In most professions, retirement means stopping work, taking a long holiday, and turning to charitable and leisure pursuits, or possibly to drink. Academics are different: in the old joke, they don’t die; they just lose their faculties. Certainly retirement marks a change in the rhythms of life: after forty years of term and vacation, term and vacation, we enjoy an unimpeded flat run to the grave. In practice, this means a perpetual vacation.
There is in British (though not American) English a distinction between a holiday and a vacation. A holiday means buckets and spades, and academics typically get 26 days a year. A vacation is a space between terms when academics can get on with duties apart from undergraduate teaching (though those duties sometimes include preparation for teaching). Planning meetings go on throughout the vacations, and in August many colleagues are involved in admissions, but retired colleagues are spared such tasks. Postgraduate research students, however, need supervisions all year round, and both full-time and retired colleagues see such students in the vacations.
In my case, a perpetual vacation means more time to write and to undertake activities supportive of my subject, my university, and the higher education sector. Since I retired in 2010, I have published a book on the history of the King James Bible, an edition of the 1611 version of that Bible, a book on ornamental garden hermits, and a dozen essays. At present I am writing an introduction to garden history, editing the Oxford Illustrated History of the Renaissance, and serving as co-general editor of the Oxford Complete Works of John Milton, of which three volumes have been published since I retired. My work on the King James Bible has generated work on related projects, notably a monthly visit to the USA, where I am the historical adviser for a Museum of the Bible that will open in Washington DC at the end of 2016. Closer to home, I sit on the Liturgical Planning Group that is organising the reburial of King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. My work for the higher education sector takes the form of chairing the executive committee of the Council for the Defence of British Universities, a lobby group that argues that universities should not be treated as businesses in competition with each other, but rather as institutions committed to teaching and research, serving the public good. As I type that list, I am inclined to think that my attempt to retire has been a complete failure.
In short, retirement for academics, at least in the years before the stage that Shakespeare’s Jacques described as ‘second childishness and mere oblivion,/ Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’, is simply a continuation of academic life by other means. I miss seeing students regularly (though I watch with great pleasure as they graduate), but I still see colleagues, and greatly enjoy interrupting their busy days. I leave the teaching arena confident that today’s students are being taught by colleagues who care deeply about their subject and their students, and who have voted with their lives for higher education.