Beginning Again

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This past weekend, as I was decompressing from the work week, it felt strange to recognize that even though I’d taught for six full days of the nascent fall semester, I had yet to teach a full week. Colleges set their schedules differently — I’m still getting used to the much longer winter breaks here in Wisconsin, presumably to keep us all inside for most of January, when the cold weather and roads can be incredibly dangerous — and state law requires that we start in September here, as opposed to the mid-August starts I grew accustomed to in Ohio and Michigan, both as an instructor and as a student. One quirk this creates is that when Labour Day falls later in the month, our term can start in the middle of a week, then immediately go into a three-day weekend because of the holiday, and not give us a normal five-day week until the middle of September. I just taught my first Monday of the semester today, and I’ve still yet to experience what a full week of teaching this semester will feel like. (In addition to teaching a full load of credit-bearing classes this semester, I’m also doing another round of my creativity workshop on Saturdays this semester, so I’ve got my hands full with stuff to do.)

From what I’ve experienced so far this semester, though, I can tell that this will be a difficult one. It’s not just that the previous year of pandemic teaching created its own set of problems to be overcome, along with habits that may or may not need to be broken in our current course modalities; in addition to all those things, we are still all trying to figure out this “new normal” we’re a part of. Our campus is requiring masks be worn inside at all times (except for drink/food consumption) through at least the end of the calendar year, and not only does this complicate my ability to “read the room” when I’m teaching by looking at my students’ faces, but putting names to faces was always one of my weaknesses as an instructor. At least Zoom rooms alleviated this concern by putting names below each face in all the little windows, but now I’m not only struggling without those names, but I only have half-faces to go off in my classrooms. Given the importance of making students feel valued as individuals, I desperately need to devise new ways of identifying students on campus, and so far I’m not having much luck figuring that puzzle out.

Perhaps more importantly, the energy demands of in-person teaching are proving to be very difficult to readjust to. Teaching in any modality can be an enormous drain, and for the past year and a half I’d gotten used to being able to flop down onto my bed — literally in arm’s reach of the desk where I’m typing these words right now — whenever I needed to when I wasn’t teaching. My office on campus may have beanbag chairs to help me relax, but it’s not the same as being in my bedroom here, a few feet away from my kitchen (and its many cheap sources of caffeine and sugar), with so many reminders of my early years surrounding and comforting me. This doesn’t even account for the physical demands of moving around a classroom, and how much larger those have become after being even more sedentary than usual since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic; I did not get enough exercise in the past eighteen months, and I’m paying the price for that now (and I know that I have no one but myself to blame for that).

On top of all that, there is still the mental drain of the tremendous uncertainty we’re all living through right now. I’m seeing new stories of escalating COVID-19 diagnoses in young people almost every day, and the ongoing concern over the possibility of transmissions on campus is very much palpable. Even with all the testing and monitoring being done on our campuses, that fear of becoming infected by a breakout before it’s caught is still there, and as more and more cases of breakthrough COVID get reported on, the question of how much longer the burdens of social distancing and such will continue becomes harder and harder to answer. Even if we don’t act on our feelings in irrational ways, all of us are suffering from pandemic fatigue, at least to some extent, and it’s clear that this pandemic isn’t going to go anyway in the near future.

Many of us were already feeling that we were just trying to survive from day to day for a long time before this pandemic began, but that statement feels even more true now, and for far more people than was the case eighteen months ago. In the end, maybe that’s all we can do here. I’m trying to do my best for my students each and every day, but with the return to in-person learning this semester and the ongoing efforts to define (and adapt to) whatever the “new normal” winds up being, the amount of work required to perform the day-to-day requirements of teaching continues to grow. I know that this isn’t any easier for my co-workers or my students, so the burden continues to be on me to lead by example, and to put forth the same kind of effort I wish to receive from everyone else around me, but I can’t deny that putting that effort forth feels a lot different than it did before the pandemic. Maybe we’ll all adjust to this “new normal” as the semester goes on, but this is probably going to be one of the biggest challenges that all of us involved in higher education, from administrators to instructors to students, have to deal with in our lives. At least the five-day weeks will become regular from this point forward.

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