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My Last Summer Session


ISSUE:  Summer 1989

Summer session is one of the smaller academic territories. It used to be limited to a handful of obsessive or otherwise needy students and professors, most driven by some imperative never to let any period go unproductive of credit or cash. On the whole, I’ve enjoyed summer session most of my academic life. Among other things, it was an occasion for working holidays. Lately, though, it has become like a newly discovered mountain or seaside retreat crowded with those seeking cheap vacations.

I began to take summer classes toward the end of high school when I couldn’t find a job. One summer I learned touch typing; my first year at The City College of New York, I completed a calculus course. As a graduate student at Columbia University, I took concentrated summer courses to satisfy requirements calling for a patiently developed mastery, Old English and History of the English Language, for example. The intensive, daily immersion in such dense subjects kept delicately developed insights from slipping away. I remember afternoons getting lost in my reading in Butler Library and suddenly realizing I was sitting in a pool of sweat.

I treated myself as well at Columbia to the pleasure of sitting before celebrated professors from other campuses, E. Talbot Donaldson of Yale, Samuel Holt Monk of Minnesota. With Donaldson, I enjoyed the luxury of reading Chaucer simply as literature since he took for granted that we had mastered the gritty linguistics of Middle English during the regular year. In Monk’s early morning class I had my first insight into the dependence of Dryden on Milton, a glimmer that became my doctoral dissertation.

Professors eagerly welcomed summer stipends during the long leaner years of the profession, which are only just now receding. Many still do, even though the pay is usually exploitative. Many campuses still unabashedly use summer stipends to swell out embarrassing annual salaries. Some do not permit themselves the luxury of inviting prominent visitors since they feel obligated to keep summer assignments for their regular staff. Letters of appointment used to emphasize the ready availability of summer teaching, and some still do, of course, since such teaching is routinely thought of as lagniappe.

I remember vividly and ruefully my own first summer as an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. It proved memorably pinching: I was beaten out for an appointment by a neck-and-neck colleague who had seniority in the department by virtue of having received her doctorate several days earlier than I had done.

Few campuses pretend that a summer course is genuinely equivalent to a normal one for all the careful equating of class minutes. (Campuses on the quarter system, of course, include summer, as another division of the academic year, although here, too, some do not treat summer as quite equal in rigor to the other seasons. Under semester routines, summer is always extra.) The conventional 16-week semester is truncated for the summer to eight weeks or fewer, and some campuses run two sessions. Professors assign fewer books, shorter papers, hold fewer and shorter conferences.

But classes do meet more frequently, sometimes daily, which is rare during regular sessions, and for longer periods, 75 or 100 minutes instead of the more standard 50 minutes. As orthodox Freudian practitioners like to argue, you get more out of five exposures in one week than one exposure each for five weeks (although obviously you can’t possibly read, say, as many novels over a summer term).

A group-session, team-like, family esprit develops in most summer classes. Teachers and students usually commit themselves to one course only, and quickly realize that they’re all in this intimate, intense, uncomfortable enterprise together. The air is heavy with heat; the usual academic focus on a subject is compacted even more; everyone gets to know everyone. Teacher and student find themselves committed to the democracy imposed by the general informality of summer. This is how it must’ve been in medieval seminars or reading Torah with the rabbi. (I’ve never studied or taught summers in a continuously and comfortably air-conditioned room: this person or that opens a window, adjusts the controls, maintenance people make repairs according to their own priorities.)

Everyone is free summers of the social and athletic distractions of the regular year. Professors have no official meetings to attend (often one defense for keeping salaries low). They usually teach subjects they know well, minimizing preparation; they can pull together writing or research projects, try out different syllabi; younger ones can take over courses that senior faculty teach during the regular year.

When I did get to teach the next summer at New Mexico, I found myself doing Chaucer, not one of my specialties. The man originally supposed to teach the course, the acting chairman of the department, had left abruptly to become head at another campus. I was both intimidated and enchanted by the challenge. One day a week I worked with the class on Middle English grammar, another on pronunciation, and on the other three on the texts, alternating Nevil Coghill’s translation of The Canterbury Tales with Chaucer’s original. I asked students to find other translations and versions, including the efforts by Dryden and Pope, and we used to compare these with one another and with the original. We all learned something. (That summer, too, I got my first taste of academic administration, being appointed acting chairman when the several senior persons turned down the honor. I learned less from that experience.)

Another summer I dictated in class much of the rough draft of a book on modern drama. I discovered that one student was taking down in short hand my more extended remarks. I asked her to make a copy for me, which I then used to shape finished chapters. Summer, when distractions are minimal and focus maximum, can be a nearly ideal time to integrate teaching with research or criticism.

