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I’m heading into post #3 of a series on work-life balance in academia. So far I looked at the signs that something is wrong and the personal, institutional, and cultural factors that lead to extreme and unhealthy over-work.
NOTE: I wrote the above and the following about 6 days ago, before a whole bunch of things went haywire. I still feel a bit out of control, but I’m posting this anyhow. It’s a glimpse of reality, unfinished and honest, hopeful and ambitious but also disappointed and disappointing. Ultimately, this post reflects my initial steps in that they are TO BE CONTINUED….
As I powered my way through completing and submitting a textbook manuscript, I was already planning small changes. I have implemented some of these, and I’m in the process of thinking about more.
So here ya go. Some initial steps I’ve taken and some plans I have to move forward.
|Before—personal habits||After—personal habits|
|Check email and social media immediately when I wake up.||Charge my phone downstairs. Check email etc while eating breakfast (I know I can put it off longer, but I’m taking small steps here, so give me some credit 🙂|
|Check email and social media immediately before going to sleep.||Read before going to sleep. I love to read.|
|Lack of exercise.||Walking outdoors? This is my plan because it combines exercise with being outdoors. I haven’t implemented this one yet except for one walk, today. But I got a FitBit for Valentine’s Day (good for the heart!), so that helps me keep track.|
|Avoid household work.||Contribute to making meals.
Also spend time cleaning out my closet, helping my daughter clean out her room. More on this below
In terms of institutional change, I’m at the stage of educating myself. To that end, I’ve
- reviewed the department bylaws used in another one of my university’s departments to better understand
Legit. That’s it. I actually did more, I’ve definitely thought more, and yet I’ve already failed at a good bit of these basic plans. So I’ll be back. Next time, if you’re lucky, you may hear about being careful what you wish for and the reality of exhaustion. Or maybe I’ll just be full of wisdom and good advice.
Hey! stop laughing! I was serious! I sometimes have wisdom. Ask my kids. They’ll tell you that I was the one who taught them that the best way to deal with a bad break up is to make a playlist. That’s some good advice right there.
This is the second blog post focused on a personal and institutional shift I’m committed to. The first post noted the signs that a shift needs to happen. This one will look at how overdetermined my situation is.
I’m going to start with myself, but I am not all about self-help or positive thinking or grit or anything that suggests my situation is mine alone. I am partly about all of those things, but always with the recognition that I am part of a bigger picture, and as I think about how I want to shift, I am committed to thinking about shifting my work structures (and perhaps other structures?) as well.
Yeah, yeah, thank you, John Donne. Seriously, though, often when I discuss overwork, people respond by suggesting how I change as an individual. While I appreciate the advice (for real! you’ll see me apply your advice in later posts), it’s limited if it ignores the way individuals are parts of systems, and individual choices have consequences within those systems.
In my particular case, because I am a chair and teacher and have other university service commitments, my responsibilities affect a lot of my colleagues and a lot of students. I’m not excited about the prospect of messing up other people’s lives as I strive for a more manageable workload. I could sacrifice my own writing, but as I said in my prior blog post (linked in the first para above), I’m not willing to sacrifice my own well-being to serve others.
I therefore seek reasonable responsibilities (that include my writing) so I won’t have a negative effect on other people or on myself. I’m willing to make individual shifts, but that will not be enough.
Enough context. Now two lists—what’s up with me and what’s up with the systems to which I belong.
Things about me that have led me to a condition of unhealthy overwork:
- I grew up in Massachusetts with its Puritan heritage. If you don’t know what I mean, read The Protestant [Work!] Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in your spare time.
- The importance of a work ethic was especially strong to my dad when I was growing up. I tend to equate hard work with goodness, or with character at the very least.
- I love my work. I feel like I could say a lot more about what I love and all the different parts of it, but for now I’m just going to say this in general.
- My work affects other people. If I don’t do my work, it has negative effects. Sometimes the negative effects are minimal, and sometimes they are severe or far-reaching.
- I care a lot about what other people think of me.
