Saturday, June 14, 2008

Chernobyl Spring

The kernel of this blog was originally written during the Spring of 2006. The other pieces have been added in the Spring of 2007 and 2008. It’s an ongoing reflection, after all… Yes, this is really about Spring and not summer, but consider it the product of reflection that can serve as a harbinger for the year that is to come...

I have a new phrase for academia. It happens every spring. Without fail. Like death and taxes and young men's fancies turning to thoughts of love, you can count on it. Let's call it "Chernobyl Spring."

Everybody handles the meltdown a little differently. Some take to baking and we are greatful that the product of this sort of stress response issues in banana bread and cupcakes and muffins and the like. Some lose themselves in various and sundry substances, licit and otherwise. Some become self-destructive. Some develop nervous ticks. Some witness their adhd and ocd natures run wildly out of control to the point that while going over a paper in their advisor's office, he/she will straighten the advisor's pens ans sort his markers by type and color. Some chase the party and drown themselves in avoidance. Some explode on friends and unleash barely controlled tirades. Some eat. And some shut down and hide. But every year, it happens - Chernobyl Spring - let the meltdowns begin.

In truth, most of these people have been me to one degree or another, though lately, it's been the ocd and deeply self-reflectiveness (issuing in not banana bread but procrastination) that have marked my own meltings. However, some have seen the full brunt of my wrath - not directed at them - but at situations and harassments and the like. But, I have had the position of observer for the last little bit, and, yeah, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, so April and early May brings apocalypse.

T. S. Eliot is famous for the line, "April is the cruellist month, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain." Not quite "April showers bring May flowers," is it? Here's the thing. He's right. Consider.

Every April, without fail, the budget at every university I have ever been around is found to be in crisis, necessitating draconian measures, lest we die. More relationships get devastated in April and early May as tempers fray, pressures build, worries mount, stress increases, deadlines loom, and doom hangs heavy in the air. And, for students and faculty alike, the pressure can cause oddness. The Fall doesn't seem to have this sort of effect. Maybe it's because the Thanksgiving break serves as a steam valve in a way that Spring Break, falling closer to the middle of the semester rather than the end, cannot be. Maybe it's because the Christmas break, even for those who do not celebrate it, just has an inescapable cheeriness. Also, the end of Fall does not really see so many life changes. True, there are lots of December graduations, and the interviews at APA and MLA and AAR can have an apocalyptic feel to them. But, in truth, they are only the furst set of interviews. There are still the early and middle Spring regional meetings where those not successful at the winter meetings in securing a job can still strike it big. Too, there is the Spring semester to look forward to and May seems a long way off in December. But, as the end of the semester draws nigh and the stack of papers mounts and the full effect of procrastination becomes clearer, April showers turn into torrential downpours of unrelenting stress.

I can still remember finishing my qualifying exams at OU in the Spring and then thinking, "You know, I still don't have time to breathe." Writing the dissertation over the course of an entire graduate program and giving myself until the August 15 months after I finished coursework to defend was one of the best presents I ever gave myself. But, I well remember the days spent staring at Buffy because I couldn't bring myself to face another blank computer screen.
Chernobyl Spring. It claims some every year. Today, I walked into my Ethics class and knew that 4 students would be missing for various reasons. In a class of 16, Koji and Robert were present. The three student presenters? I heard from one by email.

Chernobyl Spring. Letters of rec are out and each day, students come by and tell me that they still have not heard from graduate school or law school or job interview. Papers are due and not done. Friends fighting with each other, giving in to insecurities and imposter syndromes and inferiority complexes and lashing out or blaming or whatever.

I don't have any answers for Chernobyl Spring. If I did, I certainly would have made a lot more money than I have and endured a lot less heartache - self-imposed and otherwise - than I have. But, friends, let me say this. Several of you have heard me say that you can make it. This is just one of those things that you have to fight your way through and hope that the other side doesn't arrive with much devastation in your wake. So far, the worst effects of this Chernobyl Spring for me are too many pieces of wonderful banana bread consumed, some icing on my pants leg, watching a young colleague bouncing off the walls like a hummingbird on crack, and a hopeful moment when I realized that some of our young colleagues-in-training are actually going to make it through this one and press on to face the next. D.H. Lawrence and TOB couldn't drag you down.

It was an intriguing moment of clarity when I realized that "Chernobyl Spring" was the right term for academia's cruelest season - late April to early May.

Addition 1

I've gotten some very good feedback on my coining of the phrase "Chernobyl Spring." This blog isn't about that. Rather, it is a request for suggestions about two other features of this time of the year that need cool names. I come up with an interesting title about once every lifetime, so Chernobyl Spring is probably the best I'm gonna do. Let me describe the two phenomena and please, if you have a name for either, I will definitely give credit where it is due.

Phenomenon 1: This phenomenon can sometimes be mistaken for a Chernobyl Spring. However, it is different in important ways. Every semester, and it doesn't matter if it is a Fall, Spring, or Summer semester, there is a crash. It's not a meltdown, either stress and/or self induced (although it can contribute to one if not managed well). Rather, it is a hitting of the wall. Here's what it feels like - steadily over the last couple of weeks of the semester, the adrenaline builds. Work gets done, sleep is less necessary, and things come together. Then, finals are finished, graded, grades turned in and then, wham! Throat hurts, allergies run amok, and it feels like every bit of energy has been insta-sucked out of the body. The only remedy is sleep, and lots of it, and your body refuses to take "no" for an answer. Is it a malaise? It's definitely a wall impact. And, at least from my own experience, it happens every semester, and not just in the Spring. Thoughts...?

Phenomenon 2: Every single year, the drama comes out to play in the Spring. This is definitely a spring occurrence. You can just about set your calendar by it. The budget will be in a horrible mess, Chernobyl Springs being suffered by people will put lives in a mess, but that's not really the happening here. They may be symptoms, but it may be more sinister than that. Oftentimes, politicians (especially those in power) will release information late on Friday hoping to slip it by people without the regular news cycle getting its grubby little paws on it. Maybe it's just because the end of the Spring semester is so close to the end of the fiscal year? Maybe it's just how it works. But, it's not just a Henderson phenomenon. Emory wasn't too bad about it, but OU experienced it, Ok-State did/does, pretty much everywhere. And, it's not just higher ed. The public schools may be even worse - at least in higher ed, there is a nominal faculty presence to keep an eye on things (ineffective though it may be) during the summer. Not so, really, with the P-12 world. The last week of school is kinda like the Friday of a weekly news cycle - and the summer is a long, long weekend during which things can be forgotten. Thoughts?

This Spring’s Addition

It's that time of year when the hedge blooms, the allergies fly, a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of love, and the bodies of skunks begin to pile up alongside the road (their thoughts turned to love, too, just before they met their maker on the road).

What time of year is that? Well, here're the signs. If gas prices are going through the roof, if budgets are strained and budget makers are offering lame excuses that smell more than the skunks, if tax day has come and final exams are coming, if the order of the day is drama in the workplace, home, school (any and/or all), then just as surely as the swallows return to Capistrano and as surely as God made little green apples, you know it must be Chernobyl Spring.
The time of year when folks melt down, that's Chernobyl Spring. Irrationality is the marker, lasting radioactivity in job, scholarship, relationships is the aftermath. It's Chernobyl Spring again, friends. Try to dodge the fallout.