The building of friendships is inevitably intensified during the summer. That Chaucer summer I got to know several Dominican nuns who were stationed at a parochial school in Henderson, Nevada, just north of Las Vegas. They returned for several more sessions, and one afternoon my wife and I invited for sherry the three I had got to know best. They arrived, giggling, in their dramatic white full summer garb (those were the days before optional mufti) in an open red convertible they had borrowed from a parishioner of the local church to which they were attached. When I returned to the living room after pouring the sherry, I saw them examining the fabric of their habits with my wife.

One wrote her master’s thesis under my direction on Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “terrible” sonnets; another wrote a series of fiercely candid short stones about the process of becoming a nun. One was about the happily wine-soaked bishop who at the ceremony for new nuns, when he was to rechristen them with the names they had chosen for their new lives, reversed “Sister Frederick Barbarossa” and “Sister Angelica,” giving the first to a frail, poetic, and ethereal young woman and the second to a stolid, earthy, red-faced one. Such naming is irrevocable, and, to cancel their new names, the nuns would have had to leave the order, an alternative their distressed Mother Superior movingly held out to them.

The long summer interval, sometimes starting before June and ending in early September, grants students and professors surcease from the pressures of the rest of the year. It reduces early burnout on both sides of the lectern. It serves as a day off does, as a time to pause, reflect, rest, do something different, however minimally. Summer session can offer a kind of little sabbatical.

Before annual salaries became - more equitable and research grants more numerous, summer teaching provided professors natural opportunities for travel, family holidays, and even a return to the intensive, functional reading they did as graduate students. The summer I taught as a visitor at New York’s Queens College, during my New Mexico tenure, I was able again to use the holdings at Butler Library on the Columbia campus and those at New York’s main public library. I also saw productions of plays I was teaching and writing about. In Vermont, the family lived in the farm home of a professor of agricultural engineering, and the children harvested squash and tomatoes and fished in a pond on the property. We renewed and enriched old friendships. We got to know Burlington and Stowe, where a lot of tennis was being played, and the lovely modest hills of Vermont. We traveled both times by car, to Vermont swinging up into Canada and down the New England coast.

All campuses during the summer are havens of greenery, some more, some less, and they all seem spacious and depopulated, with placid vistas and spots for shaded retreat. The libraries are unpressured, the reading and reference rooms welcome users, the dark stacks hold virtually every catalogued item. All summer campuses offer something of the cloistered ambiance of California’s Huntington Library and Art Gallery, where I happily passed a period of research and recreation. Many campuses take advantage of the pleasant evenings to provide community activities, classic films, concerts, plays, lectures, fireworks on the Fourth; a standard summer circuit now blankets the country.

In addition to offering standard courses in condensed form, many campuses run one- or two-week “workshops” by published writers for hopeful ones, by now a small seasonal industry. Summer is a good period for experimenting with new courses, with very short programs, “mini-mesters,” one campus calls them, and with remedial preparation for regular courses. Columbia, as I indicated, invited prominent professors from other universities not only to enrich the year-round provender but also to scout them for possible appointment, and to give the visitors themselves, as part of the negotiation for an offer, a chance to look over the situation. In recent years, summer has become a prime time for campuses to sponsor “institutes,” “centers,” and other similarly designated enterprises supported mostly by federal grants. These address themselves narrowly to a particular objective, acquainting high school teachers with “state of the art” teaching of Shakespeare, for example.

Although many persons who themselves teach during the regular academic year do much of their work for advanced credit during the summer, students, teachers, and administrators rarely take the session all that seriously. Fewer and fewer distinguished or senior faculty teach their specialties. Administrators regard the whole operation with benign tolerance if not neglect. Some make plain that they are concerned first with meeting costs, since the session is generally expected to be self-supporting, encouraging large classes taught by the least expensive faculty. Few disciplines offer arcane subjects, however fundamental, which attract few registrants, even though many students and professors believe that summer is an especially good time to study them. Fledgling lower administrators bemuse hardened summer veterans when they solemnly announce plans to select instructors on other bases than seniority to upgrade their programs.

Most marked, I think, has been the changing character of summer undergraduates. Increasingly, the session has become a refuge for many who simply want their credits as cheaply as possible, nothing else. To save time and living expense, students have always used summers to satisfy proforma prerequisites (I took as many education courses as I could summers to qualify for high school teaching). But now many students make plain that they take hard content courses in the summer because they expect to get them at discount.

