Sage fright

Excitement, anxiety, shaking in your boots. Academics experience mixed feelings as term starts, says Jon Marcus

September 22, 2011

“Hello, James, have a nice break?” asks the title character in Butley, the 1971 Simon Gray play about a hapless university lecturer, when his principal phones him at the start of a new term.

He immediately regrets the question. “Sorry, James, I can’t talk now - I’m right in the middle of a tutorial,” Butley says abruptly, and hangs up as his colleague begins to bore him with the details of his holiday.

It’s mere dramatic invention, but it is incontrovertibly a fact that academics worldwide approach the end of the summer and the start of a new academic year with emotions that range from annoyance to trepidation - increasingly so, in an age of budget uncertainty, bigger classes, advancing technology and students’ growing sense of entitlement.

Many have in common such things as insomnia on the eve of classes, or nightmares, which are surprisingly similar across cultures. Some even practise particular rituals - wearing a specific article of clothing or playing a favourite song in preparation for the start of the new academic year. Yet at a time when an entire industry has grown up around readying students for the resumption of university each autumn, only a few institutions prepare their staff to cope.

“It’s not a topic that is discussed often in the faculty lunchroom but faculty have high levels of anxiety when the semester begins,” says Peter Seldin, an emeritus professor of management at the Lubin School of Business at Pace University in New York and author of the book Coping with Faculty Stress, who has worked as a consultant to universities in 40 countries. “In fact, I cannot remember ever talking about this topic with any of my colleagues, and that’s over a 30-year span.”

Seldin says he has visited universities in countries as varied as South Africa, Finland and Malaysia, and found, after careful encouragement to speak frankly, that “there’s a commonality to that faculty experience. It’s the uncertainty that comes at the beginning of a term.”

That’s precisely the theme emerging from a collaboration between the University of Kent, Leeds Metropolitan University and other partner institutions that solicits diary entries from faculty members - predominantly in the UK, although it is open to academics worldwide - about their daily lives and normal routines. It seems that academics taking part in the Share Project (www.sharingpractice.ac.uk), where submissions are anonymous, confront the start of a new term with a flood of conflicting, often uneasy, emotions.

“It is only one week to the start of a new academic quarter, and the activities on campus have already intensified,” one diarist recorded. “With class preparations, research/student projects, committee work and other service work in full swing, I’m feeling a mix of excitement, anxiety, exhaustion and uncertainty.”

Another was “awake at 4am worrying about the tsunami that is the new academic year”. The pattern continued in this entry: “My day had a false start at 3am. Term hasn’t started yet, and I’m already waking up in the night, worrying about how I’m going to cope.”

For Julie Nelson Christoph, the problem isn’t trouble sleeping, it’s the nightmares that occur when she does. The associate professor of English at the University of Puget Sound, in the US Northwest, says she has recurring dreams when the autumn term nears “where you show up and your teeth fall out, or you’re naked, or you can’t find the classroom or you walk in and you realise you’re not prepared. It’s fear, panic.”

Nightmares are surprisingly common. Jane Buck, the former president of the American Association of University Professors and a retired professor of psychology, dreamed that she would show up at the wrong time in the wrong place. Once, she says, it actually happened. “I walked into a classroom and began with, ‘This is Psychology 206 and the textbook is such and such’, and I’m rattling on and I could tell I had completely lost the class. I looked around at the stunned looks on their faces and realised I was in the wrong class.”

Such fears, says Buck, “are akin to stage fright. One thing a lot of people don’t think about is that, as a professor, you are on stage every time you walk into a classroom. I imagine for some people there is the impostor effect: do I really deserve to be here, will I be found out, will the students like me, will they respect me?”

Some academics admit to being unsettled, like the fictional Ben Butley, by the switch from quiet, solitary summers doing research or writing to the abrupt arrival of new terms with busy schedules and increasing responsibilities. “It’s always stressful to change gears,” James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, says.

“A pretty standard day for the week before our registration week, this, I suppose - consisting of doing highly professorial things such as photocopying,” one diary writer told the Share Project. “This is technically the last research week of the summer, but no research can be done in a day of this kind.”

The same principle holds true for an academic as for a banker returning to the office after a holiday. “You’d still rather be on vacation,” says Naomi Baron, director of the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning at American University in Washington DC.

