Between Hell and High Water

The second semester is harder than the first.  The first semester is spent trying to get ‘back in’ to term time, teaching and the minor traumas that characterise the students being back.  With more time to prepare before the semester and the advantages of being well rested, the first semester is  a long hard slog till Christmas, but not half as hard as second semester.  The second semester goes off like a bomb in the post-Christmas exam marking frenzy, while everyone watches available free time be sucked into a whirlpool of meetings and marking.  There may only be 10 weeks until Easter then a couple of weeks of semester afterwards, but a lot happens in those 10 weeks, a lot more than in the same 10 weeks of the first semester.

For many students the second semester is their last semester at university and they are faced with the twin anxieties of planning for the future, and passing the present.  For staff that means that the typical teaching loads are supplemented with reading drafts of dissertations and project reports, finding more spare half-hours for a quick chat about this or that, opportunity or problem, and ultimately marking all the stuff that comes in as quickly as reasonable.  And once the second semester ends we deal with the remainder of the marking and meetings.  That takes a few weeks then before we know it we’re planning the next academic year, with barely time to catch our breath from the previous one.

My teaching continues in to August this year, fortunately not at the pace of the normal semester, but having any scheduled things over the summer is strange.    There is something about a few weeks of relatively unstructured time that just make things like grant writing and getting into the lab a little bit easier.  I’m sure I use up all my planning skills over the 2 semesters and need the summer to be a little disorganized (or at least a little less accountable for disorganization).  It isn’t that the summer is less productive (uninterrupted time counts for quite a bit in terms of ‘getting things done’), it’s different though, and necessary.  I would find it physically impossible to continue at the rate of term time throughout the whole year. This is largely where one of my concerns over the concept of 2 year degrees lies – I don’t disappear for a long summer vacation, I try to work steadily but perhaps more sustainably while I get the chance.  It is in my best interests to get as much teaching prep sorted in advance as possible.  If we had three trimesters, would that even be possible?  Every semester would start like the second semester does, and we’d flounder quickly without the time to plan and regroup.  I don’t really feel the need to defend the non-teaching period that is typical of the academic year, anyone who has worked in a university science department or lives with an academic understands that it isn’t an extended vacation.  Still, I’m looking forward to spring.

[Just for the record, last summer I moved house, submitted a 10,000 word dissertation for a teaching qualification, redesigned the lab course for a module, supervised a Nuffield student for 8 weeks, did the initial work for a teaching innovation project, and prepared some lectures for a new module, amongst other things.  With a week off to move house, and 4 days actual ‘holiday’ – complete with hotel and everything,  I didn’t make too much impact on the annual leave.]

3 Replies to “Between Hell and High Water”

  1. The thing about planning skills is that you can only really plan for yourself. If you happen to work with people who spring 20 hours of new teaching material on you and various other bits of very heavy admin, then planning involves making lots of contingency plans and kissing goodbye to a normal life. Roll on the end of term. I am already “planning” my annual leave around what conferences I should be going to. Unfortunately this year’s conferences are not exactly in glamourous locations which means one of the few perks of the job will be spent traveling to the East Midlands or Lancashire. Poo!

    1. Hang on, are you me in disguise? That’s almost exactly what I’ve been doing…well about 15 hours of new teaching (with disproportionately long prep time…ugh!), some only for this year. And the same with vacation planning – two conferences towards the end of the summer, not particularly far from home – Loughborough and Birmingham! I agree entirely though – the best laid plans go to hell as soon as anyone else becomes involved!

  2. Long prep time? I wish!! Pretty much had a standing start from December. One week I finished writing the material in a plane over a warzone 12 hours before I was meant to give the lecture… What narks me is the fact that I can see how I am going to get hit with more lectures (realistically 20 hours per term) next year and the course leaders/line manager won’t decide what is getting taught until the last minute. Fortunately, I know that all universities are equally disorganised, so I don’t take it personally!

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