Four cones

Every year, I repeat the same mantra as October turns into November: “If I can make it to Thanksgiving, I’ll survive the semester.”

Every semester is a marathon, not a sprint, and just as distance runners learn to recognize the cycles of any race–the places they get tired and discouraged, and the places they find their second wind–I’ve learned to recognize the phases of a typical semester.

At first, a new semester is both exhilarating and exhausting: for the first few weeks, you have to manage the adrenaline rush of new classes and a new schedule. Around week five, the novelty of a new term has worn off, and everyone is sick and tired: the start of what I call the Dark Night of the Semester.

For the past month or so, I’ve settled into the middling stride of my semester–my teaching days have fallen into a familiar routine–but this routine is also its own kind of drudgery. I’ve been behind with grading–buried in my paper-piles–for so long now, I sometimes wonder whether I’ll ever dig out. “The work always gets done,” I remind myself, a mantra I repeat every semester without fail. No matter how high the paper-piles, the work always somehow gets done, and usually not a moment too soon.

Whereas Spring Break comes right in the middle of Spring semester, Thanksgiving break comes at the almost-end of Fall semester: after my students and I come back after the holiday, there are two weeks of classes–the busiest time of the semester–followed by Finals Week. This week I told my first-year students, who have never completed the marathon that is a college semester, to rest up over Thanksgiving because when classes resume, the business of the semester will heat up, fast.

I’ve run this marathon enough times to know that Thanksgiving is when the uphill slog of the semester turns into a roller-coaster rush to the finish.

Behind Fulton Hall

We’re ten weeks into the semester at both Boston College and Framingham State, and right on schedule I’m feeling the weariness that usually descends this time of the term. Last year, I blogged about this sluggish stretch, which I’ve come to call the Dark Night of the Semester: the point in the term when “teaching” feels like an endless slog through student papers, and both you and your students wonder (either aloud or secretly) why you ever chose to assign so much writing.

Steps near Conte Forum

During the Dark Night of the Semester, I often remember a line from the Bible: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?” At those points in a long semester when I’m feeling uninspired and bogged down with paper-grading, it’s easy to feel like I’ve lost my “salt.” Instead of being zesty and full of flavor, I feel bland and insipid, without the energy to overcome my own (much less anyone else’s) inertia.

One thing I’ve learned from twenty years of teaching, though, is that the Dark Night always passes: somehow, the salt becomes salty again. It’s easy to get sidetracked (and deflated) by the seemingly endless logistics of teaching: papers to read, emails to answer, classes to plan. With all the busy-ness that teaching entails, it’s easy to lose sight of why you’re teaching to begin with. Did you start teaching because you wanted to spend the rest of your life grading papers, or did you start teaching because you love language, ideas, and the light in students’ eyes when they really “get” something?

Fides and foliage

Sometimes restoring your saltiness is a matter of stepping away from the paper-piles, and sometimes it’s a matter of adjusting what you do in your classes: what activities pique your students’ interest, and what activities leave them listless and disinterested? Sometimes, in other words, restoring your saltiness is a matter of moving away the things that are bland and toward the things that still have flavor. We’ve all heard the advice to “follow your bliss,” and I often tell my students that in their writing, they should follow their curiosity. So, what would it look like if both teacher and students alike followed that suggestion?

For me, restoring my saltiness usually involves some sort of creativity, some sort of movement, and some sort of connection with nature. I don’t find paper-grading particularly exciting, but I find it personally inspiring and energizing to write, take walks, and be outside in the living world. So when I got home from teaching today, instead of immediately tackling my paper-pile, I suggested to J that we walk to lunch through an afternoon full of golden light. If you can’t savor the sweetness of a golden afternoon, where will you find any salt at all?

This is my Day 6 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

Gone to seed

One of the interesting things about maintaining a daily writing practice is the way you can compare today’s mindset with what you were feeling last week, last month, last year, or beyond. On any given day, I might scribble words into my journal, type words into a file I save on my laptop, or post words to my blog. On some days, I might do all three. The result of so much daily writing is a cumulative record of my own psychological weather patterns: a vast supply of data chronicling my own inner climate.

