Tips from a Seasoned Summer School Participant: How to Make the Most of Academic Programs

Justyna Poray-Wybranowska

Having attended two IWL sessions (the 2015 session in Lisbon, Portugal, and the 2018 session in Tokyo, Japan) and two other summer school programs focusing on postcolonial ecocriticism and on climate change adaptation, I can safely say I’m an experienced summer school participant. There is a strategy to making the most of these types of academic programs. Below, I cover what I learned from these experiences, and what I think other students could gain from attending the IWL or similar events. Think of this post as “How To” guide for participating in summer school programs like a boss.

Tip #1: Do all of your readings. If possible, do them before the program starts.

Last year, I spent almost two months in Tokyo. I traveled there to participate in the 8th annual IWL session taking place at the University of Tokyo, Hongo Campus, and stayed an extra three weeks to do as much eating and sightseeing as humanly possible. (It was expensive but totally worth it). The IWL program consists of intensive seminars led by renowned scholars and theorists, colloquia which bring together participants working in a specific field, distinguished guest speakers, and visits to local cultural sites such as museums. We met on campus Monday through Thursday, for between four and nine hours per day. Fridays were reserved for optional cultural activities. Weekends were free time.

The first thing you need to keep in mind about summer schools is that “free time” doesn’t actually mean free time. For most participants, it loosely translates to reading time. Most summer schools assign readings, and they can be quite long. (Each of my two IWL seminars had an inch-thick course pack containing our readings.) Do you have to do all of the readings? No, of course not. You’re an adult. You make your own choices. Should you? Absolutely.

If you’ve ever taught a class of any kind, you’ll recognize the following scenario. You arrive in class, excited to give the day’s lesson. You start talking to students about issues that the readings assigned for today bring up. You get blank stares. You ask them some easy questions, just to get them into it. Silence. It’s clear to you: none of them have done the readings, and none of them have any idea what you’re talking about. This scenario happens all too often, even in summer school programs. It’s disheartening for the seminar leader. It’s awkward for the participants. And it prevents you from getting the most out of the program. There will often be a small handful of participants who do all of the readings – be one of them. It will ensure you make the most of the learning that happens in the program, and it will show the seminar leader that you have put work into familiarizing yourself with the material they assigned. This is important – we’ll get back to it later (in Tip #3).

Ideally, you should do the readings before the program starts. Every summer school I’ve gone to has made the readings available to participants online before the start of the program. (Some quite early, others far too late.) I strongly recommend doing all of your reading before arriving, if at all possible. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Once the program starts, everything will be happening very fast. Your seminar leader will expect you to be familiar with the material on the syllabus for that day. If you haven’t done the readings already, you’ll have to go home after class every day and read in the evenings to prepare yourself for the next day’s seminar. You’ll be tired from class, and reading is the last thing you’ll want to do. It really helps if you’ve done the reading beforehand; that way you can just look through your notes or skim the material for the following day to refresh your memory.
  2. You’re going to want to participate in the social life that inevitably springs up when a group of academics are together in a new city – they’ll want to check out the area, get some food, spend way too long in a bookstore, and get to know new people. You will not feel motivated to skip the socializing in order to stay in your hostel/dorm room and read, and you will fall behind on your reading. But if you’ve done the reading beforehand, you will feel zero academic guilt about going out, and you’ll still be ready for class tomorrow.

Tip #2: Stay on campus and walk to the nearest grocery store.

I stayed on campus at every summer school program I attended except the 2015 IWL in Lisbon. Dorms were the most cost-effective accommodation option and were always located on campus or a short walk from campus. I highly recommend taking advantage of on-campus accommodations the next time you attend a conference or summer school program. They’re generally great.

At the IWL last year, I had the chance to stay in the faculty dorms on campus. (I don’t know how they differed from the student dorm rooms, as I didn’t get to see those, but just knowing that this building was reserved for faculty made me feel fancy.) Staying on campus proved to be an excellent decision. The dorms were clean, quiet, and had a well-equipped shared kitchen. Although staying on a university campus can be costly, it is cheaper than staying in an off-campus hostel/hotel/Airbnb. Consider also the time and money you save by not having to commute to campus every day. In Tokyo, where public transit is lightning-fast but can be quite expensive, staying on campus was a life-saver. It saved me a significant amount of money on back and forth travel, and it meant that I didn’t have to wake up early and face the Tokyo morning rush hour (which is a whole experience on its own) to get to class every day.

There can, however, be surprises with dorm rooms. At a 2017 summer school, I signed up for a shared dorm room and was assigned a roommate. Upon arrival at the dorms, I discovered there was only one bed for the two of us. Cue awkward discussion between two complete strangers about which side of the bed is whose. (Thankfully, my roommate ended up being an awesome person and we got along splendidly.) If you wish to avoid similar surprises, do your homework. Call the dorm, check their website, ask around. Conversely, if you’re feeling adventurous, just go for it.

