As I sit here, working from home on the first day of the final exam period that marks the end of my first semester in a real, grown-up academic job, I find myself repeatedly mulling over some thoughts that I suspect I will want to remember in future years.
It has, on the whole, been a fantastic semester – I’ve been more productive than I anticipated in terms of research/writing goals, and less terrified of the still-steep learning curve I’m on in regard to teaching expectations. My instincts about the department I would be walking into have generally borne out in all the right ways. Even the weather has been cooperating with me, as a polar vortex consumed the part of the country I flew out of and this Northern prairie town has seen some flashes of downright warm weather dating all the way back to January.
It has also been a far more difficult semester than I imagined, characterized by constant adjustment and a still-in-flux sense of how to return to a mindset of juggling multiple brain-intensive tasks and fitting them into short and frequently interrupted time spans. The trajectory of post-secondary schoolwork goes gradually from this type of scheduled structure with multiple small tasks that require organization and deadline tracking to an increasing focus on self-directed mini-goals towards the production of one giant tome. And then in my case, immediately after finishing said tome, I have been rather jarringly thrown back in to a calendar with lots of “busy” slots on a daily/weekly basis and even more deadlines occupying the “all day” zones of my planner. The difficulty comes partially from being out of practice at this type of work and partially from the much higher expectations about the quality of work I will be able to produce in those suddenly re-shortened windows of opportunity, not to mention trying to do so on an unpredictable amount of sleep. My ever-slow-to-teethe child seems to have chosen this week to molars, for example, when I was hoping to focus some brain power on some real writing now that my daily workload has been lessened somewhat by the end of classes.
I am grateful for the experienced academic friends and acquaintances who have reached out when they saw some fraying around the edges – or possibly nearing the centre – of my sanity, simply saying “This is normal. It will pass”. I continue to hold out hope that this will also be true of the sleep uncertainties, but so far, working towards acceptance seems the more productive solution to that form of suffering. And maybe the “It will pass” aspect will come as I am more able to accept the new normal of a constantly changing schedule at both home and work, and the reality that “routine” is something that I will always feel is just out of my reach, or that I managed to develop for a week or a month before being diverted into a new semester schedule, a new service position, a new childcare dropoff/pickup regime, or a new molar.
There are particular challenges – but also some weirdly intangible advantages – to starting mid-year, when people are already established in the rhythms of the academic calendar and the introductions and welcome back structures aren’t quite so prevalent. The sense of being out-of-place and constantly one-step behind has become paradoxically comforting, and the light at the end of the school-year tunnel is closer, like I’ve gotten to try out a half marathon instead of the full one my first go-round (though it comes immediate after completing the Iron Man triathlon that was the dissertation wrap up/job market process of last semester).
With all the busy-ness and the schedule shifting and the disentangling myself from the feelings of pressure, it’s easy to lose sight of what the real learning process has been here. It occurs to me that a lot of the adjustment I’m currently experiencing comes down to the fact that for the first time, in what feels like a rather sudden but has in fact been quite a gradual process, I have lost any illusion that I am not yet a Grown Up. I am not a student anymore. I have a Real Job. The past few years of my life have been characterized by near-constant transition, not just in the recent past (as is of course still the case now, what with the cross-country move and the double take I still do when I look at my license plate) but also in the coming future, often with a heaping dose of uncertainty piled on top. And it’s actually surprisingly hard, after all of that, to sit still and realize I’m just here. I’m not moving to the next thing, or halfway between one and another, or wondering about the next disruption to my efforts to settle down.
Nothing I have to say about this is particularly insightful or enlightening, but for my own sake, at least, I feel the need to demystify and rehumanize some of what it means to be where I am in my career and in my life. Most of these experiences are learning of the practice variety rather than of the instructional or informational variety, so their utility to the broader public is likely limited, but I suspect that my future self might read them and realize that for whatever reason, I will need to learn them again in future forms, and so it goes.