Friday, 2 December 2011

What professors do in the last week of term

I have repeatedly commented on the brevity of Cambridge terms: Michaelmas has just sbout started, and incredibly, today is the last day of term, and some students have already left. Last week of term is stressful because all students submit their essays at the same time, and some of them seem to only have discovered on Monday that the essays were due on Friday at 4pm (which in Cambridge means Friday 4 pm, not 4:01pm) and of course they panic, and of course I have to balance between threat and reassurance.

So the week has been stressful. After a relaxing weekend, with some gardening (yes, last weekend of November!) and some baking, I had huge plans for Monday, to do some work of my own, but -surprise! - essays came tumbling into my email box, and good ones may take an hour to read, while poor ones, that need lots of comments, may take anything up to five-six hours. But most of my precious time on Monday went to writing various administrative reports, which, believe me or not, was a useful exercise, although completely exhausting.

On Tuesday I had a registration viva, which means that a PhD student goes over from probation to regular PhD status. For my part, it involved reading a 20,000-word document finding all possible faults in it in a way that would be helpful for the student. It is a very stimulating task, especially since there are two assessors, and you have a chance to discuss with a colleague the strength and weakness of the project. There was no doubt that the student would pass.

Then I had a supervision session with one of those desperate students who still hadn't produced much of the essay due on Friday at 4pm; and after that my favourite class on picturebooks, the one in which I pour a pile of books on the table and let the students explore. There is always something new I learn from them, and this time I learned two new things about a book I have taught for the past ten years, whitten about a dozen times and thought I knew inside out. I enjoyed the class - I hope the students did too. After the class, since it was the last class of term, we had tea and cakes with the students, but there was still some business to be done, yet another desperate student who was about to submit her PhD proposal and needed help, right then. The day was concluded by a seminar on Caribbean poetry, with recitals, music and almost dancing. It can be argued that it's not really work, and yet...

On Wednesday, I was on strike. I think, first time ever. Somehow I had always missed strike actions. But this time we had cancelled classes, supervisions, meetings, a research seminar and an end-of-term party, most of which would have been pleasurable things, so it wasn't a easy decision to make. But I believe in solidarity. And I really and honestly did not work that day.

Which of course made Thursday a nightmare. For instance, I had been wondering over a mystical event in my diary next week, with a vague memory of having promised to do something for somebody, and fortunately this somebody emailed me a reminder on Wednesday evening, so I had to prepare that. I had also realised that I needed to apply for my next study leave, in Lent 2013, NOW! Which takes some time, because you have to collect signatures of all course managers stating that you are not indispensible. Then, as usual, when you least expect it, a copy-edited article that you have given up on for the last year, comes and needs immediate attention; and another copy-edited article that does not need any attention but still needs to be opened and read through. Another desperate student draft, a bunch of reference letters, a telephone interview for The Guardian on why today's children like books about idyllic past. And a very, very long conversation over lunch, which is, as I have explained many times, a significant part of my job. The day concluded with a social event for all PhD students in my academic group, which to my joy was highly appreciated, and people stayed for much longer than I had expected and seemed to have fun talking to each other.

Today, Friday, another student draft in the morning; research team meeting - very fruitful; more references and applications, written report from Tuesday's viva, a colleague's book launch, some more admin. And the highlight of the week: the Jacqueline Wilson Award Ceremony. Last year, Jacqueline Wilson could not attend the ceremony because of a snow storm. Today I was anticipating railway strikes, floods, earthquakes - but she arrived safely, and all went well, and the winner was radiant, and the current masters students watched enviously, but one of them will get the award next year.

That was the last week of term. On Monday, there will be a pile of essays to grade in my pigeonhole; a meeting with my Head of Faculty; more applications and references; College Governing Body Meeting and dinner. Tuesday: meeting with a visitor from South Africa and Faculty Academic Staff meeting; Wednesday, a workshop; about a hundred accumulated emails to reply to (as of today; by Monday there will be more). First round of general Faculty assessment; academic group long-term strategy statement; a research grant apllication, quality assessement, moderation meetings. So much for short terms and long breaks. Happy holidays!

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