August 25, 2013 by Jean
This past week, I returned to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania one last time for the opening of a new school year, making the 600-mile drive south from Maine on Monday. I have mixed feelings about this last teaching year. There is always a certain excitement about the beginning of school, a sense of fresh beginnings as I meet new students and a sense of possibility as classes begin. At the same time, though, I am dreading the heavy work load and long work hours (60-80 per week) that are an inevitable part of my three-course fall semester.
I almost gave up before I had even begun. During the summer, my department, which has been in temporary (and cramped) quarters in a trailer for the past two years, moved into new offices. On Tuesday morning, I found my way to the new space, turned my key in the lock, and opened my office door. I had left a diagram of how I wanted my furniture arranged and expected to find things reasonably in order. Instead I found chaos. The furniture and books from my small trailer office plus additional furniture, papers, and books that had been in storage for the past two years were all dumped higgledy-piggledy in the room, leaving barely enough space to turn around. The long drive back from Maine always leaves me feeling tired and cranky; and in that state, the condition of my office was overwhelming. I wanted to declare, “I’ve decided to just retire right now!” (A colleague who returned to the same chaos in his own office the following day told me that he felt like having a full-blown temper tantrum, lying down on the floor to wail and kick his feet like a two-year-old.)
After about an hour of grousing to whomever would listen, I pulled myself together and started putting my office in order. By Wednesday, I had moved excess furniture and boxes to a storage room next door, gotten the remaining furniture arranged the way I wanted it, unpacked most of my books and arranged them on the shelves, and had pictures hung on the walls and decorative pieces displayed here and there. By Thursday, I was looking around with pleasure and deciding that this is the nicest space my department has ever been in. If anyone had told me on Tuesday I would feel this way, I would have scoffed; but the transition from the trailer to this new office is like being upgraded from a middle seat in coach to business class. It means a lot to me to have pleasant space to work in for this last year.
In addition to getting my office arranged, I spent this week getting my classes ready to go. I finalized and printed syllabi and assignments for each of my three courses and also set up a web site for each. I got a sign with my office hours up on my door, set up an online sign-up sheet for office-hours appointments and sent out the link to all my students and advisees. In addition, I attended opening ceremonies for the new school year and met with my new advisees. Tomorrow morning, classes begin. I’ll be in my office finalizing preparations for my first classes at 7:30 a.m. and in the classroom teaching at 9:00 a.m.
I always struggle at the end of summer with the transition to the long work days and work weeks of the school year. Each fall, I’m shocked to realize that evenings and weekends are no longer leisure time, but are now work time. And as I get older, I find I don’t have the stamina for these long hours that I once did. This past week, I went into the office each morning about 8:30 a.m. and stayed until about 5:30 p.m. – a 9-hour day. When I got home each evening, I was exhausted. Beginning this week, my days in the office will get longer (usually 10 hours), and I’ll need to have enough energy left in the evening for 2-3 hours of class preparation and grading.
I’m trying to steel myself for the hard work ahead by reciting my mantra: “I can do anything for 15 weeks; I can do anything for 15 weeks.” This one last time, though, I’d like to find a way to give my students the quality of education that their very high tuition promises while still protecting myself; to find a middle ground between just going through the motions one last time and exhausting myself. I’m hoping, for example, to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night – something I didn’t manage last year when all too often I crawled into bed after midnight only to have the alarm go off at 5:45 the next morning.
We’ll see how it goes this one last time. One way or another, my last three-preparation semester will be over 15 weeks from now and I’ll be that much closer to retirement.