Shit happens at the semester finish line

Carol Hay and John Kaag make one final heroic push in the final straight of the academic year

April 30, 2015

To wrap up our classes, we divert most of our energies to a select number of tasks. More often than not, we make a mess of the rest

Finishing the academic year is often compared to finishing a marathon. There is something very right about this banal metaphor.

The spring term often feels long and arduous, this year in the Boston area especially so. The long winter – snow days, seasonal depression, unending piles of filthy snow, terrifying commutes through blizzards – made prepping and teaching our classes particularly painful.

Finally now the winter, and our teaching work for the academic year, is coming to an end. As professors, we muster one final heroic push to complete the semester. The finish line, our students’ graduation, represents years of hard work and we rush through the final classes in our attempt to get them there.

Running long distances through the slush of this winter has also been next to impossible. Those who attempted it risked frostbite and sprained ankles. But many runners did manage it and their pace quickened as the weather changed. The end was near. The Boston Marathon took place last week.

The marathon is a celebration of the spirit of perseverance and an almost unthinkable amount of work. While it has always loomed large in this town, the events of two years ago have solidified its place in the hearts of the people of Boston.

We cheer the loudest for those elite runners at the front of the pack, those who manage to sprint the last mile of 26 faster than most of us can run 100 yards fresh. Four or five years ago, the two of us stood at the finish line, cheering on the best of the best. One of the first women to finish the race that year still sticks in our minds. Her long, spidery legs blurred like pistons, her eyes steadfastly set on the finish line. “Lungs on legs” – that’s what running fans call this. She was the picture of resolve, of self-control.

But somewhere along the way she had lost control of something: her bowels.

As a runner gets tired, the body diverts blood away from the intestines to the muscles that really need it. But bloodless intestines don’t work particularly well. The vast majority of marathoners come close to pooing themselves at one point or another during the race, and the faster you run, the more likely you are to do it.

And yes, the metaphor holds. The end of the semester is a bit like this as well.

In our crazed attempt to wrap up our classes, we divert most of our energies to a select number of tasks. More often than not, we make a mess of the rest of them. Meetings are missed; quizzes are lost; deadlines are pushed back. At the end of the term, we are more scatter-brained than usual. We say things that we don’t mean and later regret. This is the time of year that departmental politics hit the fan and when great plans – such as overly ambitious grant writing or book proposals – go down the pan.

The runner knew she was covered in it – it’s not the sort of thing that is easy to ignore. But she kept running. There was no shame in this; in fact, it was an unmistakable sign of her determination. When she reached the finish line and caught her breath, she smiled, and her loved ones came to hug her, poo and all.

Everyone knows the legend of Pheidippides, the first marathoner, who ran the 26.1 miles from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of military victory against the Persians and then dropped dead. Thankfully, most runners these days just go home to take a much-needed shower.

The same applies to the mess we academics leave at the end of the semester. Most of the time it can be cleaned up so that we are fresh and well rested when the race begins again the next autumn.

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