The disappearance of faculty downtime

It started last year with a simple request, and then another. “We’re holding this workshop during the December break. We’d love to have representation from your department. We need to have representation from all of these departments. Will you or someone else from your department attend?” (In some cases, repeat until I said I’d attend or found someone who agreed to attend.)

This year, November rolls around, and bam—more requests from workshop organizers for this December’s workshops.

I didn’t think much of it last year—this must be one of the many things they forget to warn new chairs about, I thought. But this year, when the requests came in, I wondered: is this normal? Have chairs always dealt with such requests, or does it seem like these requests are more frequent these days (and, in some cases, more fervent)?

I consulted with the previous chairs of my department, and yes, as I suspected, things were not always this way. The requests, in fact, are more frequent and more fervent.

Welcome to December Creep.

When I took this job, one of the perks I most looked forward to was the long break between Fall Term (which ends right before Thanksgiving) and Winter Term (which begins right after New Year’s Day). Five weeks! Sure, there are some major holidays in there, but still, five weeks! Time to do research! Plan my courses! Not work insanely crazy hours! Reflect! Heck, maybe even take a day or two off to go shopping or bake cookies!

(And yes, we do end up paying for this luxury, with our Death March between January and June, with little break between Winter and Spring Terms.)

There have always been workshops in the first few weeks of December at my institution. In theory, it’s a great time for them: people’s schedules are freer, they are not exhausted from the go-go-go of the term, and the break fosters reflection anyway. When I started, it did not seem like there were very many workshops, and other than the new faculty workshop my first year, there was not much pressure to attend. (Perhaps this is one of the many things I was shielded from as junior faculty, but I don’t think so.)

This year, there are eight workshops (including the new faculty workshop, which also seems like it’s longer than it was when I attended lo these many years ago). And as I mentioned in the opening to this post, there seems to be more pressure to attend and to represent at these workshops. They are theoretically “optional”, but perhaps not always practically or politically “optional”.

And so, all that free time starts to vanish, eaten up by Yet One More Responsibility.

I wish our breaks really could be breaks. I wish that we didn’t feel the need to Fill All The Time With All The Things. I wish that we recognized that downtime—unscheduled time—is necessary and important for faculty (and staff!). That we recognized that this workload is really not sustainable.

We’ve seen this during the summer already at my institution. We don’t hold classes in the summer, but between supervising student research and teaching in summer programs, there’s very little downtime/unscheduled time. My summers are largely no longer my own.

I really don’t want the same thing to happen to all of our breaks.

Last year I attended both of the workshops to which I was, er, “invited”. This year I decided to be “selfish”, and only said yes to one such request. I have a grant to write, research to conduct, and job apps to read, and ultimately carving out time for those things will serve me better than representing my department. And I hate that prioritizing in this way is somehow “selfish”.

In some small way, I like to think I’m taking a stand to Bring Back The Break. And I really didn’t wish I had to take such a stand.

Does anyone else experience this at their institutions? How do you protect your break?