Ask and ye shall receive! Thanks to all who have weighed in on the many posts rattling in my head (and do keep on with the suggestions and such if you have yet to do so) and who have suggested other post ideas. I decided to start with talking about burn-out, my thoughts on which were inspired by this post over at Historiann’s as well as the comment thread over there, because it also allows me to respond to this post suggestion from kb:
How about a post from the sabbatical vault: I am furiously trying to finish my dissertation, have no other obligations and all I can see is a big mountain and an empty calendar that suggests I should be writing each and every day for 8 hours. It scares the shit out of me. I suppose being on sabbatical would be somewhat similar in that there are no outside requirements around which one must organize one’s research, like teaching, meetings, etc. How do/did you deal with that?
Both of these issues, burn-out and how to organize oneself and motivate oneself in a career that has very little structure, actually go hand in hand for me.
So first, burn-out as I experienced it:
I would characterize myself as “burnt out” at two points in my career on the tenure track.
My first experience with burn-out was in about year 4 on the tenure track, and it manifested itself with a particular focus: I was “burnt out” on teaching composition, or that was how I described it. Now, on the one hand, that characterization was “true,” as far as any such self-descriptions can be true or complete. I had been teaching two sections of comp each semester since beginning on the tenure track, all the while developing a curriculum in my field of specialization in literary studies that had not existed before my arrival and also developing general education courses in literature. I felt spread so thin in the areas of the curriculum that I was actually hired specifically to develop, and at the same time I was being slammed with comp courses and all that teaching such courses entailed. I was always behind on grading in comp, I was losing patience with my students, and I felt like my talents were not being used to their best advantage. But I didn’t characterize how I felt as “burn-out” until I learned that I was among very few faculty in my department who was carrying a 2/2 load in comp teaching, in spite of what I was being told about how teaching responsibilities were to be allocated according to policy. I registered what I was feeling as “burn-out” only when I learned that my workload was drastically different from the workload of others. Add to that that I was finishing my book manuscript at this point, something that distinguished me from my colleagues as well, and I decided that I was “burnt out” and much abused. Ultimately, I spoke up for myself and I found a way to wiggle out of the situation that I was in, by taking on a “service” course in another unit that was writing intensive and by speaking up.
Now, was I really “burnt out” on comp? Yes, I was. Teaching composition is labor-intensive, and it is particularly brutal if it is not one’s passion. Strangely, I think I’m actually really good at teaching students how to write, but being good at something doesn’t mean that one is necessarily best suited to driving oneself to exhaustion doing it. However, I think the more important issue here is not that I was teaching composition but rather that I discovered that the workload in my department regarding teaching composition wasn’t equitably distributed. Further, I think it is important that I felt that I was doing so much in other areas (the courses I was developing, the research I was doing, the service I was doing) and that this work wasn’t being acknowledged.
My second experience with burn-out happened post-tenure and post-book, but it was not about a post-tenure slump. It was about the fact that in the course of a year I led the revamping of our major and pushed it through the curricular process, I began serving on my college and university curriculum committees, and I was central to the process of developing a new structure for general education at the university, as well as developing the course offerings from my department that would be part of this new general education curriculum. I was doing all of this at the same time that I was mourning the death of my father, writing an article and a book review, serving as president of a society in my specialization, serving on a search committee, dealing with my grandmother’s death and mourning her, coming up with a sabbatical project and applying for sabbatical, serving on another (internal) search committee for an administrative position in the college, and teaching all my classes (my load that year was a 4/3, because the gods smiled on me and actually gave me a course release in the spring semester in a time of no course releases). Oh, and I was busy with mentoring BES through the process of applying successfully to grad school, and recommending another student for grad school (successful), another for Teach for America (successful), and another for law school (successful). And I sponsored a student for a research project. And I was doing other service shit, too. Oh, and I went through the process of buying a house on short-sale, as a first-time home-buyer. In other words, I was burning the candle at both ends. You know what that leads to? Burn-out. For real, people. Especially in a year with no raises.
So as I closed out the Spring 2010 semester, I was really fucking DONE. Just DONE in the most extreme way I’ve ever felt done. I hated students, I hated my colleagues, I hated my institution, I hated EVERYTHING. I remember feeling the urge to burst out, periodically, with incoherent mutterings: YOU CAN’T GET BLOOD FROM A STONE! MOTHERFUCKERS! HATE! I CAN ONLY DO SO MUCH! FUCK YOU AND THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON! HIDEOUS! HATE! I felt like I had no ideas. I wondered whether it was worth it to care about anything. I periodically asked the universe whether this was what was in store for me for the rest of my life. I wondered what the point of anything was anymore. And more than anything, I felt angry as hell that nobody seemed to understand the pressure I was under or to appreciate – really appreciate, in the sense of understanding it and recognizing it- the work that I was doing.
