05/31/2012 03:41 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

So What Does a Professor Do When the Semester Ends, Anyway?

Ah, the end of another semester! Time to replenish, renew, and research. Because research is such a central component of my identity as a professor, I'm always relieved to be done with grades, lectures, and meetings. As much as scholarship is a collaborative effort, it is also by necessity a solitary activity. Good research comes from countless hours of reading, analyzing, and integrating ideas into a cohesive argument that builds on previous scholarship. After what is always a non-stop busy semester of teaching and what research I can fit into that schedule, I set aside the papers and exams, and settle into my overflowing office for several months of intensive thinking and writing. To me, it's the equivalent of curling up with a good book -- an experience where I can set aside the daily grind and bury myself in the questions that fuel my interests. It never fails to reinvigorate my scholarly appetite.

What surprises me, somehow, is that even before I finish that thought, I'm always struck by a sadness that I won't see many of these students again. Students may not realize this, but professors learn and grow over the semester as well. Because I teach every class in a way that encourages the development of knowledge and new ways of thinking in both the students and myself, there is a sense of loss when these inspirational students head off to study abroad, complete internships, or visit far-away destinations. And because I regularly teach media and politics, each semester is highly dependent upon current events in the real world.

Last spring, my students used a critical lens to view the inspiring Arab Spring, the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the massive protests in Wisconsin, and the unexpected death of Osama bin Laden, among other remarkable happenings. (Indeed, Spring 2011 was probably the most fascinating period of time in which I have ever taught this class.) This year, we saw the KONY2012 campaign, the Republican presidential primaries, and a renewed debate on birth control and abortion. These events shape how I teach each class, so students can see the real-world relevance in the material they are learning. Yes, we talk about theory, and yes, we critically evaluate scholarly research. But it is always applicable to current events and when it's not, it generates ideas for new ways of looking at things.

I love when students see these connections and begin to think and talk about existing phenomena with "new eyes." Empowering students to come up with their own ideas -- instead of solely reciting existing ones -- ultimately helps them see the relevance in what they are learning. So by the end of the semester, it feels somewhat like a challenging journey that students and I have taken together, one in which we have all emerged different people on the other side. This is the amazing thing about teaching -- I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. And each class -- whether the material is the same or not -- is rooted in place and time, making every experience completely unique.

So when it all comes to an end, after three months of intensive mentoring, advising, teaching, and learning, there is a feeling of loss. Yet there is comfort in being in "scholar mode," because it invariably brings me to new discoveries, connections, and directions that I can share with students the next semester. And the process begins again.