It’s the beginning of the semester, so I’m still excited about my classes, but we’re quickly approaching the time when having obligations day-in and day-out becomes horrifyingly stressful. Even though I’m a happily self-identified nerd who may or may not have been remote-accessing JSTOR for all of winter break, I am intimately familiar with how it feels to blow off a difficult assignment and then wander around the vague middle of the semester with the creeping feeling that I lack fulfillment and can’t do anything productive. I don’t want to blur the lines between laziness and medically acknowledged mental conditions that alter cognitive function, but the homework blues often seem to arise precisely in that liminal space between a lazy day and a slow depression. Moods like this take the feeling of not wanting to write a paper and turn it into a simmering dissatisfaction with strenuous, focused intellectual work, which leads to the inevitable question: If we love learning so much, why do we feel so totally miserable as a result of the work of learning?
Intellectual work is hard work, particularly when you care about whether it’s done well or not. Even if you don’t have a tendency toward anxiety, it gets stressful when your sense of self-worth and value gets tied up with your ability to pick a path and excel in it. If you’re at all like me, you’ve realized at some point past the drop deadline of any given semester that your heart’s desire does not lie in calculus, a 500-page novel, a time-intensive required class for your major, or whatever else you’ve gotten yourself stuck with. The game becomes to stick it out and get the best grade you can under the circumstances rather than to engage with the thrill of intellectual adventure. Even if you do love all your classes, at some point the semester becomes more about getting everything turned in on time rather than deeply engaging with the material.
So maybe we should ditch grades, assignments, and schedules altogether, and each do our own intellectual thing at whatever pace we want. It’s tempting, particularly since something like taking three tests in one week is about the worst way ever to demonstrate our collective eagerness, thoughtfulness, and reverence. If we’re losing our sense of intellectual curiosity and motivation somewhere in the middle of the semester, though, I don’t think it means the entire premise of the small liberal arts college is broken. It means it’s time for us to reevaluate how we respond to the environment we’re in. Institutional policy change is probably not the best first step, because if there’s one thing the four hours a week I spend involved in faculty committees has taught me (yes, the ASPC Commissioner for Academic Affairs actually does stuff), it’s that college bureaucracy moves much more slowly than the perennially new and changing student body. We can and should continue having policy conversations about grades, schedules, and courses with the faculty and staff, but in the meantime, sometimes there will be three tests in one week, and you can probably only get one of them rescheduled. Intellectual burnout and overwhelming situations happen to all of us, and they’ll continue to make doing quality work extremely difficult regardless of how our education is structured. College is intense, but it wouldn’t be such a valuable experience if it didn’t lead to both inter- and intra-personal growth in addition to specific academic skills. Learning to work in a community, discern day-to-day tiredness from serious problems, and personally navigate that ugly space between “I don’t want to” and “I can’t” is essential if we’re going to respect the health of our minds and bodies and grow into more competent people.
There will always be times when that gray area takes hold, when frustration and doubt cloud the visceral joy of doing something exciting, and in those tough times we just have to dig in, take the damn tests, and hope for the best. There should also always be moments of joy and directionality that say, “This feeling right now is why you decided to do this and not something else. Don’t forget.” It’s in the balance of these feelings that each one of us can hopefully locate a sense of self that keeps us confident enough to survive the midterms week from Hell and reminds us that academic confusion and frustration do not mean we’re bad students, or bad people. We’re still learning, and that’s the point.
Julia Austenfeld PO ’15 is a music major from Freiburg, Switzerland and Raleigh, NC.