Spring “break”

On Sunday, I graded the final assignment for my winter term course, finalized the project grades, assigned letter grades to each student, and entered them into the system. Winter term: done!

Then I immediately turned around and started prepping for spring term. Spring break: nonexistent!

The turnaround between winter and spring terms is usually pretty short: a week to get grades in, a week to prep. There’s not a lot of time left to take a true break, but at the very least you can conceivably take one weekend completely off and maybe a full weekday.

When our term starts on a Wednesday, as it did this year, it’s shorter still: finals ended on a Wednesday, grades were due the following Monday (meaning 4 days later, including 2 weekend days), and spring term classes start the Monday after that. Realistically, this means at least some work both weekends (finalizing grades one weekend, finalizing syllabi the next) and very little room for a break otherwise.


Not taking any break at all is not an option, unless I want to be a nonfunctional puddle of goo by midway through spring term. Particularly since I’m teaching 2 full courses in the same term (plus a 1-credit colloquium), something I haven’t done in years due to various course releases. One of those courses — Intro — I haven’t taught since Spring 2019, so I’m a bit rusty, to say the least. So I had to get a bit creative to carve out some time for restoration.

I settled on taking one weekday (yesterday) completely off. I got outside on my fatbike (because early spring in Minnesota is just an extension of winter), read, took a nap, booked our summer vacation, and took care of some life tasks on the old to-do list. And I made good progress on my latest craft project.

I won’t say the one day off magically rejuvenated me completely and I’m definitely NOT going into spring term restored and refreshed, but it did help. Knowing I didn’t have to get back to work at some point during the day meant that I could actually enjoy what I was doing, when I was doing it. And knowing that I blocked this particular day off means that I don’t have to spend the days I am working worrying about when I’ll get certain life tasks done or pining to get outside for a few hours (although I won’t completely rule out another outdoor adventure before the break ends).

The day off also reminded me of the importance of taking regular breaks throughout the term. Meaning: working on weekends (except for my Sunday night planning sessions) should be the exception and not the norm, and midterm break should be an actual break from work and not a catch-up day or a Schedule All The Meetings day. (For me, at least; I know many of my colleagues use the day off as a catch-up or as a place to put a bunch of meetings, and that’s absolutely fine too.) I can’t be there for my students, or my kids and partner, or my colleagues as my best self if I’ve burned myself out, so breaks are an important work and life task.

Here’s hoping I remember this in the thick of spring term when 8273 things are vying for my attention.


(Nearly) Halfway there

We’re deep in the thick of Week 5 of our 10-week Winter Term, limping along to our one-day midterm “break” next week. So far the term’s gone fairly well. I submitted my conference paper on time and with little drama (other than a really terrible user interface for the conference submission site). My Software Design students are finding new and improved ways to struggle with the material — but they are a fun and inquisitive bunch who seem game for just about anything I throw at them in class, and overall I think the shift in topics is a net positive. I’m still looking for a successor for the cohort program, and I’m bracing myself for the deluge of applications (deadline is Friday!).

Excerpt from a paper planner page, with highlighted meetings and tasks.
For you fellow paper planning geeks, this is a Hemlock & Oak weekly, which I am loving!

Largely, I am staying on top of things. I credit paying more attention to what blocks of time I have available in a day, matching the blocks up with expected energy levels, and slotting in specific tasks during specific blocks. I also finally learned, after many years of beating myself up over undone tasks, that perhaps it’s healthier to approach undone tasks with curiosity and grace (“what are the reasons I didn’t get to this today?”) than with self-loathing and self-hatred.

(My therapist is proud of me for that insight!)

February is always a bit bonkers, and I’m giving two talks this month on top of everything else. I am looking ahead to summer, partly out of necessity since there are a lot of Tetris pieces of family and kids’ scheduling, and partly because I’m applying for a curricular grant and I need to figure out what I’m proposing to do and how much time it should take (and where I can slot that in!). There is also a conference paper deadline on the last day of Winter Term classes in March (of course), and a completely rational person would say “thanks but not this year”, but this conference is a perfect fit for one of the projects I’m working on so I might try to squeeze that in….somewhere. (I’ve given myself a deadline to come up with an outline — if I make the deadline, I’ll go ahead and write something up for submission; if not, that’s perfectly fine, too.) Unlike previous years, I’m feeling good about the systems I’ve put in place and somewhat confident that they’ll stand up to the usual February onslaught of All The Tasks All The Time.

