My University Cancelled Spring Break, So I Took My Own

From March 1-5, I took my own spring break. Like many schools, my university shifted our academic calendar in response to the pandemic, starting the spring semester late, but cancelling spring break to make up for it. Understandably, I was not alone in thinking this was a terrible idea.

Having to fake normalcy for a second pandemic semester already sounded unbearable. But faking it without even getting a break? I don’t know if I can even make it through a “normal” 15-week semester without a break. After my university’s decision, I commiserated with others online, where I learned that many institutions had implemented the same policy. Somehow that didn’t make me feel any better.

What Made Me Decide to Take a Spring Break?

Besides being exhausted, three general ideas influenced my decision to take a spring break:

  1. The university will never have my best interests in mind.

    Universities operate as businesses. Their survival (funding) and their customers (tuition-paying undergraduates) are their main concerns. This seems clearer than ever during the pandemic. But subconsciously I really did believe in the university as a “good progressive place.” I suspect that it’s a subconscious belief for many bright-eyed graduate students who uproot their lives to dedicate 5+ years to an academy that is more invested in their labor than their intellect.

  2. I am not powerless.

    Or I hold a reasonable amount of power. At the very least, I have the power to act with my best interests in mind, and I should. Inequalities may be structural, but individuals can resist. Or revolt. Pick the one that lines up with how radical you’re feeling today.

    Don’t get me wrong. Graduate students are at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, vulnerable to the whims of faculty. (Since undergraduates are confused with customers, I consider them to be on a separate plane.) But graduate students are not children, despite the common infantilizing metaphor that describes students as the children of their advisors. The expectations of graduate students are vague and vary greatly, but in vagueness, there is also freedom. In short, no one really cares if I take a spring break. They may be irritated that I’m being vocal about it or consider me to be “not serious enough” about my work, but “they” are not my advisors.

    Here’s where power mixes with privilege and luck. I’m in my third year of graduate school and I’ve built the relationships with faculty that I need. I’m fortunate to have at least 3 established faculty who will vouch for me (i.e., they like me and believe I’m capable of doing good work). This matters. So much. Faculty guide you through program milestones and provide the approval necessary for you to graduate. Knowing you have support from enough people also provides an invaluable sense of security. This is a privilege (because I know many students do not have this security). I don’t take it lightly.

    So with the privilege of security, I felt empowered to not only take a break, but became increasingly vocal about my plans. I moved from evasive statements about how I would be gone for a week to setting an automated email reply announcing that I was on spring break.

  3. Rest is resistance.

    Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry, preaches the power of rest as resistance. When my friend Chavonté introduced me to Hersey’s work in my first year of graduate school, I found it interesting. Now I find it essential. Resisting the constant pressure to work is, for me at least, crucial to good health and well-being.

    If I’m going to remain in the academy, I will have to make the conscious decision to choose rest, again and again.

Early on in this pandemic, we paid lip service to the idea of being compassionate during “unprecedented times.” We had idealistic notions of how we would care for each other differently, be more understanding, and prioritize our humanity over our work.

We haven’t done that.

Instead, we’ve become obsessed with how much we can accomplish virtually. We haven’t slowed down. In some ways we’ve ramped up. We can fill our days with more meetings and attend conferences from anywhere, everywhere. We accommodate the evening and weekend schedules of those who now have additional child and elder care duties, but accommodations seem to have twisted into expectations of work expanding into all hours. I’m guilty too, with my full course load, the conferences I now regret, and the times I’ve said yes when in retrospect, the clear answer was no.

Spring break was my way of finally saying no.

Logistics: The “How” of Spring Break

No one is really asking me how I managed taking a week-long break in the middle of the semester. But I don’t think I’m imagining that the question is implied. It’s present in a look or falsely curious “oh?” Worded honestly, the question would sound something like this:

“How can you afford to take a week off in the middle of the semester?”

The quick answer is because I’ve done it before.

