Out Of Gas

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One of the things that made last year so rough on me was the fact that I experienced the first significant burnout of my teaching career. As our spring semester was drawing to a close in mid-May, and I got through the last of my regular class sessions before finals week started, I started feeling the kind of exhaustion that normally doesn’t happen to me until after I’ve finished reviewing all my students’ final papers and submitting grades. That post-semester crash happens to me every semester, but I’ve never considered it a weakness on my part because fitting all that work in under the deadline of wherever I’m working is always a challenge. I tried to be kind to myself last spring when I started feeling that burnout earlier than usual — the pandemic, and the resultant stresses of teaching online that academic year, were more than enough reason for me to have that kind of reaction — but it was more than a little worrisome that I felt so drained for so long there.

Before I could even finish my grading from that term, though, I had to start teaching a four-week summer course (the first I’d taught on such a tight schedule), and then I did some essay tutoring in August before our fall semester started in September. I had at least six weeks there without significant obligations to campus, and I kept waiting for my get-up-and-go to return, but I never really felt like it did. The fact that I was continuing research on my next book during that time probably didn’t help matters any, but with the difficulties of the 2020-2021 academic year behind me, and the pandemic abating enough that a return to in-person teaching was all but assured, I kept waiting to feel like my old self again, but I never did. It felt like nothing I could do there was replenishing my energy reserves, and as the new school year drew close, I was deeply concerned about how well I’d be able to teach.

Getting in front of students again helped, of course, and even as I struggled to adjust to the “new normal” of last fall’s classes — not being able to see students’ faces as I taught made it very difficult to judge how well I was doing at any given moment — I did my best. It helped that so many of my students were also eager to make things work out as well as they could that semester, and for all the things that I wish I’d done differently, I still feel that I did a good job of making the most out of a very difficult situation. Having said that, though, I can’t deny that my energy still never returned to pre-pandemic levels, and I struggled in ways that I’d never experienced before as an instructor. The fact that the pandemic started getting worse again as soon as the semester started — first with the delta wave, then with omicron — definitely didn’t help.

When I was finishing up my grading for the semester at the end of last month, I found myself hoping again that I’d be able to get my energy back during the long break we have between fall and spring semesters here in Wisconsin; we don’t even start up again for another week here. I saw some signs of progress at first, like being able to handle more research every day, but I still felt like something was off. This time, though, it’s easy for me to figure out why I remain so down here: Hardly a day has gone by over this break without one or more of my friends announcing that they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 on social media, and if I weren’t worried enough about them, the meteoric rise of infections over the past few weeks has me wondering just how much longer I can go without getting sick here.

Because so many college-age people are choosing to take this semester off due to pandemic concerns and not wanting to take more classes online — and I’m already sick of the argument that these young people should just “get over it” and ignore the omicron surge — this is likely to be an excruciatingly difficult semester for most colleges and universities, especially here in America. My schedule is still in flux, and while the uncertainty of that is probably adding to my inability to recover here over break, my bosses are doing the best they can right now to deal with all these factors. As I’ve said since the start of the pandemic, you couldn’t pay me enough money to take on the responsibility for making those kinds of decisions, and I just want to avoid making things worse for anyone else here, students and co-workers alike.

One thing that is for certain is the semester starting in seven days here. The disconnect between the hopeful rhetoric I keep hearing about the omicron wave being “over” any day now, and all the scientists warning that our current lack of effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 is just going to prolong this spike, is beyond jarring, and only adds to the concerns I have about my sick friends and my own well-being. It’s no wonder that I still feel so exhausted, and none of these problems are going to suddenly disappear in the next month, let alone the next week. I’m going to do my best to prepare for another semester of teaching here, but right now it feels like the most efficient use of my preparation time will be to figure out just how to get the energy I’ll need to succeed under these conditions.

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