First Day Fragments

Last August I posted some assorted thoughts going into the new academic year. One post does not a tradition make, but I liked the reflective practice.

Going into my third year of teaching post-PhD, I have been reflecting on the mismatch between the stated learning objectives and the way many, though certainly not all, history courses are taught. Lower-level surveys particularly suffer because they often have higher enrollments as students are required to take them by outside forces that agree in a general about the importance of history, but have little idea what that actually entails.

The result is that the students are tossed into a lecture hall where they receive an information dump from a knowledgable person and (maybe) some time talking about primary sources. In a perfect world with a good lecturer, students who do the reading, and invested TAs, this system offers a way to scale up the mandate for students to learn some history.

But the world we live in is not perfect and these courses can resemble an information dump that students recall just long enough to take the exam.

There are a number of guides for how to improve the “dreaded survey course” that often boil down to “do less” so that the students can do more. This is good advice that I start the semester following and invariably end up clinging tighter and tighter to the sound of my own voice as the semester spirals beyond my ability to adequately manage a full discussion every day.

Nevertheless, I have be changing the format of my lectures to better model historical practice. For instance, I have begun thinking about my classes in terms of narratives and arguments, both in the big picture and in individual classes. The overall syllabus has a trajectory and each individual class has its own thesis. In the slideshow I will often include the thesis at the outset and then use subsequent slides to lay out the evidence for that thesis, taking the time to explore the consequences of this evidence as a class.

Thinking about the class in these terms also embeds a structure that both focuses the content to prevent sprawl and allows it to build on itself as the semester goes along. The further my classes are from my field of research, though, the harder it is to articulate these narratives ahead of time.

ΔΔΔ

Since around midsummer I have noticed a marked improvement in my mood, and even commented on it with regard to my writing. Since then, I have written a few #AcWri threads on Twitter about approaching writing as a discipline and a practice and equating it to physical workouts.

For years now I have been making sure to prioritize my physical wellbeing, using the basketball, running, lifting weights and other exercises to work out stress and stay healthy. My workouts change periodically (recently I’ve been working on flexibility with regular yoga routines), but I make a point of staying active even when the semesters get busy. This year I added mandatory downtime, resolving to take at least one day entirely away from work each weekend.

With this semester poised to be even busier than usual, I need protect time for writing for reasons that go beyond professional output. The hard part will be doing it in a way that preserves balance; simply adding one more obligation to my already full dance card is a recipe for burnout.

ΔΔΔ

I teach five courses this semester, two of which are entirely new and a third that is substantially overhauled from a summer course to a full semester. As a result, I teach everything from the first half* of the world history survey to colonial America, to a survey of American history after the Civil War, to two seminars on Classical Reception.

(The colloquialisms for these surveys are ludicrous. To call all of human history from the earliest civilizations through Columbus’ voyages “half” is patently absurd, even if it is half of the class time dedicated to the world history survey.)

This many classes, and particularly this many *new* classes, takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but they also provide me opportunities to indulge my interest in times and places I don’t usually work on. I may not be the best qualified person to teach every course going into it, but beyond knowing how to craft assignments, find readings, and help students develop their analytical skills, I hope that my own curiosity proves infectious.

ΔΔΔ

The weather in Missouri turned hot and humid just in time for classes to start. The heat index currently sits at 106 at the end of the first Monday of the semester, making it hard to believe that summer has ended. But time flies and I have a lot to do, so here we go.

A Midyear Writing Reflection

I aim to spend an hour a day writing. Only time actually spent writing without interruption counts, and my calculation can be idiosyncratic. Distractions from Twitter, non-musical background noise, etc. don’t count, obviously, but neither does dedicated reading or research, while editing for style and working through an article for a footnote does, provided that I have the manuscript open. Writing here is bonus.

I subscribe to the opinion that a scholar and aspiring writer in my position should write every day, minimum five days a week. (I have kept my resolution of one weekend day entirely free from work this year, and most summer weekends are totally work-free.) Sometimes this is easier said than done, and in the roughly two years I have been tracking the time I spend writing as a form of accountability there are predictable dips at the height of the semester.

I have tried to find ways to work around the fact that my brain is pretty well shot after I finish teaching in the semester, whether by writing first thing in the morning (sometimes as early as 4 AM) or by taking a nap before buckling down for a short period or just hoping that I can find a groove in a twenty-minute Pomodoro session and keep going. Realistically, the distractions of grading and course-prep often mean I do not write at all some days.

By contrast, I know I am in a good place with my work when not only do I look forward to getting into the writing, but I end up in a trance-like state that I more associate with the feeling of being on fire on a basketball court. On a lot of recent days, for instance, I will start in on one of my current writing projects, get into a rhythm, write for an hour or more without looking up, take a break to use the restroom and get a drink of water, and then do it again.

This is a summertime rhythm. There are few distractions on campus and while I could be spending more time preparing for my fall classes, neither am I totally neglecting them. Writing like this is fun.

I still get frustrated that all of these projects weren’t finished yesterday, of course, but in these times it is easier to focus on finishing a paragraph, a section, a topic, or just a footnote.

It helps that I am happy with how the projects are shaping up, but neither is this a prerequisite. The in-progress piece I think is best is one that I spent most of last semester wrestling with, while the things I am euphorically banging out now have some good ideas embedded in them, but will need a lot of cleanup. Today was particularly troublesome on that front, taking a while to find a rhythm and, once I was there, mostly resulted in identifying problems with the section rather than finding answers. But all of this is okay because I can see progress toward a final product.

I have been trying to write this post for over a week now, ironically during the period when I have been able to find that rhythm in my academic writing. Then I go to write this post and find that I lack words, think it would be better as a Twitter thread, and come up blank there too, because this is not a straightforward project update or a frivolous, frolicky ode to summer writing.

Instead, I have been grappling with the question “why now?” The answer, I think, lies in my mental health.

I spent most of the past academic year depressed, with the condition exacerbated by exhaustion and anxiety. I acknowledged as much in a reflection at the end of last year, but it wasn’t until several weeks after the end of the spring semester that I started to see progress. Anxiety about the future, money, and the job market and exhaustion from following the news have not gone anywhere. Thinking about either too much is liable to produce a visceral reaction, but for the past several weeks they have been easier to cope with.

Not much has changed. I made minor tweaks to my diet to eat better and have been losing a little weight, but I didn’t start seeing a therapist or taking medication. Even my deliberate mindfulness, as gamified through Headspace, has lapsed, though I have been working to apply those principles to my daily life. Mostly, I have strategically been trying to do less, and to focus on doing what I do well.

This post is, in effect, an exercise in mindfulness. I wanted to acknowledge my struggles with anxiety and depression, particularly over the past six months, so that when I start to feel the effects again I can be proactive. But I also admire people who are open about mental health issues in academia and wanted to acknowledge one of the ways in which they have affected me.

Writing is hard. I end a good day’s writing session mentally tired much the way I emerge from a strenuous workout physically tired. Depression and anxiety are equally exhausting, but in a far less rewarding way. Dealing with both simultaneously might as well be one of the labors of Heracles.

(Full disclosure, I was looking for another metaphor, but, not finding one, decided that Hera would have foiled the big lunk with this challenge.)

If any of this sounds familiar, know that you are not alone, but also that you should address the underlying depression. Use therapy if that works for you, or find time every day to go for a walk away from the constant thrum of rage coming from the smart phone. Whatever works for you. Life is much more manageable when you’re not exhausted from constantly wrangling mental health issues.

Should any graduate students and other academics who happen to read this want a sympathetic ear, please hit me up, but I hear one of my writing projects calling my name now.