For the first time last summer, I discovered more than the usual one or two undergraduates relying on those mechanical summaries that doggedly (and uneconomically) squeeze out all delight from works of literature. Surely it cannot take much longer to read and retain Shaw’s Pygmalion than to absorb the dull, mealy condensation commonly offered? Some students alternated with one another in doing the reading and in taking class notes. Extreme, bizarre result: “Shaw’s story Pig William is about dolling up to pass as a dutch fair lady.” (It took a moment to figure out “dutch”: “duchess.”) More students than I can ever recall haggled, crassly and without shame, about reading and writing assignments and about scores on objective quizzes; more spouted back on essays casual and ironic comments as though they were gospel. They disconcerted the majority as they did me.

Non-academic forces also have emerged summers to sabotage teaching and despoil campus tone. Sensibly enough, campus managers push building and refurbishing projects when students are away, but instead of scheduling these between sessions, say, they seem to do so during the peak of summer term, surely not deliberately, just carelessly. Once I had to suspend a class when a drill began piercing from below the floor of the hall where I was lecturing; once, I was startled by the face of a workman outside the window of my second-story classroom as he hammered at a downspout.

Things have got especially bad the last few seasons on my expanding campus. The area in front of the English department building, for example, is torn up and restored every few months as though it’s become a laboratory for an engineering course. Of course, the snarl of seemingly incessant mowing afflicts every campus. Throughout the last sweltering six-week session, the windows in our corner classroom remained open as we waited for the air conditioning to be fixed; several times I found I was shouting over the shattering rat-a-tat of jack-hammers on concrete and asphalt and the grinding of trucks. Massive construction and minor renovation dominated the library areas. Evenings and weekends, the expanses again became idyllically sylvan and deserted.

Like other fringe territories in American higher education, summer session fills a vacuum. Evening and extension programs for adults or for students with inadequate entrance credentials, the handful that coach one to pass medical or law school qualifying examinations, “universities” that give credit for work experience or for work done by correspondence may meet legitimate if marginal needs and strain to maintain respectable standards; more often they respond only to a demand for college credits or degrees exclusively aimed to meet job specifications. One institution offers a “Master of General Administration,” which sounds like the difficult Master of Business Administration degree that’s become a fashionable and indispensable prerequisite for corporate advancement. Another, which advertises that it is accredited, offers to give ad hoc courses that are geographically convenient and oriented toward your capacities. The higher education establishment almost totally ignores such demands.

We can with good will and minimal ingenuity, and without compromise, satisfy the solid clientele that patronizes these mostly independent small businesses by integrating their relevant, acceptable offerings into the established processes of colleges and universities.

We can readily extend the daytime schedule, for example, to include evenings and weekends; we can more systematically absorb summer session into the regular academic year (simply by melding its financing with the annual budget and allowing regular faculty to volunteer, with appropriate allowances, for summer assignment as part of their regular duties: we should never, in any case, put second-class faculty before students); we can mesh on-the-job experience with classroom theory and history (as some law, social work, journalism, and medical schools already do). Alert, responsive administrators have, one time, one way, one place or another, made stabs at all of these.

But it is always easier to drift, to allow important territories of our higher education to pull away from the mainland. Immediate, conventional pressures (of standards, enrollments, funding) continue to be so compelling, we don’t bring ourselves to worry practically about less demanding and more distant ones. What is bad for summer session points to what is bad for higher education in general: neglect of our smaller treasures and traditions; continued downgrading of basic teaching in favor of bureaucracy, maintenance, construction, and transient, tangential, but glamorous projects that provide quick funding and publicity; incapacity or reluctance to examine definitively performance or objectives of a program; indifference to challenges and routine opportunities.

Summer session, like the other small, peripheral enclaves, will no doubt survive in whatever form, even flourish like some of them, but not fulfilling its most positive potential. Without thoughtful, benevolent intervention, its continuing decline seems inevitable.

For all of the delights and rewards of summer session, it is not ever an unrelievedly joyous experience while one is immersed in it. Even at best, the unrelenting daily class meetings can become oppressive, claustrophobic. When the bonuses of summer diminish, the teaching and the learning can degenerate into chores, especially for those who temperamentally cannot slacken their customary routines and give themselves to the easy living natural to summer time. I used to welcome summer teaching. I enjoyed the discipline, the nearly therapeutic satisfaction of yielding to the process and content of the teaching.

Last summer, however, I expended more spirit, time, and energy coping with distraction than I have ever done, and so did my good students, still a majority. I began counting the days, no longer fully anticipating, or forgetting myself in, the repetitive renewal and involvement of teaching. I expect I have taught my last summer session.

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