On Taking Time Off

As we all approach Thanksgiving, I’m wondering what your plans are. Specifically: how much of a “break” is a faculty member supposed to take?

MATLAB cornucopia filled with papers

Horn of Plenty of Work

I used to fill carry-on bags with grading, notebooks, and papers to bring home with me for the holidays, certain that this is my chance to finally get caught up. Which, obviously, I wouldn’t need to do if I’d just worked hard enough all semester like I should have.

Most of the time, the bags were never even opened, just dragged through airports as a physical manifestation of guilt; an academic’s hairshirt.

This year, I’ve got exams and projects to grade, the last weeks of classes to plan, a couple of papers that have been “almost done” for a while now, some grant and travel applications coming due, and an impending talk that could really use one more new result.

But I need to try something different. So after 5pm on Tuesday, I won’t think about any of this until Sunday.

Some family is coming to town that I don’t see that often. I’m hosting a bunch of my awesome new faculty cohort at my house for a potluck dinner. I have a few days to spend with my overworked first-year-teacher spouse while he gets a little break from his grading and planning. I’ll be running a Turkey Trot, finishing an afghan, building a PC, playing a couple instruments, and doing some non-academic reading. By Sunday, if all goes according to plan, I’ll be excited to get back to work.

I could maybe devote more time to working over the long weekend. But I wouldn’t get as much done as I’d hoped for, and I’d come back to work exhausted on Monday and drag myself through the week in a fog. I know, because I’ve done it a hundred times before. Since I started giving myself regularly scheduled breaks this year, my productivity has actually gone up.

I’ve talked to a lot of other young academics about this, and we confess to each other in hushed tones that we take a day off on the weekends, or refuse to grade in the evenings, or struggle to not answer emails during date night. But this still doesn’t seem like an easy thing to admit publicly, that you can’t be superprofessor all the time.

I’m fortunate that my department is very supportive about having a life outside of the office. When some people talk about work-life balance, what they seem to mean is that you should effortlessly have a perfect home life while you also effortlessly crush it professionally. But my chair apologized for sending emails late one weekend night. My colleagues tell me to go home if I stay in the office too late. They know it’s impossible to work effectively when you’re burned out. Why doesn’t everybody?Those of you with more experience navigating “breaks”: what’s your strategy for time off without guilt? How do you keep your standards high while acknowledging your physical limits? And fellow new faculty: what are your expectations for yourself? Do you feel like you can take enough time for yourself and your family without sacrificing your career?


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3 Responses to On Taking Time Off

  1. Dimitris Kontokostas says:

    Well i fell the same , I ‘ m mathematician in middle school and I am full of ideas with a luck of time . When I work all day I fell that I lost contact with my family when I do the opposite I fell that I don t do my best for the school , I believe that we should balance our time every day. Thanks for your article it was exactly what I always thinking .

    • smalec says:

      I taught middle school for two years, and it was by far the hardest thing I’ll ever do. I have so much respect for you and the work you do for your students, and I hope you can take some time for yourself this weekend!

  2. Paul S. says:

    What do you mean by balance? You are a scarce resource: Your work would have all of you, and so would your loving family. They will both willingly take what you will give them.
    What is important to a person? This is what confuses all of us. We subconsciously absorb the pressures of those around us, getting “should”s from our bosses, professional peers, lovers, parents, children, etc.
    In the end you and I make our respective determinations, using only what we have always relied on. Intuition, desire, morality. It’s our call. What do you want your life to be for? I want mine to be for love and freedom, life in its multitude of forms, and yes, discovery. But my work can only be important insofar as it allows me to pursue these goals in their most general and universal forms.
    Why develop career and reputation as an end? They are only means.
    Even conceiving of some split between work life and human emotional life creates a tension. We are not machines who turn off our humanity when we walk in the door – this is a king or general’s moral theory. We are not *soldiers* nor peasants who owe anyone loyalty.
    If we are, we fight and farm for what we value, and nothing else. If we add our efforts to some cause, that cause has us to thank and honor, but no work has the power to *oblige* us.
    It is a question of what we believe we are achieving with our work. If it is only currency, the means to goods, then one should seek to invest only as much as will return what is needed, and focus other efforts on pursuing the Good Life, whatever it may be. If it is something higher, maybe one feels justified in curtailing enjoyment for the sake of ambiguous others. But one must accept this situation freely.

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