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How Pomona Professors Spent Their Summer "Vacations"

Augie Lagemann '10, Kristen Boysen '10 and Professor Karnovsky with plankton net on "cruise" around the Channel Islands in the summer of 2009.

Augie Lagemann '10, Kristen Boysen '10 and Professor Karnovsky with plankton net on "cruise" around the Channel Islands in the summer of 2009.

Charlotte Chang '10 and Professor Karnovsky peek out briefly from mosquito netting while conducting research in Northern Montana during summer 2009.

Charlotte Chang '10 and Professor Karnovsky peek out briefly from mosquito netting while conducting research in Northern Montana during summer 2009.

College professors—now, that’s the life. Who wouldn't want to work only nine months out of the year with three months reserved for sun and fun? The reality, however, is much different: For professors, summer is a time for research, writing, mentoring and other tasks and, perhaps, a one- or two-week vacation.

W.M. Keck Professor of English Kevin Dettmar recently wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek commentary, “The Shame of the Professor’s Summer Vacation,” about this misconception for The Awl:

“Nine days: that will be the extent of our summer vacation this year. But honestly, that’s fairly luxurious compared to what many recent summers have looked like. I’m a college professor; and in the public imagination (or at least, my imagination of the public imagination), we’re supposed to have essentially three months’ vacation every summer. My experience has been rather different….

It comes down to this: when your job is ‘the life of the mind’… there really isn’t supposed to be any downtime.”

Dettmar spent this summer--outside of those nine days he vacationed at his daughter’s home in Portland, Oregon--working on a long-term book project on the emergence of irony in the public sphere. He says he thinks college professors are some of the best-treated workers in the U.S., but wanted to set the record straight about the real ratio of professorial work vs. vacation time during the summer.

“One frequently hears mischaracterizations in the media about college teachers drinking beer on the porch all summer,” says Dettmar, who in past summers wrote the popular music textbook Think Rock and directed a six-week seminar on James Joyce’s Ulysses for fellow professors. “I’d just like our work to be recognized for what it is.”

Summer Projects, Near and Far

The summer work of Pomona College professors is as varied as their areas of research interest. They often travel to field research locales or conferences. Others stick closer to home for research, writing and to stay on campus to oversee students’ summer research projects (SURPs).

Assistant Professor of Chicano/Latino Studies and History Tomas Summers Sandoval filled his summer with projects both on and off campus. He’s mentoring two students working on SURPs and, in a new role as faculty coordinator for The Draper Center for Community Partnerships, he created two new service projects for students to pursue in the fall. He’s also finishing a manuscript about the history of Latinos in San Francisco, working on a co-edited essay collection focusing on race in “the Obama era,” and completed the schedule of the upcoming 2010 Oral History Association Conference of which he is co-chair.

“There are a lot of developmental things that pop up during the year, mostly related to curricular development, that I often think of summer as being my primary work time,” says Summers Sandoval.

Professor of Media Studies Kathleen Fitzpatrick spent her summer in a mad rush, traveling extensively, giving five talks, and organizing her move to New York City for her upcoming sabbatical. She says that planning for her summer during the school year can lead to an overwhelming to-do list.

“I inevitably wind up overloading my summer, with travel, for instance, or with expectations for how much I’ll get done,” says Fitzpatrick, whose meetings, workshops and other academic activities took her to Washington DC, Salt Lake City, Istanbul, London and Charlottesville, Va., this summer. She also completed two manuscript reviews, two dissertation reports and revisions on her own book. “I never feel like I’ve managed to do quite enough.”

Planning Ahead

Spending much of the school year planning for the summer is common. Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Philip Choi has the next three summers already planned out because he is working on a four-year project developing an adaptive optics instrument for the Pomona College one-meter telescope on Table Mountain, which will eventually improve the telescopes resolution so that it approaches space satellite quality. The timeline was required for the NSF grant funding the program.

"I typically [spend the summer mentoring] summer research students, as well as try to advance additional research collaborations," says Choi, who says four students worked on the telescope project this summer and two more monitored the variability of nascent sun-like stars. "I have already lined up two of my students for next summer. We estimate that about 80 to 90% of our effort comes during the summer months so we've had to build a roadmap through the summer of 2013."

