Annie Berke

Assistant Professor of Film at Hollins University

A Summer Reading List

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If you just finished your first year as a faculty member, chances are you’re feeling a bit tired right about now. And the same may be true if you just finished your 10th or 20th year of college teaching.

I fall under the first category. But whatever your status, the academic year is over and your time is once again your own — or at least, so family members will inform you when you go home to visit. (“Teachers have the summers off, right?”) As behind as you may be on your optimistic/clueless writing deadlines for 2016-17, let's face it: You can't be tapping away at your screen 14 hours a day this summer, and not just because the glare poolside makes it difficult to write on a laptop.

You probably got into this profession because you like to read, or at least you used to. Now is the time to read things you want to read, not just things you have to read. As I am still in hyper-pedagogue mode, I offer below a suggested summer reading list, organized by genre. It’s aimed at those of us who just finished our first exhausting, enlightening, aggravating, and inspiring year as junior faculty members — and at any other Ph.D.s looking for inspiration and respite in the months before academic 2017-18 gets under way.

Genre No. 1: Productivity Tomes

I imagine some of you are already rolling your eyes. If this genre is anathema to you, feel free to skip to Genre No. 2. For the rest of us, the summer months are a good time to rethink how we work and how we would ideally like to work.

If you’re like me, you have accrued plenty of unread books on productivity from friends (or from your best friend, Amazon Prime) over the months and years. In the thick of the academic year — especially if you have a heavy teaching load — reading this kind of literature will feel like a thumb directly in your weary eye. Now is the time to dive in to those tomes.

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Two suggestions right off the bat: Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members (or, really, any of his books on academic-career issues) and Paul J. Silvia's How to Write a Lot. Depending on which you pick up, these books are short and/or skimmable and will make you at least feel like a hyper-competent, enviable grown-up on the road to tenure. Among their most helpful advice:

  • Use small chunks of time to achieve small tasks; they really do add up. That applies to both teaching and writing.
  • Join a writing group. Communal motivation/shaming works.
  • Experiment with free writing.
  • As Silvia writes: “The secret is the regularity [of your writing], not the number of days or hours.”
  • Google the “pomodoro writing technique,” and take a picture of yourself doing it, because this method will change your life, and you will want it documented.

You probably knew at least some of that, but consult these books anyway. Think of it like making a vision board, putting you on track in subtle, micro ways without it being full-blown magic.

Genre No. 2: Big Picture Pedagogy

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It can be hard to channel the calm, resplendent educator persona — think Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds — during the academic year when you are in the thick of grading, responding to emails, and attending committee meetings. Sure you will have to spend some time this summer designing (or updating) syllabi and Googling “low-stakes” writing assignments while you watch reruns of Friends.

But also take time out to think big picture about who you are as a teacher and what matters to you. Do it now while you have the mental bandwidth to absorb and reflect. Two strong contenders in this genre:

  • What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain is worth your time. As James M. Lang, a professor of English at Assumption College and writer of The Chronicle’s On Course column on teaching, wrote of Bain’s 2004 book: “It remains for me the single most inspiring and thought-provoking work in the field. Bain's deep analysis of the teaching attitudes and practices of a small cohort of outstanding teachers, buttressed by research from the learning sciences and narrated in lively prose, provides multiple models for college educators to reflect upon, discuss, and emulate.”
  • I also recommend Valerie Young's manifesto on imposter syndrome, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women. In teaching a first-year seminar at a women's college and reading Young's book, I was reminded of what I have in common with my students: a paralyzing, and infuriatingly gendered fear of failure. Rereading it makes me feel closer already to a cohort of 18-year-olds I haven't even met yet.

Genre No. 3: Spoofing the Academy

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This reading will hopefully counterbalance the painful earnestness of the first two categories. Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim is a long-time favorite of the literary set, but check out some female authors too, like Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe, Jane Smiley's Moo, or, if we expand this category to “humorous academic memoir,” Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist.

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There are plenty more out there. You can find suggestions on Ms. Mentor’s annual academic reading list. Seek out other titles in this genre, and tweet them at me. I am currently reading and enjoying Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, a biting satire composed entirely of letters of recommendation.

Genre No. 4: Feed Your Soul

Good lord, you are also a human being, and you should take the summer to remember that. Are you a person who will read any novel that is being called the next Gone Girl? Do you like long, excessively detailed biographies about movie stars like Barbara Stanwyck? Do you read and reread Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace, because it teaches you super chef-y tricks that make you feel you are one with your kitchen/universe?

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Remind yourself often this summer: You are not your course evaluations, nor are you your number of peer-edited journal articles. You are a thrill-seeking, Hollywood trivia-loving foodie — or whatever version of that makes sense for you.

You ran/walked/crawled across the finish line of the spring semester, so celebrate, sleep, get outside, and — if you like — read. Please share your own summer reading suggestions in the comments below.

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