Brenda in Birmingham is riding a bummer of a semester

From The Way We Work by David Macaulay

 Dear Historiann,

Have you or the readers of your blog ever had a “cursed” semester?  What can I do about it in the short-term when my department has no resources to help me recover from it?  If  I were a student in my classes this semester, I would have withdrawn.

Let me explain:  I am an adjuct at a large urban university.  I got sick and was hospitalized for an entire week, then taught one class, then I had to take another week off to actually recover or else risk another stroke. Then my husband’s spine ruptured, requiring emergency surgery and another week’s hospitalization for him. I could not get a substitute for any of this, since my department is severely understaffed. THEN, my hard drive melted a day after having recorded and turned back graded papers, which meant that I’ve had to ask for all of those back. For half of these absences, I have posted alternative online sessions, but I understand that students still perceive those as absences.

As I see it, my students are still producing the end results I would want them to produce. I have been as flexible about attendance and due dates as they have been about my absences. I know my student evals will take a huge dip this semester for one particular class, but I’m not too worried about that at this stage. Next semester I am teaching online-only so that I have time to regain my mojo and not worry about this so much.

What I am thinking, though, is that I must be the only one on the face of this earth who has had a semester this disastrous. Even though other professors in my department have also been struck with a big wave of hospitalizations and serious problems, and I am far from the person with the most canceled classes, a part of me still thinks “maybe I should just quit if I can’t do the job.” I’m stuck in a mode where I’m not seeing the academic probation students who have become A-students in my class and others; I’m not seeing the students who decided to become history majors because of my class; I’m not seeing my near-perfect peer evaluations. All I’m seeing is this absentee record, regardless of the reasons, and beating myself up over it.

What advice do you have for people in my situation? Am I the only one, ever, who has had this problem? Am I as incompetent as I think I am?


Brenda in Birmingham

Dear Brenda,

Good lord!  I’ve never heard of such a run of bad luck!  What a nightmare.  I’m sure the end of the term can’t come fast enough for you. 

I sense from your letter that you realize that your fears about your reputation as a teacher are irrational, as you note that you’re far from the only professor in your department to suffer illness and to need to cancel several classes.  If your department doesn’t have the resources to hire people as temporary substitutes, that’s the choice of the Dean or other higher up administrators.  You are not the only teacher in your department to be wrapped in human flesh, flesh that occasionally breaks down and needs medical care.  Nor are you working for the only university in the nation that doesn’t make provisions for covering classes in case of a serious illness or family emergency.  It’s a common theme in the academic workplace, which seems to be in complete denial about the fact that it employs people with human bodies rather than disembodied brains.

Because you are contingent faculty, I understand that your teaching evaluations count significantly more for your continued future employment than if you were tenured or even a non-tenured but tenure-track faculty.  It seems to me that your department, which offered you no assistance while coping with your illness and that of your husband, can hardly view your teaching evaluations this semester without taking this into consideration.  I hope you’re in a department that’s humane, if stretched to its limits.

I’ve never had a semester as disastrous as the one you describe for health-related absences.  However, I’ve occasionally had a class that just doesn’t work:  the students seem truculent or just resistant to whatever it is I’m trying to do, so I don’t have any fun, and it’s just a vicious cycle.  In the two classes like that I’ve had in my career, I dreaded going to class.  I remember praying for snow days.  And that’s just not my style.  But in both cases, I’ve had the experience of teaching the veterans of those classes again in other classes, much to my surprise, and when I’ve gotten to know them better, I’ve commented on what a bummer the earlier class was and how awful it must have been to be a student in that class.  What I hear back from the student is, “What are you talking about?  That was my favorite class that semester!  It’s why I became a History major!” 

So, the lesson I take from that is 1) that our perspectives on our classes is not necessarily the same as our students’ perspectives.  That, and 2) give yourself a break, and try to rest up over Thanksgiving so you can finish with a bang in December, and 3) be thankful that we work on semesters or quarters.  Even the crappiest class won’t last forever, and you’ll have a fresh start in January.

Readers, what are your experiences with semesters from hell?  How have you recovered to find the joy of teaching once again?  What other advice do you have for Brenda?

6 thoughts on “Brenda in Birmingham is riding a bummer of a semester

  1. Strongly second the point about subsequent feedback showing my perceptions weren’t even close to the student perceptions. So don’t beat yourself up, Brenda. If I had to guess, I’d bet most of your students are saying, “Wow, she’s had some amazing bad luck, and she’s *still* doing her damndest for us. What a cool lady!”


