In July, I focused on clearing the decks. You might find some of the things I've tried helpful as well.

Universities manage the incredible complexity of housing, feeding, educating, entertaining, and helping develop tens of thousands of young people every year by relying on well-established patterns and traditions. The rhythm of the academic year is felt by both the institution itself and all of us whose lives are governed by it. We make relatively small changes to policies, dates, and expectations from one year to another, which produces some degree of certainty about when and how things will happen. The result is that we are freed to undertake the difficult work of educating and supporting generation after generation of college students.

The pandemic threw these patterns and expectations to the wind. On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, we lost the consistency and predictability on which we so depended. Days became weeks, then months. Many of us settled into working in makeshift offices in our basements and guestrooms, while others continued to work on a campus that was mostly empty. We covered our faces, sanitized our mail and groceries, and anxiously watched the news. We lost our rhythm.

For the first several months of the pandemic, we talked a lot about “getting back to normal,” but when President Stanley announced that the vast majority of fall 2020 classes would be held online, we began using the phrase “a new normal” while we held out hopes that a vaccine could quickly end the pandemic. Over the next year and a half, MSU began what Provost Woodruff has described as a progressive return to full in-person functions. Last fall, as the residence halls filled and most classes met in person, we had the first glimpses of our new normal with testing and tracing and quarantining, and we adapted to the delayed start of spring semester remarkably well.

This summer, I have been determined to get back to the rhythm of the schoolyear, a pattern on which I have relied every single year since I started kindergarten (nearly a half century ago!).  In July, I focused on clearing the decks to reset patterns and preparing to get back into a reasonable rhythm of work. Here are some of the things I’ve done this month – maybe you will find some of them helpful as we slide into the last month of summer:

1. I pared down my home office and moved my main place of work back to campus.  One of the things I found most difficult to manage throughout the pandemic was the way in which my work and family time were all mashed together. I had no separation between the two; I was always at work and I was always with my family, and everyone suffered for it.

2. I cleared a lot of personal stuff out of my office on campus. Our work offices have traditionally been second homes for many of us. Especially for those of us in fields that are book-focused, our offices house our personal libraries and decades of research. The pandemic has given me a sense of mobility that belies the need for a well-stocked office.  A more minimalist vibe in the room in which I do much of my work feels very liberating!

3. I unsubscribed from dozens and dozens of emails. Good lord, I get a lot of email. This month I have paid particular attention to how much of it is just noise, and I started unsubscribing. My email is so much more manageable when I’m not trying to dig through so many unwanted messages.

4. I set three reasonable goals for myself in the coming year. These are three things that align with the goals and expectations of those around me and that I believe will move our work forward. I wrote them down. 

5. I’m setting aside dedicated hours during the week to complete certain tasks. I’m scheduling time for doing the mundane things that – left unattended – will hang over me and keep me up at night. This was a tactic I learned from mentors and had stopped doing during the frantic, reactive rush of the pandemic. 

I am very optimistic about the coming fall and the opportunities before us to make huge strides forward in Student Success.  And I’m anxious to get our rhythm back!

Feedback and suggestions, especially from the MSU community, welcome: email

Mark Largent is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Michigan State University.