Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Dirty Word

I'm finding out that I could probably walk into a crowded room and yell "fuckity fuck fuck fuck" at the top of my lungs then flash my boobs and receive fewer horrified looks than if I simply said, "you know, I'm burned out."

Not that I did the "fuckity fuck fuck fuck" and boob flash thing. I'm just guessing.

Burn out seems to be something everyone suffers from but, like and STD, no one will admit that they have ever had it nor do they really want to discuss what it is, how to recognize the signs, and how to avoid it. Although, I have found that some people actually do have suggestions for how to overcome it. Sabbatical seems like one of the best means of recovering. Unfortunatly, our sabbatical (and we actually do have one, which is surprising) is only available to finish a project. That's a bit off in the distance for me. Then, yesterday, the honors program coordinator had a suggestion that might have me team teaching an honors course, which would be such a wonderful releif. Sadly, if that happens, it would happen next year.

But this is not my point in this post. You see, I'm burned out right now. Since the traffic on my archives posts indicates that I am the purveyor of cautionary tales, perhaps I can use my burnout for the greater good. Perhaps I should write about my burnout in a constructive way, rather than a venting way. Perhaps I can muddle my way through this semester causing the least amount of harm. Perhaps I can identify the components of the burn out. Perhaps I can observe the ways that I deal with those componenents and figure out better ways of addressing them. Perhaps this writing unto itself might be a way of coping with the burn out as a whole.

The first part of the burn out has already begun. I've been dreading my return to classes this semester much worse than in any previous semester. In fact, I felt downright ill and on the verge of an anxiety attack on my way into our Festival O' Meeings yesterday. Walking from the parking garage to the meetings, I supressed the urge to duck and cover everytime I saw a someone who appeared to be a student. Heck, for the past week, I've felt this in the grocery store, on the Metro, in the parking lot at my apartment, in the elevator at my apartment, and pretty much anywhere people are.

What we have here, then, is the first part of my burn out. What shall I call it? Anxiety? Dread? Yes, dread. Gut-wrenching dread, often acccompanied by a sort of depression. The depression keeps you from running screaming back to bed where you huddle under the comforter in the fetal position while watching your DVDs of Mad Men and downing chocolate and pina coladas until you reach that lovely "don't give a fuck" state.

Maybe that last part is just me.

Also, maybe that depression comes from the Festival O' Meetings. Oh, how I dread these, too! Generally, they are simply pep rallies that make me realize that I should perhaps invest in a netbook in order to get some work done during the pep rally, kind of like the way that I used to read during the enforced school spirit rallies of my grade school years. Lately, however, they've become ever more demoralizing as the buzz words increase -- this year's is "completion," for which you could invent a drinking game -- and the underlying message is clearly "Excellence Without Money."

In fact, this year, the lower level administrators like our dean and provost could barely mask their own lack of enthusiasm for this lastest shiny-shiny "agenda" (drink!) that will in no way address the problems facing our students, our school, or our education system. Then, I start to think about the types of "agendas" (drink!) that would address this, and I see the whole anti-intellectualism, trade school mentality, unwillingness to pay for public services -- no, make that public NEEDS -- and expectations that people who work for the public do so on a volunteer basis and LOVE it. The problem is so huge, endemic, and cultural that it makes you want to run screaming back to bed where you huddle under the comforter in the fetal position while watching your DVDs of Mad Men and downing chocolate and pina coladas until you reach that lovely "don't give a fuck" state.

Maybe that last part is just me.

Anyway, here we have part two of the burn out: demoralization.

After the meetings, I return to my office and begin to prepare for the semester, updating my syllabi and WebCT courses. This leads to the next problem. As I do this, I begin to get that feeling that I'm putting more work into this course already than about 50% of my students will. I begin to sense the amount of grading that will begin crashing down upon me by the second -- yes, second -- week of the semester and not cease until May. In revising the "policies" section of the syllabus, I have to incorporate every new thing that cropped up this past semester and anticipate any new tangles or angles for whining. You have to stay one step ahead of them, you know!

What's worse, I begin to see the way I could be better at this online teaching, better at teaching altogether, except that I have these 125-150 students to manage so I don't have the time to put into that more effective teaching. I end up grading and putting out individual fires rather than teaching, and the grading becomes less of a conversation between me and the writer and more of me just plowing through the stacks of papers. The whole enterprise leads to an overwhelming sense of futility and makes you want to run screaming back to bed where you huddle under the comforter in the fetal position while watching your DVDs of Mad Men and downing chocolate and pina coladas until you reach that lovely "don't give a fuck" state.

Maybe that last part is just me.

That is the part three of the burn out: futility.

Dread, demoralization, and futility. Three goblins that go together, and they are not good companions for the day.

How do I deal with them now? I try not to read Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle of Higher Education or anything having to do with the state of education today. I particularly avoid comments sections. This isn't productive, but it does help me muddle through the day.

A productive way of dealing with these is to simply throw myself into the task at hand and not thing about anything before or after it. The Nike Philosophy: Just Do It. Then, I can mark an item off of my list and feel like I've actually accomplished something, which fights off the goblin of futility, sometimes holds off the goblin of dread, and allows me to ignore the goblin of demoralization. They don't go away, but their effects are reduced.

One last way I've dealt with this. I run. Literally, I run. Since the summer, I've run more and more each week until, at the end of last semester I got up to ten miles (one time, but still). I get on the treadmill and start. When I reach what I consider a reasonable distance somewhere between 3 and 5 miles, I realize that, if I stop, I have to grade, or work on a syllabus, or something of that sort, so I keep going until I absolutely have to stop because I can't justify staying at the gym any longer or my legs give out. I've lost 20 lbs and my muscles in my legs are solid.

