Essay on the start of the academic year, following the end of summer
About this time of year one invariably reads fulsome, even orgiastic essays by academics professing the exhilaration and sense of joy they feel on the first day of class each August or September. In so doing, they often blather on about limitless possibilities and rituals of renewal, etc., and wax on about frisson A and epiphany B on the quad.
I must admit that my experience is quite different. Whereas for many professors the beginning of the academic year is a time of excitement and anticipation, for me it is — indeed, has been for the 30-plus years I’ve been teaching at the university level — a time of melancholy, even gloom. Indeed, late August/early September marks the peak period of my annual bout of SAD. To most clinicians, SAD denotes "seasonal affective disorder," a condition in which normally well-adjusted people experience a range of depressive symptoms, but for me SAD means "student affective disorder." Same symptoms, different etiology.
Around the beginning of August -- even earlier now -- I begin to suffer the symptoms: heightened anxiety; enervation; difficulty concentrating; social withdrawal; increased irritability; nausea. Over time, I’ve found that the reason for the onset of such conditions is the looming return of STUDENTS into my life.
It is not August, but the end of the exam period in May that elicits in me a sense of joy and limitless possibilities. Only when my grades are turned in, the seniors graduated, and the dorms emptied out do I begin to feel a sense of excitement and anticipation and the possibility for renewal. For it is only then that I can focus on research and writing without the threat of being interrupted by tedious office hours, middle-of-the night phone calls, and "urgent" e-mails ("Can I get an extension on my book review?"), not to mention lectures, seminars, grading, meetings, committee work, etc., etc.
Rather, with May comes "summer break" and the tantalizing possibility of finally honoring long overdue writing commitments, of making headway on a scholarly monograph, and of thinking deeply about new projects down the line. If sufficiently lucky, it might mean a trip or two to an archive to immerse oneself in source materials one has waited months, if not years to dive into. And it might even give one a chance to attend a conference, present a paper, and get some useful feedback from experts in one’s field. Talk about renewal!
But, alas, before one knows it, August comes around. David M. Shribman recently wrote a beautiful essay in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Whatever Happened to August?," an elegiac piece lamenting that August, once the Platonic ideal of summer, has been turned into a "month of work, school and calendars run amok." Nowhere is this more true than at universities. At colleges and universities across the land, the ecological system in town begins to become student-centric earlier and earlier each year, with suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, eager-beaver fresh-faced frosh transforming the placid summer landscape on campus into a crowded cacophonous mob scene.
Even worse, by then the seemingly “limitless possibilities” for summer, the best-laid plans, the hopes and dreams have all been dashed. Some of the overdue commitments are still outstanding. Progress has been made on the unfinished monograph, but it still sucks. The trips to the archives brought disappointing results. The professional meetings were as boring as ever. And now the students are back. Any wonder that I get depressed?
To make things even worse, it seems more and more as though “summer break” is over just after the 4th of July. That’s when the first, vague symptoms of SAD begin to appear. They accelerate through July and peak about the third week of August when classes begin, at which time I feel like I’m about to embark on the academic equivalent of a death march.
Funny, though, every year the symptoms recede. Gradually, I adapt to the new ecology and again find my niche. By mid-to-late September — usually a few weeks after Labor Day — the symptoms are gone and I begin to feel like myself. The "new" landscape has been naturalized. I again begin to appreciate students — the putative causes of my seasonal plague — suck-up seniors, jaded juniors, sophomoric sophs, fresh-faced frosh all.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.