Burning Out and Firing Up

Burning Out and Firing Up

For the first time in my career – stretching back some 25 years now, if you count graduate school – I’ve taken six weeks off from work this summer.

I’ve never done such a thing before. My career – including graduate school – stretches over a twenty-five year period, in which the demands of my research, my writing, my course prep, and conferences all made it feel that I could not spare a moment to come up for air. I had to graduate; I had to make tenure; I had to go for promotion. So I worked.

Predictably, I burned out during this last spring term.

burned out

Three weeks before finals I was a mess – I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t motivate myself, and couldn’t think how to teach well. I rallied for certain class periods but I did more than my fair share of phoning it in. Concurrently, I felt deeply unsure if I should stay at my college, or explore other options. This wasn’t because of anything in particular happening at my college – it was simply an expression of my exhaustion, and looking at my life and wondering how on earth I could keep going as I had.

The answer was, of course, that I couldn’t. I took my first week off during senior week, and missed commencement in favor of being far away from campus. I answered all the emails I had to, graded all the final projects, offered remote help where it was needed, but physically and mentally skipped town. When I got back, I went to my office, thinking the week away would have made it possible for me to knuckle down again, and instead I had something close to a panic attack, and turned around and headed home.

It was clear I needed to rethink everything, and with the help of academic coach [Beth Godbee], I started an online career discernment course. I read articles about burnout and trauma; I read about careers outside of academia; I read reflections on aligning our personal values with our work. I also wrote – an hour a day in response to writing prompts Beth provided which had me poke into every nook and cranny of my experiences, my ethics, my fears, and my hopes. I sat with what I really want for myself and those around me, and looked critically at the tasks that made up my job. I thought about how I’d ideally like to spend my days, hour by hour, and asked myself if I was operating out of obligation, duty, or something more.

It was eye-opening. (Spoiler alert: I’m not leaving academia.) I realized there were small, practical steps I could take to create breathing space in my week (like going home for lunch each day). I separated out the things I loved about my job from the things I didn’t, and started planning ways to pivot in my position to do more of the things that energized me, and fewer of the things that turned me into a (frankly) emotionally desiccated husk. Opportunities came up during this process, and I used Beth’s guide of “is this a strong yes, or a hell no?” to discern where to turn things down and where to take something on.

I discovered that it’s more important to me to freely share pedagogical tips than to make money from my skills. Since I consult, this hits me square in my pocketbook (which has too many demands placed on it, as most non-elite academic pocketbooks do), but I really don’t care. I love being part of a collaborative community of teachers. I want to offer my share of ideas and tips and critical reflections, and want everyone to have access to them. (I am still happy to work one-on-one with anyone who could really use a consult! But I’m also going to keep posting the things I know on this blog.)

I discovered that if I followed my gut, I would read fewer monographs and more teaching guides. I would work with many more people, rather than going it alone. I would prioritize those things that made meaningful change in the world, pointed toward justice. I would continue to mentor wherever I had something useful to offer. I would continue to leverage everything I had to make sure other people were successful. I would grade a whole lot less. I would say no more.

I mapped out a whole new way of approaching my job.

match flame

The past six weeks have been wonderful, and I wish that my recommending time off could remove the obstacles in the way of everyone doing a similar thing. I am lucky – I am a (newly minted) full professor, with all the privileges that entails. Many of my colleagues in the world of academia are trying to string together enough contingent positions to earn a living wage, and there are way too many graduate students whose programs don’t offer summer funding. I know so many tenure-track colleagues who don’t feel they can take a breath because of the pressure of expectations at their institutions. I’m keenly cognizant of what a luxury time off is.

But I recommend it anyway – whether it’s a dedicated afternoon, or a day once a week, or a weekend of utter peace, or whatever else we’re able to cobble together. We all need space to clear our heads, or we end up needing six weeks to do the job.

(And if anyone else is interested in Beth’s career discernment course, you can find more details [here].)

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