Living by the Rhythms of the Academic Calendar

Some people divide time by seasons, some people by weeks and months, but I live according to semesters. Instead of saying that something happened “last year,” I am more likely to say that it happened “two semesters ago.” If I do use the term “last year,” I probably mean last school year, not last calendar year.

One of the things I enjoy most about teaching is the rhythm of the academic calendar. I don’t hear this talked about much, but I have lived my life to that rhythm. I started school when I was five years old. After I graduated from high school, I went right into college, and then I went directly to graduate school, and then I started my full-time teaching career that continues to this day. So for the last 46 years, I have been on the academic calendar either as a student or a professor (and sometimes both at the same time).

The Rhythm of Individual Courses

Not only does the school year have a particular rhythm, but each individual course has its own reassuring pattern as well. The course I have taught most consistently over the years is an upper-division course called American Literature Since 1865. I have taught it for all of my 22 years at Azusa Pacific University, and I taught it several times at Olivet Nazarene University before that. We study about 50 authors in that course. Some of the individual authors and works change from semester to semester, but the bulk of the readings remain the same. I now associate particular authors with certain times of year. I start the course with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, so I always associate that book with new beginnings—with new students whose names I’m still learning, with the energy and optimism of a new semester, with an office that is not yet in tatters, and with a long road ahead until the end of the semester.

Once we finally leave the 19th century and beginning to read the modernist authors of the first half of the 20th century, such as Hemingway, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Williams, Pound, and others, I know the middle of the semester must have arrived. We still have weeks to go, and some students have dropped out, and many are looking tired, and papers are pouring in, but we are bathed in great literature.

When I find myself teaching post-World War II works, or teaching authors who are still alive, I know the end of the semester must be close. It’s safe to start yearning for the break. My office will be messy by then, covered with the semester’s files and handouts and drafts of papers, but I won’t mind because I’ll be counting the days until I can wrap it all up and turn in those grades.

One thing I like about teaching is that, unlike many other jobs, that go on and on with no clear ending points, each semester has a definite end, followed either by Christmas break or a summer break. I finish my work, turn in my grades, clean up my office, and have some time away from it before I face the next round.

Rhythms of Small “Griefs”

The rhythms of teaching include small things to grieve also. I often get close to the classes I teach, and then I have to say good-bye. Even though I may see some of the individual students again in other classes and elsewhere, the dynamic of that particular group together will never be repeated. On the other hand, the end of a semester provides the opportunity to say good-bye to difficult students as well. Those relationships don’t have to continue forever.

About Those “Summers Off”

Some people imagine that the best thing about the academic schedule is having “summers off.” Because of writing projects and other work that gets pushed off until the summer, I have never had a summer “off.” But I do love the change of pace, the temporary move away from the classroom and toward more research and writing.

I feel fortunate to be able to live according to the academic rhythms. I hope I get to keep doing it for many years to come.

12 thoughts on “Living by the Rhythms of the Academic Calendar

  1. Dr. Bentz, it’s interesting to read about what the rhythm of an academic year seems like from a teaching perspective. I’m sure professors know this, but we students sometimes ask each other how teachers can move through one school year after another, working during those summers “off,” just as you mentioned. Even a single semester can seem pretty lengthy to a student.

    I suppose this is where the concept of calling comes into play. Perhaps being immersed in the life to which we are called is what enables us to find its rhythm life-giving.

    • A calling is much like a rhythm- a beat one finds in life, and I have asked myself “how do they ( professors) do it?”. But at the same time I admire it. The ability to move forward touching the intellectual minds of the students that stroll in and out, semester after semester is mind boggling for me. Personally, American Lit has touched me tremendously and I have left the course with much more than a memorized list of significant authors. By reading works they have written in hopes of finding meaning to their own lives I have found my own rhythm and beat in life outside the academic calendar.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post. I haven’t thought of how teachers also live by this academic calendar. The academic calendar not only shapes how we view our years but also shapes how we view holidays and summers. I look at my brother who recently graduated from college and is now employed, and i notice how drastically the change from the academic calendar has effected is life. He now has to ask for breaks and will never get another spring break. It is interesting to notice how much this calendar effects how I live and how i view time.

  3. Being back under the academic calendar for the past 3 years, I can say that I only feel to a slight degree the effect of the academic year replacing the calendar one but I do feel it. Recently, I have been considering Grad school and I thought about how that would be a continuation of the academic lifestyle. It occurred to me that it is a life of seasons much as you have described here and your descriptions really provide insight to show the more subtle differences in living a life marked by the academic calendar.

  4. The thing that I find most fascinating about the rhythm of the academic calendar, is that I find that it causes my mind to compartmentalize my life. For example, when I am relating an incident to someone about something that happened to school, I am likely to mention it in (as you found yourself doing) in terms of the semester that it occurred in. However, school has almost always secondary to me, since I have to work outside of school in order to support myself and pay for my education. As soon as I am done with school for the day, I go to work and the second part of my life begins. When I talk about events that happen in my “real life” outside of school, I talk in terms of years and months. All the school lingo of semesters, tests, mid-terms, etc no longer comes into my vocabulary.

