Postmortem: Spring Semester

One of the perks at my institution is a spring semester that ends before April does. It’s totally worth starting classes right after the new year, because central Iowa in May >>> central Iowa in January. As is usually the case at the end times, I find myself in a reflective mood–maybe more so this Spring, because I’m finishing my 10th year here, and we all know that bigger round numbers are more significant. 

Every semester, my sense of accomplishment always seems to be accompanied by a mixture of exhaustion and frustration. I am perennially challenged when it comes to maintaining a healthy work-life balance: sometimes I have it perfect, other days I feel like I haven’t given my best to anything or anybody. I don’t think it’s easy to keep a balance at a small college with a heavy teaching, advising, and service load. But I am also grateful to have a good job at a good place, especially when I see how much of a dumpster fire the History job market currently is, so the quest for balance continues… and I am getting better.

The frustration comes from the fact that I start every semester with all sorts of motivation and great ideas–the teaching equivalent of new year’s resolutions–and many of them have fallen by the wayside well before finals week. Active learning every day! Collaboration! Innovative assignments! Self-starting discussions! I AM A PEDAGOGICAL DEMIGOD.

But some days aren’t active. Some days students haven’t read. Some days I have step throat.

Some days just suck.

The problem, though, is that I often fixate on just those days. And I will sit and marinate in a brew of crankiness and imposter-syndrome-induced guilt. They’ve got to figure it out sometime. I have no idea what I’m doing. How did I even pass comps? Usually I’ll stay there, too; I’m stubborn like that. (I blame grad school.) But this semester, which was tougher than most for a variety of reasons, did have its victories. I’ve always wanted my students to do course blogs. And lo and behold, my two seminars created kick-ass blogs, with good writing, engagement, and conversation. I taught a new course with super-difficult material (History of Capitalism!)-a course I’ve always wanted to teach-and it went great, especially for a first offering. I strengthened some important relationships with colleagues, and created new ones as well. I often joke that I judge something successful if no one dies and nothing blows up. And by that exacting standard, Spring was a success, too. (Manage your expectations, kids.)

Was it perfect? Hell no. I’ve got things I wanted to do that didn’t get done, class sessions that flopped, and some students that I feel like I just couldn’t reach. But it was pretty good, and that’s where I choose to sit and reflect this time.

I wonder how many of us struggle with perfectionism, over-committing, and the inevitable letdown that follows. My sense is that we academics have been conditioned to think that we’re never quite measuring up, so like Jurgis Rudkus, we say “I will work harder.” But, I’m learning, it’s good to work at improving one’s craft without crossing over into self-flagellation. That’s what faculty meetings are for.

Happy Summer! Own your victories!

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