What I’m working on over Winter Break

I’ve written before about one of the perks of my job: the long Winter Break that lasts from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. As with any substantial break, it’s really tough to avoid the siren song of Plan All The Things! when assembling the list of things to tackle. While I definitely do better in this area than I did earlier in my career, I still tend to overplan my break. Five weeks seems like a really long time, particularly when you view it at the end of an academic term as you’re struggling to find five minute blocks of time amid the chaos. And I always seem to forget that there’s a set of holidays at the tail end of that block, and family obligations, and all of the tasks and organization and gatherings leading up to those holidays, when daydreaming about that five week stretch during the academic term.

Given the general exhaustion I feel coming out of Fall Term and the knowledge of what Winter Term holds (it’s gonna be a doozy of a term for sure!), I approached planning my break with two goals:

  1. Take the last week of December fully off.
  2. Match every task to my calendar. If there’s no room for it, defer it.

So, with these goals in hand, here’s what I’m working on during this Winter Break.

Catching up on STEM documentation. I have some reporting loops to close that I can knock off in an afternoon or two. Beyond this, I’ve been collecting resources related to DEI in STEM, and notes from last year’s working groups, and I’d like to clean those up and distribute them to the STEM Board reps to disseminate to their departments and programs as they see fit. (I think these will also be useful in conversations I’m having with various people outside of STEM, thus providing another incentive.)

Participate in tenure and promotion discussions and decisions. I was elected to the faculty promotion committee at the end of last year, which is a big and important College commitment. I’ve spent a lot of quality time lately curled up in a comfy chair reading tenure files and full professor promotion files. (The iPad I bought at the start of the pandemic has been a lifesaver — I find it soooooo much easier to read and highlight and take notes on that vs. on my laptop.) Between the files and the meetings, it’s a lot of work — but very fulfilling and satisfying work.

Tweaking assessment in my Software Design course this Winter Term. I wasn’t thrilled with how my implementation of specifications / mastery grading went the last time I taught this course (last Spring), and I’ve been mulling over potential changes ever since. I’ve already decided to remove one assessment altogether (the web page design analysis) because it’s a ton of work for a small payoff, and I can assess those learning outcomes in other places. I’d like to introduce small, individual assessments into the course to supplement the team assessments. My current model is to pull out some essential skill or outcome from each project deliverable, and have the students complete a small assessment to demonstrate that they’ve achieved that particular outcome. The trick is to integrate these into the course in such a way that the workload — for the students AND for me — does not blow up, and in a way that’s valuable to the students’ learning. Stay tuned for updates!

Write for at least 30-60 minutes each weekday. My goal is 60 minutes — the 30 minutes is in there for the heavy meeting days so that I have a more achievable target. I have a couple of writeups in progress right now, and I’ve chosen to concentrate on the one involving older experiments, partly because I want to get that off my plate and out for review and partly because it’s closer to completion. I am not sure if I’ll be able to get the paper all the way finished by the start of Winter Term, but I think I can get it pretty close.

Letters of recommendation. Writing and submitting letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate school is an evergreen task. I appreciate that I’m not trying to get these letters out while dealing with the end of the term and finals, like many of my colleagues at other schools are. This project is more time consuming than mentally taxing (I think I have 15+ letters to submit today), and while it’s beyond annoying to have to fill out 8,000 differently worded forms and navigate way too many different submission systems (SERIOUSLY WHY CAN’T I JUST UPLOAD ONE LETTER TO ONE PLACE), I enjoy the opportunity to let other institutions know how awesome my students are.

Admittedly, there’s still a lot here — I’m definitely not spending my weekdays lazing by the Christmas tree eating cookies and dreaming of a white Christmas. In practice, it’s enough to keep me busy but not frantic, while still allowing time for fun and family and reflection. And knowing I’ve blocked a week off at the end of the month helps me stay focused and on track. So far, I’m really happy with my workload and my progress, and the way I’ve approached my Winter Break in general this year.

How do you schedule your between-terms or between-semesters break if you’re in academia? How do you avoid the siren song of the long task list?

What I’m reading: System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong And How We Can Reboot, by Rob Reich (a philosopher), Mehran Sahami (a computer scientist), and Jeremy Weinstein (a political scientist). This is the book I should have assigned in my Ethics of Technology first-year seminar! Sadly, I only discovered its existence at the end of the term. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to teach this seminar again, and then I will assign this book.

What I’m listening to: The Christmas Lounge station on SomaFM, my go-to work music during the month of December.