My So-Called Spring Break

Full vitae spring break

Ben, Creative Commons

My wife keeps asking me, "What do you want to do for spring break?" Well, let's see ... Monday, I'd like to sleep for about four days. Tuesday, I need to spend a week or two writing. Wednesday, I have several weeks of lectures to write — should only take three or four days. Thursday, I'd like to spend a couple of weeks reading through eight months’ worth of Venezuelan newspapers. And Friday ... yeah, let's do something Friday!

Spring break. It conjures images of sitting on a beach, sipping something delicious, enjoying a well-earned respite from your labors. Or, for some academics, rather than the beach, it's the archives, or even just quiet, uninterrupted days in our offices.

But for grad students and early-career faculty with families, the feeling most strongly associated with spring break — rather than relaxation or productivity — is guilt.

As I look ahead to my own spring break, I see two possibilities. Either I spend the time with my wife (who also has the week off) and daughter, going on one of those little road trips we've been talking about for about four years now. Or I spend the week catching up (or, dare I say, actually getting ahead?) on my various projects and responsibilities.

I know what you're thinking: "Why not just do a little bit of both?"

Because no one likes cutting a vacation short to go home and get some work done. Even worse is the “working vacation.” No such thing. There's work, and there's … not-work. Nothing kills that great road trip vibe faster than pulling out some grading, or opening up a laptop. The backseat of a car is an excellent environment in which to get some work done, too, with no space to spread out, and a 3-year-old yelling that she's ready to go back home 45 minutes into the trip.

If we nix the road trip, the choices don't really change. Maybe we could send the kid to day care all week, and just hang out together. Romance and reconnection, here we come. Except we'll just sit together on the couch, with something on the TV that neither of us is actually watching, and you'll play on your phone, and I'll work on my laptop. And we'll pretend that, since we're occupying the same piece of furniture, this counts as quality time. We may even eat a meal together.

Or — and this really might be the most horrifying outcome of all — I'm actually seduced into putting work not just out of sight, but out of mind. Just imagine: a guilt-free week, spent in the company of my two favorite people. We go to the park, play in the yard, cook dinners, go for walks, watch movies. We do all those great family things.

Now try to imagine the week after break. If you’re like me, what comes to mind is a cyclist who mysteriously elected to just stop pedaling and take a break halfway up an excruciatingly steep climb.

So, as I see it, I have three choices: (1) Neglect my family, (2) neglect my job, or (3) compromise, and neglect both.

In academia, there is always too much reading, too much writing, and too much research yet to be done — and never enough time in which to do it. Spring break is an excellent example of that dilemma but it is by no means the only time academics are presented with such unsatisfactory options. It's happens in daily life when I'm in the groove, cranking out whatever it is I'm working on, and my wife texts and says, "Happy hour?" And it occurs to me I can't remember the last time the two of us just sat and had a drink and a chat. There's also 11:30 a.m., on any given Saturday, when my daughter comes into my office at home and says, "Daddy, are you finished working yet? Are you going to work all day?" And then my favorite: "Well, if you loved me, you'd stop working and play with me." Three years old and already a master manipulator; I'm so proud.

I wish this was the point where I offered some brilliant solution to resolve these dilemmas. But I don't have one. With no better option in sight, I'll just continue to walk this tightrope. As long as I'm progressing toward my degree, and my wife and child are still speaking to me, I think that means I'm doin' alright.

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