(My) Roadmap for a COVID-19 Fall Semester

And just like that, my #NoWorkWeek is up. In some ways, I feel no different. I’m still tired. The prospect of a bizarre hybrid pandemic semester is still daunting. The explaining-racism work still looks just as draining. But there are moments in the past couple of days when I recognize that I feel a little less tired than before. That’s probably the most I can hope for. 

There is one clear thing I’ve gained from #NoWorkWeek: accepting the inevitable. Fall semester exists and it’s coming. In preparation for fall, I’ve had an “advice for new graduate students” post in mind. While I didn’t feel ready to write a good post during my first summer, I now have a little more perspective. But when I begin to think through that post, it’s obvious that everything is different. The concerns I had in my first year might still be relevant in 2020, but they pale in comparison to questions like, “what will my university do if there’s a severe outbreak?” or “how do I build community during a pandemic?” And well, I don’t know either. 

What I do know is that I’m going be figuring it out. And what I can share is my process. So in setting my intentions for fall semester, here is what I will attempt to do.

1.) Create structure.

Over the past few months, it feels like I’ve returned to freelancing. Back when I was a freelance writer, I worked from home most of the time. I made plenty of remote work mistakes and now it seems astute for me to remember them (and hopefully avoid repeating them). 

Initially, I was excited by my newfound freedom as a freelancer. I could work from anywhere, at any time! No 9-5! No long commute! I went to Zumba classes at 9 am and didn’t work early afternoons, when I was inevitably sleepy. But before a deadline, I’d be up working until midnight or squeezing in some writing before I left for the gym. I’d watch a movie with my sisters, but have my laptop beside me, because I just needed to get a little bit more done before I could relax. I was driven by deadlines, which became more and more frequent as I got more work. 

Besides not looking for better paying, bigger jobs, my mistake was not creating structure for my work. I didn’t think I needed (or wanted) structure. But without it, work seeped into all the empty spaces in my life and took over. I ended up maintaining better balance after I also started my art business and was forced to be more mindful of my time. 

This fall, all my responsibilities are online and unstructured. But I’ll be scheduling blocks of time for class, teaching prep, grading, hourly work, and research. 

2) Protect breaks and boundaries.

My calendar will not be open to meetings at any time, thank you very much. Protecting break time and boundaries is always important. But during a pandemic, it feels urgent. 

We work too much already, and in this time of higher collective stress, anxiety, and grief, rest is crucial. I’ve taken part in a couple of COVID-19 studies that ask what actions you’re taking to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus. Among items like wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, there were options like taking vitamins and getting enough sleep. Ouch. They really called me out like that. But it was a reminder that sleep is a matter of health. So is downtime. 

I’m reminding myself that working longer hours doesn’t help me “get ahead.” It violates my boundaries, disregards my health, and creates the conditions for burnout. Let’s not do that this fall.

3) Socialize with intention.

I’m an introvert and so I need a reminder to socialize. With an approximately 0% chance of running into friends or coworkers in my home, socializing requires a new intentionality. I try to tell myself that this can be a great thing. The community you build during this time is in your control more than ever. It may also be more work than ever. I’ve already found myself turning down Zoom hangouts or asking for phone calls because my eyes are tired from all the screens. 

I don’t yet know what will meet my social needs during this semester, but I try to pay attention. When do I feel refreshed? What does it feel like when I’m reaching my screen time limit? Who energizes me? When am I smiling and laughing the most?

4) Fight racism.

Because why would you not?

Because people are listening.

Because COVID-19 is a racial issue.

This fall will be a rough one. But ready or not, here it comes.

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