Summer Study: Research in the Off-Season

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While my official title is Associate Professor, from September thru early May I see myself as simply “teacher.” As full-time faculty at a community college I teach five sections each semester, which puts me in contact with upwards of 250 students every academic year. My teaching load is 80% survey courses aimed at first and second-year college students. It’s rare that I have an opportunity to think about research -- that element of our work that often differentiates the so-called professor from the teacher-- until this time of year, the summer months, when I’m simultaneously rethinking the previous year and planning for the one to come.


    This summer I’m giving more thought than usual to research. I’m in the very early stages of a somewhat directionless project. Since the semester ended in May I have read a half-dozen narratives from the field and spent countless hours scrolling digital finding aids to determine which archival materials are where. I’m up for a sabbatical in the very near future so the planning needs to start now. My solo efforts this summer have made me nostalgic for “Dissertation Seminar” many years ago. Looking back on that weekly two-hour meeting with fellow graduate students I realize how valuable it was to have the steady guidance of my late dissertation advisor, Dr. Carol Petillo (Boston College), who would assign weekly tasks and deadlines designed to move us forward in our research.


I vividly recall as a graduate student assuming that my career would look much like those of my professors who published regularly and taught a 2-2 course load. The road I’ve traveled as faculty at a community college, however, could not have been more different from that of my graduate mentors.


And so it is that I begin each academic year with a plan: on a given morning/afternoon/evening of every week I will commit myself entirely to my research. I make a silent pledge that I will not grade, or prep, or respond to school-related emails during that time. I’m faithful to my pledge through about the second week of school when queries from students, colleagues, and administrators begin to fill my inbox and I decide, reluctantly, that everything else is more pressing than my research. Before I know it, my pledge has fallen completely by the wayside and I’m again daydreaming about summer break when I will resume my research.


My question to the wider Macmillan Community this week is how do I break this cycle? How can I make this next academic year one in which I’m successful in the classroom and productively following through on research goals?


Is the solution really as simple as better managing my time? Many faculty have discussed strategies for dealing with the time crunch, offering countless suggestions that I would no doubt would benefit from adopting (see, for example, these articles published at California State University’s Community Commons and Inside Higher Ed ).


Or am I just being too hard on myself? Is it unrealistic to think that I can teach a 5-5 course load and complete substantial research at the same time? Perhaps it is simply time, after ten years of failed silent pledges, for me to accept that for faculty like myself, whose primary assignment is teaching, the only truly productive space for research is summer break.


Maybe it’s time to embrace that reality and view it as a positive: to see the summer months as a much-needed break from the classroom and an opportunity to transport the teacher in me back to the research and study that molded the student in me into the historian.









About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.