The Many Faces of Midterm Break

One of the quirks of Carleton’s academic calendar — consisting of 3 10-week terms — is the one day midterm “break”. Monday of 6th week, no classes are scheduled, giving students and faculty a long weekend separating the first half of the term from the second half of the term.

While I’m unclear on the history of midterm break (it’s been around since well before I arrived), I suspect (or maybe just hope) that midterm break had noble origins. In my rose-colored glasses view of Carleton history, midterm break was established as a true break, a recognition of the need to recharge, at least for one day. (Putting aside, of course, that those who teach on a TTh schedule do not benefit explicitly from this break, but MWF faculty do.)

I realized very early on in my Carleton career that it was non-negotiable for my mental health to take this day as a full-fledged break. The few times I haven’t done this, the second half of the term was an unmitigated disaster. So I consciously make the decision to eschew work for the day. Sometimes I manage to get away for the weekend — this past fall, my daughter also had that Monday off, so we got away for a girls’ camping weekend in a state park. Other times, weather-permitting, I’ll get outdoors for a long hike, or ski, or run. Or catch up on errands and take myself out to lunch. Or, if I’m completely exhausted, hang out in a comfy chair with tea and books. Whatever I decide, it has to recharge me.

Because I believe so much in using break as a break, I no longer have projects due in my classes the day after break. I want my students to have the option to recharge and take the day off of work, too.

I believe I am firmly in the minority on both counts. I know that most of my colleagues use the time to catch up on work and grading, and I suspect many of my students do, too. I can understand this — it is nice to get things off of your plate, and to have rare uninterrupted time to accomplish those things that seem to keep getting pushed to tomorrow’s to-do list. And I suspect that my colleagues and students who do this also manage to take time for themselves — or at least I hope they do.

There is a trend, though, that concerns me, and that is Meeting Creep. I’ve blogged before about December Creep — the proliferation of meetings and workshops and other “optional-but-not-really” work-related events during Winter Break. In recent years, I’ve seen this same phenomenon around midterm break. There seems to me to be more pressure to hold and attend meetings on midterm break.

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Everyone knows that there are no classes, so it’s much easier to find time to get people together. And since there are no classes, you can spend less frantic time working through things, without trying to cram decisions and conversations into an hour-long meeting slot.

On the other hand, this becomes yet another pressure point for faculty, particularly junior faculty, faculty of color, and other historically marginalized faculty. I’m a full professor, and I still feel a twinge of guilt when I turn down a meeting request for that time. What happens when you feel like you don’t really have a choice, here? We should all have the freedom to say no to these requests for mental health reasons and to maintain boundaries, but the truth is some of us are freer than others — and that’s not fair.

In my December Creep post, I stated something which still holds true:

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.

“The Disappearance of Faculty Downtime”, November 26, 2014.

Next Monday — Monday of 6th week — you’ll most likely find me out in the woods somewhere with my snowshoes (weather-permitting, of course), following animal tracks and planning where to warm up with a mocha and a good book afterwards. I may be in the minority, but at the very least I hope my example makes it easier for someone with less power and privilege than me to maintain their own boundaries around their break time, in whatever way makes most sense to them.