Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Higher Ed Holiday Syndrome -- AKA, "I-Didn't-Get-Enough-Done-itis"

For many years, I was blessed with actual summer and winter "vacations" once my regular semesters were finished. I was able to quit my retail job in 2007 when I picked up a TA stipend at the beginning of my graduate studies, and my lovely husband always insisted that I take my summers off in order to rest up for the next year even though it meant living paycheck-to-paycheck and skimping on some fun times between June and August. I still managed to have fun, though. A bestie and myself would plant our relaxed selves next to a full kiddie pool in my backyard. There we'd read, nap, sunbathe (always with plenty of SPF applied), chat. Come 5:00 PM and the imminent setting of the sun behind the huge evergreen behind my house, we'd pull out the beer, wine, or gin and tonics or retire to a local watering hole for beer, wine, or gin and tonics. It was amazing. About one week before school started, I'd frantically scramble to finish my new composition syllabus and gather my books for a new set of classes, but other than that, the whole summer was mine, mine, mine.

Winter breaks were always significantly shorter, generally lasting between three and six weeks. I was the master of the final grade-and-post, turning my students' projects around in a few short days and posting final grades less than a week after the semester ended. Then I'd take hot baths, read, enjoy the soothing glow of my newly erected Christmas tree, and retire to my favorite downtown IF spots for coffee and the occasional heavy winter warmer beer. Christmas would come and go, as would New Year's, in the blink of an eye before I had to contend with the week-before crush once again.

The later years of my PhD program, as well as the impending crunch of the job market, have given me a wretched case of Holiday Higher Ed Syndrome. My colleagues are very familiar with this affliction.

Here's the scenario; you've got a large scale project with an indefinite completion date. It could be revisions on a journal article waiting to be sent back to an editor. He or she just told you to send it "sometime in the next twelve months." It could be that dissertation that you'd like to finish in the foreseeable future, but your teaching load, committee obligations, and the general state of your personal life kept you from making significant progress on it during the regular semester. The summer and winter breaks stretch out before -- glorious, vast expanses of time that boast no commitments beyond those you create for yourselves. You lovingly set deadlines. Some are generous and realistic with their deadlines. They'll finish an article and their new syllabus in three months, but anything else they get done is just gravy. These are the lucky ones. Most of us will set impossible goals for ourselves. We will, we declare boldly, finish two articles, a complete draft of our dissertation, and completely revamp our composition syllabi before the new semester starts. We'll even get all this done a week before the semester starts so that we have time to read those five for-fun books that have piled up on the nightstand over the past six months. (We don't talk about the twenty neglected for-fun books underneath those five.)

Such grand plans!

But here's the rub.

We are tired. We are so tired. We are exhausted after the semester ends. We've missed our friends and our loved ones, who haven't seen more than our downcast eyes over the top of our laptop screens for the last several months. We've missed heavy drinking. We've missed movies. We've missed watching a whole season of Toddlers & Tiaras in a single sitting.

We decide that we can take a week off without setting our schedule back too much, right?

Then there's a holiday, or someone's birthday. We can't work for that day, right? This person is a dear friend/family member/acquaintance.

Then it's Friday. Well -- we might as well take the weekend off. We'll start fresh on Monday and be three times as productive next week. Right? RIGHT?

As Mr. Vonnegut said, "So it goes." All. Break. Long.

This is not to say that we're not occasionally productive over breaks. It's about managing expectations, though. Higher Ed Holiday Syndrome tends to hit about two weeks before the new semester begins. We look at the goals we set for ourselves, and then we look at what we've gotten done. The two rarely match up. (If your to-do list is complete at the end of the break, please don't tell me.) Then we lose a day lamenting that wasted span of time. "We could have done so much more!," we cry. "We could have finished that dissertation if only we'd applied ourselves! Why-oh-why did Netflix have to upload all those episodes of Bridezillas?"

If you know someone who suffers from Higher Ed Holiday Syndrome, remind them that relaxation and fun are key components to enjoying life. Have them make a new list of deadlines that includes giving themselves a break and check that item off with a flourish.

The work will get done. It has to. In the meantime, let's not be too hard on ourselves, OK?

Happy holidays, all!