Monday, October 21, 2013

Great Lakes Greta Surfaces on an October Sunday Night

Hi all.  I have no verse.  It is that kind of semester.  I seem to have two moods:  rage and sadness.  Well, three really, because I carry a significant amount of guilt with me wherever I go as well.

Yes, this is less rant than whine.  If you're looking for something upbeat and pithy, move along, move along.

It's just that I can't stand most of my students this semester, and I can't stand them not because of who they are--they are as they always are, every semester--but because of circumstances in my own life.  The past six months have brought me several heartbreaking personal losses, more than I've shared even with my closest friends.  I am sad, and I have real reason to be sad.  I am mourning.  I am grieving.  Being a woman of experience, I know--on a cognitive, rational level--that the sadness will diminish and I will move on with my life, but my wounds are recent and I am hurting.

(Please don't suggest professional help.  I'm already there.)

And I have to teach.  Teaching requires me not to be mourning and grieving and sad.  Each day, I put on a shiny, happy, professional face and head into my classes full of entitled, lazy students who have the fortitude of oatmeal and the common sense of toddlers.  (At this point, I would like to apologize to toddlers everywhere.)  They have zero idea of what it takes to succeed in college.  Their commitment to their education rivals Elizabeth Taylor's commitment to death-do-us-part.  But this is nothing new.  What's new is that I am perilously close to breaking character at some point, of telling them that I'm tired of their entitled, lazy asses and their complete and total lameness--and that would be very bad, indeed.

I know that I have students with Really Big Problems and for these students I have genuine sympathy.  I teach at a community college in an impoverished area.  It's not these students with whom I take issue, though.  I am sick to death of the students who email me and hijack me in person to lament the shit they've brought on themselves and the drama they seem to live to create.  I'm tired, too, of the students who lament the sniffles they've contracted--and tired of the ones so sick they should be home rather than infecting the rest of us.  I'm tired of hearing every little detail of their Jerry Springer lives--and I know how unkind that sounds--and I'm tired of them assuming that it's my job to 1) make exceptions for them, and b) serve as some sort of repository for their misery.

This is what enrages me.  It's bothered me in the past, but it hasn't outright pissed me off before.

Then there's the guilt.  This semester, I can stand myself as little as I can stand my students.  I am disorganized and late in returning work to them.  I've flaked out several times and totally forgotten things that needed to be done.  I've gotten better as the semester has progressed and my head has begun to clear, but I feel terrible about my performance this semester.  Even entitled, lazy students deserve the best I can give them--and they're not getting it. Guilt.  That feeds my anger.  That, ultimately, feeds my sadness.

And on top of all of this, I occasionally default into lamenting the straight-up, old-fashioned misery of the job: the politics; the contemporary notion that CC proffies should be so many things more than proffies (retention specialists, social workers, diagnosticians); the disconnect from my colleagues who have always been polite but never outright welcoming; the endless tea partying grading; the Sisyphean task of teaching critical thinking and writing skills to resistant and often hostile students; the realization that I'll be doing this for at least the next twenty years, if I want to retire in something that approximates comfort and not poverty.

It is the combination of aerobic exercise, coffee, and chocolate that keeps me from committing verbal homicide this semester, and I don't know what to do about it.

Have you ever had to deal with a dark night of the soul during an academic term?  How did/do you persevere?  I know that time will help...but for the immediate future, I am at a loss as to what to do.  And I've never been more grateful for tenure in my life.

And that makes me sad, too.

21 comments:

  1. O Greta. I am so sad for your despair, and as best I can, I empathize. I had a time about six years ago where my whole world came crashing down. The therapy and the happy pills brought me up to feeling devastated. I loathed my students, myself, and the guilt chewed away inside. Sometimes I felt so physically weak my knees would buckle.

    How do you get through it? A day, a half day, an hour, or even five minutes at a time. I would tell myself "You can bear anything for five minutes." Then at the end of five minutes, I'd pledge it again. And again.

    It may take days or weeks for it to subside. But some morning you'll awaken and not feel quite as raw. You'll be able to go half an hour without falling apart. And it will get better from there.

    You may pass through a period of leaden ness, and wish you could suspend yourself there, unfeeling, forever. But work to wade through it. Someday, I hope sooner rather than later, you'll find joy in your days again. Your students will just be students and not another burden to carry. But most importantly, your life won't be a burden and you'll find beauty in it again.

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    1. My sympathies, Greta! Annie, you have it nailed. "I can get through the next five minutes." Over and over again. And when you completely lose it, head for the bathrooms, lock yourself in, and use cold water on your eyes before coming out again.

      I also had some little programming exercises that I could say to the group: now get out some paper and in groups of two, try and write a method to do this or that. They love these little exercises and that gives me 5 minutes to put myself back together. I now use them regularly in class.

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  2. Greta! It feels inadequate, but I'll send prayers your way, and hugs, and warm thoughts!

