The first day of the penultimate week of my pandemic-induced online Professional and Technical Communication class. Most of the afternoon has been dedicated to the usual, frantic task-switching: juggling the chores of answering emails in which students are inquiring about their marks or requesting feedback on drafts of their final digital posters, preparing my final class lecture, and attacking the ever-present pile of grading. When I first awakened, today seemed like any of the others since this ad-hoc semester began, but, as the hours passed, the veneer started to crack, the gift of wearing sweatpants rather than dress clothes starting to lose its shine.
Although fatigued, like so many of my other colleagues, especially those saddled with writing-intensive courses, I faltered that day for another reason. A surge of disgruntlement overcame me when a student, who previously had been treating the face-to-face course like a drop-in yoga class, posed a simple question--one repeatedly addressed on the assignment, the discussion post, the week’s overview, and at least two PowerPoints. In other words, he should have known the answer already. My anger quickly dissipated, though, and transformed to sarcasm: “Dear Student, all of these pressing mysteries will be revealed unto you when you revisit (or maybe just read) the assignment instructions and other relevant course materials.”
Let me explain. It is not that students have never asked for clarification before or that I was especially drained from grading assignments or responding to emails. It is that his question revealed that the tedious routine to which I had relinquished so much of my life for the last month and a half was seemingly not yielding the expected results: students learning and proceeding independently with their projects. The weekends sacrificed to scaffolding the assignment, breaking down design principles, screen-casting PowerPoint tools, analyzing previous student examples, had been lost on him. And I also suspect, on many others, especially those unprepared for the often daily drudgery of sitting down at their computers to attack their online classes. “They didn’t sign up for this,” many told me. And neither, unfortunately, did I.
Just three weeks before, a different but related moment had similarly stopped me in my tracks: filling in the CCCC reflection surveys for late March. Asked to describe my environment, current mood, daily plan, pattern of movement, and so on, I was at first excited for this opportunity to contribute to a larger project, to make my musings count for something. But very shortly, I grew weary of this activity. Feeling depressed and stressed soon followed. This temperament shift was caused not so much by the task of answering the questions, but by those of typing and then rereading the responses illustrating the monotony of my mornings: staring at that same green wall in the kitchen as I leisurely drank my coffee and contemplated daily goals. In the beginning, when we transitioned online, there was a certain pleasure in a relaxed breakfast, in that unexpectedly welcome daily pause. There was no need to rush to the office to lecture to sleepy-eyed students who probably hadn’t completed the reading. But without the routine of switching between working at home and the university, I began to feel disoriented and flat. Sometime later, when Thursday’s survey content blended into Friday’s, and I didn’t know what day it was, these questionnaires were abandoned. Sorry.
During both times—delivering that sarcastic email retort and dwelling on my uninspired reflection responses—one song started haunting me again, just as it had done, intermittently, for far too long. The 2005 Nine-Inch Nails song, “Every day is Exactly the Same,” started teasing my brain. One particular verse and chorus annoyingly looped, offering commentary but no solution to my students’ dilemmas nor to mine.
If you’re unfamiliar with the tune, it opens with a broken voice whispering, “I believe I can see the future / Cause I repeat the same routine / I think I used to have a purpose / Then again, that might have been a dream.” The speaker then ponders that he “used to have a voice / Now I never make a sound / I just do what I've been told / I really don't want them to come around / Oh no.” The chorus recites the mundane malaise that has become his life: “Every day is exactly the same / Every day is exactly the same / There is no love here and there is no pain / Every day is exactly the same.” In Reznor’s mournful, yet anthemic song, the speaker bewails the routine that has substituted for his life while questioning how these automatic rituals have impaired his sense of self. On the one hand, he resents sacrificing his identity and purpose for a life of conformity. On the other hand, he is not even sure if he ever had a purpose outside of mindlessly going through the steps. Not rebelling against the system and continuing to follow a routine is a hard choice, but one that keeps him from being noticed and that prevents “them” from coming around.
