Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Making the Break

As the fall semester is finally over for most schools across North America, we find ourselves in the midst of something most of us refer to as "the break." But what should we do with this time? What is the break for? I want to suggest that we should do our best to minimize the distinction between semester and break so as to avoid the extremes that often accompany the post-semester sigh.

Based on my experiences, burgeoning academics misunderstand the winter and summer breaks in two fundamental ways:

1) we talk about the break as the time to get ALL of OUR work done

2) we talk about the break as the time to get absolutely nothing done

Neither one of these approaches is conducive to mental, emotional, or physical health in the long run. If your day-to-day routine during the semester leaves absolutely no time for regular progress on your own work then your breaks will be hectic and jam-packed. On the other hand, if you don't maintain some contact with your intellectual projects in between semesters, then you'll spend valuable time during the semester simply getting caught up.

As is so often the case, the best case scenario lies somewhere in the middle. Because it's my only point of reference, I'll use myself as an example here. During the semester I try to get my teaching schedule set in the afternoons so that I can devote my time before lunch each day to writing, researching, and reading (but you can certainly do the opposite if you work better in the afternoon). On the afternoons when I do not teach and during my office hours, I will work on course planning and preparation. My Fridays are completely devoted to adjunct teaching. So basically my schedule on a weekly basis looks like this:

write/research 8am-11am
lunch/family 11am-1pm
office/teaching 1pm-5pm

write/research 8am-12pm
lunch/family 12pm-2pm
course prep/reading/misc. 2pm-5pm

All-day adjunct work

Now that we're into the winter break, I'm keeping the same basic morning schedule, working from 8am until lunch each weekday. But in the afternoons, I may just read for a while, work on next semester's syllabi, or work on my job materials. The point is that I'm much more flexible. Sometimes I may just work a little after lunch and spend more time with my family.

Because I'm disciplined during the semester, I rarely have to spend time working in the evening or on weekends (except for when I'm grading). And so during the break, those times aren't all that different. I won't work Christmas weekend, but that's normal since I don't generally work much on weekends. The difference will be that I probably won't do any seriously engaging work at all on Friday, Monday, or Tuesday (although since I'm on the job market I will be working on interview materials and etc).

The break is truly a break for me, but that doesn't mean I do nothing. Neither does it mean that I'm on a break from teaching responsibilities and can do all my own work. The break is a break because I don't have pressure of teaching, grading, or planning. If I don't want to go back to work after lunch I don't have to! In the summer I'll generally devote more time to "doing nothing," by taking a couple full weeks and a couple long weekend vacations.

The point is that maintaining some balance throughout the year should mean that in terms of doing your own work, the breaks shouldn't look drastically different from the semesters. And minimizing this distinction will help you avoid the stressful extremes of academia and make the best of your breaks.

Expect inconsistent posting over the next couple weeks, as I'll be spending some time with family and then making the trek to Seattle for the MLA Convention.


  1. Matt, thanks for this great, honest post about your own working routines. I fully agree with this message; the breaks should be more relaxing than a semester filled with meetings and grading, but other working routines--especially one's regular writing time--shouldn't really fluctuate dramatically. Fostering this sense that you _can_ write regularly over the course of the semester, and might even want to maintain that routine during breaks from teaching, makes for a much happier academic life! I think my scheduled writing time probably varies more from semester to semester than your routine seems to, but I'm fine with that; it always means I spend a little time at the start of a new semester adjusting as my schedule for that term settles itself. For instance, this past semester my heaviest teaching days were Tuesday, when my T/Th undergraduate class met at 11 and my once-a-week graduate seminar met at 3:30. So on Monday and Wednesday mornings I was writing from 8-10 or 8-11, and Friday mornings from 9-11 or 9-12, depending on when other meetings would be scheduled. But I still wanted to keep a little writing momentum on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I would write just from 8-9am on Tuesdays, and then Thursdays in the afternoons, when I was likely to be on campus and so could change up my normal writing space a little on those days. Next semester, with different teaching times and other committee meetings, my weekly routine will probably look a little different. But I think getting a balance between routine and flexibility so that writing is habitual and enjoyable is the key.

  2. Great post, Matt. I generally follow a similar ethic when it comes to negotiating a break. The trouble I'm having this time around is deciding what exactly I want to use this break for--and that I am a full week into it doesn't help. I have been doing course planning for the most part, which is important and I'm glad I'm getting it done. But there are several smallish projects that I can work on over the next couple weeks and I'm struggling to prioritize...

  3. Thanks, Risa and Will.

    Risa: I totally agree that flexibility can be key, and I've been lucky to be able to get the teaching assignment times I've requested over the last couple semesters! The flexibility thing is so important because if you get it into your head that you must work a certain schedule no matter what, and then things happen that prevent you from doing so, the conflict can create unnecessary stress as you try to force a square peg in a round hole, when all you really need to do is cut a new hole! (weird metaphor but I think it works)

    Will: I constantly struggle with what to do. Usually for me it's a question of what to read in my non-writing times since my writing times are completely devoted to the dissertation at the moment. I'm always looking a stack of books that seem equally pressing and my inability to figure out where to start can oftentimes be paralyzing. This paralysis is especially acute at pivotal moments in the burgeoning academic career (comps, prospectus, diss, job market, tenure, etc) because it's easy to lose sight of the fact that we don't have to read all of Foucault and whoever TODAY. That's what our CAREERS are for!

    This realization helps me decide, "ok, what will help me most to get this chapter done?" or "what do I think will be most pleasurable?"

  4. thanks for the post Matt! when I sat down to decide what I'd be doing for break, I realized I have always had a major, but manageable, project to tackle each winter and summer break. Similar to your point, then, I do continue working pretty much the usual hours over break, but I have found it especially nice to have a specific project that I can complete. This gives me a nice feeling at the "end" of "break" that I did something worthwhile. And it gives me a sense of a starting and an ending point to the break; I can start the semester with a fresh slate of projects, either picking up with ones from the fall or starting on new ones. I guess this also gives me a break in that I switch my focus temporarily to something I haven't been working on all semester and I won't continue working on in the next semester. My mind then feels fresh and excited to tackle it over break.

  5. Interesting. I usually take a nearly complete break from December 15 to January 1. I say "nearly" because I do respond to emails and tie up any loose ends when I can. Then, I ease myself back in from January 2 to January 15 by writing in the mornings, and enjoying family time in the afternoons. For me, this complete break is vital to maintaining my energy throughout the semester.

  6. Actually, when I was in grad school (and didn't have a laptop), my breaks were 100% breaks. So, my academic life has always involved long breaks.

  7. Right on, Tanya! I think it's so important to give voice to the fact both theory and practice look a little different to each of us.

    While there are certainly general principles that translate across disciplinary fields and personal preference, there's also something to be said for discovering what works best for you and doing it.

    I hope your break is ultra-rejuvenating!