Spring Break

Last semester the University of Missouri academic included a full week off for Thanksgiving (as it has every year I’ve been here). The difference this year was that there were just four school days left in the semester before the start of finals week. I was not wild about this quick turnaround before the examination period, particularly since there didn’t seem like enough time to really give any new instruction as everyone seemed to spend that entire week trying to work their way back into school mode…and then the semester ended. It takes me most of that week of vacation just to get to a point where I can really relax and was perhaps even more sluggish than most in that first week back, too, so my grumpy reaction to the schedule was to grouse that I’d rather just get Thanksgiving (Thursday and Friday) off and keep up the head of steam for the semester since we were already in the home-stretch. It doesn’t do any good to grab the runner going into the final turn to hand him or her a glass of water– just save it for the finish line.

But that (originally) hallowed tradition of Spring Break falls earlier in the semester, which makes my specific complaint about last semester’s Thanksgiving break moot. There is plenty of time to work back up, teach some more, and go into the end of the semester at least a little bit more refreshed than you otherwise would be. It is also a reasonable time to assign papers to be due since, at least in theory, there is a whole week where students shouldn’t have to actually attend class and can dedicate at least a little bit of time to reading and writing–things that may be expected of them for classes, but that can’t actually be completed in the classroom.

Of course, a passing glance at Twitter indicates that if a professor expects students to take an exam on the first day back from spring break, having given them the break to study, the professor is a jerk, or if that professor has the exam the day before spring break, leaving the students free to fulfill whatever escapades they desire, that same professor “should be called an array of four letter words.” In fact, if the professors expect students to do anything over spring break, they are (according to my “research”) out of their minds because it is time for break, not a time for school. This same “research” generally indicates all sorts of frustration over work assigned by professors and a lesser amount of praise for them, often, though not exclusively, the product of cancelled classes, so I suspect that at least some of the complaints would merely be reframed rather than removed were there no spring break. That said, would the academic calendar be better off without a week-long break in the middle of a semester?

My gut inclination is to say yes.

Though I am not religious, do I understand an impulse to tie an academic hiatus to a holiday like Easter (Brandeis did the same for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah), but Spring Break as it is currently conceived of is not tied to a specific holiday. Instead, it has transformed into a commercial opportunity and is assumed to be a welcome reprieve from the rigors of the semester for both students and instructors. The studious can play catch up on work while the fiscally fortunate may bathe in sun and liquor in far off paradises and everyone can enjoy a bit of sloth. Nonetheless it feels to me like a stark caesura in the middle of the semester that exacerbates problems when it comes to the educational cycle and encourages even more procrastination than already exists. I have been trying to mull over the reasons–if not religion–that the full week mid-semester break exists and have come away with nothing except tradition (and a one week period where the university can run on reduced staff). It is one of those things that seems to have been there as long as anyone can remember any many people have fond memories of, so why bother change it?

Now it is not that I necessarily want to extend the semester or bring upon myself any more work than I already have. Instead of a single week-long break, I would endorse multiple (up to five or six, say) long weekends scattered throughout the semester. Sure, the March/April economy of Cancun and Panama City would suffer, but that really shouldn’t be a concern for colleges. There would be backlash, too, but I suspect that instead of an extended buildup toward this week followed by a drawn out denouement, more long weekends would actually keep people fresher throughout the semester and avoid both the mid-semester trap week and the months without any break at all as sometimes happens in the fall semester before Thanksgiving.

This rambling speculation is a flight of fancy on my part. It comes from a place of exhaustion from the semester and bafflement at watching people talk about their professors on social media. I realize that there is little chance that spring break will go away, but I would still be interested to know how other people would react (or would have reacted) to the idea of eliminating Spring Break altogether.

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