It’s the First Day of School!

It’s the first day of school! Again!

I love being a student, because it allows me to love the first day of school like I never have before–not even when I was a kid (too nervous). Being a university professor also involves first days of school, and lots of them. But, like most academics, I approach first days with dread.

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.25.06 AMFor a professor, the first day of school means the end to languid, flexible days when you are responsible to no one. It means 16 straight weeks of lecture prep, boring faculty meetings, endless service commitments, an unrelenting tide of email, and grading grading grading. The first day of school also brings with it the Crushing Awareness: no meaningful progress will be made on your research agenda for another four months. The weight of projects left unfinished settles over you like some combination of deathly pall and nettlesome hair shirt, ensuring that every free moment is tainted by a  gnawing guilt: “I should be working.”And when I say “every free moment,” I mean, when you’re on the treadmill, or in the shower, at a party, eating breakfast, having sex, crashing your car, writing your blog, walking your dog, caring for your mom, suffering a heart attack (or stroke, in my case–true story), walking the beach, or opening Christmas presents–that feeling is always there.
Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 2.31.58 AM

I have had homework every night of my life for 22 straight years.

But, as a student once more, I love first days of school. The classes I take are like a well-made play: they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most significantly of these, they end. And then a pleasant feeling of accomplishment sets in. Every moment leading up to that, starting with the night before the first day of school, is relished in anticipation of that simple, golden realization: I finished something I set out to do.

That happened to me once, as a scholar. I finished my book, sent the final draft off to the publisher, and eventually–after dealing with permissions, cover art, galleys, and feeble attempts at marketing–there was no more work to do. At last–7 years since it was a dissertation, and 11 years after I started it–I could cross “Finish book” off my list of things to do. Then, almost immediately, pressure started to mount to begin the illusive “second project.” And the guilt set in again..
IMG_4973Tomorrow I start Introduction to Nutrition. I am excited! I bought my textbook early–brand new, but something called “looseleaf,” meaning I had to buy a binder for it. No matter–I got a sassy green one with a clear cover. I’ve already packaged it up, inserting the textbook’s fruity cover into the sleeve, and it all looks fabulous. I got a matching folder, for handouts, and I bought a new sheaf of college-ruled, 8.5X11″ (none of this 8X10.5″ bullshit the kids are into) notebook paper for my notes. I cleared my A&P notes (nearly 100 pages, taken by hand) out of my Grand Teton binder, printed out my new syllabus, and packaged that up too. I also restocked my mechanical pencil with lead and a fat new eraser. Finally, I cleaned my A&P I books and note cards (100s of those too!) out of my school totebag. The best part was when I found a flattened, but still totally edible, Reese’s Peanut Buttercup in the pocket. Score!

Perhaps when I have finished Introduction to Nutrition, I will no longer be so romanced by candy. I hope so!

The totebag, btw, was purchased at a street market by my friend (since middle school) while she was on shore leave in the Philippines. It has weird cartoon cats on it, and polka dots, and its broken-English captions read, “Plip!” and “My heart will is about to burst!”

That sounds about right. My hear will is about to burst, because it’s the first day of school!

Plip!

 

Nervous System

Digging deep today. We are in that part of the semester, when everyone is bored and exhausted and overwhelmed. There are just a few weeks to go, the weather is nice, and no one wants to be in school. On sunny days, the campus commons devolve into a flesh show of bare legs and shoulders and mid-drifts, and the students constantly try to con their professors into having class outside.

It’s never a good idea. Wet butts, wind noise, a million distractions. One time, my students were attacked by an aggressive squirrel. It’s actually one of my proudest teaching moments, when my skills as an extemporaneous speaker fused beautifully with my skills as an ultimate frisbee disc handler. Mid-sentence on a lecture about human depravity, I whipped a 2-inch piece of mulch at the aggressor squirrel from 12 feet away. Beaned it right in the head. I never paused, never commented, just kept going. My students were in awe of me that day. Which was also the last time I ever agreed to have class outside.

But since I am a student now too, all I want to do is have class outside. Or not at all. Because my brain is full, and I am exhausted.

Speaking of brains, we recently dissected a fetal sheep brain in my Anatomy & Physiology class. We never get to do fun stuff like that in a humanities class, which is all, “As so and so says” and “perils of the human condition” and rhetorical masturbation, blah blah blah. In addition to being boring, the classes I teach are also extremely depressing. In fact, one of my students was so upset from material we discussed last week that she told me she cried for an hour afterword.

Yea. 😦

brain 4
You can see the arbor vitae in the round structures on either side of the brain stem.

I loved dissection. Brains are fascinating! My favorite part of the brain is the arbor vitae (“tree of life”), which is a formation of white tissue inside the cerebellum that looks like a tree when you cut it in half. It is so beautiful and mysterious. I am in love with brains.

But, as I said, mine is full. I have yet another exam–my 7th or 8th, I’ve lost count–tomorrow morning. I should be studying now, but I don’t want to. I should be studying always, but I don’t have time. Between teaching and research commitments and a taxing administrative job, I squeeze my studying in when I can. I have developed a ritual for that purpose: waking up at 4:30 AM on the morning of my test, studying in bed while the dog sleeps beside me, then arriving at school by 7 to study in a commons area. It’s quiet for the first hour, then other students filter in. I get to glare like a mad woman at people who disturb my peace, and I have been known to interrogate students before they sit down.