- I tend to do that martyr thing to some degree at work, where I take on too much and then I fuss about it and say “woe is me” (I’m purposely making this behavior super-unattractive so I’ll be less likely to do it).
- More on that martyr thing: When I see other people in need, my instinct is to save them. That’s a good instinct to a certain degree. The problem is that sometimes people don’t need to be saved, and sometimes it’s not my job to do the saving.
- I don’t think I have Imposter Syndrome to a huge degree because I tend to feel more comfortable with folks on college campuses than anywhere else, but I do have some feeling that I need to prove myself as worthy.
- I enjoy solving problems, taking care of things, making to-do lists and crossing things off.
- I get sucked into screen time far too easily.
- I begin and end the day with my cell phone.
- I know this one is unusual, but my spouse is retired and my kids are teens, so I’m not as needed at home as I used to be. That means I am available to work more!
My friend Emily (who is an academic) just observed that moms seem to be more overburdened than others. She may be right. Still, having pets or human children (shout out to Jasmine Lee for that phrasing!) is a way of turning away from professional work in order to do interpersonal care / domestic work. That’s not always a bad thing.
Things about the culture that lead many of us to an unhealthy condition of overwork:
- Technology makes it possible for workers to always be connected to their work. My brother-in-law Lance wrote about this dynamic:
I don’t know if this is as specific to women, or even academics […]. I think in the last 20 years a more regimented on/off work environment is being replaced by a more flexible arrangement for many professions, much of which is aided by technology. That’s a double-edged sword, because that flexibility is great, but also leads to a tendency to always be “on”. Add to that the same “always on” that tech gives our personal lives and it’s no wonder we have stress. I suppose it’s better than the “always on” that cavepeople had with hunt or be hunted though.
2. Some students expect faculty to always be available. When I told my students I was thinking of limiting my screen time to 7:30 am through 7:30 pm, a student asked, “But what if there was an emergency?”
I said, “I’m not that kind of doctor.”
I didn’t get a laugh. Students are stressed about grades and want support.
3. The actual workload for full-time faculty is never described in terms of hours/week. I’m wishing it were. Are you ready for some fun with math? Excellent. Here we go.
The recommended ratio for teaching||research || service at my university is 40: 40: 20. The typical teaching load is 9 credit hours/semester. For each credit hour, 2 hours of work (at least) will be spent on prep and grading. That means 27 hours/week for teaching, which means 27 more are spent on research and 13 1/2 on service.
The total hours/week = 27 + 27 + 13.5 = 67.5 hours/week.
You may not know this, but most faculty don’t make high salaries (especially in the humanities). While being expected to work 67.5 hours/week.
Even if we pretend that faculty don’t work during the summer and multiply 67.5 hours x 39 weeks, we end up with 2632 hours. If we divide that total number of hours over 52 weeks, we end up with 51 hours/week. That’s actual work, no lunch time or breaks or goof-off time included, no weeks off, and it’s a minimum for faculty earning tenure and promotion.
My work responsibilities are somewhat different because I teach 6 credits/semester and have a 3-credit course release for administrative work (chairing) and another 3-credit course release for research each semester. But it’s supposed to be somewhat similar in terms of time, with a small stipend to provide compensation for summer chair responsibilities.
Something is not adding up.
4. One of my former colleagues, Connie, describes her experience of growing demands on faculty:
Over my 32 years as an academic I saw the workload slowly getting more and more unmanageable–more committee work, more advising, more damn meetings, more students with more problems. […] I finished my Ph.D. in 1995, got tenure […] when publications weren’t the “be all and end all.” When I retired this past August I was struck by the fact that I probably wouldn’t get hired now–not enough publications.
Forget that undergraduate education has become what high school used to be–a required level of education only this one has a very high price tag. All the classroom management issues that drove me away from becoming a high school math teacher […] started showing up in my college classrooms. So now teaching was more of a challenge at a time when committee work, research, and just plain survival was more of a challenge.
