Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Something you might wonder about the life of an academic-in-formation is whether I get summers “off.” Well, yes and no. More “yes” than “no,” really. Let me explain.

I don’t have a full course load in the summers (thank goodness!), but the fellowship that enables me and Kevin to eat (thank goodness again) does require me to register for a summer class. This is not exactly a hardship, as you might have guessed, especially compared to the kind of load I carry during the academic year. It allows for a more relaxed, summer-like pace, which is certainly a perk of this profession, admittedly one that I enjoy.

Something I’ve learned (and re-learned) about myself, though, is that I don’t tend to thrive without a structured routine. I’ve also learned that I prefer to pour my energy into a few specific things rather than diffusing it into a long list of commitments. So, I approached this summer with the hope of implementing a “realistically ambitious” structure that would keep me on track mentally while also affording me time to recuperate following a taxing first year of doctoral study.

The Plan is two-pronged:

1. Languages. Grad students (in the humanities, at least; I can’t speak for other fields) traditionally tackle languages in the summer, and I’m no exception. At Yale, I worked on Hebrew and Latin in the summers. Last summer, when I had first moved to St. Louis, I worked on German. This summer, I’m learning a new language and continuing work on two others:

  • French: I’m learning to read it, not speak it. A nifty perk of academia is that one can get away without actually having to pronounce and converse in a given language. You just have to learn the grammar well enough to be able to (armed with a dictionary) blunder through books and articles written by French, German, or other scholars in your field. It isn’t as bad as it sounds, and it’s actually surprising how quickly you can dive into, say, a newspaper article after a week of grammar and vocabulary drilling.
  • Greek: Ancient, not modern. I’ve actually been studying it for 5+ years now, but my reading isn’t as fluent as I’d like it to be at this stage. With the added motivation of my program’s qualifying Greek exam coming up in the fall, I hope to put in a good block of translation each week.
  • Syriac: Because the common languages apparently weren’t enough for me (!?), I started informally studying Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic, akin to Hebrew) with a handful of other students last fall. Only tiny communities actually speak Syriac anymore, and the only people who study it, are, typically, historians of early Eastern Christianity. Like yours truly!

Contrary to what the foregoing might have led you to believe, I don’t actually consider myself to have a natural aptitude for languages. I can do well at them, but that owes more to a set of skills I am consciously developing than to native ability. I often enjoy it, but it can certainly be a chore, too.

I said there was a second prong, didn’t I?

2. Reading. Specifically, starting on the required Second-Year Reading List I’ll be examined on next May. The motivation for this becomes clear when I tell you that the list totals roughly 9,000 pages! Also, I am hoping that in the process, a potential dissertation topic will start to come into focus.

Again, bibliophile though I have always been, it’s far from effortless for me to spend half my day reading, say, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. It takes discipline (which I’m not consistently summoning on a daily basis yet!), but it’s my job, and it’s what’s forming me into (I hope) an honest-to-goodness scholar.

So, that’s roughly how I’m dividing my days and weeks this summer: between language-learning, review and translation, and heavy scholarly reading. Whether that sounds enviable or nightmarish to you, I can’t guess, but I can tell you that on an average day, the reality falls somewhere in between. At any rate, if you’ve ever wondered what “summer vacation” looks like for a novice academic, now you know!

1 comment:

  1. I sit here staring, feeling somewhat intimidated, pondering the wisdom of responding to the writings of an academic scholar and find had I a witty or wise verse to post I'd feel more adequate, however I'll stumble along simply by typing another well known utterance of Samuel Rutherford who during a long, lean winter once said to his companion, "Do you think MacGregor would miss one of his coows?" This of course not one of his more famous statements, nor one he held up as a beacon of his integrity but an honest statement to a half starved man. Whether Rutherford ever acted upon this question has been left to our own interpretations of the man, as for myself, I think not, I believe he had self imposed structure in his life (you didn't think I could ever link this to your actual posting, did you?) and along with that assurance, knew that pissing with the MacGregor Clan was very much akin to suicide.