What’s keeping you busy this month, and how are you managing your workload?

Someone else’s summer

With the end of summer quickly approaching (seriously, how is it the end of August already?), I find myself way more disgruntled than usual with how my summer’s gone. Even with the realistic goal-setting and early course correction, I’ve had a growing and gnawing sense of intense dissatisfaction with this particular summer.

It took me a while to pinpoint exactly why I felt this way:

I’ve lived someone else’s summer.

What do I mean by this? I’ve spent the majority of my summer supporting others, emotionally and otherwise, at the expense of my own goals and projects. I’ve had to prioritize other tasks over my own priorities, in some cases. In other cases, the energy I’ve spent on supporting others sapped the energy I had for my own projects and goals, leaving me with literally nothing left to give.

Getting COVID at the start-ish of the summer cemented this situation in place, as I scrambled to do what I could from isolation and reschedule the rest for when I recovered. Even from isolation, I found myself single-handedly dealing with rescheduled vacation logistics and making sure the rest of my family stayed healthy and safe, on top of my can’t-be-put-off workload, at the expense of resting and recovering. This COVID interruption threw off my summer “flow”, and I never really recovered from that setback.

A work project — hiring a new program manager — extended well into the summer (and continues as I put plans in place to onboard our new hire!), taking up significant time and energy. Other STEM projects also consumed my attention and energy — projects that landed back on my plate as I spend a few “bonus months” as STEM Director until the new director takes over in December.

Home provided no relief from emotional labor. For complex reasons I won’t go into here, this was a challenging summer for both kiddos — and thus, by extension, our family. Our family vacation was not restorative for any of us, least of all me. Home is not always a relaxing place.

I’d hoped to get a paper out in July and make significant progress towards a poster submission deadline in September. But with depleted energy, I have a hard time doing the deep, creative thinking that this particular phase of my research requires. I decided a week before the July deadline to let that deadline go, which was absolutely the right decision at the time, but that doesn’t mean I’m not beating myself up over missing the deadline. My lack of research progress — even though I understand on one level why that’s the case — frustrates and demoralizes me. I spent part of July in a depressive spiral as a result.

Naming what I was feeling helped tremendously, and helped me realize that I need to actively manage my energy levels. I’ve scaled back my (mainly self-imposed) expectations, embracing both time-blocking and a motto of “good enough is good enough”. I’m meeting with my therapist more frequently to help me work through this particular rough patch — which has really helped me figure out what I can control and what I need to let go. And I’m putting some strategies in place for the fall to better safeguard my time and energy so that I can work more thoughtfully on my own goals and priorities while also providing appropriate support to others’ goals and priorities.

(Let’s just hope this sticks!)

A time to rebuild

I haven’t run since October.

I’ve spent the better part of the last year in and out of physical therapy. A sprained ankle from spring 2020 that never quite healed, then another sprained ankle (the other one, at least — equal opportunity injuries!). Muscle imbalances and tightness. PT would “fix” one issue and another would pop up like a game of Injury Whack-A-Mole. I’d build back up to running, and then have to stop. My last run, in early October, ended with me hobbling with achilles pain and one really specific painful spot in my hamstring.

When resting and yoga and foam rolling and strength training and pleading to the running gods for several months to just let me run again already, please didn’t work, I broke down and scheduled an orthopedic visit. And ended up back in, this time, pretty intense physical therapy. “Postural therapy”, as my chart puts it.

TL;DR: my body is pretty darn broken.

Through PT, I’m slowly retraining my body to support itself properly, to undo years of overcompensation for muscle weaknesses and realign everything back to where it’s supposed to be. It’s hard and maddeningly, maddeningly slow. Understandably, my body’s fighting the changes — it’s difficult to unlearn habits honed over a lifetime! If PT doesn’t ultimately help, I’m not sure what the next steps are.

The hardest part, of course, is not running. Sure, I do other active things — my fatbike and snowshoes saw a lot of action this winter, and the taekwondo studio is my home away from home. But running has always been my go-to, my most satisfying workout. And it’s a key, key part of my mental health toolkit. Walking is great, but it’s not running. I’ve been mourning the loss of running (even if it turns out to be temporary and I’m back at it someday) as keenly as any other loss. I’ve had to mourn the loss of running, so that the thought of possibly never running again doesn’t consume me.

