The cruellest month: On Academic Seasonal Depression

It’s only this year that I’m starting to consciously acknowledge how difficult this time of year is for me. Every year, without fail, I go through a major depression during the month of May (though the worst was actually during what was laughingly called “Spring Break” in between the winter and spring quarters at Kalamazoo College). The problem seems to be that I’m mentally very ready for the semester to be over and excited to have the opportunity to focus on my own work, but that I’m not actually ready to do anything else. If I weren’t mentally exhausted enough from the semester itself, the drudge work of grading at the end ensures that I’m not really in any shape to begin major research projects, etc.

Hence I enter into this dead space, where I feel adrift and without purpose. At the beginning of this transition, I at least have a negative relationship with a telos, insofar as I feel anxious or even guilty that I’m not yet taking advantage of this precious time to do work — but when I really “hit bottom” is when even that lack is suspended, when I admit to myself that I neither will nor can achieve anything. I’m simply an inert mass, good for nothing but playing 2048 on my phone with old Star Trek episodes playing in the background.

In this regard, I’ve come to a new appreciation for Shimer’s strange end-of-semester practices. For us, the semester “ends” but fails to end three or four times — we have the end of classes, then “Writing Week” (where students do a comprehensive exam or else work on an independent project), then a week of final conferences (where students meet with their professors to discuss the semester), and then faculty meetings (of varying length and intensity). I initially experienced this as an obstacle to all the heroic feats of research and translation I was surely primed to carry out, but now I am coming to view it as a more natural and humane transition out of the semester. I’m using it as an opportunity to pick off a few smaller projects — a short translation, expanding a talk into a book chapter, revising a previous paper for my Birkbeck talk.

This year, things are further complicated by the fact that I’m moving to San Francisco for the summer, as The Girlfriend has a summer job out there. Hence the end of faculty meetings also marks the end of my normal Chicago life for the time being, and as I’m winding down my Shimer duties, I’m also slowly winding down my Chicago apartment — slowly selecting which books I want to take, thinking about what to put in storage and what to leave out for the subletters, etc., etc. In a couple weeks, we’ll be travelling for a weekend vacation with her parents, which will double as an occasion to hand off The Dog to them for the summer. The following week, I’m travelling to London for the Birkbeck conference, and when I return, The Girlfriend will have already left for San Francisco. And at the end of that week, with all my faculty duties discharged for this year, I’ll close the door behind me on what is now someone else’s space and go do something completely different.

2 thoughts on “The cruellest month: On Academic Seasonal Depression

  1. One nice thing about SF, among many of course, is when we went in April 2010, it rained. We asked our wine tour guide about whether we should expect rain later in the week when we had tickets to a Giants game.

    He said, “Yeah it might rain a bit more in the next couple weeks but after that we won’t get much of anything until October.” Later in the week, when the game we had tickets to was delayed I asked some season ticket holders if they would get the game in.
    They said, “We dunno. Never had a rain delay.” The stadium had been open for eight years at that point.

    So at least the weather will be nice, I guess is what I’m saying.

  2. I’m looking forward to missing a punishing Chicago summer, particularly after the harshest winter of my adult life. Of course, we’ll get back mid-August for the very worst of it.

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