My title comes from Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, which concerns the effort to recover the past by reexperiencing it in memory and recording it in writing. I’m applying Proust’s words (in translation) in a modest and specific way, to ask where the time of a semester goes. As my students always tell me, it goes quickly. I agree. Semesters seem to be made not of months or weeks or even days but of the hours, or almost-hours, of class meetings. At my university, a semester’s classes add up to under 36 hours. No wonder the time moves so quickly: it was, in a way, less than a day-and-a-half ago that I was going over a syllabus and learning students’ names, and now they’re turning in essays for the last time.
The bell that tolls the semester’s end can have a hollow ring: time has passed so quickly that it might feel as though little of consequence has happened. The campus becomes eerily quiet as most students disappear into the summer. And all the work of a semester — all the reading, all the writing, all the discussion — is reduced, finally, to a handful of letters on a grade report. Is that, as Peggy Lee asked, all there is?
To counter end-of-semester emptiness, it might be helpful for anyone in academic life, student or teacher, to look back at the work of a semester and add it up on paper. Having done so, I find that I have graded 1600 quizzes and 300 essays. I’ve spent 10 hours holding conferences with my freshman students and perhaps another 80 hours holding office hours and meeting students by appointment. What universities call “service” adds perhaps 30 hours more. And I’ve spent more hours than I can easily count preparing materials for my classes: several dozen poems, a handful of short stories, two plays, Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey.
There’s nothing extraordinary in this amount of work — it’s representative of what many a professor does in a semester. Adding it up lets me see that the semester did indeed amount to something — in fact, to quite a lot. For a student, adding up the work of a semester can be a helpful reminder that education is not about the letters on a grade report; it’s about the work of learning.
Another way to counter the empty end-of-semester feeling is to jump into a project or two. For me, that means reading In Search of Lost Time for the second time.
Before I begin, I’d like to thank Leon Ho once again for the chance to contribute to Lifehack throughout the academic year. See you in the fall.
Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.