I survived

Paper chain link The paper chain link shown on the left represents the end of a long, difficult, stressful 6 months.

In my last post, I talked about how I made this paper chain as a way of both coping with my stress and reminding myself that this really tough period in my life was finite. At the time, the chain had 44 links, one for each day until the last day of classes winter term. As I write this (Tuesday evening), the last day of classes for winter term is tomorrow (Wednesday). After tomorrow, the next time I will teach a regular class will be September 2017 (!) — due to a combination of a teaching-free term this spring (though I’ll still have my chair/administrative and research duties, and probably a couple of independent studies) and a sabbatical for the entire 2016-17 academic year.

In retrospect, I probably could have more easily handled just one term of what I’m calling “extreme teaching” (2.5 courses), than two terms in a row.* Around week 7 of winter term, I reached the point where I was so mentally exhausted that I couldn’t imagine being able to put together another class plan, write another test question, deal with another set of office hours, talk to another student. (Granted, that week we also had 2 job candidates on campus, so that may also have sped up the mental exhaustion.) I really had to push hard to stay minimally on top of things. The chain was really helpful that week for maintaining perspective on the situation. Leaving town for SIGCSE last week also helped, as it gave me some much-needed physical and mental distance from campus. But overall, it was a tough slog.

I do try to learn something from every situation I’m in, no matter how good or bad, and I certainly learned some valuable things from this extreme teaching experiment:

  • Sleep matters. Oh, does it matter. A few weeks into fall term, I decided that I was going to prioritize getting 7 hours of sleep per night, even if this meant that things weren’t going to get done. (Those of you who know me in real life know that this is a HUGE mindset shift for me.) Getting 7 hours of sleep, I believe, kept me sane, and it made me more productive and focused.
  • Teaching 2.5 classes effectively while also chairing a tenure-track job search and a department is pretty much impossible. My saving grace was that I’d taught my two “regular” classes multiple times in the past (and one of them this past fall), so I had a pool of resources from which to draw. I also made a conscious decision to change very little about either class—this was not the time to innovate!
  • Protecting junior faculty is a noble goal, but should not come at the expense of my own health and well-being.
  • Being honest with students often pays off. I was up front with my classes about my crazy schedule this term. I was also up front with my Software Design class about the things I was learning alongside them (because I didn’t end up having as much time between fall and winter terms to learn a couple of new packages/tools that they were using this term). Now, the reason I can get away with this is because I am old a senior member of my department, and carry a bit more authority in the students’ eyes. I could never have done this while a junior faculty (and certainly not as the only woman in the department as I was back then). The one downside is that I think sometimes students were reluctant to come to office hours for fear of “disturbing” me, so if I had to do this again (please, dear god, no), I’d be more explicit about office hours being for THEM.
  • Things may not get done on my perfectionist schedule, but if I keep plugging away they will eventually get done.
  • Many deadlines are more fungible than you think. Also, if you have a track record of being highly dependable, people are more willing to cut you some slack if you need it. I am so grateful for the people who recognized I was struggling and gave me extra time to get things done/in.
  • The self-care experiment worked. I didn’t always do what was written on the paper link, but if I didn’t, I improvised with something else. For instance, if the link said to mediate for 5 minutes but I knew I’d be too tired/busy to do so, I’d take the “scenic” walk back from my classroom building to my office so that I’d get some extra thinking/outdoors time instead. I ended up doing something for myself every day.

Spring term will come with some challenges of its own (including trying to hire a visiting faculty member in a really tough job market!), but I am looking forward to having time to work on outside-the-classroom projects that have been on my list for a while and, more importantly, time to think and reflect in general. While I don’t think I’ll be making any more paper chains in the near future, I do plan to continue to incorporate some regular self-care into my life. And while I wish I hadn’t been quite so busy these past six months, overall I really enjoyed the work I was doing and all of the fabulous students I had the pleasure to teach these past two terms—and many days, that alone was enough to keep me going.

* The normal teaching load at my institution is 5 courses per year (2-1-2 or some similar combination). As department chair, I get a course release, so my load is 4 courses per year. This year, that was supposed to be distributed as 1.5-2.5-0 over fall-winter-spring. But when we failed to hire enough visiting faculty, I deferred my course release to a future year to teach an overload in the fall (so we wouldn’t have to cancel a crucial core course for the major). Hence the 2.5-2.5-0 “extreme teaching” load.