Burnout and stress are not just about the quantity of work you have to do. Lack of control and a sense of meaninglessness are major contributors to burnout. It has become very clear that your difficulty managing your workload is not a personal failing. You are being asked to do too much. Furthermore, the conditions in which you are being asked to teach are not adequate. You have made a considerable effort to deliver high quality teaching in these conditions, often using personal financial resources as well as time, energy, and emotional resources. You still feel like you are failing a lot of the time. Or, perhaps, that you cannot sustain your current practice. Some of you wonder if you can sustain what you are doing until the end of this semester, much less the end of the academic year.
You have chosen an academic career because you have a vision of the university as a community of scholars engaged in intellectual inquiry. You have held on to this vision despite evidence of the overwhelming power of the university as primarily a degree-granting institution serving the economy through the provision of a skilled labour workforce, focusing on “useful” knowledge for the accumulation of profit. I will call this vision“neoliberal” for the sake of brevity. You have continued to fight, in small and large ways, for the vision of the university as a community of scholars, for students as members of that community, and for the value of research and scholarship that is not instrumentally “useful”.
The pandemic has made this harder. The actions of your institution (and your government) to adapt to pandemic conditions may not make sense to you. It may be more obvious how little your government and/or your institution cares about the community of scholars and the advancement of knowledge. Seeing how little the powers that be value the work you find valuable is a major contributor to how you are feeling right now.
Which vision guides your pragmatic decisions, matters.
In October, I encouraged you not to let the very real threat of job losses prevent you from making tough, and perhaps risky decisions. This month, I want to talk about the values that might guide those difficult decisions.
Meaningfulness and agency make an important contribution to your wellbeing. If you choose to prioritize the directives based on the neoliberal vision, and treat the vision that matters most to you as an optional extra, you will still feel overwhelmed. You will not feel like a good teacher. It will not feel like the kind of job you came in to this for. You may find it hard to prioritize research and writing at all, and when you do it will feel less satisfying. Those feelings are important.
While you cannot change the vision driving the institutional decisions, you can prioritize your values for those decisions within your control. Your vision of the university as a community of scholars engaged in intellectual inquiry for the creation and dissemination of knowledge cannot serve as a goal in the SMART goals sense. It can, however, serve as a guiding star, in the way I talked about that metaphor in September. As a guide to action, rather than a destination, you want to identify the important qualities of your vision and look for actions within your sphere of influence that are consistent with those qualities.
You are still going to be doing many of the same things. Aligning your actions with your values is more about how you do them.
- What criteria does this vision suggest for making decisions about administrative or service tasks?
- What difference does this make to how you approach your teaching?
- What difference does this make to how you approach your research and writing?
- What criteria does it suggest for seminar invitations, reviews, conferences, and collaborative research opportunities?
What might it mean to treat intellectual engagement as a guiding star?
I frequently suggest that you work out what the minimum is by focusing on the essential, and then ask yourself how you can make things easier. When deciding what’s essential, can you prioritize intellectual engagement? Can the tasks that primarily serve the values you don’t hold, be pared back to bare minimum?
A teaching example: In the early stages of the pandemic, there was a lot of discussion on social media about being more generous with grading. The neoliberal institution requires you to give grades as your contribution to the awarding of degrees. Strategies like ungrading are one way to shift your attention away from those grades and towards intellectual engagement (while still minimally meeting institutional requirements to submit them). If that model is not possible for you, does it suggest other ways you could shift the attention from grades to engagement in your teaching practices?
A research example: In both coaching and A Meeting With Your Writing, things have come up that point to the value of letting intellectual engagement guide your writing practice. Instead of framing your task in terms of efficiently and quickly producing a particular research output, what happens if you allow yourself to engage with your research materials using writing? For one coaching client, that looks like thinking about her reading and the data collection for a couple of small projects as one programme of research she can engage with every morning, writing in a way that helps her articulate important ideas that may be relevant to future outputs. For one of the participants in A Meeting With Your Writing, it was just looking at source material and making notes for a database which magically inspired 1000 words of good dissertation writing that she enjoyed, despite not feeling well enough to set that kind of work as her goal.
Another research example: One of my clients realized that they had been approaching opportunities to contribute to seminars and podcasts as contributing to “visibility”. They often defaulted to saying yes without properly considering the work involved in preparation, felt a lot of pressure in the week before as they rushed to prepare, and then felt exhausted afterwards. Nevertheless, these events often felt like they’d been more interesting than expected, and the kind of thing they definitely wanted to do. In our coaching conversation, my client realized that they could prioritise the question “Will this make me think?” and then allow themselves enough time to properly engage, both in preparation and in the event. That might mean accepting fewer invitations, but the work would feel more meaningful.
An administrative/service example: In a recent Office Hours discussion in the Studio, we grappled with how to do less when you feel like you have already pared back. The question of the conflict between the colleague whose role involves asking others to take their turn, being available to respond to questions from prospective undergraduates (a virtual Open Day) and those colleagues who are getting better at saying no to things. Let’s be honest here, admissions are pretty important. You have little control over how many students the institution admits, nor the processes. You do get to be the face of the institution at Open Days (virtual or otherwise), answering questions and talking to prospective students about what they might experience should they attend. What if you are trying to attract those students that might become excited about the field, engage intellectually and become part of a community of scholars?
You are not alone in valuing what you value
Many of your colleagues also value this vision of the university and of scholarly work. In addition to the decisions within your individual control, there may be decisions within the control of small groups of colleagues, like your department.
How can you recruit colleagues to follow this star? Start with those colleagues you already know share your values and with whom you already collaborate. Discuss the questions I’ve raised in this post with them and decide collectively what you want to try first. Where you don’t have individual control over a decision but your department has some control, remind your colleagues of the agency you have as a group and suggest a way of framing the problem that foregrounds the things you (collectively) value.
Talk about what minimal compliance with institutional directives looks like. If the whole department agrees not to do certain things, or agrees a (low) standard for certain things, it will be easier for individuals. It is particularly important for those with more job security, seniority, and other forms of privilege that mitigate the risks of certain decisions, to consider how they can create conditions that mitigate the risks for other less secure colleagues.
Even if everyone isn’t on board, mutual support amongst some colleagues makes a big difference.
This post was originally written for the November 13 newsletter. It has been lightly edited. Register here to get exclusive first access to my newsletter.