The last few weeks of the semester have a feeling of both desperation and joy about them. Joy comes for me at the approach of spring—the cherry tree outside my office window just bloomed, so I know it’s really here now. But there’s desperation at the amount of work that remains to be done. My students are tired. Some are sick—I have received emails from the hospital emergency room, the doctor’s office, the dorm room, requesting extra time for papers due to illness or explaining an absence from class. Some are just experiencing the normal stresses of the end of the semester—the realization that, yes, all those papers really are due all at once, and the reading really does need to be done before class.
Almost every spring I wonder if there’s a better way to do it, and every spring I throw up my hands in despair that there isn’t. Pedagogically, the end of the semester is both the best of times and the worst of times. Students finally have enough material under their belts for really interesting, meaty discussions of the reading, making comparisons across the semester’s work. They have now read enough that they can write papers that compare several texts, that trace trends across time, that need not fall back on unsupported generalizations but can be grounded in detailed evidence. There’s joy in that—in seeing how far they’ve come in ten or so weeks, how much we’ve all accomplished.
But, of course, there’s desperation in that as well. They are, after all, in the same position in all their classes, so all their classes are requiring long projects at the same time. And no matter how well I “stage” my assignments—building in time for an annotated bibliography, a proposal, a rough draft—it still feels as though at the end, there’s not enough time.
I feel it, too. There is not enough time to grade everything, to provide adequate feedback on the last piece of work so that the next one can be better. Or, there is, but then the end-of-year reports, planning for early summer conferences, and writing projects that still need attention may get short shrift.
Yesterday I read an article that suggested that I’d be more productive if I said “yes” more often, if I spent more time giving help and less time worrying about which requests to respond to positively and which to deny. I have to confess I read it skeptically, already feeling overburdened with requests for my time and energy, but I also hoped for a solution, a way around the feeling of stress that I was feeling as I faced the start of a new week with its new set of challenges. Unfortunately I did not find that solution. And I found a telling detail in the piece, buried well out of the way of the impressive academic achievements that the article outlined—Adam Grant, the subject of the piece, not only has a relatively traditional marriage in which his wife stays home with his two daughters, he works one full day every weekend and six evenings a week. So is his super-productivity the result of saying “yes” and giving to those who request his help, or does he simply work more than most people? Whichever the answer, I suspect his way is not in fact univerally applicable to all his readers. It’s certainly not to me.
We all know that spending more time on work will achieve results. The question is what the cost of that time is, in terms of family life and simple balance. As I mentioned earlier this semester, I’ve been forced to slow down somewhat this semester by a shoulder injury that necessitated physical therapy and some limits on my computer time. While taking time away from work to care for myself was initially frustrating and difficult, it’s actually proved beneficial. I’ve become a bit more efficient in my grading, I’ve tried to move around more, and I’ve noticed that sometimes stepping away from the computer is the key to a new idea, rather than doggedly sitting and waiting for it. I’m not saying Grant is wrong, that we shouldn’t help others—of course we should—but there are, I think, many paths to productivity, and in this case one size certainly does not fit all. Perhaps that’s the best lesson of the end of the semester—the uncertain weather, the changing workload, and the various illnesses and emergencies that we inevitably have to deal with are all teaching us about flexibility and adaptability. Now to adapt my way to the end of the term.