I just came home from a conference I go to every year at this time, the one that -- in addition to reminding me how many friends I have in the profession -- also marks the moment that the semester draws to a close at Zenith. There is a week and two days left until the end of classes; most faculty have papers on their desks now and will return them, only to get a final two sets of papers and/or exams in the next two weeks. A time of year that ought to be a triumph of sorts often presents us all with far more mixed emotions. There is a sense of grinding it out to the finish, on the part of both students and their teachers. The deans are in high gear, sorting the merely exhausted from the truly unhinged. Some students are getting ready to graduate, and a few are undoubtedly anxious about a course or two that might stand in the way of going on to Better Things (or Other Things.)
Some faculty, for different reasons, will be preparing to leave Zenith (Bless you, and be happy! If not now, then sometime soon!) Others are gearing up for a big push of some kind: finishing a book, getting a promotion dossier ready, or going into a lab that they won’t come out of anytime soon. A couple colleagues that I know of will use the summer to get a medical procedure done, or move a parent into assisted living. Senior faculty – like myself – are already looking ahead to next year: hiring contingent faculty, writing line requests, filing internal grants, and trying to figure out how everything will get done in 2007-08. I, for example, will be going to five conferences, which represents a combination of search committees and scholarly presentations; and coordinating somewhere between three and five searches.
And by the end of this summer I am really, truly going to be done with my book. Don't tell.
But of course we aren't there yet: there is so much more to do. Faculty – particularly younger faculty – who have had a course not go well are dreading it that they must hand out, and eventually read, teaching evaluations. Those of us who, through a combination of skill and good fortune, have had successful classes, are simply impatient to finish up and reward students for a job well done. The paradox of a good course is that, at a certain point, you realize that everyone has learned a lot and the job is finished: so why continue, just because the syllabus (or the state) says you must? And yet, I would also admit that in my view, being a good teacher also means being a good “closer:” finishing the last two or three classes in such a way that students realize all by themselves what they have accomplished.
Meanwhile, this will also be the season where various administrators and chairs will suddenly realize that there is work left to do, classes are ending, and getting an entire committee, program or department together for a meeting will be well nigh impossible, as colleagues head for the hills as early as Reading Week. And it is the season of Parties and Receptions: honoring students who have won prizes, expressing relief at another year completed; saying goodbye to the seniors, retiring colleagues and administrators; and celebrating those students who have won honors in their field. It seems that every day there is another party, dinner or reception. You could go for over a week without buying food at all if there weren’t people at home who needed to eat too.
Then suddenly there will be a day when the final grades go in, graduation will be over and done, and the big tents taken away. The Big Guy will be off sailing, having finished up as President, and New President will be getting ready to spring himself on us. Then comes my favorite time of year. I will be crossing campus and realize that everyone is gone. For three months the campus will be empty and silent, with people occasionally perambulating across the muggy, hot campus, from one air-conditioned building to another. It’s as if the whole university goes into suspended animation.
And it's fabulous. My friend Karen and I used to call it "The University Without Students."
If anyone ever asks why people go into college teaching there are many important things to say about the satisfactions this career can deliver. But there’s one thing we could all agree on, I think, regardless of our field, ideological bent, or temperament. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: “It’s the vacations, stupid.”