What Does a Professor Do During the Summer?

It’s safe to say that full-time faculty members at American colleges and universities have work schedules and expectations that are often not well understood by the general public. I often get two kinds of questions from people who are trying to figure out how I spend my time:

(1) You only teach two evenings per week. What do you do the rest of the time?

(2) You really have a three-month summer vacation? How do you fill up all of that free time?

I just finished my fourth year as an assistant professor at Seton Hall University, so right now I hear that second question quite a bit. In this post, I share some insights into what my summer looks like as a tenure-track faculty member at a university with substantial (but not extreme) research expectations. (And yes, I will take some time off this summer, as well.)

You don’t have a 12-month contract?

Like our colleagues in K-12 education, most faculty members are paid to work 9-10 months per year. This means that at least in theory, two or three months per year are completely ours. But although it’s common to say that the best three things about being a teacher are June, July, and August, faculty still have to do work outside the contract window in order to do their job well. My nine-month contract ended May 15, and there is absolutely no way I would meet the research or teaching expectations for tenure without using the summer as a way to get ahead. (Similarly, it’s hard for K-12 teachers to do course preps just within their contract period.) But service expectations grind to a halt during the summer, which does provide more time to do other work.

So what does your summer look like?

My biggest project this summer is to work on a paper looking at whether law, medical, and business schools responded to substantially increased Grad PLUS loan limits after 2006 by raising tuition or living allowances. (This is a new look at the Bennett Hypothesis—and I’ve summarized the existing research here.) I received a grant from the AccessLex Institute and the Association for Institutional Research to support this work, which provides me with a month and a half of additional salary and a grad student to help me with data work for 20 hours per week this summer as well as funds to buy out a course in the fall semester. This is my first successful external grant application after eight failed attempts, so it’s good to have some additional support for the summer.

My other important project on the research front is to put the finishing touches on my forthcoming book on higher education accountability, which should be out in early 2018 through Johns Hopkins University Press. I will spend several weeks working on copy editing, putting together an index, and checking page proofs. While I will get a portion of the book’s sales when it comes out, I can safely say that writing a book isn’t a great get-rich-quick scheme. (But journal articles rarely pay any money.)

I am in a fortunate position in which I can supplement my income as a faculty member with consulting or contract work. Each year since 2012, I have compiled Washington Monthly magazine’s college rankings, which comes with a small stipend along with the more important benefit of building connections with the higher education policy community. I also have the opportunity to write occasional policy briefs or white papers on a contract basis; different organizations ask me to explore a topic of interest to them while leaving me with complete editorial freedom to approach the topic as desired. Some of these turn into well-cited papers or articles, such as a paper I wrote at the request of the American Enterprise Institute in 2015 on the landscape of competency-based education.

While I will not teach any formal classes this summer, I will work with my group of dissertation students over the summer (as they pay tuition to work with me over the summer and I get a small stipend from the university). Based on some of the experiences I had in graduate school, I am getting my students together as a group six times over the course of the summer to share their progress and workshop draft chapters. The first meeting was yesterday, and it was a lot of fun. I will also work to update my higher education finance class for the fall semester, as quite a bit has changed since the last time I taught the class (the spring 2016 syllabus is here). I have a folder of 63 potential new readings to incorporate into the class, so it’ll take me a while to narrow this down to 20-30 articles to use in place of what was the state of the art in late 2015.

Academic summers are a wonderful thing—and the flexibility these summers offer are one of the reasons why many of us like this job so much. But even though we have a lot of flexibility about when we do the work, it still needs to get done. I hope this post provides some insights into what June, July, and August look like for at least a certain type of faculty member, and I’d love to hear what summers look like for other academics in the comments section below.

Are Academics Public Intellectuals? (And What Can We Do?)

The Sunday New York Times included an editorial piece by Nicholas Kristof with the title, “Professors, We Need You!” In this piece, Kristof argued that the vast majority of faculty do not do a good job connecting with media and policymakers and thus do not get the importance of their work communicated beyond the proverbial ivory tower. Perhaps the most damning statement in the piece is Kristof’s assertion that “there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.”

Some of Kristof’s statements about the disincentives toward public engagements are certainly true, at least for some faculty at some institutions. Tenure-track faculty are often judged by the number of peer-reviewed publications in top journals, at the expense of public service and publishing in open-access journals. The increased specialization of many faculty members also makes communicating with the public more difficult due to the often technical nature of our work. Faculty who are not on the tenure track face an additional set of concerns in engaging with the public due to their often unstable employment situations.

With those concerns being noted, I think that Kristof is providing a somewhat misguided view of faculty engagement. Some (but not enough) academics, regardless of their employment situation, do make the extra effort to be public as well as private intellectuals. (If you’re reading this blog post, I’ve succeeded to at least some extent.) The Internet lit up with complaints from academics about Kristof’s take, which are well-summarized in a blog post by Chuck Pearson, an associate professor at Virginia Intermont College. He also created the #engagedacademics hashtag on Twitter, which is worth a look.

While I would love to see elite media outlets like the New York Times reach out beyond their usual list of sources at the most prestigious institutions, I don’t see that as tremendously likely to happen. So what can academics do in order to get their work out to policymakers and the media? Here are a few suggestions based on my experiences, which have included a decent amount of media coverage for a first-year assistant professor:

1. Work on cultivating a public presence. Academics who are serious about being public intellectuals should work to develop a strong public presence. If your institution supports a professional website under the faculty directory, be sure to do that. Otherwise, use Twitter, Facebook, or blogging to help create connections with other academics and the general public. One word of caution: if you have strong opinions on other topics, consider a personal and a professional account.

2. Try to reach out to journalists. Most journalists are available via social media, and some of them are more than willing to engage with academics doing work of interest to their readers. Providing useful information to journalists and responding to their tweets can result in being their source for articles. Help a Reporter Out (HARO), which sends out regular e-mails about journalists seeking sources on certain topics, is a good resources for academics in some disciplines. I have used HARO to get several interviews in various media outlets regarding financial aid questions.

3. Work through professional associations and groups. Academics who belong to professional associations can potentially use the association’s connections to advance their work. I am encouraged by associations like the American Educational Research Association, which highlights particularly relevant papers through its media outreach efforts. Another option is to connect with other academics with similar goals. An example of this is the Scholars Strategy Network, a network of “progressive-minded citizens” working to get their research out to the public.

4. Don’t forget your campus resources. If your college or university has a media relations person or staff, make sure to reach out to them as soon as possible. This may not be appropriate for all research topics, but colleges tend to like to highlight faculty members’ research—particularly at smaller institutions. The media relations staff can potentially help with messaging and making connections.

While Kristof’s piece overstates the problem that faculty face in being viewed as public intellectuals, it is a worthwhile wakeup call for us to step up for efforts for public engagement. Perhaps Kristof will turn his op-ed column over to some academics who are engaged with the public to highlight some successful examples?

[UPDATE: Thanks to The Chronicle of Higher Education for linking to this piece. Readers, I would love to get your comments on my post and your suggestions on how to engage the media and public!]