Horse & Buggy Feeds, Keene, NH

Tomorrow morning grades are due, so today I’m wrapping up some grading loose ends. The end of the semester is always a time to sort through things left undone during the weeks preceding the end-of-term. Teaching (especially adjunct teaching at several institutions) inevitably involves a certain degree of triage: there’s always something due or overdue, so you dedicate yourself to the most direly burning emergency. After grades are due, you step back, sort through your pile of “to-do laters,” and play catch-up.

This cyclic sort of work load is something that the friends, family, and especially partners of academics have to adapt to. When it’s “that time of the semester,” your Beloved Professor is going to be up to her over-educated nostrils in grading and other demands, so she’ll fluctuate wildly between manic periods of work and depressive periods of procrastination. By hook or by crook, though, when grades are due, they will be delivered, a nap will be had, and dusty pleasure-reads and old forgotten friends will be re-visited.

Horse & Buggy Feeds, Keene, NH

When I was an undergraduate, I had a ritual to mark the end of each semester. During Finals Week, which my roommates and I dubbed Be Bad to Your Body Week, I was allowed to eat any sort of comfort food. Late- and all-nighters required bushels of Doritos and gallons of Mountain Dew. Hard work would be rewarded with study breaks featuring my favored gustatory guilty pleasure: Graham crackers slathered with canned chocolate frosting. Bags of M&Ms (a.k.a. “Happy Pills”) were at-the-ready for moments of despair, stints of exhaustion, and any sort of emotional emergency. By the time I’d finished my last exam and submitted my final paper, I felt entirely toxic, gleefully ready to go home and eat some semblance of a normal diet.

Horse & Buggy Feeds, Keene, NH

But before I went home where I’d invariably spend the next several days in a coma-like slumber on my parent’s living room loveseat, I’d clean my desk. See, I tend to cycle between neat-freakdom and utter slovenliness, and my desk is usually the ultimate statement of where on the cycle I currently happen to stand. If my desk is clean, I’m in a calm and ordered state of mind: I have adequate time to devote to work, play, and all sorts of activities in between. If my desk looks like a federally declared Disaster Area, I’m feeling overwhelmed by work and other obligations. I’m probably neglecting my health, I’m probably neglecting play, and I’m probably feeling entirely rotten because of both. Since I tend to be a Piler (my personal motto being “A pile for everything, and everything in its pile”), semester’s-end was when I’d sort through piles, saving whatever needed saving and throwing out the rest. This act of discarding items that seemed Positively Essential three weeks previous but had proven to be Largely Ignorable in the meantime was always immensely therapeutic. Had I been able to light a massive bonfire in or around my dorm room, I would have burned those papers; instead, I allowed myself the oddly cathartic pleasure of ripping them (by hand) to shreds before relinquishing them to the trash basket.

Horse & Buggy Feeds, Keene, NH

Now that I teach, I have to be more careful about discarding the Piles of the Past. Profs are usually required to keep unretrieved student papers for a full year before discarding them; privacy issues prohibit the once-common practice of setting out a box of graded papers for eventual student pick-up. These days I try to recycle the papers that I do (eventually) discard: this means sifting through student portfolios to remove paper-clips, report covers, and other office-supply reusables and then sending the rest to the departmental recycling bin.

Here at home, though, the task is even more daunting. After 10 years of PhD studies, I have piles and files of research articles and other paperwork that begs my attention; in one closet, I have a huge box of semi-sorted utility bills, check-stubs, and other bookkeeping items that I’d intended to organize when we lived in Hillsborough. (As pathetic as it sounds, it’s true: when we sold our house and moved to Keene, I simple transfered The Pile to a box that’s been sitting in a closet ever since.) Now that the dissertation is complete and the doctorate is in hand, I need to revisit these and other piles, sifting, sorting, and shredding. It’s a bit like archaeology, this re-visiting of the Piles of the Past, and it’s a bit like therapy, too: a process of examining and re-assessing the dusty, almost-forgotten leftovers of what once seemed essential. Right now, though, the Pile that awaits me is a Present one, the stack of papers I need to grade by tomorrow’s deadline. Once those grades are completed and delivered, I’ll take nap and possibly crack open a can of chocolate frosting. There are some habits, you see, that I can’t possibly discard.