On the Privilege of Summer Vacation in the Professorial Life

For the past many years, as each summer begins, and I have the privilege of sitting quietly with the summer ahead of me and imagining what should be accomplished when, but all the while able to float these accomplishings in the balmy soup of summer relaxation, and then I remember that this is a privilege, and a rare one.

One of the blessings of the professorial calendar, especially for those whose employment is relatively secure, is that patch of untended grass called summer break: three months and more mostly free of what we do from September through May, and a time to let the previous school year recede, notice the minerals, animals, and driftwood that remain on shore, and take a meandering walk of one's own, whether that walk be rest or research.


Such an academic "sabbath" should probably be the norm for all professors, and indeed for all teachers who work something like a traditional school year, even though many are not afforded it or cannot afford it. (Lots of people I meet think that summer break means that professors work one-fourth less than most working adults, but I think most professors work at least 25% more than a normal workweek during the school year, so the time more than evens out overall.) Indeed, we can and should go much further: all workers deserve a regular sabbatical -- a universal need for renewal in life, love, and work for which the Jewish and Christian sabbaths can still stand as distant and intriguing symbols, however archaically taught and practiced in our society.

And so I try to meet my summer break each year by imagining how I would like it to go, where I might like to be personally and professionally by September, and working up a rough schedule to orient my weeks. As a spouse and parent, the opportunity to relax more deeply with my family plays an ever larger role as summers go by, and pre-folds the schedule before any real "work" gets written in.

But what are those tasks outside of family and friendships? Musically, I am in the slow process of re-entering the band scene. I have just begun auditioning for bands in the New York City area, and expect that process to go on for many months. After two years in New York, my family and I are settled enough for me to descend another level into the rock underworld. It has been two years since my last band (in San Jose, California), and I'm almost ready for the next stage of active musician life. (My participation in rock culture through fandom (enjoying live and recorded music, discussing it, having it influence my life) has continued unabated during the California-New York transition.)

Theologically, there are some discrete tasks and then there is the planning for larger projects. I am giving a paper at Oxford (at a conference sponsored by Birkbeck, University of London) in July on faith in everyday life, which will then be edited for publication in a book coming out in 2011, and beyond that I have three book reviews for journals due later this summer. In the midst of meeting (or just slightly overriding) these deadlines, I need to be half-mindful of a primary project, a secondary project, and two loose tethers.

The primary project is a book on "secular music" and "sacred theology." In it, I am planning to explore how secular music practices pressure and structure spiritual life in our culture, and what theological sense can be made of this important aspect of contemporary life. The secondary project is a book I would like to write on a theology of the Pantheon, arguing that a theological appreciation of the architecture and history of the Pantheon is productive for Christianity in secular contexts. This would be taking off from the theology of Pantheon I began to develop at the end of my most recent book, Witness to Dispossession: The Vocation of a Post-Modern Theologian.

The two loose tethers include: "secular Catholicism," a notion I have introduced and begun to parse in recent work, and which will appear in an academic article in 2011, and which I would like to further develop in other writing; and the second is the notion of "practical theology," taking this discourse beyond a preoccupation with the propriety of Christian practice and ecclesial maintenance, toward a deeper understanding of what practice does to and for Christian identity, which I want to try to do through a postfoundationally informed, genealogically committed, and psychoanalytically aware account of both theology and practice. These are loose tethers, because I am not sure where they might culminate: as personal musings, as lectures, in teaching, as articles or essays, as books, or -- as ever -- as felt projects in my own life.

So the summer has a lot to take from me, and a lot to give. Back in high school, a good friend and I started naming our summers afterward -- usually during September or October -- as a way of acknowledging the distinctive character that each summer seems to take on. He and I still occasionally check in about what our summers have become, and when we do, I think again that I am the recipient of a remarkable gift, to have so many summers to myself in such a short life in which the summers will one day stop coming. Naming the summers is an anticipation of losing them, but also a rehearsal for really living them.

Tom Beaudoin

Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States

Cross-posted, through the tall grass, to Rock and Theology

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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 7 months ago
Enjoy your summer, Tom - you are indeed lucky!
I am particularly interested in your work and thoughts on "secular Catholicism" and "practical theology".  In his later years Merton touched upon these ideas, perhaps particularly exploring the thought of Bonhoeffer which held that the Christian should let go of myths of the past and become an adult - forget religious and inward piety and build the secular city.  Merton offers much critique of this kind of extreme faith, but also gives it its due, and explores why it would be a valid (and correcting) response to modern times.
It reminds me of a more apophatic and mysterious way of knowing God.  Definitely not for everyone, but for those who are drawn to this path, not to be discounted as atheistic or "God-less".
Anyway, keep us posted!


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