Winter Break. Most college students are on a coursework hiatus from mid-December to mid-January or February 1 (as is the case with the university where I work), unless they actively participate in the blooming Winterim class listings. Even after college students graduate, many carry this “off-duty” paradigm when thinking about what academic staff and faculty do between fall and spring semesters. But I know differently.
The late 20th century’s disdain for taking a vacation, or slowing down productivity at all, is part of what gives teachers—and other staff working at schools—a bad rep in the U.S. The cultural misconception about full time instructors (at any level) is: If a teacher isn’t in front of her class right now, or on campus, then said teacher isn’t “working.” But those employed at schools know that so much about “teaching” is crafted outside the scenes of the classroom experience (like reading and selecting class materials, crafting class session timelines and agendas, revamping language in assignments, updating every piece of copy from every single page in the Content and Grades and News areas of your Learning Management System class websites to match the new semester, new year, new materials, and updated outcomes. And, of course, the systematic cycle of marking assignments and handing them back).
And we know that the ‘classroom experience’ too can be a misnomer, since online classes are here to stay, like office hours, advising meetings with students, and other day-to-day interactions outside of class sessions that hallways, community events, and social media provide.
Even still, the cultural misconception perpetuates: the professor’s job is [only] at her podium, the advisor’s job is [only] in his office, and the experience of college—all that other stuff that people get out of it—must be magic. Fairy dust? Mythological?
It’s easier sometimes to simply give into it. Like when your second cousin asks how much time you have “off,” while both of you are holding small plates of food at an annual holiday get-together. He doesn’t want the full answer, that you are giving yourself about a week, maybe eight days, spread out over the next month to not do ANYTHING work related, and that you might decide to put two back to back at some point and call it a weekend. And honestly, you don’t want to give Cousin Ed that answer either. You want to seem carefree, as if you weren’t so recently paralyzed by stress, mentally running through all the tasks you’ll need to accomplish before next week to keep up with your goals for the break. You want to act like you are a Higher Ed Goddess who doesn’t lift a finger until late January to prep for spring classes. You swirl your glass, look right at Ed, and say smoothly “Classes start February first.”
You want to think you can squander your much-needed break from the constant work of the semester (60-80 hours per week easily) on Netflix and grandma treats (Thanks, Grandma!), so you force yourself to believe that being sedentary and gaining a few winter pounds are refreshing activities, geared toward sanity you won’t have come February. And then it starts. You open [insert preferred social media newsfeed here] and see links to obligatory end-of-calendar-year listicles—articles written in list form to capture the pace of your non-existent reading life.
The listicles in my late December newsfeed were geared toward New Year’s Day and the reflection on what it means to revitalize our lives. As a higher education professional, I gravitated toward titles like Anna Borges’s 23 Things To Do To Improve Your Mental Health in 2016. I wasn’t anticipating a breakthrough in the articles, but I did find connections to my life that sprang up in several of the pieces.
If you don’t seriously narrow your priorities for each day, you have no priorities.
If you never say no, your yes doesn’t mean much.
While these aren’t new concepts, they are similar, and the connection between them can push a stressful job to a breaking point. Both ideas suggest that the productivity choices we make regularly are hurting us. Higher education staff, with positions and roles typically defined by isolation (or working independently), have ourselves partially to blame. We set ourselves up to feel failure by 1) to-do-listing more projects than we can handle each day, and by 2) committing to events and projects we don’t actually want to do. The first leads to the feelings of failure in the task-based person, the person who measures success in projects and items on a list—if they aren’t all crossed off, then I have failed today. The second leads to the feelings of failure in the relationship-based person, the person who measures success by everyone else in the room—Are they happy? What could I have done differently to make them happier? The knife of small failure slices at our positivity during a long semester. It damages. It can leave scars. It can crush confidence and enthusiasm.
You only got half way through what you thought you could finish before lunch, backing up the rest of your day or pushing something you wanted done today back for later, but you don’t have later—you have a committee meeting.
You aren’t able to attend all of the meetings/events for which you were invited because then you aren’t eating lunch and don’t have time to keep constant tabs on the ever-evolving email inbox, from where fires seem to burst forth on the hour.
