Although next week is going to be cold again (they tell us every night on the news not to plant anything yet!), this past week has been pretty lovely -- highs in the 50s early in the week, up to the 70s by Friday. It is less pleasant when it rains, but this week it was dry and it was as if all the buildings had disgorged their contents onto the sidewalks and lawns. There were classes outside, professors trying to hand out papers while the wind threatened to blow them away; there were sales of everything from tshirts for student organizations, to cupcakes in the form of burgers being sold to raise funds for the local animal shelter, to hotdogs being sold for what I think was the FCA or some other relatively conservative Christian group. The student government unexpectedly hid plastic eggs all over campus one night and the next morning students came out to chalked signs all over the sidewalks telling them to hunt for eggs all over campus. The student who works in my office was bubbly when she came in to work; she had found three of them, all with candy but not the big prizes. She had enjoyed the hunt. It is spring. There are students with their dogs all over the quad, and hammocks strung between the trees.
Come below the orange knot for a discussion of the darker side of spring.
The darker side of spring is the stress felt by seniors and others who are worried about completing the semester with some semblance of success. I remember when I was an undergrad I was always stunned by the weirdness of seniors in their last semester. I couldn't understand why they snapped at their friends without warning, why they always looked a bit bonkers in classes, and they seemed to be living on coffee and donuts. Until I became a senior. It was a different experience to be a senior. I was worried about my thesis; it was a major work of scholarship to me, and in my department you only wrote one by invitation of the faculty, and you got very little feedback on it until you sat in front of a panel of the senior faculty to defend your work. I was not sleeping and had amazing headaches so I got sleeping pills and tranquilizers from the university clinic and I think that second semester my senior year was largely taken up by me wandering from the library to the specialized archaeology seminar room and then back to the library, and sometimes to my dorm room, all in a drugged daze. I specifically remember showing up at an alumnae reception that featured champagne, taking a glass, and realizing after I had drunk half of it that the drugs that were circulating in my system meant I might have difficulty standing straight enough to walk across the campus back to my dorm room.
I found myself snapping at my friends who were in lower classes, and not being particularly productive at times (I am so glad there was no internet!). My application to grad school got screwed up because either one of my profs (my advisor) forgot to send a letter of recommendation or it got lost in the mail, and my memory of the other application, while I was admitted, is dramatically coloured by the nasty professor whose comments about any other school not being worth anything and even if I didn't get any funding I should pay through the nose to go to that Ivy League school because if I didn't I would not get a job. I was shocked with the nastiness of his tone and his condescension. My distaste for that meant that I was heading into the next year without having any plans lined up, as I had no desire to go to that program and study with that professor. I was looking at either going to the other university which had been more welcoming but could not provide me with any funding because of the screwed up letter of recommendation, and there was a possibility of having to go back to Kansas and live at home without a job. It was of course more complicated than all that, and I was lucky that my parents were happy to provide me with that cushion.
But all of this is to say that yes, I understand senior stress. I did not have boyfriend issues (that had unfortunately been taken of earlier in the senior year), nor did I have some of the other problems that some of my students do. But I have experienced almost all of the stresses that they are undergoing.
When a student gets angry with me and says "You have no idea what it is like to try to do X or Y" I get very frustrated. No, I don't know what it is like to be that student, but I know what it is like to experience academic stress, inflexible deadlines, ineffective time balancing, being so stressed that you stop sleeping, and being concerned about money and jobs and post-graduation plans. I know what it is like to have illness to deal with, both chronic and acute, both my own, and that of my family. I have lost pets in the midst of a stressful semester and I spent my first several years teaching with a dean who hated me and wanted to make life so miserable for me that I would leave voluntarily. I know what stress is. What my students don't know is the fact that all four of my immediate family have had serious health issues in the past month, that I am still suffering after-effects of a cancer diagnosis last summer, and that there are aspects of my space (house and yard) that are falling apart and need money and time to work on, money and time I do not have or will not have this year.
I have a box of tissues in my office for students who come in to talk with me, either angry or upset, or frustrated with me or an assignment, and who burst into tears after very little time. I am very sympathetic to their frustration, anger, and despair. But I also have to work on being fair to every student, and that means sticking to deadlines and goals relatively firmly because those who get things in by deadlines established at the beginning of the semester should not be compared to people who have an extra week or two. The standards for evaluation should also be equitable. If someone needs a grade for a particular status (getting the GPA for an honours designation, or getting high enough grades for grad or professional school admission), he or she needs to be judged on the same criteria as everyone else in the class. If I curve, I curve a class (everyone in the class gets the same bonus). I don't round up one person without rounding up everyone who has a similar performance.
I don't really find it a good argument to be told "You don't understand what it is like" or "You are not being reasonable." I am willing to reexamine my demands, grade and class requirements, etc., but I won't change requirements part way through the class, unless I waive requirements for everyone (which is what I have done at times). I don't give extra credit for one student without making it available to everyone. And I do understand the stresses of being a senior. It isn't easy. It isn't pleasant. And maybe it will be years until you feel the whole experience was worth it, if you ever do.
Being a college student is not easy, and often not pleasant. But as a friend of mine, who went through the BA/Master's/PhD track at a pace very similar to mine, is fond of saying, the next stage of your life is not going to be any less stressful. Each step along the way is easier than the next one you will take. Your training in the undergraduate phase is going to teach you to deal with balancing your time and commitments, meeting and working with people of widely differing backgrounds, many with very different experiences than those you have had previously, many with different skin colour or religious preferences, or even sexual preferences. You will be dealing with unreasonable bosses, triage decisions (what is really important, what do you leave undone, and how do you cope with the consequences), and impacts you didn't realize would be the result of actions you took months or even years previously.
Grad school or getting out and working a fulltime job will be stressful, too. It may be more fun, or more focused, but you are undoubtedly going to have more dramatic issues to take care of, and there are fewer do-overs in grad school or your job. You will lose your job if you send an email to a client that is as rude as the one I got from a student who was designing something for me last week. You won't be able to take a class over to raise your grade if you do poorly on something in grad school.
I love teaching undergrads, frankly. They are really figuring out what the world is like beyond their family and home town. They are starting to really stretch and challenge themselves, and even if it doesn't work well for them, they are changed because of it. The student who comes in at age 18 or 19 is not the one who leaves at 22 (or 26!). Watching that growth and maturing is an exciting thing. Being a small part of introducing students to the broader world (taking them on a study abroad trip, teaching them about Islam, teaching them to support an argument, write better and more convincingly, that clothing and pose can effect how someone presents in a formal or even informal setting, introducing them to exotic food or even the idea that there are nude statues in the world that are not completely pornographic) is a really rewarding thing for me. The best part of my job is working with those who may have challenges, and helping them figure out how to improve writing and research, how to cope with adversity, and what it feels like to succeed in an ambitious task they weren't sure they could accomplish. That is why I am a teacher. And that is why I listen to students who are upset, and sometimes hysterical. That is why I keep tissues in my office, why I will always listen and always try to help you figure out a way out of stress and problems, whether it is dropping a class, going to counseling, changing your major, or breaking a frightening assignment into smaller manageable parts.
That is why it hurts me to see people miss the fact that the sun was warm this past week, and there were puppies to play with on the quad. There were Frisbee games to join, and eggs to hunt. We don't have much that is blooming yet (other than trees such as maple and elm, which make me sneeze), so you can't smell the roses. But you can take a deep breath and warm your bones. And then come back to your papers, exams, and other assignments, with a clearer mind, and maybe the day/week/month won't seem so bad.