Friday, December 01, 2006

The Wall

It's that time of the semester; we're all walking around with hangdog looks, a combination of timing and the nasty weather.

Every semester, we come up against the wall at this point, smacking our faces every time. People are snippier than usual, more likely to go off on someone else, less likely to laugh at the absurdity of life.

Thanksgiving was a total change for me, but not really restful in any meaningful way, and since my Mom was here until Tuesday, I still wasn't full on board til Wednesday, and still feel like I'm recovering from the "break" to some extent. That's just downright stupid, and every year I tell myself I'm not going to do it again, and every year I do. Stupid. I'm looking more hangdog than most and making a conscious effort not to be short-tempered.

(Like with the charming student who appeared at my office door a few minutes before 5pm for my office hours from 5-6pm [before my night class], but left because she decided I'd already left, and wrote me an email to that effect. I doubt she looked at the oversized schedule on my door or that she really meant to sound that rude, right? And when I got there at 5:01, my colleague mentioned that someone had stopped at my door and then left.)

Hitting the wall makes me wonder about a couple things, though.

First, we make our semester schedules. Why do we always do this to ourselves? Is it just inevitable with the work we need to do in our different venues, and our expectations of what we'll teach in our classes and how?

Second, I know academics work pretty hard. But I also know that lots of people work hard, and plenty work harder. So I assume plenty of folks all around are hitting walls, feeling stressed, overworked, and tired. Do we just notice our wall because of the rhythm of the semester, when we all hit at the same time? Do non-academic work places just run with some people constantly hitting the wall, while others find their own rhythms and go up and down?

Or are we just whusses?


  1. I think the issue with when we hit the wall vs. non-academics is that our "walls" happen right at the time when other people's loads lighten. All of the people I know in the "real world" take vacation days around the November and December holidays - same goes for around spring holidays or around labor day or memorial day. In contrast, their "walls" happen during relatively low social points in the calendar year. The problem with academics is that our loads are heaviest precisely when everybody else (the media, society, our family, etc.) expects us to be out and about baking cookies and singing carols. That will make anybody cranky.

    As for why we do it to ourselves, well, in my case part of it is that there is no way around it (in comp, where the final paper is the final) and another part is wanting to give students the opportunity to write on as much that we've covered in class as possible.

  2. Oh, and one more thing: About the taking vacation days part of things, I'd say that this is one part of our profession that makes us all crankier - that while we are perceived as having really flexible schedules, that there is no, "I'm feeling stressed out and so I will take a vacation day on Monday" option, because ultimately that would put our courses behind, which would only stress us out more, and so on and so on. Our schedules ultimately are really inflexible during the academic year.

  3. Well, I hit the wall this week and looked up and said, they really don't have to read the last book I put on the syllabus. We worked out a deal where they will read in groups of 2-3 one chapter and report back on the characters and message as though the rest of the class has not read that chapter. no quiz on the book and it won't be on the final in great detail.

    oh my. what that did for all of us. I still think it's a good book and shows a very different way of presenting character, but we will be fine with a less comprehensive approach.

    I think it was a good thing to do. Not applicable in my other classes, but for that one, this week -- a good choice.

    (Of course this will not solve the rest of the wall or the workload ahead until the 20th..)

  4. i think Dr. Crazy is correct -- and, in some ways we think of ourselves as having so much time off between semesters, when making that really BE the case requires a lot of work on our part.

    Think about what you have to do between now and the end of winter break -- the list probably is some version of, "complete end of year assignments, do final grades, write new syllabus, revise course materials necessary for the beginning of the year, do something of your own work" -- sure, that leaves about 15 spare minutes to celebrate the holidays.

  5. Everything seems possible to me when it's the middle of August and I'm making plans. It's so easy to forget what it's like when November and December roll around -- I sort of remember but not really. It's like the way I forget how it feels to ride 100 miles on my bike in one day -- I vaguely remember the pain, but not really. And so I sign up to do it again.

  6. I think that the wall is built into the structure of our work, as Dr. C. says, but also that it is an element in our narrative of meaning. Every profession tells stories, creates myths, about itself & passes this lore down the generations. The wall is a node in our professional narrative.

  7. These are great comments. I'd echo them all and add that oddly enough, the wall is one of the things I like about the academic schedule. At least that's true if I assume that other occupations have their own walls at different times; when ours hits, at least I know when it's coming, and I know that it will be over soon, and that everybody around me understands what I'm going through. Because of the forgetfulness that dorothy describes, I know things will always be better next semester!

  8. I think the wall exists because the end of the semester is the academic version of a major deadline. Right now I have to finish a research paper, 3 fellowship apps, and a ton of grading by next week! Maybe (I'm not sure) in other professions you'd get one deadline at a time, instead of several all at once.