For the Wicked

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After being a part of the University of Wisconsin System for nearly four years now, I don’t think I’ll get in trouble for saying that in my experience, the only constant for us is change. I showed up here in Richland Center in 2018 as the regionalization process turned our campus into a branch of the larger campus in Platteville (they gave me lots of free swag with the old pre-regionalization logo when I got here), and just as that process seemed to be entering its final months, the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything up in the air again. With more news stories popping up in recent days about the possibility of a new summer surge of the pandemic, it feels like not only has the dust not settled on these issues, but it’s still being kicked up in every corner we can see.

One of the recent changes has been hanging over my head in a way that shouldn’t feel bad to me, but does. According to an email I received a few months ago, because this past Christmas fell on a Saturday, I was apparently granted a paid day off which, unlike the PTO I already receive, doesn’t carry forward into future semesters. In other words, I need to take that day off before the end of the semester, and finals week starts seven days from today. (I’ve been saving up the rest of my PTO for when I’m finally ready to take research trips in support of my next book.)

Most people would probably just look at the surface of that — a day off where I get paid — and conclude that I should be overjoyed. After all, paid time off is becoming more and more of a rarity these days, and it’s not like I couldn’t use the time off. Between sporadic health issues throughout the semester that have served to remind me of my vulnerability to COVID-19 and other problems, transportation issues that have made me hate the state of Ohio even more than I did before (and I wasn’t sure that was even possible), and continuing to experience burnout from the emotional labour of teaching, I could use the day off. Looking at my situation from a distance, it’s real easy to see that.

After talking with my students so much this semester, though, it’s becoming clearer to me that this may have been the roughest semester of the pandemic so far. I’ve written here previously about the mental health problems that college-age students are experiencing as a result of the ongoing public health crisis and other concerns, and those other concerns have ballooned in recent weeks. Many young people feel that everything important in their lives is on the verge of collapsing and/or exploding, and if you look at the objective facts of the situations they’re all in right now, you can’t blame them for that in the slightest. I might not be able to make things that much better for my students, but I still want to do what I can for them, and I can’t help them when I’m off the clock.

Not taking that day off doesn’t feel like it has a chance of becoming some kind of tipping point where I collapse from overwork or anything like that, but it also feels like I’m making myself a hypocrite, especially after I’ve done so much work throughout my teaching career (even more so during the pandemic) to encourage my students to practice self-care. I can’t say that this has been the roughest semester I’ve ever experienced — I don’t have any parents left to die on me — but I’ve lost count of the number of rough nights I’ve had this semester (last night was the first acid reflux attack I’ve had while sleeping in months), and I’m just barely feeling capable of typing up this blog right now. Maybe I should just give myself a day off here, and not just from teaching-related duties, just to see how much more I’m capable of doing after that. The change might end up doing me some good.

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