Professoring in a time of uncertainty

The end of Winter Term is always tough and often frought. There’s the normal end-of-term stuff, of course: the projects and papers due the last day of classes, the impending final exams and projects, the day-to-day academic work that ratchets up weeks 9 and 10. There’s the unique-to-winter-term stress: seniors finishing up Comps and figuring out what to do post-Carleton, visiting graduate schools or going on interviews or finding out about fellowship applications. Everyone else figuring out how they’ll spend their summers. There’s extra stress on faculty: putting next year’s schedule into place, wrapping up tenure-track hiring, assessing Comps projects, hiring student researchers for the summer, dealing with graders who inexplicably disappear at the worst time. (Thankfully, not something I am dealing with this year, but something I seem to deal with most years.) And of course, everyone’s sick of winter at this point, and that certainly doesn’t help anyone’s mood.

Everyone is tired, frustrated, cranky, and stressed.

Now, add a global pandemic to the mix.

I find myself, like many others, glued to the news cycle. Unable to focus. Worried and uncertain. Largely angry at the nature of the (non) response in the US. Wondering what if. What if what if what if?

Carleton’s in an unusual spot in that our term is ending in the next 5 days, and we head into an almost 2 week spring break before the next term starts. This buys us as an institution some time. Not much, but some. We’re starting fresh anyway on March 30, which, I imagine, makes it slightly easier to pivot to something else. (With “something else” likely some form of online learning.) But for how long?

This morning I’m attending a workshop on online instruction, put on by our learning and teaching center and our academic technologists. I’m looking forward to learning about what we have available at Carleton to facilitate learning and instruction when we’re not face-to-face with our students. And I’m equally looking forward to being in a room with my colleagues, commiserating and sharing coping strategies during this challenging time. I’m also hoping we’ll get some indication as to what’s going to happen for the start of spring term, although I suspect we won’t get a clear answer today. (But maybe at least a hint?)

A couple of weeks ago, I started thinking, during idle moments while walking between meetings and on my commute, about modifications I’d make to my spring course should we move online. What topics could I shuffle? What content could I make into labs? How would I carry out a group project when no one’s in the same room? And, more importantly, how can I keep at least some elements of these once things return to “normal”, because these sorts of modifications likely increase the accessibility of my courses. I’m now grateful that I started pondering these questions when I did, so that I can move forward with planning and not feel quite so overwhelmed.

Beyond that, I’m trying to extend others, and myself, extra grace. Checking in with others. Writing a gentler final exam for my students. Acknowledging the stress we’re all under. Taking time for deeper conversations, and giving others the gift of really listening to them. Connecting. Remembering to eat healthy foods, get to bed (mostly) on time, and exercise. Brainstorming ways I can help out neighbors and friends should they fall ill or should we be under an extended quarantine.

It’s not much, but it’s a start.

How are you coping with these uncertain times?