Late afternoon wetlands

Two weeks ago, for example, I re-read an essay I’d started to write about a month ago. I’d intended to post it as a blog entry illustrated with photos I’d taken at a football game J and I had attended in September, but I never got around to sorting through those photos, much less polishing and posting the accompanying essay. I’d started the essay about a month into the current semester, and the novelty of the term is apparent in every line: this is something I could have written only near the beginning of the academic term, when I was still feeling fresh, eager, and energetic.

Japanese knotweed seeds

Two weeks ago when I re-read that essay, I was in the midst of a phenomenon I’ve come to call the “dark night of the semester,” that point in every academic term when you’re tired, overwhelmed with work, and frankly feeling like you’ve lost your way. During this dark night, you look at your own syllabus with disgust, realizing nothing you’d intended to do with your class makes any sense; you lament your career choices, feeling you are the last person on earth cut out to work with undergraduates; and you find yourself silently muttering much too frequently a mantra of “I’m too old for this shit.” During the dark night of the semester, the thought of facing a classroom full of students, a folder full of student papers, or your own endless to-do list fills you with nausea, and the thought of trying to teach anyone anything makes you want to curl up and cry. If this dire ebb in your morale and motivation happens to hit when your students, too, are feeling sick, discouraged, and depressed, heaven help you all as you face a perfect storm of academic ennui: a dark night of despair that threatens to derail the entire semester.

Flying kite

Usually, my “dark night” arrives around week five of the semester: a little more than a month into it, when the novelty of the new term has worn off. This year, perhaps because I’m still new to Framingham State, the semester had more than the usual share of novelty hanging around it, so the dark night arrived around week ten: later than usual, but undeniable all the same. Even when the dark night tarries, I’ve learned, it never fails to arrive, eventually.

Tall grass

One torturous aspect of the dark night of the semester is being subject to the syllabus, assignments, and other teaching materials you’d designed months before, when you were feeling optimistic. Looking at the number, kind, and frequency of writing assignments you’d chosen to require, for instance, you can’t help but wonder what you were thinking. Who was I way back when I thought assigning X or requiring Y was a good idea…and who am I now that I’m actually having to grade the stuff I asked my students to submit? Because of my daily writing practice, I have a written record of both of these people: in my words, at least, I can watch Dr. Jekyll gradually transform into Mr. Hyde.

Twining

Years ago, when I was researching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brief career as a Unitarian minister, I read that he recycled his sermons as he traveled from pulpit to pulpit, revisiting and revising the ones he delivered on multiple occasions to various audiences. Writing and delivering a fresh sermon every week is a daunting task: what about weeks when your faith is ebbing or inspiration is difficult to find? Because of this practice of re-using sermons he’d written previously, Emerson once stopped in the middle of reading an old sermon, nonchalantly remarked “I no longer believe this,” and then continued reading as if nothing unusual had happened.

Cattails

I have to admire and even envy the gall, gumption, and grit Emerson displayed in this instance. For all the creeds we proclaim in churches, temples, or shrines, who among us has the nerve to state, loudly and proudly, “I no longer believe this”? Emerson was a life-long journal keeper, so even though he stopped writing (and recycling) sermons when he gave up his career as a Unitarian minister, Emerson never gave up the daily writing habit. The same man who famously wrote that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” had ample opportunity in his daily writing practice to watch his mind change, backtrack, and contradict itself. “Speak what you think now in hard words,” Emerson insisted, “and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” You simply have to love the nerve of someone who dares to waffle with such bold intensity.

Turkey tails

It’s difficult—the hardest thing on earth, perhaps, a task even harder than teaching—to remain true to our own convictions. Given the optimistic statements uttered at the beginning of an academic term, how closely can you hold to those ideals when the dark night descends? “I no longer believe this” is what I wanted to shout from the rooftops when I re-read that essay two weeks ago, but at the same time, I fully recognized that when I wrote it, I believed it entirely. So which utterance is the full and simple truth: an optimistic declaration of what I believe on a good day, when I’m brimming with energy and ideals, or a fatigued and despairing recantation of everything that statement stands for?

