A Season Well Spent: The Myth of a Summer Break

I'll admit it: I breathed a little sigh of relief after this year's spring semester had come and gone, culminating with the fanfare and finality of Commencement. It's a natural response. For most of our lives within the Western educational tradition, we've cultivated an expectation that the stress of the academic calendar yields all at once into a three-month exhale when summer arrives. Yet anyone working in higher education these days understands that summer is no longer our "off-season" -- if it ever truly was. In this gap created by the standard two-semester system, students, faculty and administrators alike can find tremendous opportunity for innovation, for engagement, and for expansion. And this is ultimately a very good thing, particularly for smaller liberal arts institutions under fire to "prove their worth" amidst a sea change in academia.

Granted, the respite-based approach to summer is not an altogether bad response. Our bodies and our spirits need moments of Sabbath rest, and the flexibility of academic summer often makes it easier to set aside this time -- we may take vacations, rearrange our workdays, or pick up a new book. However, this change of pace can also be a catalyst for immense growth if we're willing to put some energy and strategy into it. Away from the week-to-week immediacy of the academic calendar, we may find it easier to zoom out: to think and plan more holistically, perhaps explore new techniques or perspectives. The fact that summer generally places less rigid expectations on an institution's time should galvanize us to use that time in more creative ways to benefit all levels of our community -- most importantly, our students, but also our faculty and neighbors.


Our students, of course, are attending college in the midst of a tremendous shift in higher education and in their prospective job market. Now, more than ever, it's important that we help make their summers work for them. Through useful and interesting summer course offerings, internships and service opportunities, institutions need to consistently add value and applicability to their students' college experience throughout the year. This summer at Gordon, for instance, we are offering on-campus, online and mixed-format classes in everything from art history to organic chemistry; we are teaching a theatre course in the UK and leading an economics seminar in China; we are coordinating internships on five continents; and we are sending student-led missions teams to serve abroad in four countries. These are essential experiences that contribute to a rich, holistic liberal arts education -- one that crosses boundaries between disciplines, between nations, and between seasons. They're the kinds of opportunities available precisely because of the freedom, flexibility and creativity that characterize a summer season well-spent.


We also recognize that summer is an important opportunity for our faculty to further their own research and scholarly work without the time constraints of a full course load. Institutions can do much to support this work, from creating stipends and financial incentives for summer research projects to pursuing more independent grants and sponsoring student research assistantships. As a faculty member at Rice University, I benefited enormously from the uninterrupted time afforded by the summer months in which I and my team of student researchers were able to collect and analyze interview data, to draft journal articles, and to plan the research project's next phase. Regardless of how we encourage the creativity and innovation of our faculty in their summer ventures, we know that the investment is an important one -- any good work they accomplish is ultimately a positive reflection on the institution as a whole.


This is a great time to introduce the broader community to some of the hallmark qualities of the institution. It's a matter of thinking not only about the distinctives we hope to showcase, but also the individuals we aspire to reach. Gordon does this in a number of ways, including wilderness education camps for area youths, professional licensure courses and workshops for music educators, academic conferences, and a leadership lab for exceptional high school students. For many prospective students, this summer will be their first encounter with Gordon College, and we'll get the chance to show them some of the very best our college has to offer. For others -- parents and community members -- it will be an occasion for Gordon to provide a meaningful service, make important local connections and build shared goodwill.

At the end of the day -- or the season -- perhaps the real opportunity here is to communicate something central to the philosophy of the liberal arts. While misperceptions abound regarding the ivory tower of higher education as an impractical exercise conducted in three-and-a-half-month spurts, we have a chance this summer to show that the scope and depth of a liberal arts education extends well outside the constraints of spring and fall semesters: The pursuit of knowledge, the preparation of leaders and the betterment of society never truly takes a break.