Friday, January 28, 2011

Burnout Mantras

I would give an update on my burnout, but we had two snow days this week. Yes, the first week of the semester and I only had to teach on one! Sadly, I do not think that is helping with the burnout. I just feel like I am playing hooky.

Walking to class on the first day, I began to chant a list of mantras. Is that the proper use of the term mantra? This list is rather like the Moscow Rules, only intended to get me through my burnout. They go something like this:
  1. You don't have to like them, you just have to teach them.
  2. They don't have to like you, they just have to learn history.
  3. Hold firm. It's never just the one.
  4. This is a professional relationship.
  5. History is the point, nothing else.
These all sound like "duh!" points, but my particular personality and socialization means that I forget them. Somewhere along the line I bought one of those stupid and wrong ideas that I am supposed to be liked by the whole damn world. Being "liked," however, meant caving to every whim of another person. That led to resentment and self-loathing because I couldn't respect myself and because I felt I was following some sort of arbitrary set of rules set up to serve someone else at my expense. The corollary to this stupid and wrong idea was the equally stupid and wrong idea that the opposite of being "liked" was to be a bitch, to be cruel and abusive, to be the arbiter of that arbitrary set of rules.

These two stupid and wrong ideas became a bit of a problem when I found myself in a position of authority as a professor because, as the instructor, I'm in a position to be either a resentful pushover or an irrational bitch, drunk on power. Who wants to be either? Also, these are the options? Like most things in my particular stupid and wrong cosmology, I'm drawn between two extremes and trying to find a balance.

The list of mantras is the attempt to remind myself that there are, in fact, other options and that there are, in fact, reasons for holding firm to rules that the students might find unfair or arbitrary. For instance, not letting more than the maximum number of students into a class. I found out that the higher levels of the administration do look at the number of people enrolled over the class limit and think "hey, if they are willing to take forty students into the class, then maybe we should make forty the limit." Add that all up across the schedule and you have a whole other full class of students to deal with.

Heck, we even received an e-mail suggesting that we sign students in over the limit in order to make our "enrollment goals" (drink!). If we have to take more than our limit of students into our classes in order to make these "enrollment goals" (drink!), then why not just open new sections rather than overworking your faculty and diminishing the "classroom experience" (drink!) for the students already enrolled? That isn't exactly keeping with that whole "completion (drink!) agenda (drink!)."

In any case, I don't want to participate in that; but to not participate means that I have to tell students "the class is full so I will not sign you in," despite their puppy dog eyes, despite their pleas that they need THIS class to graduate, despite their promises to work SO HARD, despite my fear that someone somewhere might think I'm a horrible bitch who is ruining their life by not letting JUST ONE person into her class.

Oddly, it felt kind of good, to just know that this is my policy, this is the reason for it, and I don't have to take on anyone else's issues. I'm not here to be liked. I'm here to teach history. They aren't here to like me, they are here to learn history. The whole point is history.

I've also noticed in the past that the pecked at feeling comes on gradually, but I've identified the point at which it comes on. Usually, it starts with one person. The one person comes to me with some crisis and asks for an exception to some policy (at this point, it is usually not one of the real crises, but one of their own devising such as "I didn't understand that we were supposed to follow directions"). Me, in my desire to be the nice teacher who is soooo understanding and compassionate (drink!), makes an exception to the policy. "It's just this one," I think.

It is never just that one. The next one comes, and of course I have to make an exception for this one because I did for the last one. Then the next one and the next one and the next one. Then, I get frustrated and resentful at this mess that I created for myself all because I thought that not being a pushover meant that I was being an unreasonable bitch. Which is stupid and wrong. Hence, the "it's not just the one" part of the mantra.

Finally, I started to think about how most students come to the educational experience, especially the younger ones. They went through 12 or more years in which school was part of this adult/child relationship. Heck, I sometimes feel it myself. In college, it is not. College is the adult world. College is the professional world.

Furthermore, the adult and professional worlds are not egalitarian worlds. They are hierarchical. Within the scope of the classroom, I'm sort of their boss -- their history boss. In the professional relationship, the boss assigns the tasks and the underling completes them as assigned. Failure to do so has consequences. Lack of consequences leads to anarchy, or at the very least, the task not getting done properly. The task here being: learn history. History is the reason that we congregate in that classroom.

Again, all of this is "duh!" territory; but sometimes, if you have learned only a perverse -- stupid and wrong -- relationship to power, the "duh!" stuff becomes very difficult, or at least like a destination that is much much further away than for other people. You have to work your way toward it. By "you," I mean "me."

When I get fatigued, which is often, or burned out, which is now, I lose my grip on the obvious. So, I wrote that list down and chanted it to myself as I walked from my car to the office and then to the class. It helped a little on that first day of laying down the law. The real test will be later, when things are actually due. Then I have to fall back on the lines that my analyst gave me, "I'm sorry, but the policy is." Also, "I'm sorry about that, but it appears you have some choices to make." Sometimes when there is a script, I can fit into the authoritative role better.

Meanwhile, I'm using the snow days for research.


nicoleandmaggie said...

Good thinking all!

My heuristic is generally: If it is more work for me, No.
If it is no skin off my back, sure.

When I do do something that is more work for me, I want brownie point credit from it. I take a page from all those whiny productive old men back in my mom's department and expect a gold star for letting in someone over the class limit on request of the chair of another department. I'm doing it for the professional relations between departments. It is not automatic.

Janice said...

There are words of wisdom. You're not being a mean bitch, you're being realistic. After struggling and failing to manage courses without caps (135 students enrolled in my second-year course on the Ancient Near East!) my chair instituted course caps just for me then rolled them out to colleagues who requested them.

It's such a relief to be able to say "I know there will only be 80 students at most in this course" when I'm planning the assignments. But I (and you) also have to stand firm that, no, we can't set endless make-up quizzes or midterms, or take all the assignments six weeks late (especially if that hits at crunch time), or revise drafts in between assignment stages (that's what the writing centre is for).

They don't have to love us, they have to learn. And learning is hard!

Digger said...

I've found the concept of fairness works for me. I can't make exceptions for just one person, because that's not fair to everyone else (exceptions for illness etc are already in the syllabus, for everyone). There's also not much room for them to argue without blatantly looking like jerks. By my rules, if I'm willing to make an exception, then I have to be willing to make it for everyone. Sometimes I will. Mostly I won't, because then it's not fair for me!

Boundaries are also good for them, as is encouragement for personal responsibility (also known as read the f-ing assignment, I already read it to you once when I gave it. Your turn.)

And... word will get out when you're not a pushover. They'll either not try so hard to get you to cave, or just not take your class. (But there will always be one...)

Finally...gracias linkage. And I have *news*!111

Susan said...

When one student gave my adviser all three class papers on the day of the final exam, he asked Stu what he was supposed to do with the papers that had been due across the semester. He then reminded Stu that if all the students turned in their papers on the day of the final exam, he and the TA would to grade 90 papers and 30 finals in 2 days. Why? asked Stu. "I'm the only one who has turned them in today". "Because," answered adviser, "if it's fair for you to turn them in at the final exam, it's fair for everyone.

I have a student who failed last semester because he turned one paper in online, but not a hard copy as required. Sigh. But I've decided to be consistent, and to say that since the syllabus said hard copy, I meant hard copy. Like you, though, I feel like a real meanie.


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