It’s that time of year, the time when the semester shifts from class to committee meetings. The time when class planning wanes and grading rolls in. The time of parties with colleagues and vacation planning. The time to look back upon that beginning of term to do list and despair.
When I look back at what I imagined back in August, it seems a hilarious enough fiction that I experience a kind of break in subjectivity. That planning self of five months ago is so unreasonable and demanding that I cast her out, speaking of this cruel and stupid woman in the third person as “August Katherine.”
I hate August Katherine. She’s full of summer optimism but never seems to hang around to see things through. Come December, when I look at her list of semester goals, I want to punch her in her Pollyanna face.
In truth, though, August Katherine had her own troubles when she glanced back at May’s summer to do list. What she did at the time to help overcome the dread nausea of insufficiency was pretty smart, I have to give her that, despite our current rift—I plan to execute the strategy this week on our “dead day.”
Rather than merely wringing my hands over all I did not achieve this term (though there’s some of that, too), I’m also writing out my list of accomplishments and at bats.
For the same list-making heart that weeps over the check marks never made, tracking what did in fact happen over the term is cheering and satisfying.
While I did not complete two book chapters, I will have completed one, and that’s worth copying out as an achievement of note. In addition to the tasks I intended to do and completed, an end-of-term tallying allows me to see the things I completed that I hadn’t accounted for in my August planning. For example, some conference friends and I are planning to apply for an NEH collaborative research grant and have begun initial strategizing. I was nominated for a teaching award and completed those application materials. There was a talk I had forgotten to make prep time for in my calendar that nonetheless took up a good chunk of mid-semester—funny how that works. Too, this list can account for the boomeranging nature of academic work, the journal articles and book chapters that we just can’t quite seem to get rid of as they cycle back for yet another set of “final” revisions.
This settling up with the tasks of the semester is both a nice snapshot of what I have done, and a reassuring reminder that the reason I didn’t finish a second book chapter isn’t because I eating gummy bears and looking at pictures of Armie Hammer on the internet—I was busy!
What’s more, as opposed to the didactic, even bullying nature of the to-do list, in an end of semester list there’s room to generously account for “failures” or “at bats.” For example, I participated in half of a academic Nano-Wri-Mo this fall. A failure of sorts (I only made it to the fifteenth of November), but also a try at something wild and different that resulted in nearly 15,000 words toward a new book project. Those words go on the list! As do the three grants I applied for and did not receive: a major national grant, a library fellowship, and a residential research grant. Each of those failures represents something that took time and energy. And though these particular tries didn’t pan out, they nonetheless represent a good effort toward improving my grant writing skills.
So, if you have a little time this week, consider this list an act of kindness to yourself, a small celebration of the work that did get done, your August self be damned!
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote