‘Tis the Season to be… | Lex Academic Blog

Returning home at the end of the year can be a natural opportunity to look back over the past twelve months. You might reflect on your career successes – publications, grant applications, book deals, and other things that give you a sense of time well spent. But you can do that any time. And anyway, if the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that we’ve been too focused on ‘productivity’ at the expense of our mental wellbeing. Returning home during the festive period creates a somewhat unique opportunity to contemplate the past, the future, and where your work life meets the rest of your life. It’s like you’ve been travelling, adventuring, and, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, when you return home, it’s like you know the place – and yourself – for the first time.

Homecomings take many different forms. For the luckiest amongst us, returning home or seeing relatives can be a time of joyful reunion, of thanksgiving, and feasts prepared by loving hands. There might even be a tree decorated by well-behaved children – the kinds of scenes you see from your train seat as you rumble through the suburbs; tiny fragments of lives literally framed by blinking lights jazzing up the double glazing. Holiday times can be hard, too, though, and bring back painful memories of better or worse times. Many people despise them at the best of times. And, as we reflect on our year, it’s hard to forget that these aren’t the best of times. This year, fuel and food poverty, inflation, strike action, and rent hikes will be added to the usual precarious, short-term contracts and department closures. Even the supermarkets’ seasonal adverts have foregone images of food heaped on tables, having decided that images of conspicuous consumption would be insensitive to a struggling population. Hopefully, you’ll be safe and warm during this festive period, and have the chance to have a moment of stillness to reflect upon the year just behind us, and the one still to come.

For some academics – especially first-generation academics, or those not from academic families – returning home can mean encountering a family that has no idea what you do, or what the point of your research is. Why did you dedicate your life to studying the bubbles in washing up liquid? What’s so important about parrots in French literature between 1874 and 1887? Actually, the ‘why am I doing this?’ question is supremely important and you might welcome this opportunity to translate your research project for a non-academic audience. But, more immediately, you’ll likely feel out of place spending time with family in an environment very different from your day-to-day. This shouldn’t be surprising. Many academics report feeling some form of imposter syndrome, and that can be heightened in the festive period. Most of us charted a course for academic waters and necessarily lost sight of the shore, and if you’re reading this blog on Christmas Eve in your childhood bedroom, you’ll probably feel this viscerally.

Whether you’ve travelled home or not, though, the December break is often characterised by working. That’s partly because the many deadlines set for ‘the end of the year’ are set in order to avoid working over the holidays. Maybe this problem is more pronounced for early career academics, who can have five or six projects running concurrently at two or three institutions. But project commitments tend to pile up in December in any case, and loading up the end of the year in such a fashion can make the term’s final weeks unreasonably pressured. Lots of exam marking tends to fall around the end of the year, too. And Twitter is always alive around holiday time with professors indignant at journals for setting review deadlines in the middle of the holidays, or some other professional affront. The festive period ends up being a great time not to relax, but rather to catch up with the reading and writing you couldn’t quite get around to during term time. And this brings with it real questions about finding a balance between work and life – something academics generally aren’t very good at.

It isn’t always our fault. Our lives can be chaotic and underpaid, which means you often need multiple contracts or some other kind of support to even survive. Universities are these days reluctant to renew senior posts when an elderly professor retires or dies. They save money by eliminating the appointment and parcelling out responsibility to existing staff supported by tiny sessional, 0.2 and even zero-hours contracts. You can easily find yourself in a position where you never really have a break. The situation is made many times worse for those with children or other caring responsibilities. For a group that works far too much as it is, we shouldn’t normalise working over the holidays. Certainly, our employers shouldn’t expect it.

Even the lucky (tenured) ones who have relatively light workloads over the holidays will probably work far more than they really have to. In their case, however, it might be to relieve boredom, or escape enforced jollity and endless telly. There’s nothing wrong with finding time, between arguments about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, to read a few papers or sketch out a new monograph. It’s your own life and obsession, after all, though many of us will be working because we don’t know what it means to relax anymore.

At the risk of prescribing New Year’s resolutions, the festive period is a great time to take stock, to find a moment to put your feet on the radiator and reflect. You might, of course, ask yourself the standard questions about what you want to achieve in the next twelve months. What have you been most proud of this year? What do you want to do more of in the future? What aspects of your job would you like to limit, eliminate, or outsource to Lex Academic (which is spread across the globe and open 365 days a year)? But perhaps the kindest thing you can do for yourself in this difficult year is to make sure you have the space and time to be happy, healthy, and safe.