I find that I’m not just rebuilding my body right now — I seem to be in a state of rebuilding. I’m rebuilding my mental health toolkit to make up for the absence of running. (Yoga, which was my go-to for a while, is off the table for now too, until my body gets in a better, supportive place.) With the end of my tenure as STEM Director approaching at the end of the calendar year, I’m rebuilding my career goals and figuring out what I might want to do next. I’m rebuilding connections to community partners, to jump-start collaborations that went dark during the pandemic. And I’m looking to rebuild my relationship to my work in general, so that it doesn’t leave me so burned out and demoralized.

The trick with rebuilding is that nothing is guaranteed. I may indeed need to let go of running even if I do get my body to a better place. My career goals, and community collaborations, may not pan out. Given the state of the world and the still ongoing pandemic, continuing burnout seems likely. But even if rebuilding gets me to a different place than I’d hoped, in any or all of these realms, I still believe that I end up ahead — and that’s worth the risks and the costs.


The realization that the turn lane looked a tad icy came just a moment too late. Instead of executing my usual smooth turn from one country road onto another on my commute down to school, my car clumsily skidded from one country road onto another.

My instincts from years of driving on slick snowy and icy roads kicked in, and I quickly righted the car. No harm, no foul.

After the initial adrenaline died down, the anger kicked in. Which, frankly, surprised me. Usually the emotions sequence is adrenaline (whoa!) – relief (thank goodness I’m ok) – self-admonishment (jeez, drive more carefully next time!). But this time I went from whoa! right to #$*%!! And not #$*% the road is icy! but #$*% why is this happening and why can’t I get a break for just one darn minute?

Ah, bingo!

I’d been in my usual peripherally aware driving state — that state of mind where you’re obviously paying attention to the road and the other drivers and such but you’re still free to think about other things, like what that podcast guest just said or how pretty the sundogs are this morning or I wonder what kind of soup the cafe will have today? And the road conditions changed to the point where I had to shift awareness from peripherally aware to hyperaware. Not usually a problem; that’s winter driving for you!

But I realized I was angry because I really needed to not be hyperaware for a hot second. I’ve been operating in hyperaware mode almost constantly since the term started, and it’s exhausting.

When all of my students are in the same room with me, I’m aware of what’s happening on multiple levels — reading body language to sense how well they’re understanding the material, monitoring the room for questions, paying attention to how well students are working together or who’s on task. Most of this time I’m highly aware. Years of teaching experience mean that I can take small peripherally-aware breaks — freeing me up to think about the transition to the next topic, or assess whether to skip the next activity so that I have time to introduce the next concept.

But when I have students in front of me and students on Zoom, I’m now hyperaware all of the time. I’m monitoring students in the classroom with one set of visual and emotional cues, and students on Zoom with a different set of visual and emotional cues. I don’t have time to downshift, even for a second, to any state less than hyperaware.

This hyperawareness extends outside of the classroom. How do I structure this sensitive conversation in a meeting when everyone is on Zoom and I have to both manage the conversation and try to discern body language? Should I make this particular ask of this particular person given how overburdened I know they are? And in the past few weeks, with a non-COVID sick kid and a concussed kid at home, I’ve been hyperaware there too (how worried should I be about this kid’s headache? is this too much screen time? do we need to figure out if concussed kid needs accommodations for finals?).

Even just walking around and existing in the world requires hyperawareness. How many people around me are not wearing masks? How many people are in this space? How risky is being in this space?

The need to be hyperaware is, sadly, not going away anytime soon — and part of the issue is that I have no idea how long this hyperaware state needs to last. Will the COVID situation get better in a month? Will I get to a point where I don’t have any students on Zoom, even for just a day? But just being able to put my finger on the fact that I am hyperaware the majority of the time is helpful. I know now to be hyperaware (ha!) of scheduling downtime and breaks, and to honor my limits more strictly. I have a name for part of the cause of my seemingly constant exhaustion, and while that doesn’t change the situation, it does provide a small bit of comfort. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.

What I’m reading: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.

What I’m listening to: I’ve been enjoying the “between-isodes” of The Agile Academic podcast, with the focus on reflection and intention-setting for the new year.

