Midterm Advice from Your Kooky Southern Aunt

I’ve been giving students advice a lot lately. It’s that time of the semester. For me, pumpkin lattes are the harbinger of panicked emails.

It’s midterm, and in the best of times, it’s the moment when a lot of students recognize that they are no longer in the orientation phase but actually on the downhill slide. 7 weeks go by fast. There seems like all this time to figure out how to get their arms around the load, and suddenly – truly, suddenly – the time for figuring it out has passed.

But we’re in a pandemic (still in a pandemic) and even though my university seems to be weathering the storm better than some, everything about this term is different. We are all so very, very tired of crises. And at this point, speaking for myself, the difference between a crisis and a regular old challenge is hard to tell. Students who never miss a deadline are asking for extensions. Students who are first to answer a question haven’t done the reading. And the students who are always on the line are barely hanging on to the edge.

There’s something about performing the one-who-has-it-together that actually makes me feel pretty good. Not a bit of my advice is original. It’s mostly stuff my therapist has to remind me of constantly. Here are some of the things I’ve been saying to students in these emails and Zoom calls. Maybe they are things you need to hear, too.

It feels like a lot to ask because it IS a lot.

Class work is just one of the myriad of challenges students have to contend with. They work, have families, maintain relationships, manage their physical and mental health. They navigate new friendships, new environments, new expectations. They are developing new identities, coming out or coming to terms with trauma, trying on personas that don’t fit just yet. And then there’s all the stress of staying safe from an invisible virus. It’s not fair to have to do all this AND yet another discussion board. If it feels unfair, that’s because it is. This isn’t about you not being ready or not being smart or not being strong. It’s just a whole lot of things to deal with. Your perception of reality is accurate. You are normal and your feelings are justified. Now what?

Reevaluate your expectations. What can you live with?

Sure, if all the conditions were ideal, we both know you have the talent and drive and ability and grit to do this and do it well. The conditions aren’t ideal. If you had a time machine, you’d do it differently from the beginning. But you don’t. So forget that other timeline. You’re in this one. Let’s figure out what is non-negotiable and what might be okay if it was just okay. “A” is off the table. It just is. That’s math. But what are the minimums? Set those new expectations in the basement and then surpass them. Reevaluate them, raise them, and surpass them again.

Stop doing things that make you miserable.

You know that joke about hitting yourself with a hammer because it feels so good when you stop? That’s stupid. Just stop. You are so far behind in this class that you’ll never catch up? Drop it. Take it again when you’re in good shape or find something else to fulfill that requirement next term. Maybe it’s a job that is taking your energy and time. Can you apply for some emergency funds that would give you a few days or a week off? Maybe a person in your life is asking too much of you. Can you say no to them this once? Get out of whatever you can. You are in survival mode now. Shut down all non-essential services. Dump the dead weight overboard.

Some things will have to be left undone or done halfway. Make peace with this.

Now, I am an exceptional kind of human being who can do it all perfectly without sacrificing anything (cough), but normal humans have to set priorities and make choices. When you are in a bind, not everything is a top priority. Not everything can get your full attention. Not everything deserves your full attention. So look at the tasks you are expected to complete and assess how important they are. Which ones will tank your grade? Which ones will make little or no difference? Which ones are tied to future assignments that you need to build on? Which ones are one-offs you’ll never think about again? Rank these in order or in categories: Do this and do it well. Do this as best you can with what is left. Skip this and never look back.

Writing is never done. It’s only due.

I get so so so so so much comfort out of this one. You can research and write and revise forever and never make the sentence in front of you meet the Platonic ideal of a sentence that is in your head. Could you be clearer, smarter, more convincing? Sure. Would an extension give you more time to wow the world with your wisdom? Of course. But honey, that way lies madness. Every extension puts more pressure on the thing behind it. Some tasks are like gases in that they expand to fit the container you put them in. Taking more time may not make any difference. So accept that when the due date comes you are done. Click submit.

Pair energy-giving activities with energy sucking tasks.

Not all tasks deplete our energy stores at the same rate. If you are an English major, sitting still and reading the novel for class might be rejuvenating and relaxing even. Don’t pass up that pleasure just because you also have a hard task on the agenda, too. It may seem like the harder task is going to need to take priority, but if you are working with an empty tank, it’s just not going to work. Read. Clean your room. Wash your face. Make that phone call. Do something that makes you feel good and in control and energized. Then tackle that hard task.

You’re going to disappoint someone every day. Accept this. Then spread it around.

I learned this from my well-adjusted graduate school friend who had a healthy relationship to expectations I can still only aspire to. Truly, the key is to share disappointment equally and strategically. If you appear to have it together for each person in your life most of the time, no one needs to know that you never ever have it all together at once. Pick someone who can take it today or this week. Don’t let it always be the same person. And don’t let it always be yourself.

It is safe for you to disappoint me.

I have seen good students do all kinds of things under pressure, and I have loved every one of them. I can take it. If you appear to me as a human student instead of a set of perfect achievements wearing sneakers, I will not be sad. It won’t change my feelings about you at all. You were always a human student to me. Our relationship is strong enough to handle a few late assignments, a less than perfect essay, a phoned in comment every once in a while. I know not to take it personally. I’ve been exactly where you are. I forgive you, even though there’s nothing to forgive. I’m your Mister Rogers. I love you exactly the way you are.

Speak to yourself with kindness.

I am the worst at looking up from my phone after an hour of online shopping and saying, “Dammit, Tippen! You suck. Look what you’ve wasted. Now you’re behind! If you weren’t such a lazy idiot…” Woof. It’s not nice. So I decided to try to find a “sweet name” for myself, a pet name that I can use to get my own attention in those moments. I’ve always been called “Carebear” in my family. When my first nephew was born, I decided my auntie name would be Aunt Bear. I love hearing that name in their little baby voices and Southern accents. It’s more like “Ain’t Bayer” sometimes. But they use that name when they want to tell me something good or ask me for permission or invite me to play. It’s a name they use with curiosity and hope. When I hear it, I absolutely melt. I am so full of love for them that whatever they ask of me, of course I will give. They always see me at my most generous, my most creative, my most open, my most in love. They say “Aint Bayer,” and out of the overflow of my swelling heart I always say, “Yes, Darling?” or “Yeah, Baby?” or “What is it, Sugar?” I am trying to talk to myself this way. I can ask Aunt Bear to give me permission to do something else, and she will always say “Yes, you sweet thing.” I can ask Aunt Bear to forgive me for messing up and she will say “Oh, honey, that’s not your fault.” Why in the world would I treat myself with less love or care than these beloveds? Am I not beloved, too?

Anyway. I’m working on it.

Published by carrietippen

I am associate professor of English and Assistant Dean of the School of Arts, Science, and Business at Chatham University.

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