The Semester Cycle

For whatever reason I have to put myself through a dark night of the soul before every accomplishment. I first noticed this in grad school whenever I had to write a paper. I would start off confidently with an idea about how to analyze a piece of literature, but at some point in the composition process I would begin to think that my ideas were breathtakingly commonplace. I even had a phrase for this. I’d call it “laboring mightily and bringing forth a pea.”

This feeling, in turn, caused me to question my own intellectual capacity. Maybe, I would speculate, I am just too lame, too dull-minded, too second rate to actually do the kind of bright, original thinking required in real scholarship. But at this point, with the deadline nearing, there was no alternative but forging ahead and cobbling together whatever dreary insights I had.

Resignation would take hold by the time I handed in the essay. Now the stakes were clear. The grade to come would not only be a measure of my performance; it would become the indices of my life-long inadequacy. Worse, the grade would stand as a humiliating exposure of what Whitman called the “dark suspicious pools of accomplishment.” In the end, of course, the grade was an A, the paper praised, and for a brief time I would think to myself ‘maybe I’m not as second rate as I thought.’

But without fail the same sequence of confidence, doubt and resignation would take place again the next time I faced a challenge. I never seemed to recognize the pattern while I was in it. Or if I did, the recognition didn’t matter because I always felt certain that this time was different. This time the true nature of my intellectual vacuity was sure to be exposed. Sooner or later, I would think, there had to be a challenge or test that I couldn’t bluff my way through: Admittedly, old boy, you’ve had had an amazing run of luck, but this time, surely…

What's curious is that I repeat something of this same pattern every semester. According to my wife I am regular as clockwork. The first few weeks of every semester I am confident, optimistic, and filled with ideas on I how to make my courses better. I come home anxious to tell her what exciting new thing I am trying to do in my classes.

Then, seven to eight weeks in, she says there is a change. I begin to doubt everything. I complain that the students aren't getting it and I have no faith in the way I designed the class. (What was I thinking?) Moreover, I begin to see the student texting away in the corner and the one unengaged out on the Siberian rim of the classroom as hectoring reminders of my inadequacy and failure to be more engaging, fresh, interesting. Then comes resignation. "It's all a joke," I moan. "I mean, come on. I'm pretending to teach, they're pretending to learn, and we're both pretending not to notice that little of either is happening."

By the end of the semester--so I'm told--there's a final stage when I begin to realize that maybe it wasn't what I wanted it to be, but there was still value in what we did accomplish. Somehow I always come through the sturm und drang of mid-semester intact and even with some feeble, attenuated faith in the process. But right now, as I sit here contemplating two really bad classes in succession, I know that the final graceful, hopeful phase is a long way off. Right now it feels as if the sun is setting on the early days of this semester and the long night is about to begin.


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