Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best/Worst End of Semester Stories

This will be a short post with no real accessories, as I am just trying to get one in before I get lapped by the final semester's post. The second week's prompt was the end-of-semester horror story.

Now, like everyone, I've got a cache full of awful stories. A quick bullet-point-list:

  • There's the young man who left threatening messages on my car, physically blocked me into an office and indirectly threatened my life, while filling me in on his ongoing accessory-to-murder trial. 
  • There's that young woman who called me a Nazi and stalked out of the final meeting.
  • There was that strange man who reported to my superiors that he couldn't learn from me because I was "goth." This oddball claim was based on my fondness for black clothes. He reported it to my superiors who were, on that day, also all in black. 
  • There have been all those who go missing at the halfway point, and then turn back up the final week, angry that they cannot drop and are not longer able to pass the class.
  • There are all the many students who turn in half of a final paper, or less, and then complain that they didn't pass and it's all so terribly UNFAIR.
You know, the usual.

But, this semester, I think the worst of it has really been me. I've been having one of the most absurdly complex semesters I can imagine. At the start of the term, my best friend of several decades died at 40. In September, I delivered a project to the city government--a first for me, and one which ate up my energy and attention for weeks. In October, I was hit by a car while running my dog. A few weeks later, my sister eloped with a man none of us knew, and who we later learned has both cancer and two strikes. Then, my mother died. That was two weeks ago.

To say I've been distracted would be kind.

In this case, I think that the nightmare scenario is just having life go haywire, and trying to do my job. I want to be here for my students; I want to provide them with guidance, information, and a safe space in which to build their skills and find their voices.

I also just want a damn nap, and maybe a few margaritas. Finding balance is a struggle. 

I do not currently have the answers. I have never had the answer to the awful-student question, other than commiseration and frequent low-level ingestion of fermented grapes (or agave). But, in lieu of answer, I offer you one more worst-case-scenario:

Yesterday, one of my students informed me that they couldn't complete their final paper because they couldn't reach out to me or seek any assistance or do any work on it because they were...wait for it...too upset about my mother's death.

I think that one is my new horror story. It even beats the indirect death threat for "NO YOU DIDN'T" factor. 

Happy holidays, everyone. Maybe next year, we'll all be brilliant, our students will all be highly prepared and eagerly involved, and we'll get pay raises commensurate with what any of us could make as bartenders. I think I'll prepare for it by making some margaritas.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Paradise's Price: Making it to Break

This week's adventure in teaching: trying not to kill myself or others at the end of the term.

Wait, if you're not a teacher and so don't know just how true that really is (and, importantly, isn't) that sounds bad, and also like I might need to be followed around with a syringe full of Thorazine. Let me try again.

This week's blogging topic is strategies for avoiding the typical end-of-semester boredom, depression, stress, and decline in productivity. There, that's better. Sure, it still sounds awful (which it is), but at least it no longer sounds certifiable.

In short, I do not have a good answer to this problem. Or at least, I have not yet found a way to avoid a feeling of drag at the end of the semester. I feel it. My students feel it. The semester begins with fresh pages and faces, big ideas and plans, and boundless energy. The process of actual learning waxes and wanes over the weeks. We all enter the final lap with a collective groan and simultaneous burst of productivity bordering on frenzy.

Then it's over, and they leave, and I recharge. Then it starts again. In some ways, I appreciate the ebb and flow of energy and enthusiasm. I like that I can share it with my students, that we're experiencing the same natural cycle of the academic year. I have been in school on one side of the desk or another (and sometimes both) for all but six years of my life. The academic calendar and its patterns are my patterns. 

So, that's my first strategy: embrace the frenzy. For me, this means that I talk to my students about the end of semester crunch. We commiserate, and joke, and break the tension. I chat and complain with the other adjuncts in between grading sessions and panicky student drop-ins, and the sense of community and shared experience reminds me that the work will get done, as it always does. I stack the papers high and enjoy the feeling of peeling the next one off the stack. I pile my research up and use it as a footstool, just to show it who's boss. I get into it, as best I can, physically and mentally. 

All work and no play makes Renee a homicidal joy! Wait, no, that's not right. There are real limits to how long the crunch is fun and when it stops being fun, productivity and mood both plummet. Which leads to the next strategy: simplify everything. I create rubrics for grading the major assignments which include checklists bolstered by areas to add comments, simplifying the grading process for projects. In class, I cut down on new ideas, cycling back to ones that didn't reach everyone the first time and interjecting review of old material for the end. At home, I cook simpler meals, reduce hobby time, and set aside personal and professional development projects for a few weeks.

But, that can start to feel like a trap. When life is streamlined down to a cycle of work/food/hygiene/sleep/repeat, the sheer repetition can become crushing. So, I go for walks.  I have a dog, so I get to give myself points for being a good pet owner by giving him attention and exercise, which makes me feel productive even when I'm taking a bit of time for myself. More importantly, the walk itself provides a break while simultaneously offering tremendous benefit. 

I stretch my legs, work the kinks out of my back and hands, increase my metabolism and blood flow, and break up the monotony of grading. But, because I'm still thinking about the work when I start out, I mull over lesson plans, that day's classes, and course development ideas until my mind starts to drift. That's when I know I'm relaxing. And, when I get back, all that increased blood flow has usually cleared my head, opened my creativity, and restored my focus.

When, despite my best efforts and the support of my partner, friends, colleagues, and equally-beset students doesn't fully alleviate the anxiety I tend to fall back into the perennial fear of failure. More than the long hours and heavy work load that comes from being a seasonal (adjunct) employee in a seasonally-cyclic profession, it's this fear that can lead to my being a Negative Nee. 

For this, I have only two solutions that really help. The first is: do the work.  Procrastination is always a temptation, but the work will still have to be done. I try to remind myself of this. Sometimes I succeed. But, when it gets tight, I just put my head down and work. The hours pass, the papers get graded. Tomorrow comes.

The fall-back, final effort is this: walk away. I try to set manageable goals. When I meet them, I can be done for the day and feel good about my progress. Then I let myself be done. No matter how much must be done, sometimes I think we all hit the wall and it's just OVER. And, I've learned, that's fine. Sometimes, I reach the end of what I can do, not forever, but definitely for now. When that time comes, it's best to leave off and do something else. The work will be there again in an hour, or a day, when I find my mojo again. 

Until then, there's always Facebook...