“Faculty are human beings,” says Baron. “I’ll vouch for this. I have a pulse. And they have the same kinds of disgruntlements, the same kinds of uncertainties, that anybody does moving from one pace, one schedule, to another. If you’ve been doing some serious work during the summer, now you have to put away where your brain has been, or maybe even where your heart has been.”

Students, meanwhile, can have a disproportionate share of control in the classroom at the start of a new term, academics say. They’ve often already had days or weeks to get to know each other, living and eating together. “You’re the new kid, as the academic walking into that class,” says Christoph.

“The notion of respect - and I don’t mean that in an authoritarian way, but the notion of people coming to a university because they really respect what the faculty has to offer - has died,” claims Baron. “The students feel very empowered. A colleague of mine described faculty as having become waiters with serviettes on their arms. It’s not just, ‘who are these people, will they like me?’ It’s, ‘I’m supposed to sell myself to them’.”

Well, maybe not waiters, says Turk, who formerly taught Canadian and labour studies and sociology. (He has had those nightmares, too, of sleeping in and missing class, and of being unprepared.) But he agrees that “a source of anxiety is the extent to which university administrators are treating students as customers and putting faculty in more vulnerable positions as a result of that. There’s a sense that faculty have that administrators are expecting not that they be waiters, but that they’re service providers.”

Meanwhile, Turk says, in North American universities, students take their time at the start of the semester deciding which classes most appeal to them. “You have lots of people shopping during those first three weeks, so you’re trying to make the course interesting and challenging, knowing that students are wandering through.”

Shobhit Mahajan, professor of physics at the University of Delhi, says that when he started teaching over 25 years ago, “the percentage of uninterested students was possibly much less than it is today. More importantly, there were always a few very motivated, interested and energetic students in the class…Now, unfortunately, it is rare to find even a handful who might be interested in the subject.”

Student evaluations are becoming increasingly important and research shows that first impressions are among the most crucial. In one study, teaching evaluations filled out by students after the first 10 minutes of the first class were strikingly similar to evaluations they completed at the end of the term.

“Setting the tone in the very first class is critically important,” says Amy Hillman, executive dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, who has also taught in Austria and Canada. “If you aren’t nervous about the first class, you’re probably not very human. Being in front of a new audience and having the ability to connect or disconnect with them within the first few moments can be very daunting.”

Hillman compares the first class of a new term to a job interview, “where you walk in and you have a relatively short time to make a first impression. If I don’t get them excited about what we’re going to do in that very first class, I’ve got a much harder job the rest of the semester.”

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Baron likens the experience not to a job interview but to a first date. “You don’t know what the other person, or in this case people, will be like,” she says. “Until you can feel comfort with your audience, you’re shaking in your boots.”

There are other new developments in higher education that intensify scholars’ fears with each new academic year. One is whether academics will even have classes to return to - especially the increasing numbers of contingent, part-time staff, who may be hired and fired at the whim of enrolment and budget shifts.

“Their anxiety is, will they have a job?” says Buck. “In many cases, the loss of a single course could mean their income for that semester is reduced by half or a third. On top of which, they’re preparing in hopes of having a course and it may all be in vain because the course may not materialise.”

The digital divide, too, can intimidate academics less comfortable with new technologies than their students or younger peers. “Older faculty have been grudgingly dragged into the technology age and we’re less confident of our own abilities,” says Seldin. There’s also the competition from the technologies that students have, says Turk - iPhones, iPads, laptops. “Are they texting friends, are they checking their email, are they paying attention to your lectures? The new technologies are an opportunity but do pose the challenge of distraction.”

Meanwhile, Baron says, the demands on academics’ time have been growing astoundingly. “Not just exponentially - astoundingly. The idea that I will teach my classes and then I can go off and think…No, you now have committee meetings, you’re meeting with students. There’s really a feeling of being pressed from all sides.”

Some confess to a weariness that comes after years of repeating the annual cycle. For Arjun Mahey, a lecturer in English at the University of Delhi, the beginning of a new term - and in India, the term starts in July - “prompts a sensation of profound dreariness: the bureaucratic paperwork, the confusion of timings, the uncertainty and the tedium of knowing that I face yet another year of a now-cheerless standard operating procedure.” He likens it to what, in athletic training, is called muscle fatigue.