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  3. Greta, I too am sorry for your losses and despair. I applaud you for your combination of exercise, coffee, therapy and chocolate, and urge you to also get a dog if at all possible.

    So far in my career I've had four deaths during semesters. The first time, I was sitting by the bed grading term papers, and lost them in the slow-mo chaos that followed. The students were happy to all get an A on that assignment; that was the only thing I could think to do, seeing as thinking was low on my brain's priority list. They also were exceptionally understanding when I would lose the end of a sentence at the board. "Take your time," they said, and I'd clear my throat and continue. I ended up showing a lot of films in the final weeks of that term.

    So there are two small strategies I can share: 1. Let the students know that something is going on. Their small kindnesses may help you through some days. 2. Be kind to yourself by reducing your workload every way you can for this semester. Show films. Grade minimally. If you have the money, maybe you could hire an adjunct to do some of your grading.

    There was a worse time than after these deaths, a time involving a new baby, a long commute, and colleagues who wanted me fired. My sister told me it would not last forever, and I thought that was awfully insensitive to me in the moment. But she was right.

    Annie's advice is right on the mark.

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    1. Greta, I second the dog. There's nothing so uplifting has to be greeted that enthusiastically at the end of your day. Even the one that's so old and arthritic that he can barely hobble comes to the door when I get home.

      I also second the recommendation to let your students know, just a little. Not all of them will give a shit, and a few may try to take advantage; but enough will care that they will make your life a little bit easier, and that's the important thing right now.

      Like Bella, I will be putting you in my prayers.

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  4. Wow! You have put my feelings into wonderful words. My family and I had a terrible, very unexpected loss this past August, and I feel so burned out. I am letting my students down. Being lumps as it is, I am usually able to at least drum up a little enthusiasm in my classes, but I just don't give a damn and then I feel bad about not caring. I usually feel this way about the end of Spring semester before I take the Summer off. I'm scared about going back in the Spring.

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    1. I am so sorry for what you are having to go through. I hope it gets better for you.

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  5. Greta, I wish I could kiss you somewhere embarrassing, since I know exactly how you feel. It isn’t your job to make exceptions for them, or to serve as some sort of repository for their misery. If you have tenure, there really is nothing to stop you from breaking character and telling them that I'm tired of their entitled, lazy asses and their complete and total lameness. If you do this well, there would be nothing bad about it at all. It won’t do for you to yell at them like Gunny Sergeant Hartman (the one in Full Metal Jacket) though: chances are that they’ve had so few consequences imposed on them by adults, they simply wouldn’t know enough to be afraid. I find a dignified way to snap their leashes is to remind them that a real boss in the real world wouldn’t like what they’re doing, and that if they did any job in the world like they’re doing my class, they’d be fired. The really heavy artillery, to be held back at first, is to point out how immature their behavior is: no 18-to-22-year-old wants to be likened to a small child. My sympathies for the real grief you have. Hang in there!

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  6. "Teaching requires me not to be mourning and grieving and sad."

    Says who?

    Indeed, break character. Do it humbly. Do it without blaming. Do it honorably.

    May you endure.

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  7. Dear Greta, I send you big hugs.

    Give yourself permission to grieve, to be human, to be frail and lost and sad. You do not have to be a rock. I am glad that you have help getting through this.

    And if you have tenure, then I'll second (or third or whatever) the suggestions above that you give your students a bare-bones outline and explain, calmly as you can, that you are not there to put up with their lazy, entitled behavior, and that it is on THEM to perform, not on you to let them slide.

    If I recall rightly, you teach comp. Go with minimal marking and a rubric with automatic feedback that says "See instructor if your grade is in this area" for Ds and Fs. I can guarantee that almost none of them will, and you can focus your energy on the ones that actually want the help. I have cut my time on grading down by half with this approach, and the grades remain in the same distribution pattern. Message me if you want a sample--I am happy to share.

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  8. Burntchrome, I've been doing this for a while now. I use a rubric, assigning a number grade for each category of things I am looking for. I summarize, using bullets, what would have been perfect for that category. I write a phrase or two and give a number which reflects the prevalence of errors or things to work on in a given category. I circle errors directly on the paper, and them bullet out what types of errors I circled at the end. I have a boiler plate note on the rubric form that says they should come see me if they need more. Hardly any of them do and I have drastically cut down on my comp grading time. I feel no guilt at all. This had made me very happy and has had no noticeable effect on the terrible students, and the better students....the hard workers, they always would come to see me for explanation of my comments anyway.

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  9. I am so sorry Greta. I've been there, more than once. I wish we could just sit down and talk. Sometimes, knowing someone who has walked that path makes it a bit easier to endure.

    What I've done is find things to look forward to. It doesn't matter what they are. Things that you enjoy and that you can point toward. It somehow makes the slog through a bit less horrible. I will send the mods an email, and let them know that I am willing to talk with you outside of CM, if you think that would be helpful.