A rough start to the term and a prescient one (ok, two) word theme for 2022

Slack message: "Raise your hand if you are currently experiencing Week 9 levels of exhaustion" with 1 thumbs up and 3 hands up emojis.
Slack message to my department last Friday. So much for easing into the term…

Winter term started last Wednesday (January 5). It’s been every bit of chaotic as expected, and then some.

Some “highlights”:

  • Every class meeting has been hybrid. Unplanned hybrid.
  • Well, except for Monday, which I taught fully online because I have a sick (non-COVID) kid at home and of course this week my partner is out of town.
  • (Sick kid was finally diagnosed with strep. Is still contagious, so can’t go back to school until Thursday. Time to Reschedule All The Things!)
  • Day 1: the number of students on Zoom due to COVID was dwarfed by the number of students who couldn’t get back to campus in time due to travel issues.
  • Our COVID numbers are concerning, like everywhere else. This week’s second round of baseline testing for everyone should be…interesting? frightening? all of the above?
  • The sick kid’s school nurse was so backed up trying to record all the absences on Monday that we got a robocall from the district about our kid’s unexcused absence. (I really feel for the nurses / teachers / school staff trying to keep everything together in this chaos!)
  • Today’s message of doom from the school: elder kiddo (vaxxed and boosted, thankfully) is a close contact of someone who just tested positive, so now we are all on Covid Watch.

So, yeah, not the smoothest start to the term.

While I followed through on my plan for a year without goals, I did decide to pick a one word theme for the year. Or, rather, I couldn’t decide between two words, so I mushed them together to form a two-word theme for the year:

Gentle serendipity.

My intent with this theme is to stay present with whatever life’s presenting me at the moment, rather than trying to micromanage my way to control (serendipity), and to be ok with whatever decisions I make as a result, with a minimum of self-flagellation (gentle). Given how much is uncertain in my life right now — what’s my next career move when I’m done being STEM Director? when will I be able to run again / figure out this latest cluster of injuries? what changes do we need to make to special needs kid’s treatment plan to set him up for success as he starts middle school next year? will democracy survive in the US? — I need both flexibility and a reminder to treat myself with the same grace I try to treat others.

And boy, have I needed that this week.

My theme has become my mantra this week. And while I’m not going to lie and pretend that I haven’t raged internally at the extraordinarily bad timing of my partner’s business trip and my kid’s illness, or questioned whether it’s actually worth getting out of bed in the morning, repeating “gentle serendipity” (admittedly, sometimes between clenched teeth) moves me out of my head and forward. It’s helped me see the humor in the ill-placed typos in the in-class activity on Monday and use it as a teachable moment, to myself and my students, about the importance of knowing and honoring your physical and mental limits. (In this case, because I stayed up way too late Sunday night trying to finish the lab, well past the point of diminishing returns.) It’s reminded me to ask for, and accept, help. It’s helped me slow down, notice, and listen to what’s going on around me (which helped clue me in to how sick my kid was in the first place).

On the bright side, having so much early practice employing my theme is likely allowing the theme to take strong hold and setting me up for theme success in the new year!

I hope you are being gentle with yourself, and serendipitous as well, as the new year starts. (And if you have a theme for the year, I’d love to hear what it is in the comments!)

5 Questions as I Design a First Year Seminar

Due to the high demand for computer science courses, my department rarely offers a first year seminar (or, as we call them at Carleton, Argument and Inquiry seminars, or A&Is for short). We last offered one in 2014: Human-Centered Computing, taught by me. So when the opportunity arose for us to propose an A&I seminar for 2021-22, I jumped at the chance. This fall, I’ll be teaching Ethics of Technology as an A&I seminar.

I adore teaching A&I seminars. I like having a class solely comprised of brand-new Carleton students, and watching as they adjust to college and to life at Carleton. I like having a hand in helping them navigate this strange new place. I appreciate the A&I as a gentle introduction and/or a “sampler platter” to a particular subject, rather than a comprehensive overview. The point of an A&I, after all, is to introduce students to how scholars ask and answer questions in a field — which means I can be creative in how I interweave the course topic with this goal. This venue gives me an opportunity to teach something we don’t currently offer in our CS curriculum — and perhaps a way to try out what this might look like as part of our regular curriculum. (Case in point: our Human-Computer Interaction elective grew out of that Human-Centered Computing A&I seminar.)

Designing an A&I seminar is challenging in the best of times, but even more so in I Thought We Were Post-Pandemic But Apparently Not times. As I plan out my course, I keep coming back to the same five questions.

