Mid Semester Slump: Fall Edition

Even though it’s well past midterms, I’m definitely feeling the effects of mid-semester crunch.

This is partly due to how my semester is scheduled (two conferences in three weeks will make a girl extremely tired; especially when she’s still dealing with orals, work for various professional committees she’s on, teaching her class, and still trying near-futilely to catch up on sleep/sanity from the summer).  But I think there’s also a certain degree of universality to it: suddenly, those piles of grading on your desk have a new urgency.  The star-struck wonder and optimistic first few weeks of any fresh start (a semester included) has faded; this is where the real work begins.

With fatigue setting in, I’m having to return to my old “find the energy” axioms.  Here are a few that are keeping me going right now; hopefully some of them can also add some inspiration to your day.

1)   It’s fall in New England and everything is beautiful.  I can barely move without

Captured on a walk yesterday!

Captured on a walk yesterday!

having to pause for a foliage picture (thanks to a new-found interest in photography apps for my pocket-robot, I have some great tools with which to capture these).

2)   Fall also means pumpkin flavored everything.  Though by virtue of having discovered a wonderful pumpkin spice flavor syrup recipe I am no longer limited by the calendar as to when I consume my pumpkin coffee, it’s still comforting to know that on days when I just don’t have time to make myself a latte I can rely on good ol’ dunks to provide.

3)   Soon it will be winter.  Winter is when a break happens.  Winter is also when my favorite holiday happens.  This also means that, very soon, I will have full social license to blast my Christmas Music for at least a few months before it becomes taboo again to do so until next year.  Believe you me, nothing brings a smile to a poor downtrodden graduate student like pop culture icons belting Christmas tunes.

 4)   While conference season is stressful, it also gives me an excuse to wear my favorite tweed jacket.  Though I haven’t had a moment to install the requisite leather elbow patches, that particular upgrade is definitely in the works and I hope to have it in place by the next wave of professional gigs which require professorly clothing.

The blue mountains as seen from my plane during the fly-over last week

The blue mountains as seen from my plane during the fly-over last week

5)   Despite all efforts by nature to kill it, my herb garden is still going strong.  As is my aloe plant.  For those not in the know, I (until very recently) was self-titled DANIOR MURDERER OF VEGETATION (caps required for proper voice intonation).  When my trusty bamboo plant was killed by a tragic fungal infection last year, I thought my days of caring for flora were over.  However, convinced by my own tenacity, I managed to overcome my grief and acquire several new plant-friends.  I don’t want to say this too loudly for fear that they might overhear and decide that it’s a great time to kick the proverbial bucket, but they may just be long-lasting installments in my life/office.

6)   Even though I’m really tired, I know that I’m just one workout away from an endorphin high and a quick battery recharge.  It’s not a permanent solution, but it definitely helps me plug along and plow through the multitudes of material on my desk (today’s challenge: several period fencing manuals, most unavailable in modern typesetting… the joys of archival/textual scholarship).

And on that note, perhaps hitting the gym will give me a little pick-me-up and help me through the rest of this afternoon.

I hope you’re having a productive day, and that the mid-semester slump isn’t hitting you too hard!

Hey, Hey and Away we Go

Well, that was a long day.  Thursdays, it turns out, are going to be doozies for a while.

I begin with Directing (the class I TA).  After an hour and a half, I have approximately an hour to myself.  An hour, by the by, turns out to be just enough time that it makes you feel like you should be doing something, but not long enough to truly accomplish anything.  In other words, just long enough to make you anxious without the substance to do anything about this anxiety.  Today, my netbook proved angry at me for failing to turn it on more than once this summer.  It is a small bit of technology with a small brain and, for a cheap computer, rather advanced in years, so I can’t say that I blame it for wanting more attention; it figures that it would be today of all days that the darn thing decided to act up.

After this time, I whisk my way down to my own class (Theory).  Today was particularly

yup. My job.

exciting because it was the first class of my semester that I am actually taking.  This also meant that I got to meet the new crop of first years.

We had a veritable deluge of first years this year.  There are a lot of new faces, new voices, and new people about the department.  Since the department is very small, this means a lot of new things to get used to.  What it also means is that class sizes are larger.  This year, our classes cap out at seventeen.  Last year, my largest class had ten.  These seemingly similar numbers are in actuality vastly different in the context of discussion-based courses (especially those held in small seminar rooms).  It feels different; rather than a round-table, we feel like a motley hoard.  I’m going to be interested to see what this hoard shapes up to in terms of actual class discussion.

Unfortunately, my experience with larger classes is that the strong voices remain strong and the weak fade into the background.  Those who are aggressive fight, those who are more inclined to sit back and let thing wash over them have the security to do so.  This makes the conversation imbalanced and, often, repetitive.  I look forward to seeing how the professors (whom I have the utmost respect for) solve this particular teaching dilemma and help to retain order within the seminar room.

One of the most exciting things about meeting the first years is understanding the new classroom dynamic.  Who is going to speak with a loud voice?  What will be the timbre of that voice?  What opinions do these people have, how hard are they willing to fight, and how are they going to bring their vast array of different knowledges/experiences to the table?

One of my favorite parts about academia is the argument.  One of my colleagues made the apt observation just the other day that “it’s always a fight with you”.  Preparing for class, for me, is donning armor and honing my blade.  Having a roomful of new opponents is the most tantalizing thing I could be presented with.  I was hard pressed not to lick my lips with a knowing grin as we went around introducing ourselves; lots of new and different specialties.  Plenty of fodder.  Let the bloodbath begin.

