The End of Snow Days

Brian Taylor

February 24, 2010

The quaint college town where I attended elementary school, Fredonia, N.Y., rarely canceled school because of inclement weather. I have a clear memory of a 20-plus-inch storm, which resulted in a modestly inconvenient one-hour delay of the bus ride into town the next morning. Between the plows and the experienced drivers, snow days were rare indeed, a treat to be celebrated with pancakes, a few extra hours of black-and-white sitcom reruns, and some spirited snowball wars with the neighbors.

When I taught high school in the Tidewater region of Virginia before heading to graduate school, snow days were the highlight of the academic year. Genuine snow was rare, and it sometimes seemed that the mere rumor of snow was enough to add the magic words "Hampton City Schools—Closed" to the crawl screen at the bottom of local newscasts.

On those occasions, I would watch old movies on cable, read even older poetry in a leisurely fashion, and, typically, catch up on a little paper grading or lesson planning. One snow day stands out from that phase of my life: January 28, 1986, when I watched the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, with its most famous passenger, fellow teacher Christa McAuliffe. The long silence from the broadcasters following the explosion was sheer agony.

With my years as a student and those as a faculty member, I now have more than four decades of experience with snow days. I may not remember them all with the same clarity as I remember the Challenger's tragic disintegration, but I can state declaratively that I have enjoyed each and every one. They have been pennies from heaven, raining down reprieves from deadlines, exhaustion, and dull routines.

In many areas of the country, 2010 has brought more snow days than any year in recent memory. As I write, my town in West Tennessee has had at least a trace of the white stuff on the ground for almost three weeks. Many local school districts have maxed out their allotment of weather cancellations.

My university has not been immune. On several occasions we've canceled classes, opened late, or dismissed early. The father in me has looked forward to those snow days, the lingering memories of them teasing me into thinking that a break in my schedule would yield extra time with my family, the kind I enjoyed as a child.

I stayed up late for the first snow day of this year, hoping to catch word of the closure before I fell asleep. It finally came through my cellphone; the emergency-alert system on our campus sent out a message that an announcement had been posted on the university's Web site. I decided to wait until the morning to read it, planning to sleep late and catch up on some playtime during the day at home.

When I rolled over in the dim light of an overcast morning sky, I immediately pulled up my laptop and double-checked the announcement. Campus closed. I opened my official e-mail to find a gracious note from our president asking us to stay away from the campus. Too much ice and snow. Stay home. Enjoy some time with family. I smiled at the prospect and quickly scanned down my in box to see if anything was urgent.

One e-mail message caught my eye: It was from a reference for a prospective faculty member. Because the search was pressing, I answered the questions the message contained and instinctively began to click my way through other e-mails. As an academic dean, I receive more than my share of messages, even during the overnight hours. I shifted the bedcovers and propped up my pillow. Soon I had descended completely into work, flitting through Web sites and messages and then into my word processor, editing a draft of an important study that my office is completing. A couple of hours later, a message popped up from an editor who needed to talk to me as soon as possible. By that time, the replies to my earlier e-mail messages had started trickling in. Before I knew it, lunch had rolled around. I finally got out of bed, having completed at least four hours of work.

I had hoped, of course, to dash outside to have a snowball fight with my kids, but by the time I poked my head downstairs, they had already gone and come and were sipping hot chocolate by the fireplace. I ate lunch with them, realizing that I had forgotten to eat breakfast and finding that my belly took particular relish in the grilled-cheese sandwiches we had prepared. The full tummy and the warmth of the fire pushed me over the edge into a nap.

My somnolent lunch hour was a definite change of pace but was merely a brief reprieve as I awoke to a freshly filled in box with more e-mail messages. I must admit to spending a little time scouting some forthcoming book purchases at a few Web sites and catching up with some friends on Facebook, but all in all, I ended up working well past dark, punching in over nine hours on my snow day.

Later in the week, I mentioned that to a colleague who said he had ended up spending the day on our online teaching platform, posting assignments and updating files. Several other staff members told me they had accessed files by remote and had spent most of the day burrowed into spreadsheets and documents.

I suppose technology has broken the fourth dimension of teaching: time. We all know of the controversies associated with asynchronous pedagogy, but I found myself reflecting on the complaint about online teaching that I hear the most: It invades every crevice of one's day. Technology does not know the difference between Mondays and Saturdays, workdays and snow days. It is the Lidless Eye of Sauron that never ceases its work. Too easily we find ourselves subjugated to its power.

Recently NASA installed an observation window on the International Space Station. According to one report, the oversized bubble was expected to provide the crew with a new opportunity to view the cosmos. Instead, it has been overshadowed by another new arrival: full Internet access. The astronauts have taken to checking their e-mail, ordering flowers for their Earth-bound spouses, and posting to their Twitter accounts. Somehow that seems oddly like the way I spent my snow day.

William Wordsworth published one of my favorite poems, the kind of sonnet that I once pondered on quiet snowy days. He lamented,

The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! ... For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not

I teach that poem with gusto, exhorting my students to find the time for reflection, to put away their tiny electronic screens and to gaze instead at the wide, marvelous world. I am rather ashamed, then, that I spent my snow day pursuing the drudgery that another poet, Robert Frost, lamented a century after Wordsworth:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep.

A second century beyond Wordsworth, I find myself cursing that three-letter word: "But." The news recorded a snow day. But I had e-mail messages to check, calls to return, and social networks to update. So I found that the "end" of my snow day should have been understood in light of another definition of "end," not as in the day's "termination" but rather "end" as in its "purpose": just another opportunity to get work done. This kind of "end" to snow days means that we are witnessing the other kind of "end" of real snow days.

Gene C. Fant Jr., serves as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Union University, in Jackson, Tenn. He also is a contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education's On Hiring blog.