Previously, when I recalled the retail job that punctuated and made more difficult Graduate School 1.o, I connected to this song and the speaker’s plight. Especially evocative was his confession about pretending to be happy while feeling constantly monitored, perhaps by customers, employees, and managers, as he sleepwalks through his shift’s drudgery. Although it has been over 20 years since I have been IGA’s Shelly from the deli, working the 6-12 am shift before attending graduate classes, Reznor’s song became an earworm again in Fall of 2019. This was a hellish term of being an instructor teaching three writing-intensive classes as well as a graduate student defending her dissertation and then revising the lengthy beast. This term and the subsequent socially distanced one shed light, for me, on the benefits and the hazards of routines.
Reznor’s song recalls the complexity of routine’s associations, which are embedded in the word’s origins from the 1670s. Derived from route “way, path, or course,” routine has a seemingly neutral meaning of a sequence of actions regularly followed or a fixed program (OED Online, “Routine”). One painstakingly follows a routine and treads that worn, familiar path to arrive at a destination or to accomplish a goal. From the meaning of undeviating road comes a more familiar definition: “A regularly followed procedure; an established or prescribed way of doing something; a more or less mechanical (emphasis mine) or unvarying way of performing certain actions or duties (OED Online, “Routine”). As early as 1680, Samuel Butler, in Genuine Remains (II.29) claims, “The general Business of the World lies, for the most part, in Routines and Forms”(OED Online). Routines and rituals are central to the hegemonic structures and institutions that inform and order our world, keeping us all abiding by the appropriate rules and progressing on the corresponding roads.
Along with a necessary habit that keeps the wheels of the world greased, routine also denotes a mindless, unvarying, mechanical performance of conduct. Or to put it another way, the word carries the idea of sacrificing oneself for the security of habit and of performing the illusion that everything is fine. My pre-pandemic, rush-to-the-dissertation-finish line was dominated by a strict schedule; I survived the process by accepting that every day would be exactly the same. Awakening on five hours of rest was followed by sleepwalking through my daily workout. Then, I rushed either to Michigan Tech to instruct my classes, ensuring that most preparation and grading were completed there; or, after my morning sweat, dashed to my home office, “ass in seat,” settling in to write. On the non-teaching days, there was no distinction between a Tuesday or a Saturday: every day was identical as I struggled to make my Dec. 9 defense deadline and then the January 2 revision date, toiling through all holidays, treading that straight path. There was no rest, only work. Other graduate students, no doubt, are familiar with this by way of(?) their own aberrant customs.
But when the dissertation ended, I could not escape these habits. Lost without the rituals of rushing and overworking and stressing, I took on book reviews and proposals and chapters. I exercised more, read more, planned more. Then, the Spring break saw me planning my paper for the CCCC and obsessing about my presentation. University officials did not help me relax either. Not recognizing or respecting the holiday, administrators contacted the faculty mid-session, ordering us to be ready in five short days for the transition to online learning. I, and the rest of the university, was sucked into an even more noxious schedule, consisting of Canvas announcements, reading and sending administrative emails, Zoom Faculty and Committee meetings, virtual office hours, nonstop online time. Even more so than before, every day was dreary. With no in-class schedule, there was no weekend to feel, nor anticipate, so I fell into the unhealthy habit of working every day, churning out emails to sooth students and mechanically contributing to discussion responses to keep my learners on track.
My behavior here brings up yet another obsolete definition of routine: “a set of words; specifically a set series of phrases, manner of speaking, etc., employed without proper consideration or original thought.” As an adjective, routine means, “performed in a more or less identical way on repeated occasions, typically without the need for innovation (OED Online, “Routine.”) Robot Shelly went through the motions of teaching every day. This oppressive schedule also served as an avoidance strategy: there was no time to contemplate the Covid-19 crisis nor the uncertainty of my career as a visiting assistant instructor. And when the semester ended, the overwork continued: I signed up for two online classes and volunteered for assessment and extra projects. Where was I, who was I, without the routine of sitting down at my computer, participating in the unending academic race?
My situation symbolizes how overly ordered lives may transform us into robots performing tasks mechanically, never forsaking normalized behaviors because of the fear of thinking about our identities apart from academia. Like computer programmers who input lines of tedious code in order to perform a task (another definition of routine), many students and instructors are chained to their daily rituals, worried that one misstep, one deviation from the path, might disable their programs. Or to put it another way, the routines of academia are especially apt at marginalizing work-life balance.