I rounded out my day at rehearsal.  We’re really getting into the thick of things now and

I also nearly finished the sock I was working on while at rehearsal today!

we’re at that point where most folks are mostly off book.  I myself am off book (though, again, I do need to call “LINE!” particularly when I get caught up in something).  This is a weird place to be.  While the words are in your head, you haven’t quite gotten them in your body yet.  You reach and strive for them and, though some layering comes naturally, often the most intense moments are still evasive.  For me, today, tackling 3.2 proved extremely frustrating.  This is the first scene in which Rosalind speaks with Orlando at any length, and she does so under the guise of Ganymede.  It’s almost specifically in prose (a challenge in itself) and I spend the scene giving speeches which mostly consist of lists.  As if that weren’t enough, capturing some sense of genuine emotion is a roller coaster.  The scene begins, for me, giddy in love and playing around with Celia and Touchstone about Orlando’s bad poetry.  After being ribbed good and hard, I have a few moments with Celia before I have to don the guise of Ganymede and play real, serious, and convincing.

The rhetoric bounces wildly, the mood changes drastically, and I’m still trying to remember all the gosh darn lists that Rosalind uses.

Suffice to say I didn’t quite hit the emotion that we need to drive this scene tonight.  But I have hope.  My scene partners, luckily, are fantastic.  With some more work, I have confidence that we can get there.

…and now, officially, to tackle my real job: reading.  I think I was sorely mistaken when I held the belief that second year would be easier than first year.

Ah, well, back into the fray.

I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead

So while my week hasn’t gotten monumentally better (I’m still tired, still professionally worn out, and still grinding away at that unending pile of stuff to do on my desk), it also hasn’t gotten monumentally worse (the judicious application of delicious crepes, good beer, time at the gym, and a wonderful friend with a massage table has certainly helped me stay in the game mentally).

In addition, a few things happened in the past couple days that went a long way towards assuring me.

Let me explain.

This semester is killing me in a way that I didn’t think possible.  I remember experiencing the same bone-weariness at about this time last year; but at about this time last year I was in the middle of the PhD application process, holding down two jobs plus full-time school, and my entire life was up in the air as to where I was going to move when I got booted out of Jersey in May.  I had a reason to be bone-tired.  I honestly thought that I would never experience that level of weariness again.

Au contraire, mes amis.  Apparently it is possible to revisit that exhaustion.  My meltdown at the beginning of this week precipitated an influx of personal queries.  I began to doubt myself; could I really handle this?  It wasn’t this bad last semester, or am I just getting older or something?  How is it that I am already May-tired and it is only February?

Then I began to look around me at the faces of my comrades.  Inside of class, outside of class, running into each other in the library, and I realized something: I saw the same weariness reflected in their eyes.  The same empty staring into space that I was experiencing.  The same vacant expression which undoubtedly meant that one had ground one’s brain into a pile of mush with the cruel mistress of Chekhov and gray matter was slowly leaking out one ear.

Then I began to listen to what they were saying in class.  Of course everyone here is smart, everyone here has something to say, but I realized that none of us were on point.  None of us were keeping up.  We were all drowning together.

Then I did that thing you’re not supposed to do: I brought up the reading load.  You have to do it gradually, you see, so as not to startle anyone.  There’s this understanding in the academy that yes, you will try your best to read everything, but there’s no certainty that you will be able to do it as closely (or in as timely a fashion) as one would like.  The great paradox is that you’re not supposed to talk about this; it’s an unspoken understanding between the students that we’re all trying, but realistically there’s only so many plays you can read in one week.

And trust me, I’ve tested the outer limits of this theory.

So I worked my way around to it, edging it into the conversation, trying my darndest not to sound like the weakest link.  “So… has anyone else noticed that our workload has perhaps increased this semester?”

I was met with a barrage of “YES!” “OH MY GOD!” “How do they expect us to read all of this?” “I’m drowning here!” “I’m going nuts!”.  It was like everyone was waiting for someone to bring it up.  Everyone was doing the same thing I was; glancing side to side in hopes that they weren’t the only one.

What a relief!  No, really, I can’t even begin to express how good it feels to not be the penguin on the edge of the iceberg in seal-infested waters.

It doesn’t help the fact that I’m tired, but at least now I know that I’m in the race and not dangling behind it like dead weight.

Validation number two came from an off-handed comment by Professor X when talking about graduate writing (and, in particular, the work he has seen us do for his weekly response forums).  I’m deep into the editing process of several conference papers and I have recently received some extremely productive (though not entirely easy to swallow) feedback on my writing.  The transition from “student” to “expert” is not something that anyone really handles gracefully, and it’s extremely developmentally appropriate for a graduate student to have trouble with it.  The issue, you see, is one summed up by said professor when speaking about our writing;

 “Many of you fall into the trap which ensnares many graduate students right up until the dissertation; relying too much upon others’ work and not leaving enough space for your own ideas.  You do so much research and want to include it all that you cut yourselves short at expressing your own scholarly thinking.”


This is my problem.  This is my problem in a nutshell.  I swim through so much scholarly work that it’s become so difficult to differentiate what I think about anything.  Of course I can summarize and quote at you until doomsday, but what is my opinion?  I’ve spent so long trying to re-hash other peoples’ ideas that I’ve lost my own.  And that is where I am with my work right now; where is my thinking and how do I express it in my writing?

Not going to lie, it feels good to be asked what I think about something; genuinely asked to write about my own thoughts.  It’s also scary as hell.  When I rely upon the work of others’, it’s not my ideas that are presented to criticize.  But it’s time to cross that bridge.  It’s time to put my stuff out there.

 So that’s the next step.  It’s not going to be easy, but I feel really good about being pushed to another level with my work.  So what if I feel like a squeezed-out hand towel?  There’s still something left in there.  This semester’s about giving 110%, overcoming myself, and surpassing even my own expectations.  I can sleep in June.