How I Survived a Challenging Semester: Equal Parts Kindness & Boundaries

How I Survived a Challenging Semester: Equal Parts Kindness & Boundaries December 20, 2018

The workload alone was almost too much for me – and then there was the drama, most of which I actually can’t get into here. But trust me, it was terrible, and necessitated excellent coping and self-care strategies.

A photo of Sacred Circles dance camp in Michigan, where I had a mini-getaway in October.

If you’re a teacher or a student, right now you are probably exhausted. Goodness knows I am, having just finished teaching the heaviest course load of my life: 4 college classes, 1 of them totally new to me. And yet somehow I didn’t have a nervous breakdown, and nothing caught on fire that wasn’t supposed to.

Okay, here is an example of something that SHOULD be on fire: my fire hoop, in a performance I did at Playground Productions for the Hu-Manifest event. Photo by Adam Riviere.
Another Hu-Manifest shot, of me with my fire fans.

This post will serve as a brief recap of my semester, hopefully catapulting me back into more regular blogging during winter break (and into the spring semester???) and also sharing some of my self-care tips in case they’re useful for others.

So, my semester: I taught an upper-division anthropology elective about the history of and conflicts surrounding sex education; two sections of a class on global women’s life experiences, rights, and resistance; and a first-year seminar (focusing on reading, writing, critical thinking, and public speaking) with any topic I pleased so of course I picked fairy tales. My classes ranged from 15-25 students and each one had a fair amount of readings and papers assigned.

My students were fantastic, which really made my semester not only bearable but also at times exuberant. The students in my sex ed class were so excited to learn about the topics, not just because learning about sex is inherently interesting for many people, but also because they were curious and enthusiastic young adults who wanted to understand why they weren’t receiving quality information about sexuality, consent, and pleasure. They showed up so hard for this class, it was an honor to be present and sometimes I just tossed out my lesson plan because the student-driven discussion was so good. Similarly, my Global Women students truly engaged with the materials, despite some of them seeming a bit skeptical about learning about feminism and folklore at first. I watched so many of them have transformative moments, about everything from rape culture to intersectionality, it was awesome. And my first-year seminar students came with me on a wild ride that was about the parallels between storytelling and research, and story structure and essay structure. We played with fairy-tale retellings on a regular basis and they rocked out their final assignment, which was to create a salon-style retelling of a fairy tale. They were so creative and so connected to class materials, I feel like I really lucked out with this group of students (with all my students, really, because as much as it sounds corny, they all taught me something).

Thus it was a good semester, as much as it was also an intense and stressful one. Being around full-time also helped me get to know my colleagues a little better, which was great, though I feel like my experience is overshadowed by that of being a contingent lecturer but it is what it is. Somehow I also did a workshop on race and inclusivity for a local group, presented at the American Folklore Society, started preparing an online class about BDSM for mental health professionals, got some creative writing done/published, participated in an online class about how to become a better teacher, and got two book chapters out the door (one on The Shape of Water and one on Biden memes). Oh, and I just now had a coauthored book chapter come out in a cool book called Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities. Plus I danced with my troupe and as a soloist a fair bit. And I didn’t let my sourdough starter die.

An example of me dancing with my troupe Indy Tribal at Sacred Circles (aka my happy place). Photo by Carrie Meyer of The Dancer’s Eye.

I knew this semester would be tough, especially coming off the spring semester that wrecked me. I think I mostly handled it okay, though sometimes it took longer to grade a batch of papers than I would like. My gym attendance sucked too, but I rectified that in November by paying for classes with a boxing trainer who is kicking my ass in the best way possible.

The things that threw me for the biggest loop were honestly not on the academic side. I’m still dealing with trauma (unspecified on purpose), and the reason I wrote a blog post about being trauma-informed during the Kavanaugh hearings was that the whole debacle left me unable to work for a week+ due to being so triggered, which was unpleasant, not just because it was unanticipated.

What went right? Those are the things I want to share, for fellow teachers and writers and overworked folks.

  • Be as kind as you can without putting yourself out. I’ve noticed a lot more students struggling this semester than usual, and I’m not sure how much is the general drag of the political climate or what. I made an effort to learn all my students’ names so I could greet them and call on them by name, and I brought in baked goods for everyone at least once. When I could give extensions or accept late papers I did, though I would not do so if it would seriously mess with my ability to get everything done.
  • Tell people when they’re awesome. I had so many wonderful students this semester – and I made sure to tell them that. I praised them for taking risks, for turning in good work, for making my day when they they had a particular breakthrough. Same thing with my support system of friends and family: since I had to lean on them a lot to get through this semester, I tried to make sure they knew how grateful I was. Nice words don’t erase all the effort that people put into school or work, but it can help make it more rewarding.
  • Step back from responsibilities. This one was tough for me. I said no to some dance commitments, and I completely stepped back from a sex-positive community I helped found and really adored (I know it sounds cliche to say something is toxic, but what else do you call it when a fellow leader simultaneously outs you as an abuse survivor without your permission AND gaslights you about whether it actually happened?). For me, as an introvert, community organizing is really draining, so if it didn’t serve me, I stepped back from it.
  • Don’t totally neglect your body. Since I was committed to teaching dance multiple nights a week, I was guaranteed to be active. But I also tried to fit in a few massages for self-care, get enough sleep, and get the occasional home-cooked/veggie-rich meal in. The semester was a steep on-ramp and I knew I wouldn’t come out unscathed, but I think I benefited a lot from not totally letting myself slide into a physical slump.
  • Create opportunities for unstructured time. Sometimes I couldn’t look at a screen anymore. Sometimes I had to cancel a workout. Despite the fact that I apparently thrive an on overworking type of schedule, there were times when I had to create space for myself to sleep in or goof off. I know that having an intense schedule doesn’t allow for much downtime, but I found it essential to have a bit of unstructured time. That’s when I recharge for creative stuff.

These tips may not work for everyone, and they’re certainly no substitute for eradicating all the kinds of systemic oppression that make it impossible for everyone to earn a living wage while hanging onto physical and mental health and happiness. Ahem, American capitalism.

I’ll wind down this lengthy recap post; certain semester highlights may get their own post, but I’m really eager to dig into some feminist topics such as sex workers rights (which have a longer history in the U.S. than many know) and emotional labor and stuff like that. So we’ll see. For now, though, I’m riding the high of a job well done and starting to feel refreshed even though I turned in final grades barely a day ago!

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