Mahey says that, depending on the students he is called upon to teach, his feelings “can range from boredom to trepidation to cheerful anticipation. When I was younger, I was quickened by an eager enthusiasm. In later years, it was the solacing feel of routine.” Now, he says, “It’s simply a regimented drill.”

But reassuringly for many, anxiety and worry turn to excitement and enthusiasm.

“The weather has turned unpleasant and everyone is under the pall of the return of students,” one academic told the Share Project. “This period of anticipation (after a long summer of freedom) is more unpleasant than the reality of encountering students, (which is) usually rather pleasant and intriguing.”

Once she gets past her trepidation, Hillman says, she remembers that “this is a new group of students. That’s what gets me going.”

Hillman practises a ritual before every first class: she listens to upbeat music, usually by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Earlier in her career, when she was not much older than her students, she says, she also always wore a red business suit, “a really fantastic power suit. It was something that gave me confidence.”

Eileen Barrett teaches English and is director of faculty development at California State University East Bay, in San Francisco, which produces a video for academics about how to make the most of a first class.

She says that in her first class of a new term she has her students read the first paragraph of every book they will study, including Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the first words of which are, “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs Ramsay.”

Shen Guolin, a professor of journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai, always tells his first classes about his own experiences since studying at university. “A lot of my personal stories are hopefully helpful to my students’ lives,” he says.

Christoph’s rituals are “the sort of sensible things you do before something you’re worried about: eat a good breakfast, get a good night’s sleep”. And when Baron taught at Brown, one of her colleagues would wear a business suit to the first class and then never wear a suit again. “It was his way of not so much exerting authority but of saying, I do own a suit, in case you’re wondering,” she says.

David L. Stoloff, professor of education and director of the Center for Educational Excellence at Eastern Connecticut State University, has a start-of-term ritual, too. He ends every first class with the first stanza of a song - Uncle John’s Band, by the Grateful Dead:

Well, the first days are the hardest days

Don’t you worry any more.

When life looks like Easy Street,

here is danger at your door.

Think this through with me.

Let me know your mind.

Wo-oah, what I want to know

is are you kind?

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Fresh start or shock to the system? Academics on the start of the year

Times Higher Education asked members of its Reader Panel how they felt about the start of the new academic year.

“The new term signals the arrival of new students with fresh attitudes,” says Claire Taylor, dean of students and academic engagement at Bishop Grosseteste University College. “It is a privilege to see them arriving and enjoying the buzz of making new friends, meeting tutors and finding out about freshers’ activities.”

Another panel member, who asks not to be identified, says she likes to “spot the ‘A’ and ‘E’ students before they submit their first assignment”. She also enjoys the fact that her office is tidy. “There is now some semblance of order around my desk” and “new books around that smell so good”.

Her resolutions for the new year include using her blog (“If only I could think of something to put on it”), updating her web profile (“I hate web editing software”), thinking of “some brilliant way to use Second Life/podcasts” and keeping “on top of the call for papers from highly rated journals” (she never finds the time).

But Patrick O’Sullivan, professor of business ethics and head of the department of people, organisations and society at Grenoble School of Management in France, always finds September a shock to the system.

“Finished are the balmy summer days of leisurely rising and writing interspersed with outdoor pursuits when time seemed to stand still: now we are faced again with, horror of horrors, fixed timetables for classes and meetings.”

He adds: “It is well known that the stock markets do systematically worse in the autumn as post-summer depression sets in but less studied perhaps is the rude shock to the academic’s constitution of this sudden change of biorhythm.”

There is the return “with a heavy heart” to “the drudgery of regular classes, more boring and interminable meetings, more boring quality control procedures and very soon more marking just as we had got over last year’s backlog”. However, all is not gloom and doom.

With the arrival of “lots of new and friendly faces eager to sit at our feet and learn”, “there may also come some startling new ideas to awaken us, Kantian style, from our ‘dogmatic slumbers’. They may even lead us to radically new theories and visions of the world,” O’Sullivan says.

Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University, wonders if 2011-12 will be the end of an era given the changes facing universities in England. “My hope is that the academic experience for all continues to improve, but my worry is that too much of our time will be spent preparing ourselves for 2012-13,” he says.

Times Higher Education invites academics and university staff to join its Reader Panel. If you are prepared to receive emails from our journalists asking for comments on developments in the sector, email John Elmes, THE’s editorial assistant, who will add your contact details to THE’s Reader Panel database.

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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