Despite Appearances, They Can’t Eat You

LeghoulAt this point in the semester, at least for me, something is always slipping more than I’d like. Maybe it’s taking longer than I’d hoped to respond to an assignment, or to make a resource available for students. Maybe an important meeting isn’t coming together right, or a research opportunity is slipping because there just aren’t enough cycles in the day, or . . you get the point. Just about any commitment you’ve made has the opportunity to go pear-shaped, especially in mid-semester.

The difficulty is that, once my e-mail inbox turns—either in reality or just in my nightmares, where I wake up from visions of colleagues standing over my shoulders and kibitzing about my e-mail–into a cesspool of fear and failure, things usually get worse before they get better, because who wants to paddle in that pool?

A friend reminded me last week of a crucial bit of perspective (original source; internet source 1; internet source 2):

They can’t eat you.

The correct gloss here isn’t, “everything will be fine.” It’s that, in a lot of these situations, the only thing that can be hurt is your feelings, especially your pride. Which isn’t nothing! But it’s probably not worth that panicked fight-or-flight reaction that’s choking your ability to get anything done.

It’s a simple phrase, but it really does have wide-ranging applicability:

  • Worried that students will be crabby about not getting exams back? They can’t eat you! First, you’ll get through class just fine. And second, hatch a plan for getting the grading done soon–possibly by being upfront about why they’re taking longer than you’d hoped. Usually, as long as the reason isn’t, “because I spent the last two weeks doing jello shots,” this will be ok, although some students will never understand why you didn’t grade them instantly.
  • Behind on getting an assignment in students’ hands? They can’t eat you! Students want to have a chance to do well. So if you’re behind on the syllabus’s calendar, it’s a good idea to rethink your due dates, possibly in consultation with the class.
  • Stressed about making a case for promotion when a lot of your time goes to some blog and union duties? Make the best case you can, but know that some people might see this as an opportunity to revisit other conflicts.
  • E-mail is a horror show? Best to defer to Merlin here: In aggregate, e-mail is for processing, not responding to. Also, no one will give you a badge for guiltily clinging to months-old e-mails you still haven’t gotten to yet.
  • Behind on various commitments to colleagues? Check in and see where things stand–how can you be helpful now? A few people might get mad, at least at first, but generally people are busy enough to be glad to get help.

Again, the point isn’t to magically wave one’s hands and think everything will be lovely and all your accumulated work will be done. It’s to back the various kinds of fear off just enough to allow you focus on your work for a bit instead of leveling up in FIFA 12. While the new gameplay really is fantastic, the gnawing dread at being behind keeps you from enjoying it.

There is only 1 known exception to the “They can’t eat you” rule:

But hopefully your university’s not overrun by zombies . . . yet. (Three related zombie links: Natalie on zombie lists; Katy on grad school as zombie apocalypse; and Kathleen on zombies and academic publishing.)

Photo “Leghoul” by Flickr user oskay / Creative Commons licensed

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