Nurturing the Mind (and Academic Soul) in Summer  

Dr. Meridith A. Balas is an adjunct faculty member in the College of Applied Human Sciences at West Virginia University and the executive director of alumni engagement for the WVU Alumni Association. Most often, she teaches in the higher education and student affairs curriculum, including courses that focus on contemporary issues in higher education and diversity in higher education. As an alumna of four land-grant institutions, Balas takes seriously her commitment to give back to the states and communities that have deeply shaped her growth.  

Dr. Meridith A. Balas
Image Credit: Cardinal Creative

In this post, Balas discusses her personal approach to summer self-care:

So often, the summertime season brings a spirit of rest and reflection for instructors who are closing out a successful academic year. What a gift it is, for teachers of all kinds, to witness the growth of their students (and themselves) in and out of the classroom spaces. For those who might be on a twelve-month contract, or perhaps those whose primary appointment is with a year-round operation in another unit, finding the small moments of solace in “summer” to reflect and refresh in academia can be particularly challenging yet rewarding.   

This downtime is crucial for self-care, reflection, and rejuvenation. Although it might be tempting to completely disconnect for summer, I will always champion the use of summer (whether it’s two full months or a handful of stolen moments) to prepare myself for the upcoming semester.  

Reflection and Closure 

An attentive mentor once gave me the perceptive advice to create space for both reflection and closure after every chapter, even those that might be seemingly small. Often, we’re told to seek closure after an emotional or life-changing event, but there are great benefits to a similar process when processing any of life’s moments, of all magnitudes. Closure psychology can be deep and complicated, so here’s the short of it: sometimes, closure can offer a sense of control where there wasn’t one before, giving us a better perspective and foundation from which to view the future. Think of it as emotionally turning the page.   

For me, this means taking a moment to reflect on the semester through the lens of my instruction. Did I meet the goals I set out to achieve? Did I help students connect with the content and lean into their curiosity of the subject? Did I try a few new teaching strategies and were they effective? What were the biggest wins from this experience? After I’ve documented these moments and I feel confident that I’ve both created and used the space I’ve set aside to reflect on the semester, I feel comfortable and ready to approach the next project with a renewed spirit.   

It’s not uncommon for instructors to lean on mindfulness exercises that might ignite connection, reduce anxiety, and maintain a healthier balance; I’d like to think that by integrating mindfulness into my closure routines, I’m laying a foundation for improved mental and emotional well-being throughout the year.  

A Handwritten Habit 

Since I was small, writing a note and dropping it in the mailbox has been a practice of both spreading gratitude and enacting self-care. Even on the most draining of days, I can refill my cup by putting some thoughts on paper and sending them to a friend near or far. For me, there will always be a sense of calm and magic to carefully applying the stamp, neatly writing out the address, and putting benevolent words out into the universe, knowing that they might arrive safely in another mailbox in just a few short days.   

As my friends and colleagues in other states know well, this often entails a saved magazine article folded neatly into an envelope for someone whom I know will enjoy its themes, writing a short but sweet thank-you note to express my gratitude for a recent act of thoughtful service, or perhaps addressing a one-of-a-kind postcard that simply could not be passed upon in a local print shop.    

Relevant Exploration 

For so many of us in the academic space, there is a hunger for downtime that we can use just for leisure learning. For me, this is often the stolen moments during a lunch break outside to enthusiastically work my way through the growing list of bookmarked articles I’ve saved across many devices for moments when I am ready to listen and learn. Some of these takeaways keep me fresh on the topics I teach and perform, while others position me to blueprint a course syllabus or for a mentorship meeting with a student. I find so, so much joy in returning to read something an earlier me has saved for a rainy day, and immediately finding a place to plug it into practice. And moments just like this are the affirmation of my path as an educator and a lifelong learner.   

Exercising Curiosity  

Reading for pleasure has always been both a delightful pastime and a distinctive way to invigorate my curiosity. Fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, and academic works all find a place on my bookshelf and endless (yet thoughtfully curated) list of holds at our local library. This practice not only nourishes my love for learning but also inspires fresh perspectives that so easily can be embedded into my teaching and research.  

Most recently, this practice has led to a deep dive into Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water, a story I am eagerly waiting to unpack with the South Park Book Club later this month. I’ve also enjoyed a slow summer exploration of Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides by Geoffrey Cohen, which has yielded many thoughtful notes in the margins related to student support, caregiving and empathy, and a thoughtful reflection of my core values.  

As an adjunct faculty member and higher education administrator, I believe firmly in the magic of a new semester, and the change it inevitably will bring. As students return to their campuses and classrooms with renewed enthusiasm and a zest for learning, they benefit deeply from the profound impact of professors who have taken the time to care for themselves and invest in their own growth. Let us celebrate the summer as a time for us to recharge, reflect, and reignite our passion for education.   

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