By Fred Cutler, Political Science

Reading week is held at the wrong time. Both faculty and students would be better served by a reading week held in mid-March, coinciding with the March Break in most BC schools.

This change would improve working conditions at UBC. An increasing proportion of faculty and staff have school-age children. Almost none have a spouse who stays at home and can care for children when they are out of school. This makes the March school break a challenge. Most families find some kind of camp for their children. Often this involves complicated family logistics, with multiple children being driven to these activities, making it a difficult work week for faculty and staff. One political science colleague reports seeing other UBC faculty working on laptops at the Grouse Mountain base lodge!

Faculty, in particular, are unable to use the school break to take a family holiday, as so many families do. And this is particularly galling, because we have the flexibility to take a family holiday in May and June when children are in school. My senior colleagues say their children went on spring break holidays with other families, year after year. Others describe all kinds of clever ways to reschedule lectures or make deals with colleagues to cover their classes. At some comparable institutions, like the University of Illinois, all this is unnecessary because local school boards time their break to coincide with the university break in mid-March.

Bill Mohn, of the microbiology department, says “Teaching in spring term caused a real dilemma, pitting against one another my commitments to my family and my teaching. It caused me to miss or curtail family vacations. And, this was doubly frustrating in the knowledge that a later spring break would be better for academics at UBC.”

Moving reading week would, quite simply, make life better for UBC employees and their families. This is what UBC’s existing family-friendly policies and the goals of Trek 2010 are all about. And the change is costless.

The second reason to make this change – no less important – is pedagogical. The February reading week, after only six weeks of classes, is simply too early. Many of my colleagues in the Faculty of Arts tell me that they consider it too early to schedule a midterm examination before reading week after so little course material has been covered. Few students use the break in the middle of February for term projects due at the end of March or early April. To some extent they are justified in doing so, since they have had only five real weeks of course material. Instead, many students use it as a holiday week a mere six weeks after the two-week December break.

If the break were in the middle of March, looming deadlines would mean students would use it for term papers and projects. At present, we ask students to do this work while continuing with normal class reading and attendance. With students taking a full load, something has to give, and instructors notice a serious drop in attendance in mid-March. A March break would be more of a “reading week” than a spring break, but it’s called reading week for a good reason.

One account of the origin of the February break is that winter sees the highest incidence of depression, so students need stress relief at that time. (The jury is still out on this in the psychology literature). But surely the real academic stress is in March, when work piles up and exams loom. A March reading week would do as much or more than the February one to reduce student stress.

Put these two arguments — working and teaching — together and it is hard to imagine much resistance to this change.

Note: This post was originally published in the November 2007 Faculty Association’s Newsletter, Faculty Focus (Vol. 40, No. 4: 5). It will not be long now before the author’s own children graduate from high school.