In my second year of grad school, I lost a loved one. I wouldn’t have been able to make it to the funeral in time; instead, I missed a week of school to grieve. I hadn’t planned on taking the whole week off. But there was a day when I got dressed, grabbed my books, and climbed into my car, only to feel that now-familiar clenching feeling in my chest. As I gripped the steering wheel, the chest clenching feeling traveled upward to reach my face. And even though my eyes were tightly clenched shut and I thought I must have cried myself dry by this point, wet cheeks again. Nope, said all the clenching parts of my body, and so I went back inside. And so the week dragged on.

When I returned to school the next week, I expected to find a devastating amount of work waiting for me. But it was fine. Or maybe it was just my newfound perspective and a shift in priorities that led me to finish up coursework, get the notes I needed, and even submit a major grant application without much worry.

I still haven’t been able to write much about that week, but the lesson stayed with me. That in the end, academic work is just work. And work can be made up or missed.

Balancing My Workload

Once I’d decided to take a spring break, I waited impatiently for faculty to post their spring syllabi. After the first week of classes, I pulled up the mixture of Word and pdf syllabi, opened the calendar app on my phone, and grabbed my planner. After ruling out weeks with big deadlines or special events like guest speakers, I settled on week 7, the first week of March.

Of course, as March drew closer, more events were scheduled for that week. A talk from a visiting scholar that I would normally be expected to attend. Two talks, actually. A social event that turned out to be bigger than usual. Recruitment day for my department.

Despite this growing list, I had no trouble saying no. Some invitations were easy to turn down. I was perfectly happy to miss out on annual recruitment activities; who wants to go through the awkwardness of a selling a place you don’t like? Others caused a little regret. But overall, the FOMO was not real.

I’ve come to a relatively peaceful acceptance of the fact that there will always be more things than I have the time to do, so I will always be missing out on something. After choosing to take a spring break, I only doubled down.

Sorry, my whole week is booked.

I can’t yet speak to the logistics of the week after, but I know some of the makeup work won’t get done. I can live with that.

What Did I Actually Do During Spring Break?

This is the most common question I get, but honestly? What I did during spring break is the least interesting part. It’s a pandemic. My car needs to be checked out before I can drive long distances. So staycation it was.

During spring break, I slept. I spent time outside. I went on a hike almost every day. I drew nature scenes while sitting in nature. I cooked a bit but found that most days I didn’t really have the energy or motivation to do anything complex. I made and bought bubble tea multiple times – a small treat. I watched TV and played video games. I finished a puzzle. I did my taxes and watered my plants on time. I got takeout Friday night, sort of like I might any week.

I wonder what else I even did with my time. But I think that’s the point. I didn’t have to account for my time or assess if I was being productive enough. It felt like being in a different world.

Anticipating Spring Break

The anticipation of spring break was almost as good as the break itself. I had a rough week 4 and 5, with a lot of “the weight of the pandemic is hitting me really hard” and “I started sobbing out of nowhere and it’s not even my period” moments. (Yes, I know it’s problematic for me to try and blame my emotions on my period. No, I would never do this to someone else. I’m working on it.) But during week 6 I could look forward to spring break. Relief was so close. That Friday, I had more energy than I’ve had all semester. All from the anticipation.

There’s something energizing about knowing you’re doing something good for yourself. Even, or especially, when it’s at the expense of what others want you to do. (Or is that just me?) I felt the benefits of spring break at multiple points: when I decided to seriously do this; when I picked the specific week; when I could tell myself in the middle of a busy pandemic semester that a break was coming; the few days before, full of excitement and energy; and the break itself. Quite a bit of mileage out of a spring break.

Aftermath

Sunday night I mournfully set my alarm for 6 am. I didn’t sleep very well and had a mildly stressful first day of school dream. Huh. It really does feel like I’ve been gone for a while.

Still, I’m not energized to start work again. I don’t feel the way I would in August or January; after all, it was just a week. I took a muted vacation, one limited by the reality that our world still isn’t safe.

Nothing has changed. But I’m glad I tried out this exercise in resistance. Taking a spring break wasn’t just about resting. It was my experiment on the possibilities for change and ways to imagine (and act out) more humane ways of existing in the academy.

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