For both students and Faculty, the university’s schedules and practices make it an especially inhuman place: running classes from 8AM to 9PM, giving rushed students and instructors a mere ten minutes to dash across campus and shift gears between courses, holding sessions over lunch hours, crowding hundreds of students into giant lecture halls, requiring all to put in arduous hours outside the classroom on projects. These norms are even more magnified at my university in which students will inevitably work long hours at service industry and technological companies. Those students comfortable with online learning and tired of the university rat-race told me that, at first, the forced transition provided a break, a chance for them to keep up while slowing down. They were doing their work, but on their own terms. When they emailed me, they sent pictures of themselves walking their dogs, kayaking in rivers, and being outside. They were getting the chance to be people, not solely academic automatons.
But other students admitted that in this new situation, they could not find their balance. For them, the transition resulted in even more exacting timetables, especially those whose cognitive disabilities made them struggle with reading or managing their time. Worried about not passing their classes and graduating, some students could not relax. Rather than enjoying their schoolwork, a few said, they felt “glued to the computer for hours on end” even though they were “getting nowhere.” Like a robot, one student said, he wasn’t sleeping; he was just going through the motions and watching the term’s clock wind down.
My dissertation and pandemic teaching experience acquainted me with the positive side of routines; they allow us to accomplish otherwise insurmountable goals and tasks. Through their familiarity, we may keep calm and carry (or trudge) on as we put one foot in front of the other. Another associated meaning of routine, developed later in the 18th century, is a set sequence in a performance such as a dance or comedy (OED). When I was struggling to finish my dissertation, I practiced certain healthy habits that soothed me: running with my dogs, reading my wardrobe the night before, practicing my lecture over breakfast, socializing for a few minutes at the photocopier. These small acts would transform me from sleep-deprived graduate student to well-prepared professional, or at least someone who faked the latter role. Transitioning to online classes removed the security and sanctity of these practices, which underscores how certain habits may sustain us, keep us moving forward despite our perceptions of discomfort, uncertainty, and loss.
The absence of these supporting rituals was experienced by many of my students when they transitioned online. When, a few weeks into our ad-hoc term, I emailed each of them to inquire about their health and progress, they spoke frankly about the effects of this unexpected semester. Many admitted that without the obligation of dragging themselves out of bed (and putting on pants) to attend their physical classes, or being accountable to their peers, they were unmotivated to complete their studies. Several confessed that without mandatory class attendance, scheduled design project meetings, or instructor office hours, they lost track of the weekdays. A quiet student quickly fell off the map, explaining that without the configuration of face-to-face classes, she was “all an anxious jumble.” Whereas she had hitherto managed a part-time job and schoolwork, without synchronous instruction and the rigorous university schedule, she was confused and disorganized, unable to concentrate on any mental work. Another athlete on the track team similarly confessed to feeling anxious and depressed without his regimented early morning weightlifting session: in fewer than two weeks, a lack of eating and training resulted in him losing twelve pounds. “I am dwindling away,” he said. Instead of completing course assignments or projects, two students were holed up in their fraternity house rooms playing nonstop video games. Others gave up entirely, treating every day as a Saturday, extending the March break until April. One kid, in fact, did nothing but play hockey.
Without the structure of face-to-face classes, many students, especially those lacking intrinsic motivation, were stalled in their tracks. With seemingly too much unscheduled time on their hands, they began questioning their education and future career paths. “Will there even be jobs now?” one student expressed during a Zoom meeting. “What’s the point, really?”
In short, the rituals of completing my dissertation and teaching during the pandemic lockdown reminded me of routine’s complex connotations, which are further problematized by those on both sides of academia’s podiums. When they provide our lives with order and help us accomplish our goals while maintaining a work-life balance, they should be embraced. When routines overly structure our existences so that we forget ourselves and our lives beyond the job, we should question and resist their dehumanization. When they are pushed on us by outside forces, specifically to normalize the abnormal, we should consider rejecting them altogether.
