Posted on September 15, 2017 by Tia Lalani

Sociology professor Geraint Osborne explains what professors do when they’re not in the classroom teaching, holding office hours, and/or grading student work. Hint: it’s not just sipping mai tais on the beach.

By Geraint Osborne

Contrary to popular belief, most professors spend their summers engaging in research and teaching preparation for the year ahead.

Well, another summer is over and it’s back to school for students and teachers. While everyone complains about the end of summer, for some reason, many people think that teachers, and university professors, in particular, should not complain as much. It’s commonly thought that professors have been off for months and it’s about time they got back to work. In the public imagination, university professors are seen as being on vacation from the beginning of May until the end of August, which is far from the truth.

Let’s remember, that during the school year, most professors work substantially more than the standard 35-hour work week and spend many an evening—and often their weekends—with grading, class preparation, responding to student emails, and writing recommendation and reference letters. I suppose one could argue that this is essentially overtime for which they are well-compensated. Regardless, the end of the teaching year heralds the beginning of another kind of work, albeit one removed from the strict demands of teaching schedules, marking, and committee work. Essentially, professors engage in two types of work during the long summers: scholarly research and teaching preparation.

In terms of research, while we engage in some research throughout the year, the summers are especially crucial for preparing research grant applications, engaging in research and creative work, writing up research results, and presenting research findings at national and international conferences to share our research with others.  Research is an important aspect of our responsibilities, which we are required to do. But besides being expected to engage in such scholarly activity, most of us really enjoy plunging into our research not only because we find it inherently interesting and enjoyable, but also because it’s what makes us as scholars distinctive within academia. Also, research suggests that there is a synergy between good research and good teaching.

Good teaching requires a serious amount of preparation and the summer months are when professors overhaul their courses and determine what worked well and what did not. We are constantly designing the delivery of the course material, devising better assessment tools, and, most importantly, keeping up with the most current research in our teaching and research areas.

In order for our students to be taught effectively, professors have to be familiar with all the major developments in all of the courses that they teach. There is little time for keeping up-to-date with current research in the academic year when professors are teaching, holding office hours, and doing committee work. As such, the summer is the time to read, think, and assess new developments. Keeping current requires a significant amount of reading and thinking and the summer is when professors have time to do this. For many, it may not seem like work.  In a society characterized by “aliteracy” —that is, knowing how to read but choosing not to—reading is perhaps seen as alien, a waste of time, or a perverse luxury afforded those who have nothing better to do. But reading carefully and critically is certainly work!

As one of my colleagues who was raised on a farm put it, thinking that an academic doesn’t work in the summer is akin to thinking a farmer doesn’t work in the winter. For farmers, the winter is a busy time: there is equipment to be maintained, animals to be cared for, agricultural meetings to attend, and planning and marketing to be thought out well in advance of animal production and planting seasons. So, rather than thinking of professors as “returning to work” this fall, it’s more appropriate to view it as a shift in the focus of their labour. The focus and rhythms change, but the work remains.  As with most things in life, preparation is the key to success, and the summer is an important time of research and preparation. I hope our students in the fall and winter terms agree!


Geraint Osborne, Sociology, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on September 12, 2017. 

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