Once you arrive at your accommodation, it’s time to get your bearings. You’re probably going to want to check out the area you’re staying in, or maybe there’s a certain landmark or site that you’ve been looking forward to visiting. Great. Do all of those things. But another important Day 1 task is locating the nearest grocery store. Travel and accommodations can be expensive, even if you get the cheapest ones, so you’ve got to save money where you can. I do this by limiting how often I eat at restaurants.

Summer school programs, as well as many conferences, will often offer some light breakfast in the form of coffee with muffins or pastries. Possibly fruit, if you’re lucky. But, personally, I need something more substantial for breakfast. The brain burns a lot of calories, and eating seven muffins just isn’t socially acceptable. So I always locate a grocery store early on in my stay and stock up on breakfast food and snack food to get me through the long days. You should do this too. It will save you a lot of money, and keep you from being so famished that you eat seven muffins. Win-win.

Tip #3: Set some goals and go to office hours.

I’ve gone to summer school programs as an MA student (2013), a first-year PhD student (2015), a third-year PhD student (2017), and a fourth-year PhD student (2018). I’ve found that the closer I was to knowing exactly what I wanted to research, the more useful the program was for me.

Summer school programs immerse you in the scholarship and conversations currently happening in a certain field, so it’s a great way of figuring out if this field is for you or not. As an MA student and a first-year PhD student, I mainly attended out of a general interest in the topic. The 2013 summer school program, Just Politics? Postcolonial Ecocriticism Between Imagination and Occupation organized by ASNEL (now called GAPS: Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien, or the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies), was directly relevant to my interest in animals and the environment in postcolonial literature. And when I took the Comparative and World Literature course with Dr. Susan Ingram in 2014, world literature caught my interest. It seemed like a useful theoretical tool for putting postcolonial literatures from different geographical regions into conversations with one another. Without getting into the treacherous territory of what world literature is or is not, and how it relates (or doesn’t) to postcolonialism, I can say that the 2015 IWL program definitely spurred my interest in world literature. It presented me with new theoretical perspectives I hadn’t yet encountered and gave me the chance to meet and chat with some of the most renowned world literature scholars working today. It was a lot of fun, and it helped me delve into the “world” of world literature in order to decide whether or not I wanted to do a dissertation project in this field. In addition, it was very useful in terms of forging academic connections.

I say “forging connections” because “networking” is a bad word in academic circles. 99% of academics hate it. But it is a vital part of building your career as a scholar. My first time attending the IWL, I had no goals other than learning about world literature. I kinda-sorta knew what I wanted to research, but my dissertation project ended up changing drastically in my second and third years. Looking back, I know that if I had had a clearer idea of my research trajectory, if I had known then what my project would turn into, I might have attended other talks, signed up for other seminars, and chatted up other people. I therefore think it’s most productive to go to the IWL or to similar events a few years into your PhD, or at least when you know exactly what you will be writing about, as you’ll be able to better strategize your time, select the seminars that are most relevant to you, and connect with other up-and-coming scholars in your field. (This does not mean you shouldn’t go earlier, if the opportunity present itself – I just personally found it to be a more fruitful experience later on in my own research progress.)

My second time attending the IWL, in 2018, I went with a specific game plan in mind. I had two goals: I wanted to pick the brains of scholars whose work I had been following for years and meet other junior scholars who, like me, were working on climate change in world literature and wanted to collaborate in putting together conference panels and other similar events. Let’s talk about Goal 1 first.

I signed up to take seminars with Dr. Ursula K Heise and Dr. Pheng Cheah, whose scholarship had been formative to my own thinking about ecocriticism and human-animal relationships and about postcolonialism and cosmopolitanism, respectively. Both these seminars were excellent. They addressed questions I had been struggling with in my research for a while, and introduced me to wonderful texts that I probably never would have learned about otherwise. 10/10; would take again. I did all the readings, took notes furiously, and actively participated in the classroom discussion. And when I had built up the courage to ask for a meeting, I went to talk to Dr. Heise and Dr. Cheah during their office hours. I highly recommend doing this. It’s great to establish a rapport with your seminar leader early on, and to let them know how your research fits into the themes and issues being discussed in class.