Assistant Professor of Biology Nina Karnovsky spent four summers on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen studying the little auk, a bird which is a great indicator of oceanic health in response to climate change. The trips required massive preparation—permit applications, travel reservations, equipment preparation and helping student researchers ready themselves for Arctic conditions.

“All year I am planning the field expeditions. I lie awake nights months in advance of the trip thinking about how we are going to pack the bag so that if one gets lost, we aren’t in big trouble,” says Karnovsky. “There’s a lot of pressure to make sure that all goes well; you don’t get a second chance [once you're in the Arctic.]”

Pretty Locations, Serious Research

Another big misconception about professors and their summers is that some working research trips sound too exotic to not be vacations.

“People think I am going on a luxury vacation when I am actually working around the clock in pretty uncomfortable situations,” says Karnovsky of her Arctic research. She stayed stateside this summer, having finished her current field research on California’s Channel Islands before Commencement due to a blessedly early mating season for the birds she observes. She spent much of this summer in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, finishing reports and manuscripts; reviewing papers and grants; and mentoring two students’ summer projects.

Samuel Yamashita also fights that same “exotic vacation” notion, as his research takes him to Hawaii and Tokyo. “The scholarly literature on tourism suggests that it is widely believed that people who travel a lot are not working but at leisure,” says Yamashita, who is the Henry E. Sheffield Professor of History. “Many of my acquaintances and friends seem to hold the same view, and nothing that I tell them about my trips to Japan and Hawaii disabuses them of the notion that I am not really working but having fun.”

But rather than sip a pina colada on Waikiki Beach, Yamashita interviewed experts for a new research interest, the history of fusion cuisine along the Pacific Rim, and outlined an article on the topic. In Tokyo, he skipped shopping in Shibuya to spend time in the National Diet Laboratory researching the history of everyday life in wartime Japan and looking for material on food in medieval Japan. This last project is in its nascent stages and may lead to a book, filling several more summers to come.

Associate Professor of Anthropology Jennifer Perry stayed closer to home but also spent much of her time in the California sun on Santa Cruz Island, Catalina Island and a Chumash rock art site in the Central Valley. “I certainly can’t complain about the locations!” says Perry, who assisted in excavations on a Gabrielino/Tongva site on Catalina Island and that Chumash rock art site. She also worked with the Channel Islands National Park on evaluating archeological site locations on eastern Santa Cruz Island, and spent some time indoors analyzing the shell midden materials she has collected from Santa Cruz Island and conducting archival research.

While she, too, fends off the misconception that her summers are spent idling and relaxing, she also finds some people don’t understand the true timing of work during the school year. “Most people don’t realize that teaching doesn’t start on the first day of class or end on the last day of class,” says Perry. “It takes time to submit final grades and finish different tasks at the end of the school year, as well as prepare for and plan out courses in the months leading up to the fall semester.”

Uninterrupted Focus

One common thread in these varied summer activities is no complaints. While professors may have to repeatedly explain to friends and family that it’s difficult to find time for even a one-week vacation during this “off” time, the upside is that summer offers three months of uninterrupted focus.

“One of the real pleasures of a professor’s life is that we are able to do what we really enjoy doing,” says Yamashita. “The summer months simply allow me to spend nearly all my time doing research, thinking and writing.”

For Karnovsky, the work itself is fun: “This is the time I get to be fully engaged in my research. The data my students and I collect in the summer are the basis for the work that goes on all year. It’s exciting to carry out all the work I have proposed in a grant, to finally test all the hypotheses that I have been thinking about all year. Working and living [with students] in remote locations allows us to get to know each other really well.

“Even though it’s often exhausting and stressful, I totally get recharged from being out in the field.”

Choi agrees: "People are sometimes surprised to find out that I don't simply goof around during the summers, [but] the aspect of 'having fun' is not entirely a misconception since the opportunity for a few months of relatively uninterrupted research can be a blast, particularly if it includes working with undergrads."