Monday, December 04, 2006

Silly Season

In politics, 'silly season' stretches from Labor Day to Election Day. In higher ed, it stretches from Thanksgiving to Christmas. (There's another, even worse silly season from mid-April to late May.)

The faculty are frazzled, since they're frantically trying to squeeze in everything that needs to be covered, the grading load is the heaviest of the semester, and student excuses and oddball behavior are at their worst. The students are frazzled, since grade pressure is finally becoming real, final exams are looming, deadlines are hitting, and grandparents are dropping at an alarming rate. Administrators are frazzled, since we give up most of our evenings for a few weeks for the various end-of-semester functions, each of which is individually worthy but the concatenation of which gets a bit draining. This is also when student-faculty conflicts are most numerous and electric, since this is when the stakes are highest, and we have the no-win task of mediating.

Add to that the pressures of Christmas shopping, unpredictable and/or intemperate weather, the ambiguous rules of workplace holiday gatherings and gift-giving, and increased time pressures from and on families, and things get a little nutty.

(In my neck of the woods, add too that this is deer mating season. Deer are uniquely stupid animals, but they get even dumber in the season of the rising sap. Night driving to and from all those end-of-semester events, especially in the rain/snow/sleet/slush, is even more exciting when you have 200 pound rats dashing out at random intervals, looking to get laid.)

Due to the contractual quirks of my college, I had to find time for 30 class observations this semester. Per usual, I tried to get most of them done in October and early November, but schedule conflicts inevitably arise, so there's always a crush at the end. I've done 25, which I think is pretty good by any rational standard, but I'm not done yet. Writeups for class observations are delicate, since they have bearing on tenure and promotion, so I can't just dash them off; they actually require thought, drafting, and redrafting. Which is as it should be, but it takes time and energy. Given the number of evening events, time and energy are at premiums.

Students asking for special dispensations to drop classes after the normal deadline are especially disheartening. Since our rules require 'extenuating circumstances' to withdraw from a class after the deadline, I am visited by a virtual parade of the damned, explaining with varying levels of credibility and/or documentation why the universe can conspired to frustrate their best attempts at, say, sociology. (It's always tempting to try to delineate some sort of hard-and-fast documentation rule – no funeral notice, no 'W' – but the circumstances they present are way too varied for that. I had one woman break down in tears in my office, explaining that she and her husband are in the process of divorcing. What kind of documentation should I get for that? There's no way to capture everything relevant.)

Most of these – outside of deer mating season, which has no upside whatsoever – are the side effects of basically good things. I'm glad that the college presents enough valuable options to enough people that there's a full roster of evening events to complain about. I'm glad that I have a family to holiday-shop for; that students and faculty take their roles seriously enough that they actually worry about doing their jobs well; and that the college has enough of a sense of mercy to recognize the epistemological limits of the dean's office. (“Can you prove that your marriage is falling apart?” Yikes!) These are all good things, on balance, even if the scheduling implications of each overlap in maddening ways.

Must maintain...must maintain...