Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Silly Season

With finals just about to start, nearly everybody on campus is on her worst behavior. The students are jumpy, what with legitimate pressures (final exams, papers, and projects) and self-imposed ones (missed deadlines have a way of catching up to you). The faculty are visibly strained, with grading pressure combining with student begging combining with end-of-year events. The administrators are exhausted, since we do all of the end-of-year events, and we deal with the conflicts that don't get resolved at the departmental level. (I'll admit to giving thanks that I don't work at Dartmouth. The idea of a professor suing her students for not liking her is so headache-inducing that I can't even work up a full post on it without a serious blood-pressure spike.) The plagiarism board is doing land-office business, dealing with students who haven't figured out yet that faculty know how to use Google.

Those are relatively normal, if draining. After going through the same cycle enough times, most of us come to expect that two periods per year – roughly “Thanksgiving to Christmas” and “tax day to graduation” -- will just plain suck. I try to keep my bride apprised of which nights I'll have to stay late in any given week, but it's actually reached the point where I start to lose track. Like Rocky, I pretty much give up on the idea of 'winning' this month, instead hoping just to go the distance. And this is the time of year when I honestly wonder just how the hell single parents do it. I couldn't do this job and raise kids by myself. The events alone would do me in.

I'm too spent even to work up a decent blog post.

So a question for my wise and worldly readers: how do you stay sane during silly season?

As the VP of Student Development, I get a ton of "student X cheated" or "faculty Y is unfair" this time of year. To stay sane I smile, fake sincerity, but only pay attention to formal complaints. If I chased every accusation I'd never get anything done.

Above all, a healthy dose of humor helps more than anything!
When I grade research papers, I keep a shot glass and a bottle of whiskey on the table!

On a serious note, I try to work in chunks, so as to not get burned out. I also have a deadline for students giving me stuff.
Generally I tell students that problems of their own making (although I don't say "problems of your own making") will have to wait until after finals are graded and THEN I'll return to their issue and submit a grade change as necessary. I tell students I prioritize regular-season grading until TODAY (last study day), and then I *only* handle post-season grading until it's all complete.

Some students are still legitimately turning in late work or make-up work or whatever, but they know after today I won't touch it until I'm done with all finals. And as for the students with self-inflicted problems, most of them are just as glad I'm not dealing with it until after finals, so they can focus on their other finals.

I also make students a) get permission for extensions/rule variations/whatever by e-mail and b) staple my return e-mail to the back of the assignment so I'll remember I told them it was okay. I can't possibly remember who I gave permission to for a rewrite or who was at the hospital for a week with a very sick sibling; this has vastly simplified my life. I'm putting it in my syllabus from now on.

I work a second job half-time in addition to teach a pretty full course load, so I take about two weeks more-or-less off from the second job during finals, which actually makes me feel like I have TONS of free time. Free time spent giving myself eyestrain headaches and getting sick to death of reading student papers, but while I feel stressed, I don't feel terribly time-pressured.

I'm thinking of requiring term papers to be due two weeks before the end of the semester, at least in some classes, next semester, both to spread out my grading and so fewer of MY papers are caught in my students end-of-semester frantic-ness and get half-assed as a result. Has anyone else done this, and how has it worked?
Eyebrows McGee, my university actually discourages us from making major assignments due the last week of class (though it's not forbidden). I tend to *either* give a final exam *or* assign term papers that are due at the same time as the final, but not both. If I have something due the last week, I aim for low-pressure---a bibliography assignment for an imaginary paper, peer review for a draft of the term paper. I'm generally happy with how it works out.
I don't have to stay ~sane~ during finals. I make sure I do well in my courses though the whole semester, that way I'm not (totally) freaking out towards the end.
One Word. Beer.

Well, that and a lot of planning when I write my syllabus. I try to spread out my grading throughout the whole semester.

And, for me, it's the research that's a killer. I have two conferences each year, right after spring break. Back to back. Now, that's way more evil than grading.
Grumpy Old Road Foreman Approach.

At the beginning of the semester, frown a lot and say NO.

At the end of the semester, smile a lot and say SORRY, STILL NO.
Sane? Who stays sane?
Sanity is over-rated :)

(But then, I would think so, wouldn't I?)
How does one stay sane during silly season? Admit that you can't. Admit it's impossible. I tell my students to get enough rest, but I don't. And the faculty who go off like tripwires at this time of year aren't rested, either.

Drink less coffee and work out (or do yoga, or take long bike rides) more often.
I own a .45 and a .22. I go through a couple of boxes of ammunition during the sucky season. It makes me feel MUCH better. And it's very Zen, you have to concentrate on safety.
geez... I don't know, I'm on a one-year full time and had 3 on-campus interviews over the last 8 days - all the grades for my 7 classes that my CC counts as 4 need to be in by Friday. But, at least now that my one-year is over I can avoid getting cornered into committees with no real mandates, that's good. My unflinching drive to amuse myself keeps me sane. That and fatalism. Oh, and thankfulness that destitution is at least 2 more weeks away.

There is no substitute for planning exactly how you are going to get the job done. For example, if the final exam is late in the week, the questions must be designed so they can be graded efficiently.

Example: Today I started working on the daily schedule for one of my Fall classes.

I like Eyebrow's suggestion about including the permission e-mail with the assignment, but I do that so rarely that I usually just make an annotation in my gradebook or consult my own copy of the e-mail (which was filed appropriately in the course folder).
I like a combination of chocolate, citrus fruit, and bike commuting, though I imagine that a sabbatical would be more effective.

Eyebrows, my ex found that having a paper due approximately two thirds of the way through the semester (i.e. somewhat before the conflict that Dance mentioned) worked pretty well. She was able to get that graded before the end-of-semester crunch. I've never quite managed to do it myself, though, so I ended up with papers and final exams to grade at the same time.
I know that this wasn't the main point of your post--the offhand comment about not being able to do this job as a single parent--but the issue of juggling a demanding career and family has been on my mind lately. I wouldn't say that Mr. Geeky and I are a high-powered couple. If we were, we'd probably hire a nanny and be done with it. Instead, we're both academics, which entails a combination of long hours due to actual work needing to get done and obligations outside of regular business hours, among many other things. I often worry if I could handle working at the next pay grade when those obligations would increase. We already feel like we slack off on the family side--mostly in the area of housekeeping, but this has an affect on other things. Not to mention, this is the time of year when schools have plays and events and days off that parents have to attend to in addition to their job obligations. It's a perfect storm.
"I tend to *either* give a final exam *or* assign term papers that are due at the same time as the final, but not both"

Right. These are my term papers in lieu of a final exam. This semester I just have students upon students who have put them off until the last second and now are half-assing them because they have a zillion other finals. I'm just wondering about making the term paper due two weeks before the end of the semester and finishing up with something very light -- a final quiz on the last chapter, a final 2-page response paper on an issue we discuss, something like that. (I typically get good attendance at option sessions, so I'm not super-worried about half the class disappearing if their major assignment is turned in two weeks before finals; but then, every class has a different dynamic, I'm sure eventually I'll get that group.)
Oh, how I can relate. I'm a com.col. prof and we are all simply running on fumes by now. I've moved everything up and am determined to rework things for next semester. THis morning, I've already come up with ten things to do instead of grade my papers. Sigh....madamovary.
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