    When I was going to vocational school to get my cosmetology license, I was a senior in high school. I went to my cosmetology classes in the morning, did my high school work, then went to my job. All of these different activities split my life into many different sections. I found my days to be regulated by many different rhythms. There was the school rhythm (in two different settings), and the rhythm of work (were we slow or were we busy). The thing that really stood out to me in this post was not only the rhythm of school, but also that life is divided into different rhythms of all sorts. There are rhythms for school, work, family, etc. This reminded me of Ecclesiastes 3:1 which says, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…”.

  5. This whole living by the academic calendar is the way that I see my life too. For the last 18 years I have found myself in an academic setting, two semesters and a summer. Now, the amount of time I spent in each semester has changed, and my location has changed, but the general rhythm has remained the same. This next year is going to be a huge change for me. Moving from California back to Michigan, and potentially having a year and a half until beginning Dental school. I am nervous about the challenges that come when not living in an academic calendar. No end in sight, no change of pace or change of classes, just one job until I get into a school. 8-5, every day, same people, same location, no summer vacation. It seems strange.
    It was interesting to read about your life in an academic calendar. I sometimes forget that teachers are indefinitely in an academic rhythm. Knowing how close I have become with my roommates, some professors, and other friends, and how difficult it will be to leave them, I can’t imagine going through the cycle of having “favorite” students leave every semester, knowing the potential of never seeing them again. That would be very difficult. Thank goodness for social media that allows us to prolong friendships and academic relationships even from across the country.
    Thank you for your post! It was a good thought provoker.

  6. I enjoyed this post, even laughed some while reading, but I agree, living by an academic calender is something I do without even thinking about it. With the intention of going into teaching in secondary school, I’m well prepared to live by the academic calendar for the upcoming large chunk of my life. I also agree, I would rather live by an academic calendar rather than living the yearly calendar year like other professions. The academic calender has its benefits, and you do a great job pointing out those advantages.

  7. Hi Dr. Bentz,

    I also love the rhythm of the school calendar. From a student perspective, I also am sad to see some courses that were particularly enlightening and exciting go, but I am also greatly relieved after finishing really straining courses. Is it too extreme to say that going through a semester is a bit like going through life, both in its specific periods and its one large period this side of Heaven? Perhaps school teaches us more through its rhythmic, cyclical nature than some people are aware of. However, going off of my newfound insight here, at least when every semester ends, it is eerily comforting to know that our time in a particular semester ends at the same time in a communal manner. That is, starting a semester is like everybody getting onto one large bus. We have some fun and enjoy the ride, but right from the start we know we will be driving off a cliff together. At least we can enjoy the ride.

  8. I never really thought about living life based on an academic calendar so I found this post really interesting. When I started thinking about what rhythm I live my life by I realized that for the past 3 years of my college life, I’ve been living by the rhythms of an academic semester without really knowing it. I realized this because whenever I will be talking to someone about the past year, oftentimes I’m referring to last semester. Then I’ll realize that the person that I am talking to has a confused look on their face and they’ll tell me “you mean a couple of months ago?” or something along those lines, and then I will tell them that yes, that is what I meant. I found it pretty interesting.

  9. That was an interesting perspective. I can actually relate in my own way. I moved a good 15 or more times before I turned 18. I can never remember how old I was at a certain time or event but I can remember things based what grade I was in or what new location I lived in. It wasn’t different semesters as a teacher that forced me to let go of good or bad students but I have had to learn how to let go of old friends and make new ones all over again, over and over again that is. The thrill of a new adventure and new beginning is always something I look forward to. But I feel the loss too for sure. Once I am finally done with school I am not sure I will know what to do with myself. I think I would enjoy being a career student. In some ways I already have. I am 37 years old and have been in school off and on for years. I am only going to stop because the money runs out. I already have four associates from changing my major so much, one certificate in ministry and bachelors on the way. It would be nice to keep going for sure.

  10. I find this particular post interesting, as I have not considered what it meant to “live by the rhythms of the academic year”.

    During the semester, I have a difficult time remembering not only the current date, but what the actual day is. I attribute this general confusion to the lack of sleep that characterizes my daily life (even more so during midterms and finals). I would be lost if it were not for my cell phone calendar. I judge the progression of the week by the order in which my classes come.

    Considering this, I think it’s safe to say that my academic life does not possess any sort of rhythm, but instead could be described as something resembling complete dissonance

  11. Dr. Bentz,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I found your thoughts on the academic calendar–particularly associating certain authors and works with times of the year–a really interesting insight. Particularly in light of American Literature, I can see how living by a calendar associated with a class can almost become repetitive and burdensome. Do you feel like there are times of the semester that you anticipate dreading more than others, whether cognitive of it or not? I think that as students, this is necessarily true by seasons such as midterms and finals, but do these situations become less immediate and burdensome in the professor position, or is that stress still a very real aspect of living according to the academic rhythm?

    Thank you for your thoughts, I enjoyed reading this post.

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