How to end the semester on a high note (or at least a neutral one)
Plus shout outs to two Canadian musical artists and one Canadian reality TV series. (Sorry.)
Hello and welcome to Academia Made Easier. I am so glad that you are here.
People working in academia are good at many things. Advancing knowledge. Addressing student needs. Preparing the citizens and leaders of tomorrow. Pretending that comments are actually questions. Speaking in online meetings while still on mute.
What we are often less great at is stopping and assessing what worked, and what didn’t, in how we do our own jobs and manage our work-life balance.
Amongst my academic colleagues, and this is certainly true for me, there is a tendency to just keep plowing forward. Grading is done, so now it is time for conference papers. Some vacation time, perhaps (but still sending email throughout), and then preparing for the next term. Next. Next. Next.
We don’t celebrate our successes, nor examine our challenges. We just keep trudging along. In the immortal words of Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “You never get to stop and open your eyes.” (You might be more familiar with the iconic Canadian band Barenaked Ladies’ cover version of the song, in which the lyric is changed to “We never get to stop and open our eyes.” My point still stands.)
The habit of continual forward motion limits us. It is exhausting - as you likely already know. And it prevents us from learning from our experiences and thus from making our work practices and work-life balance better.
The end of April marks the end of the semester for many people working in academia. This makes it a good time, I believe, to pause, debrief, and learn before moving on to the next thing. And this is what this week’s small thing to try immediately is all about. Don’t skip this one.
One Small Thing to Try Immediately: The End of Term Analysis
While I would rather read a book than watch other people exercise, I am inspired by how athletes and teams focus on continual improvement. Athletes work with their coaches to reflect on what worked and what didn’t and use this information to inform future choices.
You can use this same general idea to process and move forward from the past semester. All it takes is about 20 minutes and some way to capture your thoughts. (I created a Doc for you to copy, but a notebook, voice recorder, or scrap piece of paper also work. You do you.)
The process is easy: working in the order listed, simply provide brief answers to the following questions.
In neutral language, describe the semester. (E.g., what were your work and personal responsibilities; what projects did you work on; etc.).
How did you feel over the course of the semester? At what points were you calm, overwhelmed, hopeful, discouraged, content, frustrated?
Now that the semester is completed or in its final stages, what are your dominant emotions about the overall semester?
What went well for you during the semester?
What were the most challenging things for you during the semester?
In what ways, if any, did your actions contribute to the things that went well for you?
In what ways, if any, did your actions contribute to the things that challenged you?
What would you do the same if you were to start the semester again? Why?
What would you do differently if you were to start the semester again? Why?
What about this semester are you particularly proud of?
6. Action Plan
What skills (e.g., organizational, time management, stress/emotion management) did you strengthen over the semester?
How will you use what you have learned from the semester in the future?
Here you may be thinking, “I should do this at some point”. But right now there is laundry to fold, emails to answer, and Netflix to watch. I get that. So if you are unable to take a moment for this now, schedule 20 minutes for yourself to complete the analysis in the next three days, and then keep that appointment with yourself. Invest a small amount of time to process and learn from the semester.
After that, you can move on to whatever is next.
Note: My questions are organized around Graham Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and inspired by Watanabe-Crockett and the University of Edinburgh. I have reprinted and adapted some text from an article I wrote on using self-reflection in graduate education.
Chipping Away: What I Have Been Up To
A quick update on some of my own activities since my last newsletter, since I have your attention:
Due to both the presence of two learner-drivers in our household and a desire for non-cringey shared family viewing after watching Bridgerton with our teenagers (so, so awkward for everyone…), my family has been watching Canada’s Worst Driver. This often-entertaining reality show from the 2000s makes me glad that most jurisdictions now have distracted driving laws in place, among other things.
Moderating the Centre for Higher Education and Research’s webinar on department leadership in the time of Covid was a highlight of the past two weeks. The discussion was very honest and raw; looking out for the interests of students, faculty, and staff during the pandemic places a heavy load on departmental leaders. The video replay will be available soon on the CHERD website; be sure to give it a listen -- and then send the department chair in your life a note of appreciation for their work over the past fourteen months. Update: here is a direct link.
Until next time…
I would like to thank those of you who have helped spread the word about Academia Made Easier. I appreciate it. Sharing is caring, as they say, and as easy as the clink of a button. If you find Academia Made Easier helpful, or at least moderately interesting, please tell a friend.
Until next time, please be sure to treat your own well-being as a priority. It matters.
Stay well, my colleagues.
PS. What lessons from the past semester will you take forward into the months ahead? Please reply (for email) or comment (for the website) and let me know. I would love to hear from you!
Loleen Berdahl, PhD: I am a twin mother, wife, runner, cat lover, and chocolate enthusiast. I spend far too much time on Twitter and binge-watching television, and my house could be a lot cleaner. During the work hours, I am the Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. I am the author of University Affair’s Skills Agenda column and my most recent books are Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences or Humanities PhD and Explorations: Conducting Empirical Research in Canadian Political Science.