Getting The Mail: Part 1

Yesterday I was having coffee with a friend when I looked at the clock and said, “I have to go get the mail for my program. I need to get it before the other offices close at five.” This occasioned a clumsy explanation of the fact that my program is currently without an administrative assistant and has been for a few weeks which means that no one has been consistently picking up the program’s mail. It got so out of hand last week that the campus mail folks pointedly moved the delivery box from its regular space to in front of the door of the admin’s office. Since that day, I’ve been checking the mail to make sure it isn’t piling up and making the jobs of the campus mail staff more difficult.

In my conversation yesterday, I was struck by the fact that I couldn’t get away from the use of the phrase, “I have to,” because, in fact, I don’t have to. The first question I asked myself is if I was simply using “I have to” as imprecise phrasing to mean that “I will” or “I want to.” No, I genuinely feel that I have to do this thing. The next question, then, is why do I feel that I have to do it?

I figured out the answer, but I want to be careful in talking about it lest I inadvertently contribute to the (wrong) idea that academics don’t work in the summer. For those of you that live with or are career academics, you can skip the next section. For those of you that are not career academics or haven’t spent a lot of time with them the following is a rough breakdown of the types of academic work.

In general, the work that career academics such as professors do falls into three categories*:

  • Research/Writing–reading what other people have written on a topic, summarizing what others have written, assessing the gaps in what others have said on a given issue, pouring through an archive (if you’ve ever been tasked with sorting through the photos and papers of an older relative who is moving to a smaller place or has passed then you know most of what archival work is like), analyzing media, coming up with a theory to explain why something happens. In general, the research and writing part of academic work is, as Winnie the Pooh would say, “think, think, think,” and putting those thoughts in writing. The archives, books, media, and other stuff come in as one tries to figure what to think about and what others have thought about.
  • Administration/Service–this is stuff that most white collar professionals do and women who work in white collar jobs will be particularly familiar with it. This is serving on committees, organizing the beginning and end of the year parties, doing internal reviews, representing your department to other departments, negotiating with higher-ups for more money or resources, trying to drum up some good press for your division–all that stuff.
  • Teaching–putting together a syllabus, finding readings and other materials to assign, lecturing, leading discussion, grading assignments, meeting with students, and so on.

During the academic year, the bulk of work professors and graduate students do fall into the last two categories. In the summer months, with fewer classes and even fewer on-campus classes, most committees disperse. Academics often try to cram the bulk of their research into the summer months. For example, my partner is a historian who relies on visits to archives to find the materials he needs to “think, think, think.” Thanks to online catalogs he goes in to each archive with a good idea of what he wants to look at but the real thrill of the archives is finding unexpected material that helps an idea or argument fit into place. Just ask any historian. For my friends in sociology and anthropology, summer is a time to visit the communities and locations they research. All of this work takes time, the kind of time academics only have during the summer when the need not be on campus for teaching or administrative work for weeks.

And here’s where this comes back to the mail for my program. Most people are gone. Down the hall from my office is the Center for Religion in Chinese Society. Because the CRCS collaborators are based in a different time zone they are often here at all hours. However, now that it’s summer on our campus even they have restricted their working hours to a more moderate 9 to 5. Although it’s technically the first week of the summer session, faculty and grad students have been leaving campus since finals week as final papers or even final exams are done through Blackboard without requiring a physical presence.

With faculty and grad students slowly evacuating campus for their summer research (and some time with families) and no program admin at the moment the mail piles up as  the campus mail staff don’t have the option of working remotely for the summer months since the mail itself doesn’t take a break.

Personally, the people I grew up with were more likely to be delivering the campus mail. Summer vacations weren’t really a thing my family did, nor did we do the type of work that could be done from home. I have a frustration passed-on through generations of non-exempt workers whose jobs get fouled up because the exempt staff are away. So, I have to get the mail.

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