Analysis of what burn-out means to me, looking at the two examples above:
I feel burnt out when two things are in place. I feel burnt out when I feel like I’m doing way too much and I’m overwhelmed, and I feel burnt out when I feel like I’m not being acknowledged. I can do way too much and be ok if I feel like what I’m doing is acknowledged, respected, and praised. I can deal without being acknowledged, respected, and praised if I’m not doing way too much – then, the work I am doing is reward in itself. But when both of those things come together in a perfect storm of shittiness, I feel burnt out.
But so burn-out for me isn’t actually related to a feeling of emptiness or ennui related to not knowing what comes next. I am a person, and I know that this isn’t true for everyone but it is true for me, who always has an idea of what can come next. My burn-out results not from a sense of aimlessness but from a sense that my aims are being obstructed, and my burn-out manifests as anger rather than as depression. In other words, if I allow myself to become a burned-out person, I would really be a miserable bitch and people would feel deep hatred toward me, whereas I think if burn-out manifests as depression, people often just ignore it and don’t care one way or the other about the person (which sucks, but perhaps this is a reason why I am exceptionally motivated to rise, phoenix-like, from my periods of burn-out rather than to accept burn-out as my fate – for it would really suck if I hated myself and if everybody else hated me, too, whereas I think I could handle it if I hated myself while others remained neutral about me).
Crazy’s Top Ten Tips for Emerging, Phoenix-Like, from the Ashes of Burn-Out
- Give yourself permission to pause and to reflect. Since for me burn-out often comes from feeling like I’m being spread way too thin, like I’m being pulled in too many directions, when I’m trying to recover from burn-out and to reemerge my normal, enthusiastic self, I have found that I need to give myself a time-out. After the craziness of 2009-2010, I needed a full 8 months of pausing (aka, summer plus sabbatical). After the burn-out-on-comp debacle, I needed two years of not teaching comp (I return to comp in the fall). But, basically, I needed to find myself again, and to figure out what I really wanted and cared about again.
- Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself. Colleagues, students, life-long friends, new people, family, whatever. Doing this matters. Taking time to foster these relationships, even if it takes you away from your to-do list, matters. If your world is your job, and your job is getting on your last nerve, then your life will suck. If your world is people who love you and who bring out the best in you, and your job is something that is mostly fulfilling and satisfying but that sometimes is annoying, your life will be great. Also, what are people in your life for if not to distract you from the shit that work sometimes is? If you don’t have people, you’re flying without a net. If you crash to earth from flying, and there’s no net? Burn-out.
- Cultivate curiosity in things that are not the job. Knitting! Cooking! Listening to music! Reading trashy novels! Walking in my neighborhood! Those have been mine, and yours might be different. But trying new things, learning new things, enjoying things that don’t “count” on your cv, those things make your life rich and wonderful, even when you want to punch your stupid colleague who doesn’t pull his or her weight in the face. I remember being on the job market and dreading the question, “So, what do you do in your spare time?” I used to think, “Who has spare time? Are you on crack? I work some more!“ I was an idiot. Work expands to fill the time you give it. But working all the time doesn’t make you a better worker, it just burns you out. It’s important to recharge.
- Cultivate curiosity in your teaching life. Develop a new course. Revamp an old one. Try out a new assignment. Get to know your students. Experiment. Teaching gets really fucking old if you don’t change it up. Students make the same mistakes, you give the same lectures, you hate your life the exact same way, and you’re burnt out. If students make new mistakes, and if you give a different lecture and it’s a disaster, and if you hate your life in a different way, you might be frustrated, but you won’t be burnt out. You’ll have a problem to solve.
- Cultivate curiosity in your research. Yes, new projects, new research areas, new approaches are scary. You might fuck up! It might not go anywhere! Everybody might think you’re a dummy! But. What’s the alternative? Never having a new idea because you’re a fucking chicken? Never trying out something new because you are a fucking chicken? Never thinking in a way that makes you uncomfortable because you’re a fucking chicken? Never making a false start because you’re a fucking chicken? Never doing anything because you’re so worried that people will think you’re a loser, when really you’re a fucking chicken? Failures, false starts, and wacky ideas might be demoralizing, but they also are interesting. Do you know what the antithesis of burn-out is? Being interested.
- Cultivate curiosity in the future of your institution and department. I think that one of the reasons I didn’t feel a post-tenure slump was because I saw tenure as an opportunity to care in ways I hadn’t done before. I finally felt like I could really have a voice that would matter, and I finally felt like I could be productively honest without the fear that it would blow my tenure application. That was, frankly, really liberating for me. Also, cultivating that curiosity also produced investment. Investment is yet another antithesis of burn-out. If you are invested in the direction of your department, your institution, it’s really hard to feel like nothing you do matters. As with teaching, you have problems to solve. As with research, you’re suddenly interested.
