One of the great joys of the academic profession is the predictability of our work cycles. Academics tend to be creatures of habit. We gear up for a semester of a specific length and feel incipient relief as final-exam week draws near. Then came Covid-19 — the great disrupter of our beloved routines.
For months now, we’ve adjusted to new virtual classrooms, new technology, and new schedules with as much grace and dignity as we can muster. But that doesn’t mean we were fully prepared for the loss of one of our most cherished yearly traditions: spring break.
Smack in the middle of a very long term — one that tends to be cold, gray, and dreary in many parts of the country — we have always treasured a whole week free from classes, committee meetings, and office hours. Unlike most professionals, we can’t take random weeks off during the semester. Spring break has always been a time to re-energize for the final push through the busiest months of the academic year.
This year, the need for a week’s respite from academic work has never been greater, yet pandemic considerations have prompted many colleges and universities to cancel spring break. The rationale is simple: A compressed schedule reduces travel and the risk of a resurgence in infection. From a physical-health standpoint, that decision is entirely defensible. But it also has ramifications from a mental-health standpoint.
As two professors who did not get a spring break this year (grumble, grumble), we think it’s important to consider those ramifications as we plug away toward summer break, which, while admittedly somewhat close, feels oh-so-far away. Is the loss of spring break really such a big deal? In the context of these stressful months, yes. Consider the context:
Blurred work/life boundaries. With so many faculty members teaching online for a year now, many colleagues tell us they are surprised at how much they cannot separate work and home life. We’ve heard a lot of faculty members say they are inundated with students’ emails 24/7. Virtual classrooms mean students pay even less attention to posted office hours than they did before Covid, and contact their instructors at all hours.
Obviously, that level of accessibility is supportive of, and helpful to, students in this intense year. But the heightened demands have added to tensions that could have been neutralized at least somewhat with a week off in the middle of the term.
A short-fuse problem. Halfway through the spring semester is normally when social relationships begin to fray. By that point, whatever honeymoon period attended the start of classes has definitely been eclipsed by the reality of demanding assignments, colliding deadlines, and disappointing grades that begin to forecast how satisfied students will be with their course experiences. As the irritations build, the prospect of spring break around the corner has always served as a bit of a blessed pressure release for students and professors alike: If we can just make it through to spring break, we can recover our good humor and patience, and then finish the semester on a more positive note.
However, with that prospect gone, we note that both students and faculty members have seemed a bit more … testy.
The result is that some professors may offer harsher feedback, replete with snarkier-than-usual remarks, than they normally would. Students may be more inclined to post negative comments about their instructors in whatever social-media site will render the most damage. (Given such tensions, any institution that hasn’t already minimized the importance of student evaluations of teaching in 2020-21 — or temporarily eliminated those ratings altogether — should do so now.)
So what are some coping strategies?
Keep on trucking. Admittedly, that advice is not all that helpful. But it’s not as if we have a choice.
Most instructors recognize that the past year represents the most atypical period in recent academic history, and are hopeful that we will return to some kind of “normal” teaching and working conditions come fall. Since 2020-21 may be considered a write-off, a prominent coping strategy we’re seeing is simply to plow ahead, with relief anticipated when spring graduations unfold. If the vaccination protocols succeed, then this year can be framed as an unpleasant experiment that had lots of unanticipated lessons and a few silver linings. (One such silver lining is that, like it or not, most of us can now teach online with little difficulty. A second: Many of us actually look back on faculty meetings — even the tense ones — with fondness.)
Stealth breaks. In the face of a predictable spring-break-less slump, use whatever power you have to give yourself brief breaks. Skip a difficult lecture in favor of an asynchronous assignment (that can bring some relief to students as well as the beleaguered faculty member worn out from Zooming). Briefly pause normal class operations. Don’t go rogue in ways that would jeopardize your job or your institution. But within ethical and professional limits, cut yourself some slack. Faculty members often have to drop a test or an assignment for a weather emergency, so why not reduce the scope of your course if health conditions pose dangers — or if you sense that you and your students are simply exhausted. Most important, don’t feel at all guilty about that modification.
The surprise day off. To make up for the loss of spring break, some institutions have tried using random “wellness” days off — to provide both students and faculty members with some breathing room. These “holidays” may not be announced in advance: Word comes in the late afternoon the day before. On the one hand, an unexpected day off entitles one to play hooky (or at least sleep in); on the other, many faculty members become upset when they have to reschedule exams, labs, and lectures because of wellness days. Students seem to welcome the gesture of a surprise day off, whether it allows for a little genuine “rest and recreation” or some unexpected free time to complete pressing course assignments. So we should try to make the most of these sudden breathers, too.
The disappearing student. Some students have been overtly exercising their “right” to enjoy a spring break, claiming their willingness to take whatever penalties might accrue if they decide to attend class from, say, their hotel room on a Florida beach. When that happens, faculty members will end up with some interesting decisions to make about how to evaluate widespread absences and how to deal graciously with the student who says, “I was gone all last week. Did I miss anything important?” To reduce the strain associated with this predictable inquiry, faculty members need to plan how to deal with students who took time off from class. Reducing high-stakes activity may be a sound strategy to reduce strains for both students and faculty members alike.
In a real way, we all have missed some very important things this past year, including fellowship, community, collegiality, coffee or lunch with a friend, the happy dynamics of the classroom, and getting to know our students in person. With luck, the abeyance of spring break will be a once-and-done venture. Perhaps next year at this time we will all be marveling at the pleasures of a predictable spring break.
Jane S. Halonen is a professor of psychology and former dean of arts and sciences at the University of West Florida and Dana S. Dunn is a professor of psychology and director of academic assessment at Moravian College.