Summer Time, Liminal Time

Central Texas Wildflowers
Central Texas Wildflowers

“Do you teach?” “Do you work during the summer?” The two most common questions I hear when people find out I work for a university. Unlike elementary schools, universities don’t shut down over the summer. The reality is that there are many university people who don’t teach and most of us work a twelve-month calendar.

It is true, though, that in the academic calendar, summer is different, even a bit confusing. Not really the end of the previous year; not yet the start of the one to come. Not closed, but not as busy as the other nine months, the summer session can be a time to think, to plan, to work on projects. There are classes happening, faculty doing research, students studying, but the pace is slower because there are fewer people around. Staff members take vacations and leave at 5:00 p.m. There are few, if any, student events or programs happening. It is a time for everyone to wrap up projects from the previous academic year and plan for the year to come.

The summer time that I know is hot and miserable, but on campus it’s an important time. It’s the space between one year and the next. It’s time to reflect on what went well the previous year and what was not so successful. It’s time to try to understand what is needed for the coming semester. It’s neither one nor the other. For most campuses, summer is linked to the previous spring by budget or policy. And yet for many campuses, summer is the time for new student orientation; it’s the beginning of the college careers of those students.

These days, orientations for new students are highly sophisticated programs. While registering for fall classes is still the primary goal, we also work to share a wide variety of information aimed at helping students start college successfully. Everyone from campus librarians to the federal government sees orientation as the chance to provide essential information to incoming students and university administrators try to balance competing, often conflicting needs and still help students feel welcome in this strange, new place. At the University of Texas at Austin, my current campus, it’s three full days of activity, three full days of information and an important part of a student’s transition to college.

In contrast, I have no memory of receiving any information about orientation at OU for the summer of 1975. There must have been some way for students to register, but I don’t know what it was. The scholarship I had received made me part of a group. I think it was called University Scholars. It was intended to make us a cohort and we were to meet every couple of weeks to hear speakers on campus; I even remember a couple of those speakers. But the real benefit was early registration for the first two semesters.

I have only a couple of memories of that orientation session. The welcome was held in the living room of Boyd House. Boyd House | Presidents Residence OU | White House Norman. Boyd House was originally the home of the first OU president and served several early presidents after it was purchased by the university and is again the president’s home. But in the 70’s it was the Welcome Center. A gracious old building, I remember being impressed by the foyer, with the wide staircase to the second floor and some elegant furnishings. I also remember sitting on uncomfortable chairs in rows in the living room listening to the group’s advisor. I was there with Grandmommie, my paternal grandmother, and Mrs. Avery, a family friend, who became my mom-away-from-home over the next few years. The only other thing I remember was going to the Oklahoma Memorial Union for a meeting with a faculty member for academic advising. I went into the room, sat across the table from a complete stranger, and twenty minutes later walked out with a class schedule for the fall.

In high school I enjoyed studying languages, four years of French and a little bit of German. So I decided to major in foreign languages. I’d either teach or, maybe, join the foreign service. (I applied for a naval ROTC scholarship based on the latter idea. That didn’t get past the interview where the first thing the interviewer said to me was, “I didn’t know we had any females today.”) With that as a ‘majoring in languages’  as a ‘plan’ I walked out of the advising session with what many would say was a ridiculous selection of courses: two classes in intermediate French (5 hours), one class in Beginning Russian (5 hours), an honors English composition class and a history course (6 hours). And that’s all I remember of my orientation to college during the summer after high school. Back to San Antonio I went to spend a few weeks until it was time to return for the fall semester.

Summer is the time between. One year not quite finished. One year not quite started. Summer is the bridge from one year to the next. Summer is what happens before the real academic year begins. Summer is the time to figure things out. Summer is liminal time.

As used in anthropology, liminality is the point in a ritual when participants have lost their previous status, but haven’t reached the new status yet. It’s that pause just before you step across the threshold from one place to another. That breath before you say yes or no. It’s a space of ambiguity and confusion. Author Gloria E. Anzaldua says, ‘[t]ransformations occur in this in-between space, an unstable, unpredictable, precarious, always-in-translation space…living in this liminal zone means being in a constant state of displacement — an uncomfortable, even alarming feeling.”

In many ways, the entire college student experience is one of liminality. I graduated from high school in May and by August I was a student in a large public university. I was no longer a high school student, but I wasn’t an adult; I wasn’t even really a college student for several weeks, maybe months. In some respects, it was a couple of years before I was really a college student. And it was even longer before I had an idea about what came next, about what was on the other side of that threshold.

I’ve lived all of my life on an academic calendar, well except for the first four years. As far as I’m concerned, the year starts when the Fall semester begins rather than in January. I was born in July so my chronological years fit neatly into an academic year. Ask me when I graduated from high school or college and the answer is 1974-75 and 1978-79 respectively. Ask me what year I got married and the answer is 1989-1990. The rhythm of the academic calendar is my rhythm. And summer is still the time in between. An administrator now, I treasure summer for the change in rhythm, but that change is itself disorienting and I am always ready for summer to end, students to return, and the campus to return to normal.

Liminal time. A threshold between one existence and the next. For me, the first two years of college were particularly disorienting and uncomfortable. I had outgrown high school, but I hadn’t found my place in college. I had left the old life, but hadn’t found the new. My first two years in college are the summer time of this story.


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