Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at the University of Iowa where he teaches in the Department of Rhetoric and serves as the Humanities Graduate Teaching Fellow in the Center for Teaching. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien.
Spring Break is over and gone. There’s a pile of papers to grade. Article revisions are due to your advisor next week, and a fellowship application is due to the college the week after that. You’ve got ten students who want to meet with you this week to talk about what they can do to improve their grades, and your inbox is overwhelmingly full.
If you’re facing any or all of these things, you’re not alone. The doldrums of the semester or the spring slump are very common, especially when the weather is grey and summer break seems eons away. Fortunately, there are a few things that you can do to help reenergize and refocus your graduate work if you find yourself becalmed at mid-semester.
- (Re)Read to Inspire: While reading really great pieces of scholarship in your field can be a great way to re-energize your research and scholarly work, I’ve also found it really helpful to read up on productivity research and strategies (Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Helen Sword’s Air & Light & Time & Space are two of my favorites). While it may seem counterintuitive to take time away from my work to read about effectively spending my time, I’ve found that reminding myself that other people face similar struggles and that there are effective strategies for tackling them helps to reenergize me, even if it’s just a chapter or two on my morning bus ride.
- Write to Inspire: In the midst of all the obligations that you’re currently juggling, it can be easy to lose sight of forest for the trees (especially when the trees seem to be falling on you). If it feels like you’re digging your way through piles of work that do nothing to inspire you, stop and take 15-20 minutes to just write about why you’re in grad school. What inspired you to come to grad school? What are you ultimately going to do with your degree? Taking a few minutes out of your day to refocus on the big picture of your graduate education can do wonders for your motivation and really help you to feel like the work that you’re doing is valuable.
- Get a Second Opinion: With everything piling up around you, it’s all too easy to find yourself mired in writing or research problems that seem insurmountable. If you feel like you’re grinding your way through problem after problem, throw yourself a life preserver and find an outside pair of eyes to examine an issue for you. This could involve meeting with a research librarian, visiting the writing center, or chatting with your advisor or another graduate student. Often, getting an outside perspective can clear up seemingly major issues fairly quickly. Just last week, I had a 15-minute meeting with a professor in another department who suggested a different strategy for developing a taxonomy that I had been grappling with for weeks.
- Get Active: If it feels like your students are dragging, implementing a few active learning activities can be a great way to recapture their attention and help renew their focus. These do not need to be elaborate or time consuming – often implementing even simple activities (the jigsaw is easy to plan for) can really change the tone and energy level of a classroom. Bonus: these activities tend to be a lot of fun to teach as well.
- Check In: It’s hard to gauge how students are feeling about the class and how best to help them unless you ask them. I like to send out a mid-semester evaluation that asks questions about what students feel is working in class and what we, as a class, can do to help make the class work better during the second half of the semester. Some of the questions are my own and some come from my department’s end-of-semester teaching evaluation survey. However you structure it, getting and responding to feedback from your students shows that you care about their learning and gives you the chance to incorporate their suggestions into the class. Their feedback will also likely help to improve your course evaluations.
- Look Forward: When grad school gets stressful, it can be helpful to think about your long term goals. While the current job market for academics doesn’t necessarily lend itself to tranquil day dreams, doing a little career prep work can be a great way to help connect all the things you’re currently doing with your bigger career goals. I find the websites Imagine PhD and Versatile PhD to be really useful for this. Together they offer great resources, clear, concrete action steps, and success stories about real people who found real jobs. Spending fifteen or twenty minutes on one or both of these sites once a week can help to reassure you that you’re on the right and that there’s a bigger goal behind the seminar paper or lab reports that you’re working on.
- Celebrate with your CV: If you haven’t updated your CV (or your teaching portfolio) in a while (or even if you have), setting aside half an hour once or twice a week can be a great way to boost your sense of accomplishment. Since it’s fairly rare for academics to leave the office with a tangible product, it can be easy to lose sight of all the things that you’re actually accomplishing. Taking time to update your CV not only reminds you of all of the things that you’ve accomplished since the last time that you looked it, it also contributes to something far more permanent than the slew of emails you have to send.
Do you have any strategies for recharging your batteries at mid-semester?