Your seminar leaders are valuable sources of knowledge – they have more research experience than you, they’ve read more widely than you, and chances are they’ll be able to point you towards valuable sources for your own project. I talked to my seminar leaders about my research and my dissertation project, and got valuable reading recommendations from them. In the relative privacy of office hours, I also got to ask them about their views on certain key scholarly issues, and got to hear their personal, un-filtered takes on some of the dominant research in the field – this was priceless, and often hilarious. In preparation for each meeting, I read up on the most recent book or article they published. I recommend doing this too, because it’s useful to know what a certain scholar has been thinking about recently. It helps you understand their critical position, and lets you place yourself in relation to what they’re currently interested in.

I had some specific things that I wanted to accomplish during IWL 2018, and it meant that I had to use my time there effectively. In addition to taking full advantage of seminar leaders’ office hours, I also spent a lot more time getting to know my fellow participants. This contributed to Goal 2. I made connections with early career scholars working all over the world, many of whom I still speak with regularly. We’ve gone to conferences together, proposed panels together, shared CFPs and job calls that are relevant to our respective fields, and established a group chat which is still going strong. These types of connections are invaluable in grad school and after grad school. For one thing, your summer school friends keep you sane when your normal friends (i.e. your friends who are not pursuing lengthy and impractical degrees) cannot understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. For another, they’re useful professional connections.

It’s imperative to know people beyond your program and your institution: they can alert you to vacancies and important upcoming conference in their region, tell you about the job market situation and application conventions in their country, and give you valuable perspective on your own grad school experience. I learned through my conversations with my IWL friends how differently PhD programs work in different parts of the world, and how vastly different expectations can be. Did you know that in some countries, PhD students are thought of as 9-to-5 workers, and are expected to be on campus five days a week? Did you know that there are no exams or dissertation defenses in some PhD programs? Did you know that in some countries, your dissertation isn’t considered “defended” until it has been published as a monograph? It’s wild. So talk to your summer school program friends. Talk to them about the job market. Talk to them about doing collaborative work. Talk to them about future research goals and funding opportunities. They’re full of useful information.

Tip #4: If they fund you, you should go

My final tip is tricky because it involves making big financial decisions. If you can afford it and if your institution can cover your tuition and (at least part of) the costs of the trip, you should definitely go. Some institutions have an easier time funding their students, and this contributes to the disparity in who gets to participate in these types of events and the conversations that transpire there, and who doesn’t – who gets to be at the table, and who doesn’t, as Dr. Ingram says. Some of the participants I spoke with at the IWL were self-funded; their institution couldn’t afford to send them, but they saved money and covered their own expenses. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum were those who were actually paid by their institutions to attend – not only was their tuition, travel, and accommodation fully covered, but they were also paid an hourly wage for each hour they spent in class, and received per diems to cover the cost of food. (This information made me incredibly envious.)

No one knows your financial situation better than you, and it’s impossible for me to give a general rule of when you should shell out the money and go to the summer school, and when you should skip it. For one thing, the financial cost of the summer school (for you) will largely depend on how much your institution can cover. Inquire about that. Search through your institution’s website. Talk to your supervisor and your program assistant. Call your institution’s awards person. For another, the cost will largely depend on where the event is held (some cities are more expensive than others), and on the types of choices you make while there. Will you eat in restaurants every day, or will you stock up on groceries? Will you be taking public transit to class, or will you be walking? How hard do you plan on partying?

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all summer schools are made equal. I’ve been lucky: I’ve gone to four excellent ones. But I’ve heard horror stories from other graduate students about expensive, boring, disorganized, and unprofessional summer schools. So ask around. Try to contact former participants, if you can. Do some research.

Summer school programs like the IWL are often jokingly described as “summer camp for nerds.” And that’s pretty much exactly what they are. They’re places where people who are passionate about their field of study come together and share their research with like-minded colleagues. I have always found them to be a lot of fun. If you’re the type of person who enthusiastically attends conferences, you will love it. My own time at the IWL, and especially the 2018 program, has been vital to my development as a scholar. I had the opportunity to meet with and talk about my research on world literature, environment, and climate change with some of the leading thinkers in these fields. The feedback I received helped me identify and work through some important limitations in my work, giving my dissertation project its current shape. So for me, it was totally worth it. In fact, I may go again. I hear they’re looking for people to lead colloquia at IWL 2020.

Justyna Poray-Wybranowska is an early career researcher specializing in contemporary anglophone literatures, postcolonial studies, disaster studies, and human-animal studies. She holds a PhD from York University and currently teaches at Ryerson University. Jointly funded by SSHRC and the Provost Dissertation Scholarship, her doctoral research is an interdisciplinary environmental humanities project that investigates the relationship between colonialism and ecological catastrophe in literature from the postcolonial South. Justyna’s work on contemporary literature and media has been published in Studies in Canadian Literature and Otherness: Essays and Studies. Newer work on ecocriticism and world cinema is forthcoming in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment and Shifting Grounds: Cultural Tectonics along the Pacific Rim.