I’m a passionate advocate of summer school and, I confess, an old hand. As an undergraduate, I enrolled with great excitement in my first summer class 35 years ago. As a postgraduate 10 years later, I taught my first summer course. Now I teach Theatrical London at King’s College London every summer.
So over three and half decades, as both student and professor, what key advantages and disadvantages have I observed? Why, in my view, have the benefits always outweighed any potential shortcomings?
First and most obvious, summertime is typically warmer, sunnier, and drier, enabling more excursions, field trips, and seminars outdoors. As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I really appreciated learning in the open air, sitting on the grass, and swapping ideas. It helped open up conversations and seemed to open minds.
Second, because of this more relaxed informal atmosphere, I got to know my classmates better, as well as my tutors. I’ll never forget my Intercultural Communication module, when the distinguished Professor Michael Prosser arrived in khaki shorts and knee-high socks! Always friendly and self-effacing, “Mr. Prosser” literally modeled the preeminence of great ideas over high fashion, effective discussions over coat-and-tie formality.
Third, as opposed to a regular student workload of three or four modules over a three- or four-month semester, a three-week summer school course allows concentrated study of a single subject. In our internet age of shortened attention spans, this intense focus is refreshing and demanding, stretching our capacities to ascertain and assess subtle complexities of subject matter.
On the other hand, if the subject is not well crafted, tedium can set in, risking burn out. As an inexperienced young instructor in the early 1990s, I convened a summer course on the arts and literature of HIV/AIDS. Utterly worthwhile, this topic was nonetheless deeply depressing before the advent of antiretroviral therapies, since for most, diagnosis meant sure death. Indeed, despite the heroism of a select few doctors, epidemiologists, writers, artists, and activists, the death tolls over this period were staggering—and potentially intellectually paralyzing.
However, fourth, this kind of deep engagement, I’ve learned, works especially well with inherently diversified topics. For instance, British playwriting and London stage productions address such a broad range of themes as to perpetually rejuvenate readers and challenge audiences. This means that in addition to the traditional concerns with dramatic form, poetic language, stage performance, and the like, Theatrical London examines the varied, complex even puzzling topics of the critically-acclaimed plays we read and see, including gender, sexuality, ethnic conflict, nuclear warfare, and terrorism, to name just a few.
In sum, I’ve found that the unique combination of concentrated single-subject study in a sunny relaxed environment works wonders. Whereas the campus proper may be a bit calmer than usual (providing excellent quiet spaces for reading and research), the streets of London are never busier, always beckoning to bright students.
Immersive. Intensive. Informal. Ideal!