Each August I begin to sense an aura of dread at Lawrence. This dread is for the upcoming school year. Dread from the faculty that summer is over (and so quickly!). These are professors who love what they do, love Lawrence, love teaching. Yet there's a group-think that entering a new academic year, we must put up a shield to make it through another long school year. We know how busy our lives will get and how precious little time we'll have for creative work and personal commitments.
But why is this so? Why must we, year-in-and-year-out, fall into the same thinking (the shoring up for the long haul of craziness)? This is not sustainable--not a sustainable path for us faculty and not a model of sustainability for students.
The reality is that we can reassess as we go along. If we're over-committed or overwhelmed by, for example, grading, meetings, or email, then we can pause, step back, and reassess. Maybe we decide to spend less time on email (e.g., don't respond to some messages, write only 5-line replies) or on grading (e.g., give feedback, but limit the amount of time spent on each paper) or on meetings (e.g., miss--egads!--a meeting if it means taking precious personal time to regroup).
My current research is on metacognition (specifically, applying metacognitive methods in the introductory statistics classroom). I just read a chapter on "Problem Solving, Metacognition, and Sense-Making in Mathematics." One of the differences between novice and experienced problem-solvers is that novices don't know when to abort a non-fruitful solution method (they "read, make a decision quickly, and pursue that direction come hell or high water"-- Schoenfeld, 1992).
Sometimes I think this is what faculty do in regard to the upcoming academic year. We quickly make the decision that it will be a long haul with few choices and lots of work (work that we absolutely love, but lots of work nonetheless). It's as if we're novice problem-solvers.
So this fall, I'm thinking of the school year in a different way. I'm excited to see the students again and to soak up their positive, inspired energy. I'm excited to be back in the classroom and try new teaching methods. I look forward to the feeling of fall, a season I love--cool, sunny days with changing leaf colors and the sound of referee whistles in the air. I also realize that it's easy to get overexcited and then over-commit. So I'll take things slowly and reassess regularly. How is my energy? Do I still love what I do? How can I spend the most time with the parts of my job that I'm passionate about? Am I still taking time for myself as a person, not as a professor? And if the answers to these questions indicate I'm not on a sustainable path, then I'll make changes. That's the cool thing--I always have choices (even when I'm feeling overwhelmed and the choices are hard to see).
I encourage us all at Lawrence (faculty, staff, students, administrators) to focus on our own sustainable paths. The school year isn't a long-haul we must shore up for. It's a wonderfully rich experience of in- and out-of-class learning, connections, ideas, insights, conversations, among many other things. This is the juicy, good stuff. This is why we all chose Lawrence and why it holds such a soft spot in all our hearts. In the right doses, it's a beautiful thing. And the "right dose" might be different for everyone. That's the individual nature of the sustainable path. And if we're all individually on sustainable paths, then our community is, too.
So let's embrace the new school year. Yeah for school! I can't wait for it to start.