Sunlit trail

Today was a brisk and bright day, and I enjoyed an afternoon walk even though I’m still buried in last week’s paper piles. This past week’s classes went well after I’d tweaked my original approach, and I hope that tomorrow’s classes will go well, too: even if we can’t accomplish everything I’d set out to do this semester, I’m seeing small steps in the right direction, and I cling to that hope. This morning when I re-read that essay from nearly a month ago, I found myself nodding with nearly every word. It seems the dark night of this particular semester has abated a bit, with a glimmer of light presaging an eventual dawn.

Today’s photos come from a walk I took last weekend, starting at the Brook Farm Historical Site in West Roxbury–where 19th century Transcendentalists tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a pastoral commune–and wending toward nearby Millennium Park and back.

Nothing happened

I arrived home from Ohio just in time this week to dive into semester prep, spending the last few days revamping syllabi for my Keene State classes, which start next week. Syllabus-prep is a tedious and mentally demanding task: you have to maintain both a long- and short-view in order to figure out the precise steps your students will take as they move from the proverbial “blank page” that greets them during Week One toward the 15- to 20-page research paper that’s due by Week Fifteen. And yet, despite the mental energy it takes to craft a well-planned syllabus, it’s one of my favorite aspects of teaching: a strong foundation that reflects my most optimist hopes as I stand on the brink of another daunting term.

Line 'em up

Some of my colleagues plan their semesters far less meticulously than I do, distributing single-page syllabi that are infinitely less detailed than my five- to fourteen-page (!!!) ones. I’ve always preferred a full-disclosure approach: students in my classes know from day one exactly what’s due and when, how they’ll be graded, and other important factors they’d have to figure out gradually in other classes. A well-planned syllabus is a life-line for me, too: on any given day, I have a road map that tells me exactly what we need to do TODAY to get us to the finish line of “Week Fifteen”…and every year, there are times when even I, as instructor, completely forget what exactly we’re all doing here and why.

Once in a faculty training session, I described the process of teaching first-year students how to write a sustained research project as being like climbing a mountain with a group of small children. There will be many times when you’ll get sick of the seemingly incessant whines of “Are we there yet,” “I’m bored,” and “This is stupid!” As some combination of den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, you keep spurring your Little Darlings on with glowing descriptions of what awaits them at journey’s end: “Keep going! You can do it! You’ll be so proud once you’re finished!” This works, of course, when you yourself are feeling energetic and chipper…but at those moments when you’re exhausted, out of patience, and wondering why you thought climbing a mountain was a good idea, you’ll want nothing more than to push those Little Darlings off the nearest ledge.

All in a row

A good syllabus, like a good map, helps guide the way when all hell is breaking loose. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that there will be times (usually around Week Five, a depressing lull I’ve named the Dark Night of the Semester) when even I, as instructor, will stare in disbelief at the ambition of my own syllabus: what the hell was I thinking when I decided to assign X or expect Y? But whereas my first-year students have probably never climbed the mountain of a 15- to 20-page research paper before, I’ve been there, done that. In my metaphoric role as den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, I know from experience that every writer eventually gets sick of her or his topic, every writer loses hope of ever finishing, and every writer has moments when simply facing another draft seems completely impossible…but those feelings pass. And so like a wise old matron who listens to a sobbing newlywed, pats her on the head, and sends her back to her hubby with instructions to kiss and make up, I know my job as a writing instructor is ultimately a matter of making sure my charges don’t give up. “Just keep trudging, and it will work out: I promise!”

And so these past few days, I’ve been contemplating the long view, at least from the perspective of a fifteen-week semester. While my soon-to-be first-year students are packing and preparing to move into their residence halls this weekend, I’ve been mapping the terrain, watching the weather, and otherwise scouting a 15- to 20-page long “mountain” my students don’t even know to start worrying about yet. The semester hasn’t even started, but already I know we have many long, tiring miles between here and there.