Brain 2
This is what education looks like in the 21st century: everyone uses phones to document lab activities, but drawing would probably help us learn more!

“Are you planning to talk?” I ask them. “Yes? Well, would you mind going to the lounge down the hall?” They comply, because I look and sound like a professor. Or just a crazy old lady. I would never have done such a thing when I was their age, but now I am old, and I don’t have patience for their noise. If all else fails, I listen to Chopin on my headphones. If you’re wondering, yes, I have wadded-up Kleenexes inside my sleeves and hard candies in my purse. My driver’s license says I’m 44, but all other evidence points to 80.

 

Finally, at 9:30 it’s time for the exam, which requires more intensity and focus than I have mustered in years. If we have class afterwards, I finish at 12:15. Then I start my grownup day.

Last week, I got to experience the extremes of the examination continuum. In the morning, I took a lab practical in my freshman-level biology class. Then, at 2 PM, I helped to administer an oral comprehensive exam to one of my doctoral students.

I used to say, with relief, that my orals were the last exam I would ever have to take. I reveled in that fact: I had summited the pinnacle of educational advancement, and oh, what a fantastic view! But, eventually, sitting at the top of the mountain started to feel less like an achievement and more like a sentence.

“Does anyone know how to get down from here?” I find myself wondering. “Because, um, I’m kind of stuck.”

Last week, when I took a freshman-level exam and administered a doctoral-level exam, I was palpably aware of which I enjoyed more. I loved learning about brains, poking them, memorizing their features, and demonstrating my mastery on an objectively measured test. It was challenging, but exciting too. I was proud of myself afterward.

By contrast, I hated delivering the oral comprehensive exam, because it combines the worst features of my job: literature review and performance. I was worried about how my student would perform, for her sake, but also because orals are a literal performance, of her abilities and my teaching, for the benefit of my colleagues. Oral comps also tend to get conversational, meaning, I had to perform smartypantsedness for my colleagues. The problem is, I don’t actually like to read in my field of study (more on that some other time), and I am not up-to-date on the literature I should know. Faking my way through these exams is intellectually and emotionally draining. Plus, I internalize all of my students’ stress, so I am a nervous wreck for both of us. I was relieved when it was over, but I did not feel the least bit proud. In fact, I felt like a fraud.

A friend of mine pointed out that acquiring a competency is always exciting, for people who love to learn. Someday, if I change fields, I would eventually have to account for my expertise in a similarly stressful setting. So it is illogical to compare my enthusiasm for a freshman exam with my weariness over an orals.

“Apples and oranges,” she said.

Brain 3
So lovely! You can make out the olfactory nerve bulbs on the left and the optic chiasma in the middle. Anatomy is a dream come true for people who love big words!

“Sheep brains and human brains,” I say. They have more in common than you would think.

Still, I don’t take her point lightly. It is hard to know what it would feel like to move into the medical profession and be accountable for other people’s health. New stresses, bigger stresses, I am sure. But new rewards, too? Perhaps. Whether they would make me happy, I cannot say.

Right now, though, I feel like I climbed a mountain without much thought for what I would do if I arrived at the top, and with no plan for how to get back down. I need a rope ladder, a helicopter. Or maybe just another mountain. Either way, as the title of this blog suggests, I can’t stay here.

I’ll figure that out later. Right now, I have a dog to walk, a nervous system to master, and an exam to take in the morning.

Cross-promotional, Deal Mechanics, Revenue Streams, Jargon, Synergy

Them: We are taking your tool. You know, the one that you use to do your Big Required Project.

Us: Ummm, but how will we do our Big Required Project?

Them: Here is your new tool. We are still refining it. Just working out some kinks.

Us: Ok, but can we use our old tool, the one that worked just fine? You know, just until this new tool is ready.

Them: No, you may not use your old tool. In fact, we are going to take it away from you because you can’t be trusted not to use it. The new tool will work, when it’s ready. We are confident that we can build the airplane and fly it at the same time.

Us: HEY. The airplane has crashed. The new tool isn’t working.

Them: We’re fixing it. Keep working. Also, here is a different tool.

Us: This tool is worse. Using it is like eating glass and doing your taxes at the same time.

Them: We just figured out that you actually need to use both tools, the new one we are still building, and the replacement for it that is so inefficient it makes users want to smash things. Use them both. But NO SMASHING.

Us: What about the old tool, the one that worked just fine? Maybe we could use that instead?

Them: No.

Us: These tools are really bad. Like trying to boot up a Commodore 64 on a stage coach being attacked by Indians. And, once we’ve done the first part of the Big Required Project, these fucking tools destroy all the raw materials we need to finish the Big Required Project.

Them: Oh, yes, about that. We’re aware. You will need to use your old tool to fix that. Use the partially built tool and the broken tool, then your old tool, but you’re only allowed to use the old tool for the very last bit.

