Head of the Class

How to teach psychology well

The Ambivalence of August

The new academic year looms: What to do in the last few weeks before it begins?

Tomorrow is August 1st. Sigh.

As a professor, I always die a little death on this date; summer is racing by and for me, it’s almost over (26 days and counting—ouch!). On the other hand, I also feel a bit excited to get back into the classroom after a few months away. I’m rested, somewhat relaxed, and if not roarin’ to go, almost ready to do so. And yet, there is that feeling of ambivalence—back and forth I go, from dread (oh, the classroom) to desire (the classroom—yay!). I’m sure I’m not alone among psychology teachers everywhere. To be alive in the 21st century is to have more than a passing acquaintance with ambivalence.

But how best to avoid the dread and embrace the desire to teach, to get ready for the new term and new academic year? I think most psychology teachers—heck, most teachers—would like some ideas about how to capitalize on the waning days of summer (Seeee-you-in-September/I'll see you whennnnn-the-summerssssss-through...). So, here goes...some questions and suggestions:

Have you taken a real vacation yet? By a “real vacation,” I mean one where you were away from your desk, office, work, and even email (imagine that). It doesn’t have to be to points exotic—just a break from routine. I probably don’t have to tell you that Americans are notorious for taking too little time off. George Valliant’s outstanding longitudinal research from the Grant Study of Human Development nicely illustrates the importance of taking a genuine (non-working) vacation. If you haven’t done so yet, take some time in August. Two weeks is ideal (that’s nothing for a European but something very good for Americans), less is acceptable—but take some time away from work to regenerate for the coming year.

Have you made any headway on writing or research projects? If not, tempus fugit or publish or perish—and if you’ve not made much progress in the off-time during the lazy, hazy, sometimes crazy days of summer, how will you do so when the crunch of the new academic year arrives? I realize this urging seems to contradict the “real vacation” advice immediately above, but it’s possible to do both. Make some concrete advances on your project(s) and then take a (well-earned) vacation. And as for the work on the project—anything is apt to be something—don’t procrastinate. Get down to it.

Are your fall courses prepped? If the answer is “yes,” then good for you. If "no" and you are—maxime ex omnibus taetrum (trans: “most horrible of all”)—teaching a new course (or “new prep” in academic jargon), then you need to get started. I recommend trying to stay two weeks ahead in your lectures/discussions/demonstrations. That way, if you get stuck during the semester (and like most of us, you likely will), you have a little padding to fall back on. Yes, it's work--but you will thank me.

What about crafting your syllabi? Colleagues who wait until the last moment to draft their semester syllabi always amaze me—I do mine at the end of the previous term so I am always ready to go (you may hate me for that, but I don’t like surprises—or being rushed as summer ends—I’ve been ready since May and am quite happy about that). So, why not do them now and get them done—or at least one—so that you won’t hate the end of August or work on Labor Day!

Did you read any discipline related works that will help your writing or research? If no and the articles or books are piling up on your desk or nightstand or Kindle, why not make a dent in them now, before it’s too late? (Remember the Ides of August!) You will feel a little virtuous, especially if the reading informs the courses you will teach or the research you want to pursue.

What about pleasure reading—you remember that, right? Did you read for pleasure this summer? I just spent a blissful week in Vermont at a friend’s home, which was full of books—think Library of Congress-y—many of them mysteries and who-dun-its. I read two: One was a playful English boarding school mystery and the other a rather dark and, yes, ambivalent serial murder mystery with an ambivalent protagonist—both were well written and a wonderful escape from my usual fare. And Reader, I felt no guilt—just the delight of pleasure reading on vacation. I sat on a deck, looked at the trees, listened to the river rush by, and read.

Are you going on sabbatical leave? If yes, then we envy you a lot. There's nothing else to say (although our feelings toward you are hardly ambivalent—harumph!).

And what was that one thing you SWORE you would do and haven’t done yet? Only you know that unless you blabbed it to your family, friends, and colleagues. Perhaps you can still do it as the ambivalence—and Dog Days—of August are upon us.

Good luck! Get to it!

Dana S. Dunn, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Moravian College, a liberal arts college in Bethlehem, PA.

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