best laid plans · emotional labour · health · notes from the non-tenured-stream · work

What I Have in Common with Conan O’Brien

My teaching semester ended on Thursday at 2:30. After I gave my final lecture I packed up my belongings and walked back to my office. While I was walking I ran into a student I know, a lovely, smart, kind student who asked me how I was. “I’ve just finished my last lecture of the term, and I am feeling a little lost” I replied. Poor fellow, sometimes I’m too honest.

But the truth is that I seem to have a pattern every spring: finish an intense teaching semester and crash. Hard. This past term was the most difficult one I’ve had in my relatively short teaching career. I was teaching four courses (all different, no repeats), I was teaching my first graduate course, I submitted a large grant application, I travelled to two conferences, and I had a job interview. Our faculty nearly went on strike, and for the weeks leading up to what seemed an unavoidable strike action I, like others, spent extra time meeting with stressed students, grading papers much more quickly than usual in an attempt to prepare students for working on their own should faculty have to walk off the job. All in all it felt like an especially trying term.

I know I should feel justified–even entitled–to take a bit of a break before the grading begins (not to mention the fact that I am teaching a new course in May…) Indeed I’ve encouraged friends and colleagues to take a break. “You need to recharge!” I tell others. So why is it so difficult for me to take my own advice? This weekend I had brilliant plans for a mix of work and relaxation. I planned to grade a few papers each day, to spend a little time doing cursory research for a new article, and to spend the evenings cooking and hanging out with my partner in crime. Instead I took three hour naps each day, woke up feeling groggy and disoriented, and then felt horrible for not grading any papers. What gives?

I got a bit of a hint on Saturday evening when my partner and I watched two movies in a row. I didn’t even feel I had the mental capacity for a complex narrative, so we watched an action film and then we watched Conan O’Brien’s documentary about his post-NBC-firing stand-up show. As I am an early-to-bed-early-to-riser I didn’t really know much about the Leno-Coco debacle, so I went into watching the film with what began as cool detachment. Cool detachment quickly changed to concern and frustration: O’Brian appeared stressed, angry, high-strung, and exhausted. But what bothered me most was not his increasingly dark circles, what bothered me was that he was getting it done. Clearly the emotional toll of being fired as well as the emotional and physical toll of performing were getting to him, but ultimately he was killing it. The show was good.

I didn’t get to see how the documentary ended because the DVD we had was scratched. He had just been asked what he would do if he didn’t have his work. I didn’t get to hear his answer because the screen froze on close-up on O’Brien’s face: tired, frantic, and, as he’d said a number of times in the documentary, unable to stop.

Now I’m no fool, I’m not Conan O’Brien, and while there might be some similarities to be drawn, my classes are not really anything like late night television. I’m struck though by the ways in which I feel like that frantic, frenetic version of O’Brien that makes up the majority of the documentary: unable to stop because stopping means the unknown. Stopping means dealing with all the other parts of life that have been put on hold to get the job done. Friends, that is a scary thought.

I offer this little confessional not (only) as navel-gazing wallowing, but rather as a conversation opener: how do your recover from an emotionally and physically exhausting term without completely shutting down?

5 thoughts on “What I Have in Common with Conan O’Brien

  1. Let me know when you find out the answer! I don't have semesters right now, but my RA work, writing, and conference prep, PhD applications, grant applications, and everything else took a toll on me. I'm afraid to stop because I have too many obligations now, too many commitments, and too much to lose. I'm also terrified to stop and do anything else :p eep taxes!


  2. It's tough, but I have learned that those three-hour naps are your body telling you to rest. I know it's scary to think about stopping, and I am not saying stop completely, but think about jogging instead of running, or taking brief breaks. The key though is to be able to step away guilt-free, otherwise your mind and body don't rest. Stress blocks you from performing at the top of your game. You need to work twice as hard to get things done when you are stressed. It's not worth it. And yes, I do know it's easy to write this down, but not so easy to follow. I'll get there someday. In the meantime DVD box sets of great TV series work wonders!


  3. I don't really have an answer for you, but I don't think you should feel guilty about those three-hour naps. It's impossible to know the precise ways which our bodies need to recharge; but our bodies do, and sometimes they just take over. I've learned this myself in the last week, as I took a road-trip across the country; I thought that I would be mentally able to get a lot of work done in the car, but it turns out I just needed to absorb the scenery and experience a different kind of living for a few days. I really didn't expect this.

    It sounds like you've worked much harder than a human should in three months, and you certainly don't seem like the kind of person to “completely shut down” for an unhealthily long period. So (easier said, of course!) try to just embrace this period of non-activity, and I hope that when you emerge from it, you will feel rejuvenated and hopeful about the future. I am actually kind of comforted that this sort of thing happens to you, because it means that it's ok when it happens to me too! I guess I'm not a total academic failure after all. 🙂


  4. Sometimes you just have to completely shut down. I spent the first six weeks of my sabbatical in sweats and napping and hardly showering because I was just so completely burned out from the personal and professional stresses of the fall. My husband was the one who told me to just go with it. I mean, my body was going to take the rest whether I felt guilty about it or not. So better to just go with it.


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