Semester Rhythms

When the amazing bus system in Urbana-Champaign introduced GPS tracking at bus stops, I learned the distinction between saying a bus was 3 minutes away and saying that a bus would arrive in 3 minutes. As we enter into the fourth week of the semester, I am reminded of how time contracts and expands, bends and breaks, extends and halts abruptly. Due dates arrive faster than scheduled—assignments must be evaluated, student conferences held, articles written and revised, applications written and re-written. Time agglutinates.

Time is lumpy.

One leaps from stone to stone, slipping here and there, waiting for the inevitable fall, the splash into feverish reality. It is an adventure, with all the ambivalence granted that term by Nancy Drew novels.

Semester rhythms are oddly syncopated. Arrhythmia predominates. A skip, a jump, and, rarely, a brief glissando. Yet the speed one experiences is marked by profound bumps: a major assignment, a major conference, interruptions—the three days I will spend in Nairobi, the 2 days I will spend in Victoria, the 15-page papers waiting for me at as the semester ends.

Time stretches, but its horizons remain limited. From here, I can see December. But I cannot predict the tempo.

Time does not quite function as we think it does. As one with a leaky memory, I am fully sympathetic when students forget to read, don’t turn in assignments, mess up on due dates. Sympathetic, but I do not give free passes.

Sometimes, one misses the bus and has to wait for the next one, or walk to the next destination. Sometimes, one has no fare. One can improvise, but time bends rarely, and often with great strain.

One knows the tempo will change, but can’t predict it, no matter how prepared one is. Easy classes become difficult as due dates arrive. Arguments that once felt solid begin to melt. Information runs together. Classes become jazz-like fugues, variations on layered variations, and one struggles to hum along.

One can try to establish regular habits. I write every day, if only 500 words, and blogging counts. This writing helps me to write. Writing generates more writing, often faster if not necessarily better writing. I am a reviser. On this one thing I can be regular.

But I alternate between 2-hour work days and 18-hour work days, often during the same week. It is the nature of my profession. Deadlines tend to cluster: October, November, December, and January are particularly busy. Work spills over.

For all that the university remains a medieval institution, it has strange rhythms. Applications are due yesterday for an application available tomorrow. And the university’s lumbering mass can move swiftly, surprisingly. One plays a modified form of dodgeball. Now dancing this way, now that. Yet one cannot always elude the university’s mass.

Four weeks in, I am learning to move with the tempo, although I often fall a step behind, miss the beat, have to improvise.

2 thoughts on “Semester Rhythms

  1. The bus was like a matatu from the 1990s. It stopped where you were to pick you up. At least on any corner.

    The Kenyan in me was very happy.

    Matatu rules!

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