As a student – through most of graduate school – I loved the beginning of the new school year. New notebooks, new textbooks, I wasn’t behind on anything yet, and I’d get to see my friends every day again! Better still, the schedule was pretty light so it was still a few weeks before reality of schoolwork kicked in again.
These days, my feelings are more complex. At the beginning of a new semester, I don’t start with a blank slate. I have already done hours of preparation on classes, and a lot the work – grants, papers, research, conference submissions – doesn’t coincide with the school year. At the beginning of the new year, my schedule changes dramatically. No more rolling with a slower morning, things in my schedule that are written in stone: teaching is the big one. Seminars. Administrative roles kick in again, with their meetings for various committees. Graduate students have other commitments too, so expectations of them needs to be readjusted. Email traffic through my inbox will increase exponentially. And lot of the intensity is there from the outset – lectures need to be prepared, there is no up-ramp for committee work, and the rolling deadlines of grants, papers, conference submissions continues without a not to the academic year.
To be honest, right now I am finding the idea of the semester starting feels like an insurmountable mountain. I have new responsibilities, new opportunities, and new pressures piling on top of the ones from last year. Right now I can’t see the path I’m going to use. I know there is a path -I’ve climbed other mountains, and I have instructions. I even know that once I start climbing, I’ll focus on one step, one segment at a time and it will feel manageable again, most of the time. But now, with classes starting in less than a week, that’s not how it feels.
So how to deal with this? I don’t have a good answer. Or rather, I’m working on it. My strategy this year is to figure out exactly what needs to be done and wrangle it all onto a calendar. This is a much more detailed process than I’ve used in the past. One thing that helps is that I’m starting (slowly) to get better at knowing how long things take (lecture planning, for example) and knowing where I can skimp to make more time if necessary. So right now I am mapping out projects and deadlines, how they fit in with teaching and conferences already in my calendar. I’m trying to break some of these bigger projects down into smaller chunks to set my own deadlines to stay on track, just like I ask my students to do.
When I have done that what I have on my calendar scares me, and I know that there are things not yet scheduled in – like most of the meetings for a committee I am sitting on. There are things that are going to pop up – illness, a grad student in crisis, crucial pilot experiments not working. I know the flow of There are things that will take a heavier emotional toll than actual time – like submitting the packet for my third year review. I also know that where second year on the TT was orders of magnitude busier than first year, and third year is going to ramp it up again.
I also know that this year will be easier than the last two years in some fundamental ways. I know where to turn for help when issues do come up. I have taught the course I’m doing several times now, and the materials, pace, the kind of students that will be in the class are familiar to me. I’ve adjusted the assessments to make it more manageable for me, and I no longer feel even slightly bad about saying no to scheduling meetings in blocks of times that I have set aside for uninterrupted writing or research time. When I look at my calendar again (after some sleep, perhaps), I can see it in a different light – I can see all the things that are going to happen this year. Every individual thing on there is completely doable, and some of them are really very cool. Seeing my semester in that light makes it start to seem exciting.
On Tuesday, the semester officially starts. At that point, when I start actually climbing the mountain rather than staring at it and worrying, the energy and excitement will kick in. And until then, I will remind myself that I’ve GOT this. That it’s not the middle of a polar vortex like last semester, and that this time, this time I know what I’m doing.
I’d also love to hear everyone’s thoughts on, and strategies for, dealing with the new semester. Favorite resources for organizing the semester? Send them my way!