We are reaching the time of year that I think of as the season of the anticlimax, the time when long-anticipated moments finally arrive and leave many of us with a vaguely unsettled feeling.
It is the time of year when theses will be filed, dissertations defended, and degrees conferred. Graduate students less far along in their studies may be wrapping up comprehensive exams, qualifying exams, or some other momentous intermediary step on the path to obtaining their degrees. Undergraduates either graduate or knock off another year in their own progress toward degrees.
Some faculty members will enter the summer knowing — after years of work, uncertainty, and probably anxiety — that they will return to their institutions in the fall with the security of tenure and promotion. Other faculty will part ways with their current employers and take up new posts in new places next fall. The academic life and the academic calendar are packed full of climactic, sometimes even life-changing, moments, for us and for our students.
Or more routinely, those of us not set to experience such a large milestone this spring move ever closer, if toward nothing else, then toward the end of the semester and the conclusion of another academic year. It is a time of year, I have found, in which it is easy to be disappointed. Despite my best efforts to stay organized and ahead of work, like so many others I know, from now until the end of the semester I will limp forward, finishing the semester with a dull gasp of relief, rather than a vocal cheer of huzzah. It just seems to work that way.
I can smell spring, literally, as crocuses and daffodils push through the damp earth in my part of the country. The smell of spring is not so much of the flowers though as the raw, damp earth that they upturn in their bloom. And with that smell I begin to believe, for the first time in a long time, almost as a physiological response to the change of seasons, that the end of the semester will actually arrive, that my students and I will survive to see it.
The academic life, like the seasons, cycles around regular comings and goings, more or less predictably timed events that occur with regularity each semester or each year. And because it is built around routines, academic life — whether we are students or faculty — often consists of setting one’s eyes upon a distant goal and slogging forward. And, eventually, the goal arrives, whether that goal is the conferral of a degree pursued for years or simply the achievement of surviving until the end of the semester and the last grades have been filed.
Oddly though, the attainment of the moment or goal can be, in my experience, weirdly dissatisfying. For me, there has always been an uncanny sense of aloneness that accompanies the fruition of a long-anticipated achievement or conclusion, like the completion of a degree or the finishing of a semester.
I remember especially a particular moment from my own graduate career that was simultaneously mundane and poignant. Several days after I had defended my dissertation I was couriering some of my paperwork between offices, tying up bureaucratic loose ends. The hallways were empty, as if campus had been momentarily abandoned by all but me, and the import of the occasion struck me. It was the moment of realization, of my concluded studies “hitting home.” I realized that something that I had grasped at for so long was finally mine, that I had finished graduate school. All of a sudden having finished my Ph.D. was simultaneously very real and vaguely disappointing. And very, very lonely. But not in a bad way either. It was a moment strangely fulfilling and distressing at the same time, a gratifying melancholy, if there can be such a thing.
To a lesser extent, I realize now that I have a similar feeling at the end of each semester, and especially at the end of the spring semester. The moment is not as intense as it was the year I defended, but it is of the same ilk. A quietness, very real and never imagined, descends on campus the moment exams have concluded. Hallways and lawns are virtually empty. A silence descends on campus that screams for me to reflect upon the past year, the classes I have taught, the students I have encountered, the colleagues, near and far, that I have relied upon. It is a time of exhausted and necessary introspection.
At the end of the semester, when this feeling of quietness and finitude arrives, my preference is to spend time alone, to have time just to think and to be. I want to examine the past year, and often to make notes about what has worked and what has not. It isn’t my preference to attend the end-of-semester parties and celebrations, but I do attend them, because I like my colleagues and in many cases won’t see some of them until the commencement of the fall semester. But I have learned to carve out time to be alone, to lie on my porch and go on very long solo bike rides. That is my way of ending the year, the way I like to deal with conclusion of another academic season, the way that I prepare for the very different routines of summer.
But my way, of course, is not the only way to manage the often anticlimactic conclusion of the semester. If you want to be surrounded by family and friends, then surround yourself with family and friends. If you want to escape immediately to the beach, then make for the sand and waves. What one does doesn’t particularly matter, so long as it fulfills. My point is that we all have and need our routines, our ways of concluding and transitioning.
Almost inevitably, I realize also at this time how many of my goals for the past year have gone unfilled, articles not yet written, ideas not yet acted upon, problems not yet mastered. But, if I allow myself to be quiet, I also realize how many things have been accomplished since that bright day in August when the academic year began. And it is too soon to think about the next bright day in August.
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