Saturday, August 15, 2009

Beginning a new semester

Every year, I start the new semester with some excitement, some hopefulness, and some dread. I can't tell you what proportion of each I changes from year to year.

I recall being a professor with no administrative appointment, and how different the beginning of the year felt in that capacity than it does now. Yes, I was always a little stressed about updating syllabi, working on course outlines and e-reserves, but the semester began somewhat gradually. I felt that I could ease into it. I had time to strategize about the first class, outlining my lecture/plan/activities so that I felt confident walking in the first day. There were certainly meetings, parties, and orientation activities to attend, but none of the planning rested on me. I cannot say that I don't occasionally look back with some sense of longing and nostalgia.

These days, I am the one planning the orientation activities, as well as the meetings and (occasionally) the parties! That planning--and overseeing the resultant events, added to student services activities (students needing to add/drop/change their schedules, manage financial aid, complain about textbook prices or differences in requirements between sections of a course) and the regular teaching planning, can make the beginning of the semester feel a little bit like riding an avalanche downhill. I try to stay on top of the rushing madness, but I always feel it moving beneath my feet and threatening to pull me under.

Now entering my sixth year as an administrator, I am less and less excited and energized by the minutiae of administrative beginning-of-the-year activities. I don't mind participating, but the prep work is getting to be boring and repetitive. I have created good activities, and I have gotten feedback and worked to improve them. They are strong and good--and I am ready for someone else to come in with a new idea or activity. I am ready for something a little different in my own work responsibilities--either a different administrative job or possibly returning to the faculty. Either way, I want something new out of my academic life, and a new start to the (next) academic year.

So, this year will be my last in this particular administrative position. I conveyed that information to those above me last spring, but I worried sometimes whether I was making the right decision. As I approach the beginning of this academic year, I am assured that my decision was sound, and I will stick with it. In fact, it makes me able to approach the year as a series of "lasts"... my last student orientation to organize, my last faculty meeting to oversee, my last time overseeing the development of program evaluation materials. What a nice treat!

A quick note to those of you beginning your first year as tenure-track faculty members: This experience will not be like you imagined it would be. You will be overwhelmed sometimes with the many demands on your time and energy, and many things will go wrong in the classroom, your faculty, your research, etc. That said, you will get through it, and you will learn so much. Remember to give yourself a break--you have a lot to learn. Enjoy the ride, take time outside the academic venue, learn more about who you are and what you want.

Another note to all faculty: Please remember how hard the people in Student Services are working right about now. If you see them in the student center or at your orientation activities, compliment them on their great work. Help them know they are not invisible to you, and that you appreciate all they do to make the students' experiences better. And extend that same appreciation to your support staff members, who have scheduled the rooms, dealt with student enrollment issues, managed all the equipment purchases and student assistant salaries, gotten the copier running, and basically make your life run more smoothly than it could. Hell, bring in a box or two of donuts or bagels and provide a breakfast break for them. It goes a long way to improving morale, and it helps diminish the idea that faculty are rude, elitist, unapproachable snobs who don't care about the support staff at all. And it keeps them from getting quite as irritated as you describe your trip to Europe, Jamaica, or even the beach, a trip you took while they were all busy working their 9-5 jobs.

Best wishes to all for a good new academic year. This season of new beginning is one of the blessings of an academic life. Don't squander it!


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