5. Work is divided unevenly. As my former colleague and current friend Helen explains,
…when I step back, I see (among other things) a brutal conjunction of growing job description/expectations creep and a diminishing number of people to share in the collective work within a system that depends on a completely unregulated and unmonitored mix of voluntary and “voluntary” contributions and a distribution of labor that is governed by a totally dysfunctional “honor system”—which is to say, not at all.
6. In my department, work responsibilities are not clear so it’s tough to make it even.
7. If I try to do less, the people most likely to take it on are people like me who are already doing more than their share.
8. One of my hard-working colleagues pointed out that if I delegate responsibilities to people who don’t do good work, their responsibilities will eventually end up back on my plate, except it will probably be on my plate in such a way that the work will be more overwhelming than it would’ve been if I had taken it on to begin with.
9. In my past workplace, the overall structures were less healthy, and I felt like my friend Laura:
I also think there’s a feeling of futility. It used to be the faculty opinions and involvement was valued by administration. At least at the institution I was at, one of the last straws for me was working on a Dean’s search committee and realizing later that the result was already determined and we were being kept busy with the illusion that our opinions mattered. There was something so demoralizing for me in that.
I include Laura’s observations because I think they are often accurate, and they definitely have been for me at times in my past. I’m incredibly grateful that I have supportive structures in terms of my current administration and many fantastic colleagues.
10. Many people believe faculty are lazy, don’t work hard, and don’t care.I get this. A lot of my work is done from home, and most people think being a professor is mostly about teaching, so it’s confusing.I also know that part of what I’m complaining about is a certain percentage of my faculty colleagues who don’t work hard. Really, though, this kind of dynamic (20% of the people doing 80% of the work) happens in all sorts of positions, not just with faculty, so it’s a bummer when professors as a whole are viewed as lazy.
My friend Christine writes about the denigration of faculty:
…much of this resonates with my experience. It’s made all the more hurtful when those we care about but who are outside the academy make comments that imply that we don’t work hard or contribute in important ways…
11. Money drives universities. How/why does this matter? It means faculty are pressured to recruit and retain students, both through our teaching and through other work with students and with other parts of the university; and we are encouraged to receive grants (that is, money); and our publishing records contribute to the reputation of the university. The better the reputation, the better the students, and the better the alumni, and the better chance to have donors, and so on. My friend Laura writes:
I think that academia has been taken over by a professionalized corporate administration that has turned faculty into workers who are in continual anxiety over the fact that they don’t actually “produce” anything. Except students of course. There are some things that should not be under the corporate model: education, prisons, health care.
These lists are the end of today’s post because I’m trying to break things down, taking time to notice what the problem looks like and what many of the contributing factors are.
Rest assured, I am doing more to think through all this and to address the contributing factors at both individual and institutional levels. So please stay tuned.
And those of you who have been reaching out to me with resources, I really appreciate it! I will be sharing them here before long. And if any of you are reading and want to comment here so others can read your smart advice right away, please feel free.
The truth is, if I wasn’t trying to publish more than an article every 18 months or so, I would’ve been okay continuing my teaching, chairing, and service obligations at 50-60 hours a week for ten months during the academic year and 30-40 hours a week during two months of the summer.
What is rewarded at my university, however, is publishing. I was hired a couple years ago as department chair at the associate professor level—a rank I’ve occupied for ten years now—and I want to be promoted to full professor and make more money.
I deserve to make more money.** I work hard in ways that meaningfully contribute to the university.
In addition, I like to write and publish. It’s good for me, good for my students, good for the university. I also hope my publishing has some kind of positive effect on people who read it, but who knows.
Several years ago, my therapist Michelle helped me recognize that I take on a martyr role at work with my colleagues, even though I don’t occupy that role in my household or my classroom. I also know from therapy my warning signs that something is wrong:
- I “don’t have time” for a haircut
- I “don’t have time” to use the bathroom
- I find myself running through a building or across campus to my car to avoid being late picking up one of my kids
- I’m angry
- I’m really angry
My warning signs shifted this time, with some overlap:
- I “don’t have time” for a haircut.
