Thursday, September 10, 2009


In the US, some colleges and universities start the academic year in August and some start in September. I've spent time at both types as a student and a professor, and I know that I strongly prefer a September start.

Perhaps I have lingering childhood memories of the excitement of starting a new school year every September in a place with a dramatic autumn season. Perhaps I don't get excited about the start of the school year in August because I'm not emotionally done with my summer-to-school year transition in August. By September, however, I'm ready for school.

Shopping for school supplies with my daughter, a middle schooler, helps get me in a good mood for the new school year. Despite the fact that Middle School seems to require an insane number of pens and pencils of different sorts, not to mention notebooks with very specific numbers of pages and rulings and margin styles and binders of a certain thickness, only some of which can be easily acquired in local purveyors of school and office supplies, shopping for school/office supplies is one of very few sorts of shopping experiences I prefer to have in a real store rather than online.

I don't know what it is, but I do know that however reluctant I am to see the end of summer, there is something exciting about the beginning of a new school year. I feel it every year in September, just as I always have.

It is a bit of a shock to see campus filling up again at the beginning of the school year, and I gaze in wonder at the flocks (pods?) of freshmen being oriented. I am deeply grateful that I am old enough to have avoided such things myself. I see the freshmen being oriented by means of strange little games intended to promote bonding. I would have hated that when I was a student.

But however unnerving it is to see the campus thronged with people, the swarms are yet another harbinger of the shiny new academic year, when we get to start fresh with teaching and get to know our new graduate students.

How long does the thrill of the new year last? I would guess a couple of weeks in a typical year. It depends in part on when the first faculty meeting is scheduled. Faculty meetings and other committee meetings are very effective at extinguishing my childlike thrill about a new school year.

The beginning of the school year is interesting, but there are also good things about having the term well under way. The beginning-of-term time is always associated with some craziness and confusion, with students adding and dropping classes at various times during the first couple of weeks and being generally perplexed by (or unaware of) various important logistical aspects of a course. It's nice when that part is over and you and your students are in a routine and making progress with teaching and learning interesting things.

And now that it is mid-Septemberish, it is time for the first poll of the FSP academic blog year. For my academic readers:

How are you feeling about the start of a new academic year?
Mostly excited, happy.
Mostly filled with dread and exhausted.
Equal parts thrill and gloom.
Nothing special - it's just like any other time.
None of the above. free polls


Paul said...

I am deeply grateful that I am old enough to have avoided such things myself. I see the freshmen being oriented by means of strange little games intended to promote bonding. I would have hated that when I was a student.

You've just described my own feeling about my undergrad's Orientation Week.

O-Week leader: Then we're going to go play duck-duck-goose in the quad and then go set up computer services and then go to dinner and then the rock gym.
Me: [sotto] I'm so tired.
Leader: SO MUCH FUN!

Sadly, I feel like I'm the minority position of my peers when I say that Orientation is too much summer camp. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

I checked "none of the above" but a better answer would have been "all of the above" - some excitement, some gloom, and some indifference. Since I am not from the US my vote probably skews the poll a bit, but much of the experience is similar I think.

In my country graduate students don't follow an academic calender, and start any day of the year. So there is minimal effect on the lab when September comes - research generally continues as usual. As a graduate student I was pretty indifferent to the beginning of the (undergraduate) academic year.

On the other hand, most people take summer vacation at some point, and September is the time when everyone is usually back, feeling refreshed and ready to work again. So it can be a very productive and exciting time from a research perspective.

I teach more these days and am therefore more in tune with the courses start in September, but then new courses also start in November and January and April, so September is not so special.

However, I must say there is a certain feeling in the air as the city fills up again after vacation - a sense that the summer is over, that lazy warm sunny days are coming to an end. This comes with a certain melancoly feeling, along with the need to stand in line in stores again and make restaurant reservations.

So I would say it is a bit of everything - indifference together with excitement and a bit of sadness.

Anonymous said...

I'd be really interested to know the reasons for the distribution. Right now it's bimodal. For me, I clicked "equal parts thrill and gloom" because while the start of school is shiny and new, I need to finish a thesis and apply for jobs in the next few months. Thrill & gloom: are these people scared by the transitions the start of the academic year brings, or do they just really miss summer?

CJ said...

This year I don't really seem to care. Mostly I would rather the undergrads not show up and crowd my nice quiet campus. I'm not TAing or taking classes, so there's really nothing interesting about the new year. Except I'm one year older and we might get some new labmates.

Kevin said...

Although classes don't start here for 2 more weeks, and there is a facullty walkout and staff strike planned for the first day of classes (STUPID timing---participation would have been double if it had been the 2nd week of class), I'm still looking forward to the new year.

I've been very busy preparing for classes, as I have a new class I've never taught before, and I'm revamping the core course for the seniors and new grads. The revamped class is using a different programming language, which I have been busy teaching myself, so that I can do all the homework assignments in it and rewrite them all. I've got 3 classes this fall, so I probably won't get much research done.

Anonymous said...

SO EXCITED about the cooler weather coming. First night with highs in the 40's happened the other week.

NOT SO EXCITED about how research is proceeding at the moment. But I'm think it's a temporary funk, and I am making progress, however incremental...

Anonymous said...

What *is* it about faculty meetings that take all the joy out of everything?

Anonymous said...

"What *is* it about faculty meetings that take all the joy out of everything?"

Yeah, when our department announced that they were forced to cancel the 2-day long faculty retreat because of budget cuts, that was one reduction I wasn't sorry to see!

EliRabett said...

September would be much better. Many of the most interesting non-US conferences are in September when we are already back, many of the most interesting US ones in June/May when the Europeans are still in their Spring semester. It would be good to get on the same page.

Anne said...

It's my first year as a PhD student (in Chemical Biology), but I've been working here all summer so nothing is exactly new, except my handful of classes. But I'm in a great lab with a brilliant PI and exciting research, so I'm really thrilled about that and moving my work forward. However, the onset of classes and other distractions means less time in the lab, which is actually quite disappointing! Nevertheless, I'm really happy to be here - at a huge research university, coming from a tiny liberal arts college - and settling in quite well.

I do wish all the 30,000 undergrads would go away again though! I'm only 22 yet they already make me feel old and curmudgeony. :)