By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness
Feeling especially overwhelmed? More exhausted than normal by unfinished grading and writing? Wondering why spring break wasn't refreshing? You’re not alone.
Spring semester is a major slog. Even worse than fall. No, really. Here’s why:
Spring comes after the holiday season, which for some means depletion from travel, forced cheer, and overspending worries. For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s the extra stress of dealing with even more Christian privilege than usual. How many times could you hear Merry Christmas as a non-Christian without wanting to scream?
Some parts of the U.S. experience little sunlight and lots of cold during most of spring semester, particularly the start. This can have emotional consequences that range from malaise to Seasonal Affective Disorder. Even if shorter, darker, chillier days don’t get you down, they may negatively affect your friends, family, students, and colleagues. And their down mood can impact yours, a phenomenon called emotional contagion.
Taxes are due! Need I say more?
Then there are faculty annual reviews that typically occur in the spring. Ideally, professional reviews are a time for thoughtful reflection with chairs who: value all that we do; make space for the ways positionality influences how we are perceived, treated, and evaluated*; acknowledge that we operate within an education system that increasingly gives too little and takes too much; recognize their power in the process even if they feel powerless in their roles otherwise; and understand that those reading their reviews are people with feelings and vulnerabilities and hopes, even if some of us protect those parts of our humanity behind heavy armor.
But as many of you already know, annual reviews regularly fall short of this ideal. So far short, in fact, that I’ve had a steady stream of painful phone calls and meetings with faculty from all kinds of institutions demoralized by their review process. These are exceptional faculty who work tirelessly for their students, colleagues, and colleges. Yet shifting standards, the application of previously unmentioned expectations, and the minimization, or even outright dismissal, of considerable intellectual, physical, and, oftentimes, invisible emotional labor marked their interactions.
There is no clear win among the fallacious choices available to those faced with this situation. They can:
And these costs are not equally distributed. Those who are junior, belong to historically marginalized groups, challenge injustice on or off campus, have chronic health challenges, are without strong supportive networks, occupy vulnerable emotional spaces, or sit at the intersection of these factors are poised to suffer more regardless of “choice.” All from one process that has the potential to be affirming, healing, and motivating.
My intention is not to depress. It’s to shed light on the ways environmental, systemic, and institutional agents can influence our spring semesters, and lives in general, sometimes outside of our awareness. And I mean to challenge flawed cultural narratives that link success (and failure) solely to individual, personal efforts. If only life were so simple and magical that we really did have full control over our destiny.
It isn’t. We don’t. And buying into this belief can seriously hamper well-being.
A healthier alternative is to acknowledge the agents at play. Accept that they have the strength to impact our lives…that they can show up like hurricane force winds pushing us off course or like an almost imperceptible but relentless headwind that slows us down or makes keeping pace exhausting.
Surrounding yourself with those who truly see you, hear you, and value you for all that you are is necessary shelter when winds are raging and can shield a headwind’s full impact. Finding those communities in systems that instill distrust among and within us is not easy. But know that it’s possible. [For more strategies, see Nichole Guillory's Surviving The Annual Review Process post.]
Awkward plug: Adding to these rare compassionate spaces is why Joycelyn and I created our wellness retreat for women of color faculty. The need for replenishment at spring’s end prompted us to offer a retreat in May as well as November.
Let me close by saying that acknowledging the external forces that might be making your spring semester hellish is not an invitation to give up on the semester or lose sight of your own power. It is an invitation for radical self-care. And seeing what society is adept at invisiblizing is pretty damn radical.
In peace and solidarity,
*If you need evidence to support that positionality matters in teaching evaluations, see here and here.