  2. Dear Brenda,

    It sounds like you have had a brutal semester by any standard. Like Quixote, I would second Historiann’s comment about student feedback. I think your students can empathize with your situation and will cut you a lot of slack, especially since you’ve already shown some understanding about their deadlines for the class.

    Your letter to Historiann suggests to me that you are a capable colleague and professor. Remember the truly incompetent never question their own competence. Like Kenneth Lay, the truly incompetent sincerely believe they are the smartest people in the room. Based on the self-reflexive qualities of your letter, I’d say you are a competent and thoughtful. I bet your colleagues and students appreciate those qualities.

    Finally, please treat yourself and your students with compassion. Sometimes things just don’t go as planned and there is nothing we can do about it. Hang in there, and the semester is going to be done in two weeks.

    Best wishes,



  3. Some terms are better than others and sometimes all you can do is motor on through, remembering that as Historiann writes, the term will end and you will move on. A student in my undergraduate course this term came by earlier to talk about balancing school, work, and life. I empathized with him entirely, as I am doing a poor job of this myself right now. It is helpful for us all to recognize that we all have downs as well as ups.

    My worst teaching experience was the first time offering a class that had just been added to our degree requirements. There was an alternative for students who came in under the prior program but they had to actively seek it. I ended up with a group of students who failed to take advantage of the alternative and were angry as hell to be in my class. Every morning I walked into the classroom happy and ready to go. Every morning the angry club walked in a sucked all the oxygen out of the room. I had a job to do though and I found that after a while, the non-angry students were defending the course content to the angry ones. It was still a rough ride but I learned from that experience. Talking with more senior colleagues was helpful. They have seen pretty much everything before and even if they don’t have useful advice for your particular situation, sharing woes can be a bonding experience. At least, that is how it worked out for me.


  4. I *always* pray for snow days, but that’s a snow thing, not a work thing, and certainly not a pedagogy thing.

    This sounds like my first *eight* semesters at a certain place, and I never took a sick day–it was just a sick course, and sick courses never take off either, alas. The students were there at curricular bayonet point, I knew almost as little about the subject as they did, but the institutional issue wasn’t what anybody knew about anything. It was about billable hours at the credit hour mill. It “this-too” passed.

    I did have one semester hollowed out for about four weeks by parental illness. I’d drive to parental manor, get things stabilized, drive back (hundreds of miles), see the phone light winking and not even unpack. Drive back. Repeat. My colleagues stepped in bigtime, and in one class, I recall that my evals actually spiked. Some students said wow, it must be tought for him, and graded accordingly. Others said, hoo-ray, I liked the substitute better anyway, and graded accordingly. Then it was summer. I’m glad my car didn’t get a vote.

    The point, I guess, is that, yeah, the perceptions are always out of control when you’re under this kind of stress, and people are usually seeing things in better perspective than you are. None of my experiences of the sort, I have to say, were while adjuncting, although they were while untenured. It *would* be disturbing if Brenda’s colleagues, especially established members of the department, were not offering *some* kind of verbal support and reinforcement, under these circumstances. Even if they can’t jump out of their trenches into her trenches.


  5. At some stage we are forced to live with what was granted to us a priori and the best efforts we put in. As the French say: even the most beautiful bride does not provide more than she has. So Brenda, you did a great job. Next semester with your health back, you’ll do much better.

    As previous comments said, we all have ups and downs, tough classes, bad semesters, emergencies and a lot more. We all learned to live with this reality.

    There is another factor called your work history. If you were good for ten year and bad in the eleventh, it is a aberration (unless something else happened). When I was about 30 I was listening to people’s discussions without having a clue about the discussion. It was very frustrating until I realized that I was doing quite well for almost 30, how likely is it that I am a little slow on the up take? I realized that the people were clueless about their discussion. So, Brenda you are going to be fine.


  6. I really sympathize with your situation, Brenda. I had a semester that was really terrible, where I felt like a fraud and a failure, like I wasn’t doing more than the bare minimum to be competent at my job. In my case, I was so ill I almost had to go on disability (and probably should have). I would go teach, go home to crawl into bed to work/”work”. I collapsed in a lecture hall full of over hundred students and on another day started vomiting on campus near some dorms (some nice young woman, thankfully NOT one of my students, came over to see if I was okay). It was my first time teaching that huge lecture course, and I had to monitor the two TAs, and then I was teaching a smaller class (which I ended early every week because I was too ill to sit there for three hours) that wasn’t going well, big surprise. I was lucky that my teaching load is so light; I’m not sure any of my colleagues noticed (I wouldn’t have told them anyway). I’ll admit I still haven’t read my student evals from that semester!


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