Monday, December 10, 2012


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?