In any case, this is my state right now, living with these three goblins of dread, demoralization, and futility. Let's see how or if it changes when classes start next week, and then the following week when we can actually get into the subject matter but when I also have to start grading.


Roxie Smith Lindemann said...

We feel your pain, Clio, as we face the start of the new semester next week, too. We've got new uncertainty on the campus of QTU, with word the other day that the provost is leaving to become president somewhere. He's been a forceful advocate of Excellence Without Money, so we can't say we are entirely disappointed by this news, though there's a certain devil-you-know versus devil-you-don't-know issue here.

Anyway, keep running (literally). That's an incredibly healthy response to stress. Don't tell anybody, but my typist has just started Weight Watchers and looks forward to making a range of healthy changes over the next little while. Perhaps we can sponsor an inspirational contest -- Academic Bloggers Get Up Off Fat A$$es and MOVE for Fun and Happiness or something. Or maybe we could just meet for pina coladas sometime. That might be fun, too. Take it easy.

Belle said...

Burn out sucks, but nearly everybody goes through it too many times. Perhaps those who seem like they want to deny it are simply stunned that you'd admit it out loud?

I think we all need to post this post on our doors and syllabi. Because students also get it, and have to listen to EOM messages too!

Janice said...

Oh, this was my feeling last year so very acutely. When you're overloaded and hemmed in by a system that seems NOT to care at all, it's not easy to find a way to engage.

As you say, there are many students who won't crack a textbook or spend more than five minutes on an assignment. Ironically, they'll put much more effort into complaints when they fail!

But don't despair, please. Try to make one small change as you can each week or course-cycle to make your work-life balance manageable. You can't save every student, but you can save yourself and a good chunk of the ones who're willing and able to put in the effort needed.

undine said...

"dread, demoralization, and futility": Administrators should know that all the pep rallies in the world disguised as meetings won't help, but your running, Just Do It, and chocolate/Mad Men sounds like a good way to get through some of it. Hang in there!

nicoleandmaggie said...


Have we suggested to you yet to read Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence?

I know it sounds like it's about money and finances, but it's really about work and what work is. It seriously helps to put things in perspective. Everyone I know who has read it (and that's a lot of people since I keep forcing it on people) has had a major life change for the better from reading it... even though everyone seems to get something different out of it.

The intro is kind of annoyingly preachy, but the book itself makes up for that in spades.

Stacey said...

Thank you for sharing your struggles, Clio. This posting truly resonates with me (as an academic fighting burn out, and as a woman running it off).

I wish you well: enjoy those Mad Mens and chocolates. Sounds like a fabulous antidote.

Susan said...

I think your general approach here -- avoid the things which remind you of the whole "state of the profession" situation, just do it, and running -- is incredibly healthy. Just saying.

Good luck. I've started to say to people recently that "I just can't do one more thing" and it felt very good to do so!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Is no one else going to jump on the Clio's fabulous drinking game idea? I like "completion" as a good do-a-shot buzzword. "Assessment" should be one, too. Drink double for any mention of whatever !new! technological miracle your uni is pushing this year.

profacero said...

I echo Susan and I am giving myself the same advice.

Do remember, we all like your book project. Don't let that add to your burdens - it's part of the drinks and chocolates aspect of life.

Sweddy said...

Burnout was my life for over a year--a combination of a long time teaching at a state college, a deserving colleague being denied tenure, a deserving colleague having her program x-ed out from under her, and those enormous classes that so many students seem to sleepwalk through if they even come to class. I didn't think I could do it, but I didn't know what the alternative was. I even looked for non-academic jobs, but no one wants to hire a Ph.D. history prof who has been teaching for 13 years.

So, I just kept going to work, doing the best I can, and telling my dogs all of my troubles. Then one day, kind of magically, I started to enjoy teaching again. Many other things still suck, but one day, after more than a year of burnout, I thought, "Hey, this is kind of fun." Maybe the turning point was a student actually laughing at one of my jokes. Maybe it was that the friend who was denied tenure got another job at a better place. Or maybe it's just that my dogs are really good listeners. I don't know. Just keeping going seemed--even with the massive depression I faced and the way I felt like I was going to throw up every time I got close to campus--to be the only solution. And, I'm happy to report. It actually worked.

Ink said...

Oh, Clio--as always, you rocked it.
Excellence without money--LMAO!

And no, it's not just you.

I have so much to say on this topic but will restrict myself to the following: all last year, I felt this so completely, so thoroughly, that I sort of hit some kind of wall and just started saying "no" to everything. Some of which were scary--for example, writing/publishing opportunities that I probably SHOULD have taken, handing over a responsibility for the department that I'd carried for almost 8 years, etc. But the more I said no, the better I started to feel. And the teaching seems so much more pleasurable again now that I'm not juggling so many other things. So my recommendation, if you can swing it, is to recalculate the plate of responsibilities to a manageable amount. Because we do tend to say yes to more than our job absolutely necessitates because academics tend to be I Can Do That! kind of people. But, as my therapist has finally succeeded in teaching me, just because we could doesn't mean we should...

And I hear you about online classes. But I will stop now because I've written enough.

In short: say no. A lot.

RPS77 said...

I think you can certainly be forgiven for feeling burnt out sometimes! Speaking for myself, there's no way I could have handled a teaching/research career long term. As much as I love history, I can't see myself dealing with the stress of the shifting expectations of students and administrators, all the grading, plus my own research.


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