What supports will my students need to adjust to full-time, face-to-face learning? Incoming first year students experienced all sorts of learning models over the past year and a half: fully online, fully in person, hybrid, hyflex, Hi-C (ok, maybe not that last one). Whether they graduated in 2020 and took a gap year, or graduated in 2021, their high school experience ended weirdly. What expectations will these students carry into the college classroom? How can I create an environment where we all feel physically safe to share the same air and the same small space? What can I do to help them learn in the presence of others, something we all took for granted as the norm pre-pandemic?

How can I best design my in-person course for flexibility? I remain skeptical that everything will be hunky-dory, back to normal for the entire term. Don’t get me wrong: I take a lot of comfort in the fact that the vast majority of our community will be fully vaccinated. But students will likely get sick or have to quarantine. Heck, I have an unvaccinated (because of age) kiddo at home who (as of now) will be back in school full time around (as of now) unmasked people. So I may get sick or have to quarantine. I feel like there’s less course design support for flexibility this summer, and while the lessons I learned last summer are definitely valuable, I still feel a bit lost here.

What trauma will we all carry into this year, and how will it manifest? Earlier this summer, I naively thought that we’d be heading into post-pandemic life more fully, and not back into the thick of the pandemic. Which, I think, means that some of the trauma we carry is the same old trauma of living through a global pandemic. But there’s also pandemic weariness, pandemic anger over how preventable this current wave was, pandemic grief over all those we’ve lost, pandemic uncertainty about the future, pandemic despair that we seem to be heading back to “business as usual” and not taking away any lessons about the precariousness of so many in our society….you get the picture. We’re grieving, we’re exhausted, we’re angry, we’re fed up. Our collective mental health is a dumpster fire. We don’t have the resources — at my institution, in our medical system, in society writ large — to deal with trauma on this scale. How do I help my students navigate this — particularly while I’m trying to navigate my own trauma?

What should my students read? This is more of an “embarrassment of riches” question. There is so much good writing on all sorts of aspects of ethics in technology. I flirted with the idea of a textbook for a bit, but abandoned that idea because there’s so much non-textbook reading I could assign instead. Should I have students read a few books and deep-dive into a few topics? Should I go broader and have students read more long-form journalism articles on a wider set of topics? I need to decide soon (technically, I needed to decide when textbook orders were due earlier this month), but I’ll admit to a bit of decision paralysis here.

What is the one thing I want my students to walk away from this course with? I haven’t settled on my central course question yet. And that’s certainly a big part of what I want students to take away from my class. But I also want my students to walk away with a sense of resilience. A sense of belonging. A sense of agency. And a strong support network. I want my students to leave my class thinking that it was a safe place to learn and to try out ideas, and feeling that Carleton is a home for them. To me, particularly this year, that’s at least as important — if not more so — than any of the course content or core ideas.

What questions are you asking yourself as we head into the later part of summer and the transition to a new school year?

What I’m reading: Black Boy Out of TIme: A Memoir, by Hari Ziyad.

What I’m listening to watching: The Olympics! Particularly swimming, and some of the taekwondo.

Midterm … ish … update

We’re currently in Week 7 of 10 of Spring Term, and the only good thing I can say about this state of affairs is THANK GOD the administration moved fall term registration, and advising, to the summer, because if I had to meet with all of my advisees on top of everything else going on this week, I would probably run away to join the circus.

No one is ever at their best at this point in our academic year. Every other institution in the universe (it seems) is out for summer, and we’re all sick of each other and exhausted and cursing our calendar. This year those feelings are amplified. I poll my class every Wednesday (anonymously and when I remember) to see how they’re doing, and this week over half the class responded with some level of “not great”. A good number of my students are dealing with some pretty serious stuff. The other day one of my colleagues said “I wish we could just give everyone an A and send them home at this point.” Which, to be honest, sounds like an excellent strategy.

I have to say that I’ve mostly struggled through the term, too. Work continues to be a firehose, and I continue to work more hours on weekends than I’d like. There are difficult growing pains connected to my leadership role. My course grader went MIA for a good chunk of the term. Both kiddos are really struggling. I’m dealing with a level of exhaustion I haven’t experienced since I-don’t-know-when.

And yet.