But the break, the winter break, is supposed to get us away from this, right?
This six-week period between classes end and classes begin in my planner is one of the only times during a year that I don’t have to struggle to fit the daily 8:00-4:30 student services schedule around the daily but nebulous fourteen-hours-any-time-you-can-get-them schedule of teaching. I can push and squeeze both into the same 24 hour box much easier during winter break. I can wake up before daybreak, like I did today, not shower, and start working without the threat of needing to be physically in my office or classroom, in slacks and a blazer, at some predestinated time this morning. But the work-life balance I visualized for this time back in the throws of fall midterms, like all mirages, has vanished.
Every winter “break” I’ve had as an instructor of composition, I’ve worked all but a few days from fall finals to spring convocation. I rework or renew my depth of knowledge for the upcoming classes I’m teaching—which mainly means I attempt to reread and annotate (or read for the first time) everything I’ll ask my students to read over the 15-week semester. I re-create the websites, redesign the assignments; I spend a lot of time simply thinking about what order and pacing are best for each class, each unit, each series of assignments in a project; I consult with my teaching intern when I have one, wanting to bring him or her into the class prep arena.
And now that I’m only part-time instructing and also part-time administrative, I have these things to do for class prep and additional duties as well. During this break, beyond the above class prep, my set-me-up-for-failure To-Do List includes: Projecting semester budgets. Synthesizing data and creating reports that compare this fall to last. Training a new class of Supplemental Instruction leaders. Updating the online database system with tutor schedules for the next semester. Organizing and record keeping of HR paperwork plus ongoing hiring, training, and development of staff. Transitioning returning non-hourly workers into hourly payroll. Attending student affairs meetings, campus sporting events, and transfer transition fairs.
I’m not alone. There are thousands of people in my region trying to juggle just as much in their breaks. And I’m not trying to glorify busy. This list is not a list that represents why my job is more important than jobs with tasks that would take me less time—my job is not more important than others. This list isn’t about showing any importance of my job at all. But it does make my work a bit more visible.
This list reminds me that I’m like many other people—like you, perhaps—who are struggling with the expectations we put on ourselves, especially around the New Year. And sadly, as long as we keep meeting ridiculous, sometimes self-imposed standards, and running ourselves ragged to do so—or worse: running ourselves ragged to do so and not meeting our own expectations—the colleges and universities and businesses and larger systems of workforce culture in the U.S. will keep on letting us. And I guarantee that we encourage it when we call our prepping time a break. It’s almost as if the word itself, borne of violence, is code for what we are doing to ourselves.
What’s scary is the next step. While I don’t want to break up with my ideal teaching self or my ideal academic staff self, something has got to give. It’s hardly worth becoming what some of society thinks of teachers during winter, vacationing carefree for over a month so that the stress of the semester seems justified in its condensation.
What we need is a breakaway, from the concept that makes the demands of our work invisible.
I’m doing good work this January, and I’m taking regular stops and meals and irregular outings to theaters and museums. Accomplishing everything that I’d like to get done during this time, would actually make me miserable—little sleep, no social life, no family time. I’d be doing every task at such breakneck speed that my work would be shoddy. So, I’m going to allow myself to be okay with how my spring semester turns out based on the good work I did (and didn’t do) during this winter break. I invite you to join me.
If we have to keep the name, though, let’s at least stop silently condoning the idea that what we’re doing between semesters is taking a break. It’s more damaging than we realize.
About the author: Nick Tryling splits her time between the English Department and the Parkside Academic Resource Center (PARC) at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. She teaches English composition and creative nonfiction each semester. As the Director of the PARC, she gets to develop student leaders who tutor one-on-one or hold group sessions across campus. Nick earned her MFA in Creative Writing from The American University in D.C. and her BA in English and Studio Art from Austin College in Sherman, Texas. Shortly after graduate school, she took two academic years "off" from teaching college to be the Director of Youth Services for Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY). Way before that, in the 80s, Nick sent for Endangered Species Flashcards from the World Wildlife Federation, and she's been an activist ever since. She loves her partner, their cats, and the smell of baking bread. Connect with Nick on Twitter @AdHocNicktr or Instagram @thenicktr.