Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Getting ready for a new academic year

Posted by Melissa on September 5, 2011

I’m beginning to face the reality I’ve been trying to ignore – summer is over. Classes start in about a week.

This summer, as usual, was extremely busy, but it’s a different busy than the academic year. I find summer to be a “comfortable” busy. What do I mean by that? It certainly doesn’t mean my schedule is more flexible. You’ll find me in my office by 8 or 8:30 most days during the summer; when working with students on research, I need to be available to them day in and day out.  My to-do list isn’t any shorter than it is during the academic year, although there are fewer immediate deadlines. Rather, the sense of being comfortably busy comes because I’m doing what I’ve always done during the summer, what first got me interested in physics. Since my sophomore year of college, every summer has been spent doing physics research, and graduate school was six years focused on training me to be an experimental physicist. There’s a familiarity about the work that is comfortable.

On the other hand, during the academic year, my schedule is primarily filled with teaching responsibilities and service work. I do have students working in my lab, but research mostly gets squeezed in around the edges of other responsibilities.  And these other responsibilities are precisely the activities for which graduate school did not train me. I’m exaggerating a bit — I did participate in the Preparing Future Faculty program as a graduate student, but much less of my graduate career was spent preparing me for teaching than was spent preparing me for research.

In my first few years teaching, the academic year was filled not just with deadlines of classes to prepare or exams to grade, but with anxiety about how I should deal with a problem student or whether the in-class activities I designed were the best way to meet the learning goals for my course. My mind was always busy worrying about how to handle this or that situation, which, when added to my hectic schedule, made the academic year uncomfortably busy. As I begin my seventh year at Carleton, I feel more at ease in the classroom; experience is a valuable teacher. However, every class, every group of students is different, and each year I know that no matter how prepared I am, I’m never prepared enough. The surprises, the challenges, the changes—they are inevitable and they add to the sense of (often uncomfortable) busyness that comes with the new academic year.

Wishing everyone a wonderful academic year!

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