Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Academic Nightmares

It's that time of the semester! Making up syllabi, trying to get a paper done, meeting with a student about a thesis, committee work, letters to write... the semester hasn't started, but the pre-semester stress has. I think my stress usually evens out once I get into the rhythm of a semester, unless I'm teaching a new class.

At about 3am this morning, I woke up with my heart pounding, having just convinced a very large black bear that s/he didn't actually want to come into the dining room of the house where I grew up. I really hope that I'm not nearly that stupid if I come face to face with a black bear at close quarters outside of a dream. (And, yes, I did have time to identify it properly, and it was Ursus americanus.) In the dream, I was jumping up and down in front of the window yelling and he was trying to come in through the window. Outside of a dream, of course, I'd have quickly been lunch.

I have no idea what the imagery there was about, but it wasn't academic in the usual way my nightmares around the beginning of the semester are. And it sure didn't fit the Chaucerian dream vision from "The Book of the Duchess" I've been reading; though, really, is there a better description of insomnia than the opening of that poem?

Usually my nightmares about this time are much more explicitly about school, classes, tests, books.

I think lots of us in academics have had them. They're pretty telling, sometimes, about what our anxieties are. The one I share with most people I've talked to is the one I had a LOT as a student where I'm enrolled in a class but haven't actually bothered to go all term, and then I realize it the day of the final, go to take the final, and find out that the course has been moved to another classroom. I used to have that one all the time as an undergrad.

My scariest single-shot nightmare, which I had as a grad student: I'm walking on the campus of my Pretty Darned Good grad school, and run into another grad student (D, really, another grad student) who asks me how I'm feeling about the lecture I'm giving in class today. I gulp, having totally forgotten, and ask D what play we're doing in class. D tells me we're doing Henry IV, Part 1, and I breathe a sigh of relief, thinking that I can pretty much teach 1H4 in my sleep. Doesn't seem like much of a nightmare, yet, does it?

Then I realize that I don't have my copy of 1H4, and I ask D if I can borrow hers. But she doesn't have a copy either. So I go to the English library, but there's no copy there, and then I go to the Little Library, then the Big Library, and there's no copy in either. At which point I'm running wildly all over campus trying desperately to find a text.

I only had that nightmare once, and I know exactly what textual and life anxiety I was worried about. And just thinking about it still makes me shudder inside.

When I started teaching, a lifetime ago, I had a recurring nightmare that I'd walk into a classroom the first day of class, check that I was in the right place, and then realize that I was somehow supposed to teach a math class, and woke up completely terrified.

At the time, I was on a committee with G, a highly respected faculty member who was absolutely adored by students at this school. Before a committee meeting, sometime during the first week of classes (but, thankfully, after I'd taught my first class), we were chatting about classes starting, and my beginning teaching. G sympathized about my nightmare, but then WAY overmatched me when he told me that he regularly threw up before every class at the beginning of every semester, and only stopped about the middle of the semester, though he still felt nauseous before every class. I don't know how he went on, really. And he'd been teaching for probably several decades by then.

After I'd taught for a few years, and had my teaching math nightmare any number of times at the beginning of terms, I had it again, but with a difference: that time, I shrugged, opened the Calculus book sitting on the table at the front of the room, and started in. I haven't had the nightmare since.

Do you guys get these?

*I just love the Blogspot spell check. And not because it's good. It wants me to replace "Chaucerian" with "Caesarian." For some reason, I find that very funny.


  1. I COMPLETELY get academic anxiety dreams--but since my orals, they've really only ever been about/provoked by teaching (or the job market). I also feel sick to my stomach for the first few classes of the semester, though I've never thrown up--I just have a hard time eating and spend a lot of time in the bathroom.

    Our semester started today, and so far my anxiety level has been pretty low--but then, the first day of class is always a gimme. Will report back next week.

    word verification:
    ewxvil--either the supreme evil that is the beginning of the semester (combining eww! and evil) or the drug you take to alleviate this problem).

  2. Can I just say how much of a relief it is to know that anxiety is normal for academics? Or at least not rare? Or at least present? I experience so much performance anxiety before a presentation... I've got one to do tomorrow, in fact, and I'm already having to swallow hard when I think about it. It's comforting to know that this won't necessarily keep me from teaching -- the ph.d glut might, but I can learn to live with the queasies! Thanks for this post, Bardiac.

  3. I've had the Academic Nightmare for years. Either I'm teaching a class, and they are totally out of control (or I've forgotten to prepare the lecture/test/whatever), or I've forgotten to go to class all term and won't graduate until the paper gets written, and I can't even figure out what the subject of the class is!

    My mom gets this dream, even now, 40 years after she graduated from college. Her particular nightmare? She has to re-take high school Biology and can't find the classroom.

    And my dad, a retired teacher, still gets teaching dreams, usually in August, right before he used to start having to get ready for the school year.

    I think that's just a part of our academic lives that no one warned us about.

    PSA to those folks who are tortured by getting up in front of classes: there are meds (beta blockers) for this. And after a few good class meetings, you won't need them anymore. It's worth asking an MD. (I've never needed them for getting up in front of people and talking, but every now and then a performance can be really scary...)