Academic Rhythm

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Thanksgiving is now past. We are in the fifteenth week of a sixteen week semester. This is the last week of classes, and final exams are given next week. Our winter commencement ceremony happens on the Saturday following finals (less than two weeks away).

Many if not most of the term or research papers have been written. I finished grading mine over the holiday weekend, then posted the most recent grades so that students could see where they stand, and then updated a sheet of hints on what to think about for the final posted that as well. Some faculty members have papers or presentations due during the last week of the semester. Sometimes these are the finals in themselves. It seems to me that students have too much of this in the last week to do the kind of work I hope they will do, so I have moved mine up over the years. Professors see these things differently. Part of the education that students gain (or endure) over their years in college is learning to manage the competing expectations of their instructors.

There is less activity on “the green,” and at night. Students are studying, or say they are. If they haven’t already, they need to. And if they have been studying, they probably want to shoot for the A and are pressing on. Some students go through a kind of ritual as finals draw near. They clean up their rooms or apartments. They have to do something fun. Some of them have to plan for something to look forward to in the coming weeks. Some will visit with their professors for a few minutes, perhaps to ask a question or two, maybe just for reassurance.

Student Life will host a late night dinner/dessert for students, many of whom will be working in study groups–one of the best things they can do to prepare for finals—teach each other. This will be a good time for many of us who will be cooking (not my best time of day) to talk informally with students, sit down for a minute or two with their study groups, encourage them or respond to questions they are struggling with.

Next week we will see them walking much lighter—some actually skip out of the classroom as the final is over. Many will work over the break. Some will just hang out at home or with friends. They will be ready for classes to start in January.

Faculty will spend the next weeks writing and then grading finals and the last straggling papers and projects that arrive. It is never a clean finish. And after a few days rest over Christmas, they will get their syllabi written for the spring, before the semester starts in early January. They will begin working a couple of weeks earlier than the students do. Our sixteen week semester this fall began eighteen to twenty weeks ago or more, back in August. Books are ordered several months prior to the semester. I requested mine for the spring in October.

If we haven’t taught a course for a year or more, all the assigned books must be reviewed and/or re-read. With a course load of three or four classes, it will be a busy holiday break for many. Many professors will have topics they need to research before the new classes start, and will have outlines of re-organized class sessions. I am teaching a history of political theory next semester. How will I address how we should understand Islamist terrorism? There is still much to do.

Why am I writing this? Maybe it is one of my rituals as I prepare for the end of the semester and the beginning of the next. Maybe I just want to think it through again this year. It might be helpful for anyone wondering just what goes on in a university when it seems so quiet, or wondering how to help and encourage a struggling student in the last days of the semester. For what its worth…

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