Often people who are not teachers are amazed by and envious of our mythical “summers off.” They don’t really understand why we need the time, and what we do during the summer. It seems to them, I guess, a vast expanse of free time.
Before becoming a full-time law professor, I was a litigator of complex cases in Federal Court. I tried cases for EPA, large construction firms, and major pharmaceutical companies. It was a stressful and tiring job to say the least. So when I switched to teaching full-time (I had been an adjunct in the ‘90s while practicing law) I was kind of stunned at how exhausted I was at the end of the academic year. Just completely tapped out.
And then I realized that this is as it should be. If I was going to leave an interesting and lucrative practice to do this service work and give back to the profession I had enjoyed being a part of – to help new lawyers be the best writers and ethical advocates they could be – then I had to “leave it all out on the field” so to speak. If I did that effectively, of course I would be exhausted at the end of the school year. Keeping up with a group of smart and motivated 25 year olds requires bringing your “A” game every day. Conducting the symphony that a great law school class can be requires nothing less.
Having experienced the particular type of exhaustion that comes with doing this job fully, it became apparent to me over a decade ago that I needed to develop an intentional practice to get recharged, settled, and ready to have a productive summer and prepare for the coming school year.
I hit upon the idea of an annual working retreat, and I do this every year without fail. I am lucky that my wife’s family has a small “Casita” in Santa Fe, a six-hour drive south from Denver, and that my wife supports this practice and keeps the ship afloat at home. I force myself to finish my grading before I go, but usually within two weeks of the end of the semester, I drive down there for a week. I pack two bins of reading I haven’t had a chance to do all year. I finish up my preparations for summer conferences (this summer I have four presentations at three conferences.) And I set out a plan for research and writing that I want to undertake over the summer and during the coming year.
The importance of having large chunks of uninterrupted time cannot be overstated. It really is a luxury, but one that must be used intentionally to maximize the benefits. In the busyness of the every day, it is hard to focus on one idea for very long, but on my working retreat I can do that. Instead of regulating the day in accordance with the needs of my family, I sleep until I wake up. I go for a long walk each day. The TV is never on and I rarely sample one of the many fabulous restaurants in Santa Fe, tempting as that is to do. Sometimes I go to a coffee shop to read and work, just for a change of venue. There is some rest, solitude, birdsong, and peace – yes - but also quite a bit of work. Even so, I always feel better when I return to Denver.
This summer I took my retreat in mid-late May. Since then, I have given two presentations at the Educating Advocates annual conference at Stetson Law School in Florida, and I have given a presentation during the Third Alliance for Experiential Learning’s conference at New York Law School in NYC. I have one more conference presentation this summer - this one at Georgetown Law: the Third LEX Conference with our partner law schools from Russia. At the Casita this summer, I finished a detailed outline for the book I am writing - a followup to Law School 2.0 - and worked on three chapters of that book.
My colleagues on the law school faculty spend their time in similar ways during the summer. They present their work at conferences, they write articles, they read, and use the larger blocks of time in the summer for creative pursuits. It's what we all do.
Soon enough, it will be time to get back to work for the school year. I will teach this year in the Summer Preview course, starting August 1. The academic summer is full of activity of a different kind, and the rhythm of the day is different as well. But it isn’t a vast expanse of time off as some of our non-teaching friends suppose. There is always much to do before the school year begins again in earnest.
(A shorter version of this post was published in the AALS LRRW Section's Summer 2016 Newsletter).