Monday, December 10, 2012

 

December


December is a cruel month for academics.  More accurately, the stretch from Cyber Monday until Christmas is uniquely difficult.

It’s the end of the Fall semester, which brings with it all of the usual end-of-semester student crises.  Final papers and projects are due, deadlines are suddenly real, grandparents drop like flies; some things are predictable.  It’s the climax of the semester, with all of the tension that implies.

But it’s also the midpoint of the year, which means it’s the time when yearlong projects should be getting the most attention.  This is when those projects can least afford to be ignored.  Just arranging meeting times becomes an issue at this time of year, since most people are booked solid, but hitting the pause button for a month or more often isn’t an option.

And it’s holiday season, which brings stresses -- time, family, and money -- of its own.  I’ve never heard of a college that gave holiday or end-of-year bonuses, and thoughtful shopping is tough when you’re stuck in grading jail.  

Layering those stressors on top of each other tends not to bring out everyone’s best.  I’ve learned over the years that when it’s at all possible, it’s best not to introduce anything new in the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas rush.  People just aren’t in the frame of mind to deal with it.  An idea that might get a thoughtful response in September, and a snarky one in October, will get a full-blown attack in December.  

And of course, there’s the ever-present possibility of a conflict of snow days with final exams.  In my neck of the woods, there’s nothing unrealistic about snow in December.  

The traditional academic calendar has its virtues, but December isn’t one of them.  

When I was at DeVry, the “fall” semester started in early November and run through late February, with Christmas break stuck in the middle.  (I don’t know if they still do that.)  Since Christmas was basically the middle of the semester, there was a midterm rush right before break, but it was considerably less crazy than the end-of-semester rush here.  

The upside of that was that the holiday crush was slightly less severe, since faculty weren’t at the most stressful point of the semester just as the holiday hit.  The downside was that classes lost a significant amount of momentum over the break, and the first week back in January was often lightly attended.  It usually took a solid week to get the classes back on track.

Online shopping certainly helps, since it can be done whenever, from wherever.  Even travel plans can be done online, although again, at this time of year any travel plans have to have plans B and C built in.  But as welcome as these innovations are -- and I’m just old enough to still think of them as innovations -- they’re palliative at best.  When you’re booked, you’re booked.

Those of us with kids know that the usual holiday issues are compounded with children.  Not only are there the Santa visits and gift selections to make, but there are also the various recitals, performances, celebrations, and competitions.  This week TB has something every night, and all day Saturday.  Since Massachusetts is picky about letting eleven year olds drive, that means parental time too.  

Wise and worldly readers -- especially those on academic and/or parental schedules -- have you found graceful ways of getting through December?  

Comments:
A well stocked wine rack.
 
Here is the beauty of the quarter system. Start the fall quarter in late-August or early-September. Have finals before Thanksgiving. Your students (and adjuncts) can work fulltime at holiday retail jobs, too! Start fresh just after the New Year, and schedule spring break at the end of the winter quarter.
 
Start your holiday planning in June. And learn Miss Manners' method of declining: "Oh, thank you so much! I'm so sorry, I just can't! I would have loved to, you are so kind to think of me. I hope you have a wonderful time and I'm terribly sorry to miss it." Apply liberally.
 
Alcohol, saying no, working from home more than usual.
 
You left out the part about how, after you bust out of grading jail (love that term) you have to dive directly into preparing the next term's courses, which start immediately following the New Year holiday. Other than that, though, this is spot-on.

Our family gets through it by virtue of consistently lowered expectations. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
 
Question: "Have you found graceful ways of getting through December?"

Answer: No.
 
1. Be a follower of the Old Testament
2. Be on the Quarter system
3. Live on the West Coast
4. Work in a Math or Science Department
 
1. Have that "big project" for the course due two weeks before the end of the course so that you and the students don't have an Armageddon of cumulative crap to deal with. The last two weeks of the course can be student presentations – graded on the spot.
2. Shop on-line as much as possible and pay extra for gift wrapping.
3. Have your in-laws watch the kids while you and the spouse do last minute shopping.
4. Live in a place with good weather (or use the bad weather as an excuse to do less).

 
My institution, a public 4 year in Virginia, provided a small holiday bonus this year. So it does happen.

It was Commonwealth-wide and not particular to the institution. We've been under a pay freeze for several years now, and I think it was supposed to take the sting off.

Given how bonuses are taxed and how small my salary is to start with, it has hardly been a windfall. But, it's certainly far better than the alternative of "nothing."

As for coping - there is an amazing amount of stuff that I should be doing in December and I simply....don't. I get enough work done that my department doesn't fall to pieces, but I don't do nearly the level of holiday shopping and card-sending and cookie-baking that I'm supposed to do. I just try harder each year not to feel paralyzed with guilt over it.
 
Send New Year's cards, or MLK Day cards, or even Valentine's cards, instead of Christmas cards.

As TB and TG get a little older, put them in charge of making the cookies they like best, or putting the lights on the tree, or something.

If you are like me and live a gazillion miles away from the rest of your family (thanks, academic job market!), adopt-a-neighbor who is older, more or less alone, and likes to bake or wrap presents or whatever. Include them in your definition of "family" and have your kids do a few things with them. We did this as kids with the neighbor lady, learned to cook some amazing ethnic foods we'd never have known about otherwise, and had a richer childhood for knowing her. Probably took some stress off my parents, too. (in- loco-grandparentis)

Don't schedule end-of-semester holiday meetings/parties. Just don't. They add more stress to already-overworked faculty and staff. We have one this Friday. On top of late semester teaching, finals grading, sorting out all the weird student issues that always pop up at the end of term, and cramming in real, working, meetings, now I have to bake something and go chit-chat for 2 hours with people I am thoroughly sick of seeing 10 hours a day.

As for the endless stream of children's events, I honestly don't know what to say, except that I understand why parents limit their children's extra-curricular activities to just one or two at a time. But your kids will be grumpy, distant teenagers before you know it, so revel in the fact that they still want you there for the concert or party or whatever, now.
 
Echoing anonymous in the second post, but with a slight shift:

I prefer the British schedule to ours: Oct. 1 - Dec 10, Jan 10 - Mar. 20, Apr. 15 - June 20. December 10 is a lot saner a time to get off than is Dec. 21!
 
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