Monday, March 16, 2009

Spring Break

Scene: College classroom; nine bright-eyed, first-year grad students sit around a large square table, waiting for their professor (Dr. X) to arrive. Class begins in five minutes, and the usual chatter is occurring.

Student 1: So, Student 2, what are you doing for spring break?

Student 2: Oh, I'm going to go hiking at _______ National Park and do some camping. What about you?

Student 1: I'm going to ________ City. It will be so nice to get away for awhile and relax!

(Enter Dr. X, who has apparently heard the previous exchange.)

Dr. X (sounding horrified): I can't believe any of you are actually taking a spring break! Spring break is the time when you get lots of work done.

Stunned silence hangs over the room like a shroud. Students 1-9 have been totally schooled...and are seriously wondering why they decided to come to grad school in the first place.

This IS a true story, and I was one of those nine bright-eyed first-years who was terrified by Dr. X's admission (there were also other reasons to be terrified of Dr. X), and I did not in the least understand his reaction.

Eight years later, I have more sympathy for his position. I'm especially giddy about this week off from my students, who are lovely and motivated, but, in the tradition of students everywhere, expect me to know things and to teach them, which gets exhausting from time to time. I also have some interesting research projects I'm working on and taxes to do, so this week off from teaching will allow me to get a lot done, thankfully.

That being said, however, I still don't agree with Dr. X's tactics. Despite what graduate programs may want, the fact is that first-years are finding their way within the discipline, and are probably not churning out papers in their first year. Additionally, the transition to graduate school can be really tough, especially for those who recently got their bachelor's degrees, and having some time off is probably psychologically healthy. Lastly, I think one of the biggest lessons to be learned in grad school is how to be productive without deadlines breathing down your back all the time. So, if students are getting their required work done, who cares when they do it? And if they want to take a spring break, more power to them!

Ultimately, this discussion comes down to a larger problem in the top R1 institutions - the illusion that professors are constantly working (or at least should be). Yes, there is always more that could be getting done. But (and I know this may shock people), there is life outside academia, and I'll bet those that take periodic breaks (like weekends and evenings) may actually be more productive since their brains get to rest every now and then.

Enjoy your Spring Break, whatever you're choosing to do with it!

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