I’m fully vaccinated, as is my partner, as are many of my close friends here. I’ve hugged people I don’t live with, for the first time in over a year! And one of my kids is now vaccine-eligible, and is hounding us to schedule their appointment ASAP.

I’ll be hosting students IN MY RESEARCH LAB, PHYSICALLY in a few short weeks.

My Software Design students are awesome and a lot of fun to teach. I am having a blast.

I submitted an article to a journal earlier this month! Something I’d been thinking about writing for a while and then struggling to complete for months. I convinced one of my favorite staff people to coauthor, and writing with her was one of the high points of this academic year. And I’m currently working on another paper, on work I did with students a couple of years ago, which I hope to get out for review by mid-summer.

I was elected to the college’s tenure-and-promotion committee, a 3-year stint. This is super important (and hard!) work, particularly as we figure out what faculty reviews and evaluation look like post-COVID. I’m humbled that my colleagues trust me to be a thoughtful voice in these discussions and deliberations.

Most importantly, despite everything else going on, I feel a rare sense of … calm. A sense that all of the important stuff will get done, maybe not quite on the timeline I’d like, but still, done. That the stuff that doesn’t get done wasn’t really important in the first place. That the current state of affairs, no matter how frustrating or difficult, is temporary. This is a rare state for me in normal circumstances, but especially during the spring, where my depression and anxiety are typically at their worst. Perhaps all that hard work in therapy is starting to pay off.

I hope this week, despite whatever else is on your plate, that you are able to find some small bit of calm among the chaos.

Grieving the term I was “supposed” to have

It’s human nature, I suppose, to believe that at some mythical time in the future, your life will be “better”. “Once I defend my thesis, life will be so much less stressful!” becomes “Once I earn tenure, I’ll have much more control over my time!” becomes “Well, maybe once I make full professor, things will calm down a bit and I can catch my breath….?”

Of course we know deep down this isn’t true. Our responsibilities and tasks change as we move through life. Sure, we may get rid of one set of stressors, but these are quickly replaced by a different set of stressors. As kids grow out of the toddler stage into the school-age stage, we parents don’t have to watch them quite so carefully or so much to make sure they don’t, say, run into traffic or eat something poisonous. But we trade this vigilance for the stress of helping them navigate bullying, friendships, schoolwork, failure. The stressors are much different, but they are no less stressful.

I’ve been around long enough that I can recognize when magical thinking starts to creep in, and I do a pretty decent job of nipping it in the bud.

But, I do have a somewhat related coping strategy that I trot out when I’m in the middle of a way too busy, overscheduled, how-is-it-possible-for-one-person-to-handle-this-load term (like Winter Term this year), that I’ve found quite successful. And that’s: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then X will be off my plate.” Or: “If I can just make it to the end of the term, then I’ll still have X, Y, and Z responsibilities, but I will have much more control over my time.”

I like this strategy, because it acknowledges that next term won’t necessarily be less stressful, but it will be less full, or more in my immediate control. And that, I’ve found, is enough to motivate me to keep slogging through in the present, because I know there’s a future payoff. Also, it prevents me from falling too deep down the well of despair.

There were many things in this category that got me through a very difficult Winter Term:

  • Teaching only one 6-credit course in the spring, one that I’ve already taught twice this year, allowing me to use some of the time I’ve spent revamping this course the past 2 terms to do some long-overdue long-range planning for STEM at Carleton.
  • Fewer scheduled-in obligations in the spring, allowing me more freedom over how I spend my day-to-day time, along with time to schedule overdue face-to-face conversations with people I want to know better in my STEM Director role.
  • Working with my newly-hired research students in the spring to get them up to speed on the new line of research we’ll be doing this summer.
  • Meeting and getting to know the new crop of Summer Science Fellows, a cohort program I direct, in the spring.
  • Time and space in the spring to write up a couple of papers that are overdue to be submitted somewhere.

And of course, there’s always the joy of getting to know a new crop of students, to learn their personalities and quirks, and to engage with them in the classroom and office hours.

It was only yesterday that I finally recognized, in the middle of a telehealth call with my therapist, that part of what I was experiencing, the general malaise and sadness and anger and anxiety, was grief.

Grief, over the term I was “supposed” to have.

Grief, over the term I’d “earned”.

Grief, over all the things I’d looked forward to that would no longer happen.

Grief, over the necessary and fundamental changes to the way I work.

