I Hate Teaching on Labor Day: An End of Summer Polemic

September 4, 2011, 10:50 am

Do faculty and students get burned when the academic calendar ignores federal and religious holidays?

Oh sure, write it off to the selfish impulses of a persnickety faculty member who is unwilling to sacrifice for the common good (think again.) Tell me that I just had twelve paid weeks off (not true:  I have a nine month salary that is paid over twelve months), and that compared to such a luxury, one little day can’t possibly matter.  Tell me that this calendar was approved at a faculty meeting I failed to attend (true) and that if I had really cared I would have attended the faculty meeting and made one of my impassioned, fruitless speeches (which would have embarrassed everyone and changed nothing.)

Let’s repeat it for emphasis: I hate teaching on Labor Day.  Hate. It.

So the question is: why must we work on Labor Day? This leads to our second question:  what are the larger implications of the fact that we work on Labor Day, but that we force our students to attend class on a day when everyone else is on vacation, including most of the university’s staff?

The answer to the first question is easy: the reason we must work on Labor Day is because the state of Connecticut mandates a certain number of class hours for each credit that we give, and in order to fit those hours in, we must start teaching and learning on Labor Day.  This also means that we work on other national holidays that fall in the school calendar, preventing faculty from taking advantage of the massive savings on new appliances.  We work on all of the Jewish high holidays, meaning the manipulation of syllabi so that nothing happens while a significant number of students and faculty are away or, alternatively, callous disregard for the spiritual requirements  of members of our community; and we work on all the critical days of Lent. When I first moved to Connecticut, having only taught in New York City, the failure to take days off for major religious holidays was incomprehensible to me, not because I am religious, but because the power of religious constituencies is so vast in urban politics.  In New York, the most sacred secular ritual of all (re-parking your car on the other side of the street) is suspended for 41 days, or 15% of the calendar year, because of religious holidays that include the three days of Eid al-Adha.

But let’s get back to the question of why we teach on Labor Day.  We teach on Labor Day because:

  • It is now standard to have a mid-semester break, and it is an unquestioned fact that students must rest, and preferably go home to see their parents for five days, in the middle of the semester.

Why students need to rest after six weeks of school, particularly when Thanksgiving is coming up and they can rest again, is a more complicated issue (have they considered cutting at least one party out of their schedules each week and going to bed/studying instead?  That might do it.)  Why the state of Connecticut has mandated a threshold for class hours that makes it impossible to close on critical religious holidays throughout the year and celebrate federal holidays without starting school in the last week of August and beginning classes on a federal holiday is another interesting question.

Similarly, why the university has decided that the contemplation that is intended on religious holidays, and national holidays, should be arbitrarily replaced by five random, secular days of “rest” speaks volumes about the lack of ethical thought that goes into shaping the school year.

OK:  so what are the other possible consequences of what I have just described?

  • The university is operating on a skeleton administrative staff on perhaps the most complex school day of the year, and the one on which first year students and transfers are most likely to be confused, lost and needing direction. On a day in which theoretically we need all hands on deck, administrative assistants and secretaries are not available to direct traffic; distribute forms for prospective and current majors; answer questions about where to find faculty; copy syllabi; or sort out IT issues.
  • Faculty who don’t teach a Monday schedule will also take the holiday, and thus be unavailable to their advisees, prospective advisees, colleagues or students who want to ask them about the classes they are teaching that semester.
  • Faculty and supervisory staff (who are carrying an extra heavy load because all of the unionized staff who work for them are not there) have a reason to feel resentful and grumpy, as do their partners, children and other associates, who are also missing out on or truncating the holiday weekend because Professor X has to be back at work.
  • We send the message to our students that being at work for the right amount of time, even if you are there in a half-a$$ed way, is more important than being at work in a fully engaged and purposeful way.

Finally, think about this.  Labor Day was first celebrated in 1882, and became a federal holiday in 1894 after the massive violence of the Pullman Strike forced political and economic elites to reckon with their inability to control labor through force.  What followed was a long period in which the regulation of capitalism’s excesses and the recognition of unions was offered by the state in exchange for the American working class agreeing to the basic principle that breaking out in armed revolution was not the best route to worker prosperity.

One unexpected cultural outcome of Labor Day is that, when we take the day off, we all acknowledge for a day that we are “workers,” and that we sell ourselves to an employer for a price.  When faculty agree to work on Labor Day, we reveal something peculiar about ourselves:  that we don’t see ourselves as “workers” at all.  We think we are something else, something called a “professional” who has exchanged the benefits of being part of a collective bargaining system for status.  We think this, even though our labor is increasingly proletarianized, our salaries and benefits are being deliberately suppressed, and it is possible to lose access to a federally mandated holiday by not showing up at a faculty meeting and voting for your right to have it.

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