- Do your very best to ignore the haters and the slackers and the dummies. For me, burn-out is very much related to what my mother calls “measuring with a yard-stick,” paying more attention to what other people do in relation to what you do than you are to the thing itself. It’s easy to get burnt out if you’re constantly measuring how little others do in relation to what you do. It’s easy to get burnt out if you focus on your opponents as opposed to your supporters. It’s easy to get burnt out if you focus on all those people who apparently couldn’t find a clue if they had a map with a big X on it that told them where the clue was. Seriously? Ignore people who don’t respect you, don’t work hard, and, as my high school Latin teacher would say, don’t know beans when the bag’s open. Those people do not matter. Not at all. (I have a hard time with this one, but if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.)
- It’s about quality, not quantity. Only do those things that you care about and you do well. Say no to anything that does not speak to your interests and your strengths. Seriously. Even if you only say yes to those things, you’ll be doing more than enough. And the more than enough that you’ll be doing won’t burn you out – it will energize you.
- Stop your bitching. Look, I know I whine regularly on the blog, but that whining is a slice of how I feel, it’s venting, and I limit myself to the blogspace for that sort of thing, primarily. This isn’t to say that you can’t have a bitch session with your colleagues now and again, because that can be productive, but if you allow yourself to indulge in constant bitching, then you will negative-self-talk yourself into burn-out. At the end of the day, stopping yourself from constant bitching will stop you from constantly being a bitch, from constantly feeling bitchy. Bitchiness and burn-out go hand in hand.
- Make ambitious goals, but, also, have a second tier of realistic goals on which you can congratulate yourself for achieving. If I learned anything on sabbatical (and this relates to kb’s question) this is probably the most important thing that I learned. Sure, we all think that we should be writing for 8 hours a day if we have no other obligations, or we think that we should be writing for at least 12 hours a week if we have a 4/4 load plus committee work. That’s ambitious. It might even happen once in a while. But as a lifestyle? It’s not realistic. Nor is it healthy. Holding oneself to that standard will produce burn-out at best, and writer’s block at worst (in terms of research). Better than setting up an ambitious schedule is setting up the shadow-schedule that is realistic, the one that you can accomplish as a base-line and yet still accomplish more in the long run. Here’s the thing: I had an ambitious schedule for this semester. That schedule has fallen by the wayside. If that was the only schedule I had, then I’d feel like shit. This would make me feel burnt out. Like there was no hope for ever doing anything, so why bother. I’d have accomplished nothing because I’d have been too busy beating myself up about not meeting my goals. But. I also had a shadow-schedule that was totally doable. Whereas the ambitious schedule had me spending two full days a week on research, the shadow-schedule had me writing a talk, rereading some books and making notes, and doing some research, as well as making some plans for the summer. Oh, and applying for the Awesome Seminar Thingie and submitting an article. I did all of those things. And I feel good about those things, and those things have been successful. So did I accomplish the ambitious goals? No, but I still accomplished more than nearly all of my colleagues accomplished in the same span of time. Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. So, what I’d say directly to respond to kb’s question, is that if I had totally unstructured time, as I did during my sabbatical, I would never expect that I would work 8 hours a day, every day, on my research and writing. What I’d expect, as a realistic goal, is that I’d get in 3-4 hours of solid, really good work a day. More than that would be a bonus, but I would also be aware that if I pulled an 8-12 hour day that I’d probably have 1-2 days of recovery, where I would accomplish nothing, to pay for it. And so I’d have the reasonable goal of 3-4 hours a day, but I would also have solid realistic goals like a chapter by x date, revision by y date. If I need to pull a hardcore session to get to x or y, fine, but the daily goal would be a reasonable session, not a hardcore one.
So overall, some concluding thoughts:
Burn-out is not something that is a life sentence. If you allow yourself to regroup, and to rethink, you can pull yourself out of burn-out. And in fact, I think it’s essential that we force ourselves out of burn-out, because living burnt out is no way to live. I think, from looking at some of my colleagues, that it’s far easier to settle into a life of burn-out than to take responsibility for getting ourselves out of it, but doing the easy thing pretty much results in a shitty life, from what I observe. What is the point in being a professor if you aren’t interested in things, invested in things, curious about things? I started on this path at 20 because I wanted a life that was interested, invested, and curious. If I gave up on those things? I would, seriously, hate my life. I did not start on this path to hate my life.
So, in that regard, it’s my responsibility to myself – not to my department, my institution, or my discipline – to pull myself out of burn-out – to refuse a life in which burn-out exists. Yes, me not being burnt out benefits my department, my institution, and my discipline, but at the end of the day, the point is me having a healthy and happy and fulfilling life. All burn-out means is that I’m unhappy. I don’t want to be unhappy. And being unhappy is not the bottom line for academic life, and it’s certainly not conducive to the best academic work.