• Riley Morsman

Teetering: Surviving Grad School During COVID-19

I won't waste my breath talking about how surreal and frustrating and confusing and chaotic things are right now because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We all know. And, quite honestly, we're all a bit tired of hearing about it.

However, as I take in more and more stories of what these changes look like for those I know (and those I don't), I've noticed how, most often, this situation isn't pushing people into NEW roles. Rather, this unprecedented situation seems to be taking our roles to the extremes of what they already were.

For myself, I've been particularly exasperated with trying to balance being both a student and a teacher. I was already both of these things before, but the significance of each role has seemed to gain a few pounds recently. And I'm not talking about the cute "You're getting heavy!" when Uncle Bob hasn't seen little Billy since last Christmas. I'm talking "Your kid turned into Tom Hanks overnight." Like, I am totally Mrs. Baskins who was singing while I vacuumed one moment and frantically waving a chef's knife at the man-child in her living room the next.

I've repeated this complaint to countless people by now. One of my parents calls, a colleague sends me a text, or we tune into a video chat with friends: How have you been adjusting to all this? Cue my squawking, parroted response: Well it's bad enough adjusting to it as a student, but as a teacher too? I'm overwhelmed.

These past few weeks have been filled not only with reading over adjusted syllabi and assignments for the four classes I'm enrolled in as a graduate student, but with making similar adjustments for the two sections of public speaking that I teach to undergraduate students. My days have been a helter-skelter balancing act of trying to navigate the two without losing my sanity.

Crank out a new poem for workshop...

... watch and grade 48 speeches.

Study for my upcoming psychology exam...

... remind my students to study for their exam.

Craft a response for an online discussion board...

... make sure I set up the Canvas page correctly so my students can do the same.

Email an instructor to ask for an extension...

... respond to frantic emails from students having issues with technology.

Draft a teaching philosophy for my pedagogy class...

... attempt to put that philosophy into practice.

Before this pandemic, I was still a student. And I was still a teacher. But the weight of those roles has increased. That's what being "under stress" means after all, right? The stressor is the external force—it's the hand that pushes the ball down the ramp, or the virus that upends society. But how we respond to that stress depends on what we (and our environments) are made of. Is the ball heavy or light? The ramp, smooth or coarse?

I know you didn't come here for a physics lecture, so I'll get to my point:

I'm stressed out.

That's it. That's my point. I don't have some marvelous epiphany about how to decrease our stress or how we all need to realize what we're "made of" so we can respond to stress more effectively. I'm sure that stuff has already been written a hundred times.

I'm just here to acknowledge that I'm stressed.

And to let you know that you can do the same.

So let's acknowledge that we're stressed! That we're at the end of our ropes! That we're unmotivated and scared and exhausted! Let's laugh about it, cry about, drink a glass of wine about it. But let's also not forget to take time to learn from it too.

Even though I am utterly exhausted from teetering my way through this challenging situation, I am so thankful for the empathy I've gained while doing so.

Though this may not be true for every person who reads this, I can at least say that I am thankful that this disruption has only been minor for me. I am healthy. My family is healthy. My husband and I both still have jobs and incomes. I have a little backyard that is getting greener by the day where I can enjoy the outdoors and still safely maintain social distancing recommendations. I have a snuggly little dog and a sassy cat that I can pet when I'm feeling lonely or overwhelmed.

In my teaching philosophy, I write that my goal is for my teaching to be chiefly informed by my experiences as a learner. I teach because I love to learn. I teach because someone else taught me in a way that made me love learning. I know how my students feel during this, and I know how my teachers feel too. I'm thankful for that.

I often find myself wishing I could just focus on just one thing right now. I wish I could focus just on my writing, or just on my teaching, or just on my research. To be honest, sometimes I wish I could focus just on getting back into shape, or eating more healthily, or being a good wife/daughter/sister/friend.

But the reality is... I'm all of these things. All of the time.

And I'm not the only one teetering either.

*deep breath*

Anyone want to have a glass of wine with me over Zoom?


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