singers in your head keep chanting, “More, more, more” and “Work, work, work.” They never take a day off. By Labor Day, if you don’t stop them, they’ll have a full-fledged opera.

Academics start the summer with a fresh slate, the way the rest of the world starts a new year: gasping with exhaustion, but brimming with nervous energy and wildly ambitious plans. You’ll learn Old Norse or study genetics. You’ll clean up all those moldering books and papers. You’ll alphabetize and synthesize and categorize.

Of course you have a mental To-Do list. Maybe it’s on your computer, and maybe it’s posted on your fridge. But it’s also in your heart, where it starts thumping with anxiety almost immediately: “You’ll never get it done. You’ll never get it done.”

And so Ms. Mentor’s first suggestion is to shorten your summer To-Do list. Make time for children, parents, cats, close friends, and partners — but make sure summertime can be your festival of the intellect. List only those tasks that you’re sure to accomplish. Otherwise you’re apt to wind up napping a lot, writhing, frothing, and wallowing in guilt.

Write a new version of your To-Do list every night. List household crises that can’t wait (“What’s scratching around in the walls?”). But leave out everyday miseries (“Out of beer again”). Focus on small, specific plans, rather than vast goals — not “think about cutthroat politics” but “Monday: Read The Prince. Tuesday: Find 10 definitions of ‘Machiavellian’ and take notes on whether The Prince fits. File these notes for future teaching, writing, or department gossip.”

That long-range project could be on something like the misuse of writerly words: “Machiavellian,” “Freudian,” “Kafkaesque.” Or it could turn out to be a work of history or political theory. But any book, article, dissertation, or writing endeavor should be broken into daily bite-size tasks, with a quota on how much time you will spend, such as three hours a day or three pages a day, including weekends. By the end of the summer, you’ll have nearly 300 pages.

They will probably be raw, but the “shitty first draft,” as the writer Anne Lamott calls it, is the key to finishing a manuscript. Then you can put on your editing head, revise and shape it, and show it off to the world, where everyone’s been waiting for your definitive word on the War of Jenkins’s Ear. (If the world’s not excited by your topic, do reconsider. Ms. Mentor would hate for you to have an unpublished manuscript, and not get tenure, and wind up sobbing instead of sharing.)

Academics do share a strong work ethic. They’ve done their homework on time and followed directions. They’ve learned footnote and notation forms and lab protocols. They like structure.

Which brings Ms. Mentor back to your summertime blues. You’ve worked intensely through the academic year, and some part of you yearns to be the beach bum or bummette — the lazy loafer the civilians think you are — after you’ve put in nine months smoothly molding young minds. (Civilians also think teaching restless teenagers is easy. Ms. Mentor wishes that stingy legislators were required to take a turn teaching and grading first-year composition at a community college. They just might appreciate the performance anxiety, the classroom radar, and the standup comedy aspects of the job — and how deeply, deeply draining it can be.)

Your To-Do list can include some beach-bunny activity for every day. It can be swimming or volleyball, or cooking something tasty, or getting together with your fellow graduate students or colleagues to whine, conspire, brag, and cheer one another on. But avoid “Joey Burnout” (there’s one in every crowd), who will bend your ear about the cowardly minds and inflated résumés of senior professors and Machiavellian administrators. Joey will make you miserable, especially if you have a drink with him.

Do not put anything on your summer To-Do list that is painful (“eat only grapefruit and lose 10 pounds”) or postponable (“new winter coat?”). Be adequate and finish things. Try not to be perfect. At the end of each day, write down what you’ve accomplished for your career.

But, you may ask, “What about my dad in Detroit, who couldn’t care less about the beauty of an algorithm, or my mom in Miami, who wishes I’d stop ‘farting around with poetry?'”

Visit them and be as kind and polite as a normal child. But know that you probably can’t convert them. They may never believe that what you do is better than a good investment tip or winning on American Idol. If you must proclaim the merits of atheism or Marxism in certain family circles, you’ll have real fireworks for July 4.

“But Ms. Mentor,” you may say, “you’re such an idealist. You think everyone has the summer for arcane scholarly work, but if I want to stay out of bankruptcy and foreclosure and terminal deadbeat-ness, I have to teach six sections of comp this summer . . .”

Which makes Ms. Mentor wish she could recommend the consolations of literature. Academic novels can be acutely satirical portraits of pompous, predatory professors — like the jet-setters in David Lodge’s Small World or the underminers in Jane Smiley’s Moo or James Hynes’s Publish and Perish. But fewer academic novels seem to be published nowadays, and many are murder mysteries featuring the untimely deaths of English professors. (Ms. Mentor hears her readers muttering, “Wish fulfillment. How totally crass.”)

Moreover, those novels do not reflect today’s realities: 70 percent of faculty members at colleges and universities are adjuncts, the American Association of University Professors says. Most are part timers with few benefits and no security, and they’re often paid less than $2,000 a course.

They don’t have the major books or grants; they don’t fly to France in the summer to hobnob with Ivy League nabobs. Instead, they simmer with resentment as they fill their summers (and winters and springs and falls) with grading, grading, grading. No one publishes novels about the real lives of these new proletarians. There is no book, yet, called My Year of Adjunct Hell.

Summer can be a most serious time for academics. For dissertation and book writers, it’s the up-close, concentrated wrestling with ideas and phrasing. For scientists, it means full days in the lab; for botanists and archaeologists, full days in the field. Summer can be the most intense, focused, and exhilarating time — leading to some bittersweet moments of decision.

For many graduate students and adjuncts, summer is the season for deep thought. It’s most often the time when people decide to dump the guilt, forsake the pursuit of impossible dreams, and leave the groves of academe for something else.

And then they can finally let themselves have a day at the beach.


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