- A medical doctor told me I needed to take care of myself (she suggested regular sleep and meditation, and therapist Michelle had also suggested the latter way back when).***
- I missed a publication deadline for a textbook I’m writing. Yes, I procrastinated on it more than I should have. Still, I should have been able to complete it even with procrastination, but I couldn’t prioritize it without really negative effects on a heck of a lot of people, so I didn’t get it done on time. (Note: The manuscript is in now. That’s the reason I’m ready for blogging!)
- I’m sometimes angry. I’m not angry the way I used to be because I’m in a healthier work environment, but still. I’m angry.
- I don’t know the last time I had a day completely off from work. I probably checked and answered emails and worked on my textbook on Christmas day, so it was likely mid December. It’s Feb 23 now.
I recently shared an article on Facebook: A professor wrote about physically collapsing after working too hard. I added my own comment about my inability to heal myself, about the unsustainability of how I’m living.
Many people responded. Many expressed concern and support, many said they were in a similar place, and many offered insights into the systemic problems—for women, for academics, for many of us in our tech-driven always-on world.
As I’ve continued to work overly long days, in the back of my mind I’ve been thinking about personal changes and how they are unbelievably important but not enough. Structural / systemic changes need to happen at the same time.
I am going to plan some personal shifts and figure out systemic shifts with people I work with. I will be writing my way into this and through this. I’m old enough to know that it is likely to be an ongoing challenge for me, so I’m approaching it the way I’d approach a diet: It’s about making choices for long-term sustainable healthy ways of life, not for dramatic short-term weight loss.
I have more to say, but I’ll stop here for now. I’ll be back with initial thoughts and with strategies for thinking about, planning, and implementing change. I see a series of posts, not a one-off.
*I borrow the phrase “radical revision” from Wendy Bishop, who used it to describe the work of transforming ideas presented in a traditional paper into a new genre, with a new audience and a shift in purpose.
** I don’t do my job for the money. If money was my motivator, I wouldn’t be a professor and I wouldn’t work so hard. I’m grateful to be a professor. I love what I do. I love almost all aspects of my work. It’s just that there’s too much of it and there’s never a stopping point.
***She was referencing mild health concerns, not anything debilitating; at the same time, she was implicitly pointing out an unhealthy way of life, and that’s the sort of thing that eventually leads to major health concerns.
The following material was prepared to complement my remarks at MLA 2018 as part of a panel titled Writing in the English Department: Models for Success.
- Presentation slides
- A downloadable version of the presentation (to access hyperlinks and notes)
- Some helpful sources to consult while developing a writing major
If you’d like to view the above presentation with access to hyperlinks and notes, it’s available for download:
Developing a Writing Major MLA 2018
BIBLIOGRAPHY OF RESOURCES & TRENDS: WRITING MAJORS
Step One: Getting started thinking about the writing major
Giberson, Greg A., and Thomas A. Moriarty, editors. What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors. Utah State U P, 2010.
This edited collection considers a variety of institutional contexts for writing majors and offers models for writing curricula and specific courses. A couple chapters offer cautionary tales, but most offer designs that have worked at particular institutions.
Everett, Justin, and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, editors. A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs. The WAC Clearinghouse and UP of Colorado, 2016.
This volume focuses on writing programs that are housed outside the English Department, so I just dipped into it here and there, but it might fit others’ situations better.
Lalicker, William B. “The Five Equities: How to Achieve a Progressive Writing Program within a Department of English”. A Minefield of Dreams: Triumphs and Travails of Independent Writing Programs, edited by Justin Everett and Cristina Hanganu-Bresch, WAC Clearinghouse and UP of Colorado, 2017.
This chapter (by one of my co-panelists!) is a helpful resource for writing programs housed in the English department. Offers clear criteria that can be used to guide departmental change and growth, with full explanations that can help literature faculty understand what equity means for writing faculty.
