New Semester Blues

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!

9 thoughts on “New Semester Blues

  1. Exercise seem to be the key. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, given that it seems like the main problem is that I have no time (and only accomplished about 10% of my goals for the summer)…spending time on exercise has made a huge difference this year. Exercise seems to increase my mental flexibility and definitely mood. I am not sure whether I actually AM accomplishing more than last year, or whether I just dont feel as bad about losing my grip on some things, either way it amounts to the same!

  2. Thanks for posting about this. I’m in a dual university professor couple, and we both start teaching next week (in addition to the other service and research commitments, grant applications, etc that are piling up). On top of that my two children are starting pre-school and pre-kindergarten. I’m overwhelmed with anxiousness!

  3. Your timing is really interesting on this for me. I’m a doctoral student teaching my first solo class (a university 101 type course to transition first years into college life), so learning to deal with the work that comes from teaching (today was about time management, which is why I was amused by your timing) on top of research, my admin job, and the last pieces of coursework. It’s a different kind of stress that has changed my perceptions of a new semester.

  4. Firstly, all the very best to the wonderful teachers and researchers who are starting this week or next. If it were an easy job, they wouldn’t need such competent and intelligent people. Happy New Academic Year (or finalisation of second semester if you are Downunder).

    Two deep breaths everyone, one breath is never enough. I agree with the underlying sentiment in this post – the anticipation is more nerve-wracking than actually taking those first steps up the mountain. The second law of thermodynamics (darned thing that it is) says that time will continue to move forwards, and we will find ourselves halfway up before we have taken very many more breaths, and wonder how we did it. (Yes, it happens every time, believe me. We will even get to the top by the end of semester. Really).

    it is natural (I assume everyone feels this??) to feel nervous and panicky about starting new things. Once they become the ‘normal everyday things’, known quantities, it is easier.

    I was always reminded of the fresh, clean sheets of paper (I guess open files with new names now) when i met the students for the first time. Thinking of them and their excitement rather than my own panic helped a bit, as we mapped out our learning program together. (Although many first-year students seem unable to read or hear, and I used to have about 1/4 of the class lining up to ask me questions about the program or prac classes that I had made a lot of effort to explain during the first lecture. I guess they are bombarded with too much information in their first week. But knowing they are going to do this helps to cope the second time around … and 20th time around too).

    But you need to plan strategies to look after yourself – emotionally and physically. Here are some things that helped me over many, many years. I know this post is about nervousness at the start, but sometimes imagining how you are going to cope during the semester can help you be more confident with those first steps too.

    I strongly suggest you consider writing a ‘reflective diary’ – preferably each day but at least at a set-aside time each week. This post is, in fact, Scitrigrrl’s reflective diary about this week. Believe me, it really helps to focus on what you have achieved in those short-term blocks. It is difficult to remember the minutiae at the end of the semester. (Something similar has been discussed in a previous blog about mentoring). I resisted doing this for many years, thinking it was a waste of time and I had it all in my head anyway. Then I saw a group of TA’s writing reflections discussing their notes together, and I realised how really, really powerful it was. So now I am an advocate of the contemporaneous written notes. At the end of a really, really tough week if you can reflect on some of the good things that happened and make plans to avoid or mitigate the bad ones next week, then you end on a more positive note. Think of at least one positive thing, perhaps just an inspired student who talked to you, or a long meeting that ended in a realistic way forward with concrete outcomes, or a long-planned experiment that actually got under way.

    Your (dated) notes will also help when you apply for something in the future – I have used mine in a successful application for a teaching award, for example. But they are useful if you need to supply an updated or quirky bio for a presentation, or ‘evidence’ of your efficacy in managing your team for some more important reason.

    Then, as mentioned above, do some exercise no matter how tired you are. At the very least, it helps you sleep better. and at the very best it is beneficial in all sorts of other ways for your brain as well as your body.

  5. For me the end of summer brings a lot of guilt about things I might have accomplished but didn’t. As a graduate student, summer means I’m free to do research full time; next week teaching, classes and seminars start up again and I have to remember how to focus on research during short, specific blocks of time.

    I find it helpful if during the last week on holiday I clean my house, organise my papers, shop for any books/clothes/shoes/stationery that I’ve decided I need but haven’t got round to buying, do the laundry, and run any other errands that I’ve been putting off. It’s hard to choose not to spend all day every day on research while I still can, but I know that doing all these things now will help me feel like I’m starting the year with a clean slate. Also, these things all just add to my overall stress levels when they’re not done, and I’ll have much less time to do them once the semester begins.

    In general I’ve realised that there are some things that are both symptoms and causes of stress (for me, examples are having a messy house and not getting enough exercise). This can lead to a downward stress spiral, but if I’m careful to tidy my house and get regular exercise, I feel much more able to deal with everything else. I’m hoping I can remember this as the semester progresses.

    • Funny! That is exactly what I am doing this week. Taking the time for errands, house cleaning, cooking for friends. I also love that you refer to messy house as symptom/cause. I relate to this more than I can say.

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