Christmas for academics

There’s no need for academics to work over the Christmas period, which in the U.K. now extends from Christmas Day (or even Christmas Eve) until after the New Year Bank Holiday. After all, we’re hardly ‘essential workers’ like doctors or midwives. At my university, and at some others I’ve heard about, not only do the buildings remain closed for the duration as a useful reminder that the heat isn’t on, but also the boss – in our case the Executive Dean – explicitly gives permission not to check the work email account until after the break. That statement from a line manager, a recent development, is genuinely helpful, at the very least sending a message to workaholics that they can’t expect answers to any messages they can’t stop themselves from sending.

For some reason, though, we academics find it hard to step away from the work. Sometimes, if there’s a pressing and real research deadline, the Christmas period is the one chance you have to concentrate on it. PhD students may not want to lose the momentum which ten days of not working would entail. But I also suspect that a lot of academics simply don’t do festivity very well. I remember being told a wonderful, or horrifying, story by a university administrator whose father was an academic: she recalled how, on Boxing Day, he would cautiously sneak upstairs hoping to reach his study before being intercepted and diverted from his goal by a family member. He simply couldn’t stop. It made him feel very uncomfortable being away from his books, and the unceasing round of food, TV, visitors and games wasn’t what he enjoyed.

We’re all different, so we thrive on different things. I’m currently focused on doing more food preparation than I normally have to do, and on reading a 635-page crime novel, while watching far more TV than usual and doing some socialising (I was roughing out this blog post and a friend turned up – great fun). Oh, and this year I’ve also been eating a lot of chocolate (probably my normal average for a year, but consumed in a few days). I will be doing some work later this week, because the MOOC deadline for checking the sound ‘n’ vision resources approaches, and the alternative is a very long day indeed on 3 January. I prefer not to go for the second option: and that’s my choice.

Thinking back over my career, what I used to do during the shut-down was work on book reviews; taking the time to read a book properly and then composing my response. One particular journal for which I reviewed a lot in my youth had a deadline at the end of the calendar year, which worked very well. I also used to go to the various London libraries for at least one day, where I’d meet similarly insane colleagues, but the libraries I frequent now favour the long closed period; I see that the British Library is only open for one day in this year’s UK shut-down, while in Oxford the Bodleian – usually open when nowhere else is! – has gone for the complete closure option.

So, where is everyone? Some appear to be getting on with their marking; when I was in the brick sector and had a pile of essays to get through before the next term started, I favoured the ‘get it all out of the way before Christmas’ approach, while others prefer to do it all in the days just before term began. Marking is something that central academics at The Open University don’t do, and I finished my moderating of the marking done by our associate lecturers before the shut down. I’m off my work email but I’m still on social media and enjoying the time to follow up some interesting stories brought to my attention, like this wonderful one on reconstructing the acoustics of Hagia Sophia.

Some¬†colleagues are off social media as well as off their work email accounts, but I can see that others are diverting their energies into an even more frenetic presence on Twitter. I liked the tweet that read “A reminder to academics that all Ostentatious Work Tweets had to be posted by 4pm yesterday. Next posting is January 3rd. Merry Christmas!” but the Ostentatious Work Tweet can simply be replaced by the Ostentatious Social Tweet; the sort which says “Look at me, I can relax/I have friends/I can succeed at parties”. You know, my suspicion is that many of my colleagues are still working, but are pretending they aren’t.


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