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    1. That is fantastic advice, Clara! Not just for Greta, but for all of us.

      Greta you are allowed all of these feelings. Good luck with the battle and know so many of us send our best.

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  10. Mary Shelley wrote that life is "an accumulation of anguish". Your friends here are correct that distraction is the best therapy. Sometimes all we can do is keep swimming, like Dory in the movie.

    {{{{{Greta}}}}}

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  11. Oh, Greta. I'm so sorry. The only thing I can add to the excellent suggestions above (and to your own excellent coping strategies) is to get out and enjoy the natural world (or, yes, stay in and enjoy the company of pets, or birds and other critters at a feeder, or something along those lines). It's a good accompaniment to aerobic exercise, and I seem to remember some indications in your poems that you are a gardener, or a naturalist, or both. At the very least, you clearly notice and appreciate the ever-changing scene around you. (If you are a gardener, I hope your garden is not one of the things you lost. I've been through that, and it's bad, especially for someone for whom gardening is a last-ditch, fail-safe feel-a-bit-better-and-at-least-keep-moving strategy. Also, losses of place can be hard to explain to those who don't feel similar, or at least similarly strong, attachments. It sounds like you may have suffered that sort of loss -- if not a place, then something else that may not seem as important even to friends as you know it was to you. All I can say is that you know yourself, and you know what is important to you. What we love, and what we mourn for, is part of our core selves, and worthy of respect, even -- perhaps especially -- if others' priorities are different. At least the professional should help with that -- and if (s)he doesn't, find one who does).

    Otherwise, yes, time, and gentleness with yourself. I'm a bit more cautious about the confiding-in-your-students strategy. I'd consider it for easily-explainable issues (a physical illness you're willing to mention, a family illness or death), but students can be judgmental, and you don't need them viewing you through a lens shaped, if not by Jerry Springer, then at least by talk/advice/reality shows where everything is neatly fixed with labels and self-help strategies in the space of an hour. One of the (other) things we learn with age is that problems, and solutions, are rarely that simple. Of course, we also learn that even partial, equivocal less-than-ideal solutions can sometimes be better than striving for some unattainable ideal.

    And the guilt. My does that sound familiar. " Even entitled, lazy students deserve the best I can give them." Yes, absolutely true. But it's also true that most entitled, lazy students will get very little good from your best (though they'll be happy to complain about your worst, or perceived lack of sympathy or respect, so yes, it's probably worth biting your tongue on occasion. While I respect Frod's advice, I think it's harder for those of us who are female to employ such strategies without being labeled bitches, moody, etc.) The strategy that Burntchrome and Bella recommend is excellent, and provides some protection against wasting time trying to help students who resist being helped. Anything you can do that raises the likelihood of your spending your time and energy on those who will respond by at least trying to make good use of your help strikes me as to the good, now and in better days. Besides, if you can tweak things so that you're spending more time with students who are both deserving and responsive, you just might set up one virtuous cycle, where more positive interactions with the students you interact most and most closely with leave you feeling better about -- or at least better able to tolerate -- students in general. That might help counterbalance the tendency of grief, depression, and guilt to feed each other (and only find relief/variety in anger, which, if you're anything like me, only brings on yet more guilt, even when the anger is justified).

    Hang in there. It will get better. You know it will get better. But that doesn't make getting there any less painful.

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    1. Oh, and one more thought that you might discuss with your mental health professional, if you haven't already thought of it: assuming your moniker carries some geographical accuracy, we're headed into the darkest time of the year, and, as I mentioned above, you've shown sensitivity to the influence of the seasons. Even if you usually enjoy feeling in tune with the seasons, winter and low light might exacerbate depression in your current state. Maybe some light therapy would be a good idea?

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    1. Sorry: I was using my SI's computer and didn't remember he was logged in, so I posted as him... and now I'm posting as me:

      I have no great (or even small) losses in my life right now, but I am as burnt out as you sound, and I cannot imagine the exhaustion that grief would bring to an already burnt out psyche. I am so sorry!

      The only thing getting me to a work daily is the promise that if I get through work, at the end of the day,I will go for a run (or walk, on really draggy days) through the park near our house. Sometimes I listen to "The Year of the Hare" while running and I smile and think of Yaro's breeze blowing. It doesn't make my job easier, but for that hour, I'm close to happy.

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  13. I've been there, Greta--teaching in a fog of grief. It's OK to be a mediocre teacher for a semester. Some people do it all the time. Take care of you first. And remember that we are rooting for you.

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  14. I once told my practicum supervisor, "This week I just didn't care about the hamsters. I didn't have it in me put forth the effort." The one thing I took from that class was his advice: "That's okay. You recognize that fact. Sometimes you have to care about you first." He didn't even have to emphasize "Sometimes" to make his point.

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