, ,

My post this week comes to you from the road. Am I on vacation? Nope. I’m working.

This is not a post where I complain about how hard academics have it in the summer. There are many things about an academic life in the summer that are pretty great, and no one’s going to deny they exist. [Two words: yoga pants.] But I do find that many people I know are unsure what exactly academics do during the summer, so I’m going to tell you what I’m doing.

Mostly I’m doing three things I have done every summer since around my third year of graduate school: I’m conducting research in archives that are not within easy driving distance of my house, I’m reading, and I’m writing. Since I am currently a contingent worker – meaning I teach courses but don’t have a permanent, tenure-track job – this work is all done using the money I saved from my teaching job during the year.* Sometimes there are grants you can apply for to help you with travel for research, but they’re competitive, and they never even come close to covering all the costs, and if you don’t get them, you have to do the research anyway.

What am I writing? Well, I’m writing a book. I wrote a dissertation, which might sound like a book and weigh as much as a book and even look like a book when it’s printed out, but it isn’t a book – at least, not to the people who get to decide whether I ever get a job and then get to keep that job. Essentially what I’m doing is reworking the research I did for the dissertation into something different, which in my case means a lot of brand new writing.

That leads to the other two things: the reading and the research. My book will still contain all of the arguments and ideas of my dissertation, but I’m also talking about some bigger, broader themes. More specifically, my dissertation was about female converts to Catholicism in 19th century America, my book is about how those converts show us the difficulties 19th century women had in a culture that celebrated the self and the individual but didn’t really seem to think women could or should have or be those things.

All of that means I have to read a lot more books and journal articles to help me hone my argument, beyond the hundreds I read when I wrote my dissertation. So one of the things I’m doing is reading and taking notes. I absorb the most when I take notes by hand and then type them up later. I’ve filled one-and-a-half 80 page notebooks with notes since the end of May. I’ll easily do two more by the end of the summer.

It also means that I have to do more research. This week, I’m researching at the place where I did most of my dissertation research as well: the Massachusetts Historical Society. I did and will do research in places much further from where I live in Connecticut, but most of my research was in the Boston area, which hits that sweet spot – too far to drive every day and get in a reasonable amount of research, but close enough to make you feel silly that you’re in a hotel/sublet c. 2010 or AirBNB c. 2017.**

The Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society

Technology’s changed a lot about doing research, even since I started my dissertation work in 2010. I had a digital camera back then, but it wasn’t easy to get great shots without a tripod (which many archives don’t allow), and easy and relatively-inexpensive cloud backup for 45 gigs of photos wasn’t a thing. That meant reading documents and transcribing them in the archive. That’s still what I do in many archives, and what many of my colleagues do in all their archives, because photography is not allowed, or you have to pay for it, or you just can’t do it well without damaging the material.

It’s me and Charles Sumner! This is my favorite table at MHS and I get very put out when someone else is using it.

Today, I took 465 photographs, and transcribed all or part of a hundred letters. I’ll do the same tomorrow and every day through Saturday, by which point my body will be bent into a permanent hunch. Then when I get home, I will go back to the reading, and the writing, while I also read the thousands of pages of letters I photographed and think about how they add to and change the book I’m writing.


Gratuitous cross-hatch writing shot! This is actually one of the clearer versions of this technique in the collections I’m working in. Many of them are on thinner paper.

All the while, I’m also thinking about the courses I’m teaching in the fall. I need to revise lessons, readings, and assignments, and start thinking about the new course I’m teaching in the spring.

So that’s what I’m doing this summer. And I’ll keep doing it all when school starts again. I’ll just add the teaching back in and try to keep all the plates spinning.***


Every academic at the end of August. Actually this is a really optimistic portrait, but I couldn’t find a GIF with all the plates falling in succession and the plate spinner cutting her hand on the shards trying to clean it up.

*I know that TT folk don’t live in a land of milk and honey. But as a contingent worker I get nothing for research, so I think it’s fair for me to say that’s a different experience. Because of a paperwork mixup, I lost library access, email access, and health insurance this summer. It’s different down here.

**Yes, colleagues whose archives are further away/in another country, I hear you and I see you and I recognize that your challenges are different and often greater than mine. I am in no way trying to say I am the most beleaguered.

***There is also service work to keep programs/departments/colleges/universities running. I do departmental stuff all year round, but that’s about it because I’m not permanent. TT people have more committees and things.

Related: Why don’t archivists digitize everything?