Four steps for staying afloat at mid-semester

Profs have to provide excellent support for students while they learn, and students have to work hard and learn well. We all have to stay inspired somehow.

Four steps for staying afloat at mid-semester

There are two ways to expend a lot of energy on a task you're working on. One is to tap into a deep well of focused effort, getting in the zone and experiencing flow as you deftly plow through the work and produce results of high quality. The other way looks a little like this:


For the last week, my work has been like option #2 above: Lots of scrabbling around but getting nowhere and accomplishing little of note. On Thursday, we had a snowstorm that closed my kids' schools, and although normally I don't want to lose a day's work to stay home with the kids, this time I found myself gleefully volunteering to stay home since it meant that I had a day off.

In other words, I realized last week that I am just tired. Ready for the semester to be over, which it will be... in six more weeks. It seems like I'm more ready for Spring Break, which is the week after next for us ,than I ever have been. I'm certain that my students feel the same, because I asked them. We're all feeling it, our fuel cells starting to run low about 3/5 of the way through the term.

We've all been here before, and we will be here again, and we know that we still have a job to do -- profs have to provide excellent support for students while they learn, and students have to work hard and learn well. We all have to stay inspired somehow. This is not easy! I've had to think hard about how to do it myself, and going into the home stretch, here's what I am committing to do to keep myself fresh.

  1. Find something to be enthusiastic about and be enthusastic about it. I don't mean, affect a fake Pollyana-style slap-happiness about school. I mean, look hard for something you can legitimately enjoy about the learning process and enjoy it in public, sincerely and proudly. During a class session, stop and communicate to students what it is you love about the subject you're on. Or, look at something legitimately worthy of celebration -- some small success that the class has had, or progress they've made -- and be publicly happy about it. There are opportunities everywhere. Last week my discrete structures class was working with Warshall's algorithm, and I took a few minutes from the discussion to talk about how I find delight in algorithms -- how simple, ingenious algorithms like Warshall restore my faith in humanity because they prove that people can be smart when they want to. I don't know how far that message went, but I do know enthusiasm is contagious, and when it's sincere it's basically irresistible. It may just be enough to keep a tired group of learners afloat.
  2. Go off-script. So many of us, profs and students alike, have schedules for our courses that have no margins whatsoever. (I'm looking at you, Calculus 2.) There is so much to "cover" and no room to breathe that the relentless forward motion of the class can become oppressive and demoralizing, like we are not in control of our own courses. But the thing is: We are in control. We just forget. So, find a way to assert control: A topic that can be kicked off the syllabus (trust me: They're there) in favor of an open work day or open Q&A session; an assessment that can be relocated; an assignment that can be adjusted. Crack the whip on your schedule and make it do your bidding.
  3. Seek balance ruthlessly. A busy schedule can be oppressive not only to a class as a whole but to individuals. It becomes really tempting for professors to spend the whole weekend grading, or students to get inadequate sleep because of assignments. Insofar as it's possible, I think we have to set deliberate limits on the times we work and obey those limits. For me, I draw the line at Sundays; the only work I allow myself to do on Sunday is blog post writing and doing my weekly review. I've even started setting away messages on my email to tell people that I do not work on the weekends -- this is time for family and church. For me, balance means I work when it's time to work, and I create spaces in my life that are not occupied by work -- they are devoted to the other things that make me a complete person, like family, faith, exercise, and time for reading and personal growth. In academia there's a pervasive sense that if there is work to be done, then you should be doing it -- and saying yes to more and more until there is nothing left in your life except work. We need to understand that this is not "dedication to students" or "a strong work ethic": It's a disorder and it threatens to destroy anyone who buys into it. Just as we need to exercise our power of choice in our course schedules, we have to exercise choice to ensure that we don't sacrifice those things in our lives that make us whole people, in the name of getting more stuff done. Doing so on a regular basis brings peace.
  4. Show mercy. Above all, the thing that is most needed to keep myself and my students afloat during these difficult parts of the semester is showing mercy to each other. There is a sense of the word "mercy" that I don't intend: I've taught at schools where faculty were enjoined to "show mercy" to students by lowering academic standards, letting students off the hook from reasonable syllabus policies, and the like. That's not mercy but rather plain laxity, and it does noone any good. What I mean by mercy is what the Catholic Church, of which I am a part, means. The Church derives the meaning of mercy from the Latin  misericordia, which refers to the act of having one's heart focused on the poor. Although my students aren't necessarily poor in the sense of wealth (ask me about my students at Vanderbilt sometime), they are poor in the sense of having struggles and having stories that, if we just knew what they were, would explain a lot of the behavior we see and rail against sometimes. That student who blurts out rude things in class turns out to be soldier back from deployment with PTSD. That student who never participates turns out to be struggling with depression. That student who "skipped" class for a week in a row, turns out to have a serious illness that required hospitalization. In all of these cases and those like them, we are so busy that what we are tempted to do is default to the simplest possible explanation for student behavior, which is that students are lazy and entitled and don't deserve the education we are giving to them. But like most things, it's more complicated than that. Just as we don't want students to treat us like two-dimensional objects when evaluating our courses, we have to work -- and it can be hard work! -- to look for the story behind the student and meet them where that story intersects ours. Otherwise, we objectify each other, and education ceases to be what it was meant to be.

None of these steps is easy. But for my own sake and for those around me, I'm going to try to walk in those steps even as tired and cranky and ready to be done as I am. How about you?