Professor Leslie Kern is an associate professor and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Mount Allison University. She is also an academic coach whose practice aims to help academics “reconnect to the meaning in their work, pursue balance, and find some joy along the way.” Faculty Forum invited Professor Kern to offer some counsel about planning your academic summer.
Faculty Forum: Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us Dr. Kern! What in your experience is the biggest challenge academics face in the summer months?
Leslie Kern: Overly ambitious goals within a lack of structured time. Have you ever felt that you’re more productive when you’re super busy? In the summer we want to accomplish a lot, but the open-ended hours aren’t actually that conducive to getting into work mode. Plus, we over-estimate what we can do and end up feeling stressed and behind in what should be more of a rest-and-recovery period.
FF: It seems to me that there is an internal contradiction between the need to be productive in the summer and the need to recover from the state of mental exhaustion many of us find ourselves in at the tail end of 8 or 10 months of the regular academic year. How do you advise your clients to reconcile this contradiction?
LK: Finding a balance between rest and productivity is a big challenge. But remaining in the stress cycle brought on by a busy year without completing that stress cycle through a conscious process of relaxation is a recipe for full-on burnout. Listen to your body: especially in the rare Canadian summer months, your body might be screaming to be outdoors, to get some sun and vitamin D, to move, to be near the water, etc. Schedule actual holiday time, even if you don’t go anywhere, including putting up an out of office message. Decide early on what’s important for you to have this summer (outside of work): time with your kids, playing your favourite sport, catching up with friends, walking more. And then actually book time for those things in your schedule.
FF: Sometimes the arrival of the end of the teaching year seems a bit like the arrival of a credit card bill, where I need to pay off all those things I agreed to over the course of the year but had no time to do. As of September, I’m thinking that come next July I’ll be able to devote large stretches of time to my book project, but over the course of the year I run up “charges”: I’ll agree to present at a conference, develop a new course, deliver a talk, serve on a committee. By the time July comes, I realize that I’ve yet to rethink and revise my courses for September and, with my “bill” paid, I arrive at September again with exactly the same goal for the next July. How can I break this cycle?
LK: You’ve just read every academic I know to filth! One strategy is to make that summer project goal tangible. In September, summer looks wide open and the time to write seems endless. But “I’ll work on the book in the summer” is not actually a plan. Pull up your online calendar now and schedule your “big project” time. You might block off two hours every morning, or one hour in the mornings and afternoons every other day… whatever feels good (you can always make adjustments later). Once those blocks exist in your calendar, you’ll have a visual reminder of what your available time actually looks like. Block off time away or rest periods too! When those requests to deliver a talk etc. pour in, you’ll have a more realistic sense of what you can offer. The good news is that almost universally, other academics will respect your decision when you say “my priority this summer is to finish my book/gather my data/submit two articles” as you graciously turn down their request.
FF: What are some services that academic coaches offer and what are some signs that suggest that someone could benefit from coaching?
LK: Academic coaches offer a range of services from advising people on job application materials and grant proposals to one-on-one support for finishing a thesis, applying for tenure, finding work-life balance, or managing a big project. Coaching is very “solution-focused,” so it’s all about supporting a client to expand their perceived options, reconnect to their values, and generate practical action steps for moving in the direction they choose.
Coaching might be right for you if you’re struggling with motivation; you need an accountability structure outside of your institution; you want to find more time for the things that are important in your life; or, you’re considering a major transition such as leaving academia or your current position.
FF: Thanks again for sharing your wisdom and experience with us, Dr. Kern. Here’s wishing you a wonderful summer whenever it finally arrives!