Thursday, April 11, 2013

Do What You Can, Do What You Must

In the fall semester I thrive.  In the spring semester I survive.  By the middle of the spring semester, fatigue has set in and doesn't go away until final grades are submitted.  I live in New York State. So in fall there are piles of leaves, in winter piles of snow, in spring piles of papers.  By the end of the fall semester, my plate is full.  By the middle of the spring semester, all my plates are full.  In the fall semester I can quickly respond to e-mails, in the spring semester days go by before I respond to some.  

In the fall semester I separate tasks into two categories: front burner and back burner.  This is a way of prioritizing my to-do list.  In spring I don’t know the difference between front burner and back burner.  I’m behind on grading, tired of class preparation, and busy providing academic advisement to students for next semester. By April, scholarship is an afterthought.   

At this time of the year, there are too many tasks and insufficient energy to complete them.  So what can we do?  Let’s see what Bob Dylan has to say in “Buckets of Rain”:
Life is sad
Life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and you do it well…

Even late in the academic year I don’t view life as sad or a bust, but I really connect with the last two lines quoted above.  For the purpose of this post, I will make a slight adjustment to his lyrics. Late in the academic year, when I’m exhausted and the finish line still seems far away, I operate with the following mantra: Do what you can, do what you must.  I do what I can. I try to find a few things that can be let go until the semester ends. We can’t do everything. Sometimes we have to say “Not now, I can't, I’m sorry.”   

And I do what I must.  Some things can’t be put on hold.  Obviously we have to grade papers, write final exams, and compute final grades.  There are certain tasks that have to be accomplished. So I put my focus where it has to be.  This time of year it’s hard to be all things to all people.  So I do what I can, and do what I must.  And I try to do it well.

There’s a saying out there somewhere “Do what you love, love what you do.” That’s nice, and so are Hallmark cards and cute notes I leave in my wife’s lunch bag once in a while.  But at the end of the academic year, I need practical, realistic advice to get me through.  And that’s why “do what you can, do what you must” works for me.  Summer is on the horizon.  Summer brings rest and revitalization.  Yes, there’s work to be done during the summer, but the pace is much friendlier and far less taxing.  In summer I can once again distinguish between front and back burner, and I’m back to one plate that isn’t full.

At the beginning of the academic year, patience comes easy. Come winter, patience is a virtue.  By April, patience is a miracle.  Patience, energy and motivation are hard to find at the end of the academic year.  So I do what I can and do what I must in the best way possible to make it to the finish line.


  1. Ditto. Yes, figuring out what is front and back burner at this point in the semester is difficult. Do you teach during the summer? I have a tendency to want to prep summer and even fall at the end of the spring semester even though it could wait instead of tackling some of my remaining front burner items.

    1. Hi Stephanie. Wow, I consider it an amazing feat if you are doing *any* prep time for summer and fall courses. I am teaching a summer course (Intro) but thankfully it's all set and ready -- as I am teaching it right now and reconfigured the entire course for the present semester. Right now I just want to get through this semester -- I can't see far past mid-May! Good luck to you!