This is a GradHacker post by Amy Rubens, PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, @ambulantscholar
At my institution, spring break is now a good three weeks behind us. As the academic year lets out its last gasp of life, the natural world is teeming. At least, it is here in southern Indiana, where we’ve been blessed—er, cursed, depending on your tolerance to tree pollen—with an extremely early spring.
As I walk through campus each day, I especially notice that spring has, for the most part, sprung. Dandelions mercilessly push their way through patches of slightly too-tall grass. Wooded areas no longer appear threadbare. From sun up to sun down (and sometimes to my chagrin), songbirds broadcast their calls from unseen heights.
Lately, the liveliness, vibrancy, and productivity I see outside of the classroom sometimes contrasts pretty sharply with what’s going on inside. Many of my students are in a Spring Slump, and I’m desperate for them to snap of it because, well, the semester’s not over yet. We still have work to do. I don’t completely blame them for feeling tired, unmotivated, and stressed in that I’m going through some of these emotions myself. I’m excited to graduate and defend my dissertation next month, and I’m proud of what I've accomplished this year, in particular. Still, pounding away at the nails in the coffin of my graduate school career has left me feeling mentally and physically drained. Indeed, although graduation is on the horizon, I’m not suffering from Spring Fever but rather from Spring Malaise.
I’ve been an instructor of record for quite some time, but I’m currently a discussion leader and grader for three sections of an introductory American Studies course. A development last week in class led me to think about Spring Malaise from the perspective of a teacher and student. Specifically, I know why Spring Malaise has hit in epidemic proportions, but what can be done about it? How can one motivate students to (keep) reading, writing, studying, contributing, etc.? How might a graduate student stay similarly motivated during the end of the semester? And if motivation isn’t an issue, how can we, as graduate students, avoid mental and physical fatigue during this time? Here are a few suggestions:
Helping Students with Spring Malaise
- Make the condition—and its consequences—more explicit. Last week, I anonymously polled my students on how much of the assigned reading they had completed. (I see my students in lecture before section and had a hunch some hadn’t completed the reading.) While they worked individually on an activity, I quickly tallied up their responses and discovered that the majority of the class had not completed even a fraction of the assigned work. After thanking students for their honesty (and boy, were they honest), I shared the results. My goal was not to scold or humiliate but to emphasize that students are shareholders in the day-to-day success of a class. When students shirk their responsibilities, discussion can be stilted and even boring. Either way, learning takes a nose-dive.
- Validate their feelings. When I announced the poll results, I not only thanked students for their honesty, but I also acknowledged what I perceived to be a root-cause of their behavior. We instructors often lament to ourselves and one another about how busy we are in graduate school, but undergraduates also are burdened by heavy study- and work-loads. Moreover, many of our students aren’t as adept as we are in handling such schedules. Simply validating the multiple demands students face can go a long way towards creating mutual-respect, and in turn, motivation.
- Teach students how to “make it work.” Sometimes, undergraduates have an “all or nothing” mentality: one either starts the reading and completes it, or one does not begin it at all. However, success in academia and outside of it often stems from knowing how to negotiate the in-between. Is completing the reading possible, given how long one has procrastinated? If not, what about the introduction, a few select chapters, and the afterward? Relatedly, teach time-management skills to help students navigate their busy, end-of-the-semester schedules in the weeks to come. (Better yet, show some clips from this video lecture by the late Randy Pausch, which gets going around 5:00.)
- Maintain accountability. Although it's important to empathize with students, ultimately, we do them no favors by allowing Spring Malaise to run rampant.
Helping Yourself to Stay Motivated and Strong
- Quantify (or otherwise make visible) your efforts. Count how many hours you’ve worked or words/pages you’ve completed, perhaps using one of these tools or apps. Like me, you may not be a "tracker" or into journaling the writing process. What about making your completed tasks and yet-to-be-completed tasks visible—and tangible--using a dry-erase calendar or desk-calendar? Or, create a list through Google Docs that can be updated from a variety of locations. If you easily can see how much work you’re doing or not doing, you can adjust your schedule (and attitude) accordingly.
- Start a side-project. I've been consumed by my dissertation for months, and my days were a little monotonous. Teaching helped to break up the dissertation doldrums, but I also needed a side-project--something novel--to reinvigorate myself. At the same time, the project couldn't derail me from my main responsibilities. I decided to organize a panel for a major conference next year, and with a few strategically placed due dates, I don't feel unduly burdened by this work at all.
- Take a day off. I’m a huge proponent of stepping away from work for one full day each week. I might be busy cleaning or running errands during my “free” day, but I’m not writing, reading, or grading, and I don’t feel guilty about it, either. These breaks refresh my spirit, body, and mind, and in turn, help me to be more productive when I return to work.
I’ve offered a few ways to deal with Spring Malaise. What can you add to the list?