Step Two: Begin assembling career trajectory information that will help you create a rationale for the new major
- AACU Survey of Employers (2013)
- Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook
- Jerald, Craig D. Defining a 21st Century Education. Center for Public Education (2009)
Step Three: Figure out what a writing major might look like
- 2015 List of UG Writing Majors
- 2009 Descriptions of Writing Majors
- Online bibliography of more sources by the CCCC Committee on the Major in Writing & Rhetoric
Balzhiser, Deborah, and Susan H. McLeod. “The Undergraduate Writing Major: What Is It? What Should It Be?” CCC, vol. 61, no. 3, 2010, pp. 415-433.
This analysis of data collected from 68 institutions categorizes writing programs as falling into either a “liberal arts” or a “professional/rhetorical” design. The authors offer details of “model programs” in each category and suggest that an effective major will include a gateway course, a series of disciplinary required courses, a capstone course, and learning outcomes that suit the major requirements (417-18). The authors also offer a chronicle of courses offered in writing majors, an analysis of why there seems to be little coherence to the writing major, and suggestions for a writing major. Specifically, Balzhiser and McLeod offer criteria for a gateway course, a capstone course, and a requirement in history, theory, and research.
Campbell, Lee, and Debra Jacobs. “Toward a Description of Undergraduate Writing Majors.” What We Are Becoming: Developments in Undergraduate Writing Majors, edited by Greg A. Giberson and Thomas A. Moriarty, Utah State UP, 2010.
This chapter chronicles trends in undergraduate writing majors, using an approach that I mimic to some extent. Campbell and Jacobs note that programs tend to differ along two axes: liberal to technical and general to specific. The authors explain each axis in terms of gradations and examples, and they suggest some ways their categorization of courses might be used. They end with a table of courses they have found in writing majors across institutions (p. 286):
If you have questions or comments, please reply to this post or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’d love to hear from you!
I was with seven women I admire last night, sharing a holiday celebration that included incredible food and drink—
I originally kept writing, but in rereading and remembering the food and drink, I decided I need to say a bit more.
Some people take food and drink to the level of an art form. The processes of adding the pomegranate seeds, massaging the kale, assembling the sweet potato or the cucumber appetizers, shaping the crab cake—each movement bears witness to the care these women bring to the worlds they inhabit.
As we raised our glasses, sampled each offering, passed one dish after another around the table, we were fed in body and spirit. We kept saying how delicious everything was, and as we said it we knew that we couldn’t fully say it because the words sound empty when we use them over and over, but, still, we needed to say them over and over because as we each made our way through our plates of food, we were grateful and needed to speak our enjoyment, even if the words stop working. But the words probably did work after all because they were said with love and they were received with love.
—and our night included a small pile of small gifts we chose for one another, clustered at each place setting.
I don’t want to overpaint the picture as some kind of utopia of utter peace and beauty and joy. I don’t want to make this group of women into people who are perfect as individuals or who are perfect when we are together.
Let me be clear.
We sit at the lovely table with amazing food and a small exchange of gifts and we ask about one another’s families and struggles and successes. We ask about movies and tv shows and books. We forget words and names and entire sentences, and we help each other remember. We laugh. We bring our imperfect human selves to the table.
Sherry’s daughter Kiernan appears to say hello, a young woman who is home for the holidays. I see my friends look at her the way they might look at their own children. They are full of pride and love and hope. They have seen Kiernan grow up. This is what it means to be friends.
We are ordinary.
Janet says she has been reading a book called The Power of Eight by Lynne McTaggart. She says it is amazing. She says a group of eight has tremendous power.
Angela has given each of us a nutcracker she decorated. Each one is different. Angela has transformed each tiny wooden figure into a wild and wonderful woman. They make us smile as we each appreciate our own and then turn to admire the others. On the bottom of each nutcracker, Angela has written:
‘Cause I’m a woman
Today we all exchange emails. These are also gifts. Janet suggests an intention for us. She reminds us that we are powerful. We are a group of eight. Still, perhaps we should start small. She suggests
(those exclamation points are from Janet’s email! I hope they make you smile as they do to me!)
I write back to say I’m on board. I feel something within me shift.
We are on the cusp of 2018. It seems like a good time for intentions. It seems like a good time for ordinary women to experience the powerful gift of a group of eight. It seems like a good time for something to shift.