The university administration, without any serious consultation from faculty, has unveiled its three-step, post-pandemic strategy to re-open in the Fall of 2020. This plan is characterized by rigorous procedures, newly minted Senate policies, specific safety training, daily self-reporting, regular Covid-19 tests, and stringent social-distancing protocols. Currently, there are tiny armies of administrators configuring classrooms and marking up floors to not only determine the maximum occupancy but also the routines for safely entering, exiting, and teaching in these spaces. Although there have been some shallow gestures of accepting feedback from faculty (professors reside on several committees, I am told), most of us realize, like Ginsberg, that the administration is really in charge. Recently, we were vaguely warned that “more will be expected” of us when we return “to better protect the health and safety of our entire campus community.” But many of us know that it is the university’s coffers that are of the utmost concern. Pardon my mixed metaphors, but faculty and students are supposed to fall in line, take one for the team.
The innumerable protocols and the lockdown state of the new university are troubling: specifically, the routines to which we all must acquiesce. I worry about the repercussions of students and faculty who rebel against this new normal. But most of all, I am concerned with the “business as usual” attitude and the possibility that the university’s too-early reopening will disperse Covid-19, causing a second wave in our so far untouched remote Upper Peninsula. When I contemplate the impact of 7000 students returning to the small university towns of Houghton and Hancock, MI, and the possible resurgence of the novel coronavirus, I worriedly recall this line from Reznor’s song: “I can’t remember how this got started / Oh, but I can tell you exactly how it will end.”
One year after completing my essay “Reflecting on Routines.” Revisiting this writing was a painful process indeed, not only because the essay dredged up uncomfortable memories, but also because it forced me, once again, to confront my very ambivalent relationship with routines. Routines, that is, have always been both beneficial and harmful: they have allowed me to lose myself in work—a treasure during these chaotic COVID times. But they have also enabled the naive beliefs that self-sacrificing effort would always bring personal satisfaction as well as respect from my academic colleagues and rewards from my superiors.
My belief in the virtues of routines was tested in the 2020/2021 academic year. When September 2020 rolled around, and my remote classes began (online lectures during class times), my schedule was unchanging and unrelenting: run, prepare courses, teach class, hold office hours, walk the dog, eat supper, grade assignments, prep some more. Repeat. The combination of self-discipline and the hope for a promotion to lecturer had me dedicating even more time and effort to my courses than before, perfecting assignments and lectures. The results were driving myself to exhaustion and damaging my health. For instance, during one remote lecture in ZOOMlandia, a mini-seizure struck me, forcing my collapse mid-sentence. Rather than end the class, I assuaged the terrified students, splashed water on my face, and soldiered on with the content. Stopping, after all, would mean acknowledging weakness and the truth: that these routines were breaking down my body while gaining me neither respect nor job-security.
For many of us, the school year of 2020/2021 was one of the most strenuous and stressful ever encountered. However, for me, this period forced a recognition and a change. That is, by January 2021, both my energy and supply of intrinsic motivation were waning. My attitudes towards working through weekends and to surrendering myself to academic routines mutated from enthusiasm to cynicism. I grew resentful at colleagues who seemed to be slacking, yet winning accolades, prizes, and promotions. I grew outraged by the stark inequities in academia—the gulf between temporary instructors and workhorses, the likes of me, and everyone else. I was incensed by the fakery of those who recognize injustices out in the wide world, but ignore the crimes, both petty and profound, in their own houses. Exhausted by the rituals, frustrated by my underpaid-9-month-position, and exasperated by a future of no respect, no benefits, and no security, I declined my next contract. Job abandoned. Routines terminated.
Writing this reflection now, I obviously fear the impending loss of my income, but also my identity. Nostalgia has me wistfully remembering the ebbs and flows between course lulls and the frenzies of grading, the thrill of fixing lectures at the last minute, the exhilaration of students losing themselves in research. How will my life be structured without the rituals of an overworked writing instructor? Who may I be? Who will I, eventually, become?
Ginsberg, Benjamin. The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Oxford English Dictionary Online. https://services.lib.mtu.edu:6253/ “Routine.” Accessed on May 20, 2020.
Reznor, Trent. “Every Day is Exactly the Same.” Genius Lyrics. https://genius.com/Nine-inch-nails-every-day-is-exactly-the-same-lyrics. Accessed on May 20, 2020.
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