Us: But we could use the old tool to do the whole Big Required Project much faster and cheaper than the new tools. Can we please just do that?

Them: Why are you so resistant to change?

*scene*

This fuckwittery is the net result of the corporate influence on American higher education, in which MBAs promise Universities starved for public funds “market-based solutions” to “streamline cost centers” and, I dunno, synergize backward overflow. It’s total bullshit. Sometimes I can’t believe this is my job!

The Lost Hour

In less than an hour, it will be two hours from now–such is the wonder of Daylight Savings.

We will all wake up groggy and cranky in the morning. Those who use their cell phones as alarms, or who remembered to advance their old-school clocks, will awake on time but poorer for the loss of an hour’s sleep. Those who forgot about the time change will awake refreshed, but irritated as shit that they are late for brunch or church or Sunday Funday. The academics will simply go to work.

For all us college folk, Sunday is a work day, because there is school the next day. And for thousands of us, this particular Sunday marks not just the end of the weekend, but the end of spring break… also known as, The Last Time I Will Feel Rested Until May.

On my spring “break,” I worked every single day. The break part involved some long walks with the dog and a friend, but that was it–no dinners out, no drinking, no shopping, no gardening, no travel, nothing but work and a little laundry. For all of that deprivation, I have almost nothing to show. My kitchen is clean, I have clean underwear, and the checkbook is balanced. But the taxes remain undone, the basement still reeks of mold, and the floors need to be shaved, there’s so much dog hair floating about. And I barely penetrated The List–the epic list that all academics maintain of projects that must be managed, papers that must be graded, knowledge that must be produced.

Forty minutes left.

For a blog that is supposed to help me work out whether I want to continue in my current profession, it has not escaped my notice that I hardly ever write about my job. My feelings are too complex, and the task of untangling it feels too onerous. It’s just easier to focus on bad dates and old wounds.

Thirty minutes left.

Here is my to-do list:

  • Grade 41 undergraduate essays 3-5 pages in length.
  • Grade 9 graduate book reviews, 3-5 pages in length.
  • Offer 14 graduate students feedback on their research projects.
  • Read and offer feedback on a doctoral dissertation.
  • Read and offer feedback on a doctoral dissertation proposal.
  • Prep lecture notes for two courses.
  • Revise a syllabus for which I am hopelessly behind.
  • Calculate midterm grades for 20 undergraduates and upload them. Write an evaluation of a learning disabled student.
  • Send three thoughtful emails to job candidates about their interviews.
  • Write an apologetic, but not too apologetic, email to a bunch of scholars who are really mad at me for dropping the ball on a shared project.
  • Answer a bunch of emails and do a bunch of paperwork related to my administrative job.
  • Figure out if I want to resign from my administrative job.

Twenty-five minutes left.

These are the tasks I have to do by Monday. And they do not include the writing–two 7,000-character essays and a chapter-length essay–that are months over due. I told myself that I could not return from spring break without completing them, because I would never find the time until the summer. They were to be my highest priority. I haven’t even started.

And when I say I haven’t even started, I mean, I haven’t even started researching them.

Why am I so behind at my work? What do I do all day? Where does the time go?

I can tell you where it went this week, and every week. It went towards administrative responsibilities. Most people don’t understand how universities function, that they run off of the invisible, uncompensated labor of faculty (and staff) who are leveraged to perform this work through a variety of means that never seem to involve money: there’s guilt, that students will be harmed; the promise of tenure/threat of being fired; and the unwillingness to let friends and colleagues suffer as a result of one’s own recalcitrance. Most of us put our heads down and forge ahead.

Twenty minutes.

I joke that my administrative job is 10 percent of my salary but 50 percent of my time. It’s a terrible joke, because it’s true, and because I can’t pay my mortgage with terrible jokes. I was told that this job would involve “the least amount of work you can do and still call yourself an administrator.” That would have been true if I were constitutionally capable of doing a shitty job, if I had no belief in the integrity of my university or the sanctity of education, and if I constantly overlooked glaring problems of inefficiency and rank incompetence. But I’m not, and I didn’t, and I can’t. Someday I will write a post about the absurdities I’ve encountered in this job… like…

…the professor who told an applicant she was a shoo-in for admission to a graduate program she wasn’t remotely qualified to enter. And then the professor mishandled issuing the denial of admission. And then the applicant went bonkers. Bonkers. As in, 2,000-word emails in the middle of the night, “I’m being persecuted like Martin Luther King,” “You need to be punished,” BONKERS. That mess took six months to clean up.

Nine minutes left.

At a university, they call this kind of work “service,” and it accounts for 20 percent of our performance evaluations. The  problem, of course, is that teaching accounts for 40 percent of our performance evaluations, and research activity accounts for about 80 percent. Granted, I’m in the humanities, but…I think there’s a problem with the math. So I grind out the service during the school year, I give my students the best of what’s left over, and I make up the scholarship (research, writing, publishing, presenting at conferences) on spring break and over the summer. I have taken perhaps a week off from work altogether–as in, seven days without doing so much as an email–in the last five years.

In two minutes it will be daylight savings time. The clock on this laptop will spring forward to three AM. And I will be one hour further behind.