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Spring Break, Spring Brake?

Dude, what did you do over spring break?

William James brother, Henry, said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were "summer afternoon." And in the summer I usually agree. But as the academic year winds down, in the college lexicon I think that two other words--"spring break"--are almost as beautiful.

For students, spring break is, well, a break. Some students return home to recharge their mental and physical batteries for the final push, the last six or so weeks of the spring semester. For others, spring break is work time; some students catch up on their class work, others return to a job to make a little money for living or playing expenses. And there are those students whose spring breaks are storied: They head south to Florida, the Keys, or other warmer climes for fun (I understand Panama is a hot destination, as is Las Vegas), if not a full-fledged bacchanal. Many of these students are juniors or college seniors whose time in the never nervous land of college is on the wane. Reality is around the corner-the world of work and responsibility beckons (or so Mom and Dad earnestly hope)-so why not enjoy what is truly a last hurrah before the demands of adulthood?

But what does spring break represent to teachers, especially teachers of psychology? Well, many things. Just as the end of the academic year, which is always crazy-busy, is on the horizon for students, so it is for faculty. Spring break is a time to assess where one's classes are and how they are faring. Does the syllabus reflect where the class actually is in terms of reading? Should any changes be made so that all the accomplishments that seemed reasonable in January remain that way? Do any topics need to be revisited, revised, jettisoned, or otherwise reconsidered?

What spring break is not for most teachers is a real break from their academic work. It is not a time to eat lotus or to contemplate one's professional navel (although some reflection time is nice, of course). Few teachers I know actually take the time completely off---they use the time for addressing pressing tasks. What observers (critics?) of the college scene don't realize is that the work is always there---there is always more teachers can do to prepare or impart information; in one sense, the job never ends. A class may be over technically, but the same instructor will teach it again in the future to a new group of students for whom the material will truly be new. Conscientious teachers always try to improve or update their courses.

And then there is grading, which, like taxes, is always with us. I always try to get all my grading done before spring break, which on many campuses also coincides with midterm. But I know that many of my colleagues and friends on my campus and on others are spending (will spend) the precious week of spring break grading papers and exams. Why? Because there was not enough time before break to do so---the week "off" is catch up time.

I also like to use spring break for writing. I write during the semester, but I am less hurried and harried during these five days. I am currently trying to finish the draft of one chapter (so far, I am on target to get a rough draft done before classes begin again) so that I can begin to work in earnest after break on another writing project (and happily, there is always another). I welcome the time to read a bit more and reflect a bit more before I set things down. I can also spend time revising and editing at a more leisurely pace, which is nice. And writing this blog, too, is not as rushed as usual (you may disagree-but, in fact, I am working ahead of my usual deadline).

I am also doing some pleasure reading (though I am certain it will work its way into my classes and scholarship at some point). Have you read Claude Steele's Whistling Vivaldi, a trade book summary of his research on stereotype threat? I am reading it now during my break---it is a terrific and thoughtful book on the ways that membership (however stable or however fleeting) in a stereotyped group can undermine or erode (often academic) performance. The book speaks to the experience of many minority students in college, of course, but the message and implications are much broader than that-anyone's performance can be threatened by rampant stereotypes in our culture. Steele's book is not a guilty pleasure-it's simply an intellectual pleasure, but I am also reading a few other books that I've not had time to open since December and early January.

I am also starting to working on a few conference talks I have coming up---two this coming weekend (done, but I still need to practice my delivery), one in April, and a third in May. And I am teaching a May term course for which I have added some new readings, which means the syllabus must be revised. Summer plans need to be drawn up, too-for it will be warm and sunny before I know it (which still seems like a fantasy in chilly eastern Pennsylvania at present). And I am teaching a new course in the fall . . . So, let's dispel the myth: Spring break is not vacation.

Am I getting any downtime or relaxation during this week? Of course! Besides some pleasure reading, I've gone for a few runs this week. I went to a terrific jazz concert with a friend last night. I am meeting two other friends for lunch today. And the aforementioned conference I am attending this weekend is in a great east coast city---with luck, I'll get to an art museum and a few bookstores.

So, for psychology teachers like me, spring break is really more like spring brake-a time to stop, look, listen, and plan-not so much a time to relax, nap, lay about, or wistfully dream. And I don't mind. I love what I do, teaching psychology and doing all the work that comes with it.

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