Naming my feelings as grief has been freeing. I still grieve, and it’s still hard, but now that I recognize that’s what I’m doing, I can deal with it more effectively. I can pin what I’m feeling to a stage of grief, and try strategies appropriate to that stage of grief to deal with it. I can be sad and angry over what was supposed to be, because being sad and angry is normal in grief. And I can feel hopeful some days and fatalistic others, because those are also part of grief.

Acknowledging this grief is also helping me as I frantically put together some semblance of my course for the start of Spring Term next Monday. As I develop reading quizzes and triage parts of topics and revamp my rubrics to be more specifications grading-like, I keep in the back of my mind that my students, too, are grieving the loss of whatever their expectations were for Spring Term. And while I always try to err on the side of compassion, remembering my student’s grief guides me to lead with compassion in all aspects of my course design.

Many of us are grieving as we navigate this new normal. Hopefully, remembering this will guide us to be more compassionate with each other, as we all figure out ways to accept and deal with our grief.

The Many Faces of Midterm Break

One of the quirks of Carleton’s academic calendar — consisting of 3 10-week terms — is the one day midterm “break”. Monday of 6th week, no classes are scheduled, giving students and faculty a long weekend separating the first half of the term from the second half of the term.

While I’m unclear on the history of midterm break (it’s been around since well before I arrived), I suspect (or maybe just hope) that midterm break had noble origins. In my rose-colored glasses view of Carleton history, midterm break was established as a true break, a recognition of the need to recharge, at least for one day. (Putting aside, of course, that those who teach on a TTh schedule do not benefit explicitly from this break, but MWF faculty do.)

I realized very early on in my Carleton career that it was non-negotiable for my mental health to take this day as a full-fledged break. The few times I haven’t done this, the second half of the term was an unmitigated disaster. So I consciously make the decision to eschew work for the day. Sometimes I manage to get away for the weekend — this past fall, my daughter also had that Monday off, so we got away for a girls’ camping weekend in a state park. Other times, weather-permitting, I’ll get outdoors for a long hike, or ski, or run. Or catch up on errands and take myself out to lunch. Or, if I’m completely exhausted, hang out in a comfy chair with tea and books. Whatever I decide, it has to recharge me.

Because I believe so much in using break as a break, I no longer have projects due in my classes the day after break. I want my students to have the option to recharge and take the day off of work, too.

I believe I am firmly in the minority on both counts. I know that most of my colleagues use the time to catch up on work and grading, and I suspect many of my students do, too. I can understand this — it is nice to get things off of your plate, and to have rare uninterrupted time to accomplish those things that seem to keep getting pushed to tomorrow’s to-do list. And I suspect that my colleagues and students who do this also manage to take time for themselves — or at least I hope they do.

There is a trend, though, that concerns me, and that is Meeting Creep. I’ve blogged before about December Creep — the proliferation of meetings and workshops and other “optional-but-not-really” work-related events during Winter Break. In recent years, I’ve seen this same phenomenon around midterm break. There seems to me to be more pressure to hold and attend meetings on midterm break.

On the one hand, this makes perfect sense. Everyone knows that there are no classes, so it’s much easier to find time to get people together. And since there are no classes, you can spend less frantic time working through things, without trying to cram decisions and conversations into an hour-long meeting slot.

On the other hand, this becomes yet another pressure point for faculty, particularly junior faculty, faculty of color, and other historically marginalized faculty. I’m a full professor, and I still feel a twinge of guilt when I turn down a meeting request for that time. What happens when you feel like you don’t really have a choice, here? We should all have the freedom to say no to these requests for mental health reasons and to maintain boundaries, but the truth is some of us are freer than others — and that’s not fair.

In my December Creep post, I stated something which still holds true:

I wish our breaks really could be breaks. I wish that we didn’t feel the need to Fill All The Time With All The Things. I wish that we recognized that downtime—unscheduled time—is necessary and important for faculty (and staff!). That we recognized that this workload is really not sustainable.

“The Disappearance of Faculty Downtime”, November 26, 2014.

Next Monday — Monday of 6th week — you’ll most likely find me out in the woods somewhere with my snowshoes (weather-permitting, of course), following animal tracks and planning where to warm up with a mocha and a good book afterwards. I may be in the minority, but at the very least I hope my example makes it easier for someone with less power and privilege than me to maintain their own boundaries around their break time, in whatever way makes most sense to them.