So, as a result of this article, lots of people have been weighing in about the “stress” of being a college professor. This post isn’t really going to try to make a case for how hard we professor folks have it, but it’s also not going to be a “shame on you for being stressed out when you have it so great” post. Rather, I want, actually, to think about what stress is, at least from my perspective.
I think that stress for most people* originates from two general sources: 1) lack of certainty and 2) lack of control. As a tenured professor, I believe that when I feel stressed out, it is almost always because of one or both of these factors. And that is me speaking as a person with tenure – people who work in contingent positions or who have yet to earn tenure although they are on the tenure track feel even greater uncertainty and even less control.**
So let’s talk about the “lack of certainty” thing first. One of the things that people outside of academia often envy about the job of college professor is the autonomy that comes with that job within a seemingly very certain structure. Here’s what I mean: I get to decide (to some extent) what my schedule is like, the activities in which I invest my time, and the ideas that I pursue. Yes, there is a structure – I must teach my classes, attend meetings, do research, etc. – but within that structure there is a great deal of freedom. That seems like a luxury, right? Well, yes, of course. But it also means that there is a lot of uncertainty in whether I am doing the “right” thing within the structure, particularly when the goal-posts seem often to move from one semester to the next, from one academic year to the next. When I arrived at my job the “big initiative” was public engagement. By the time I went up for tenure, the big thing was “internationalization.” Now, all the upper administration can talk about is “student success.” Combine with those shifting priorities the fact that within individual departments senior faculty and department administration aren’t necessarily on the same page with upper administration, and it can seem like there is no “right” way to proceed, or even if you do determine a “right” way in one semester, that path might turn out to be wrong within six months. So autonomy is a luxury, but the cost of that luxury is that one can never be sure that one is doing a good job or how one’s job will be measured. And that’s stressful. And as far as I can tell, my experience here isn’t terribly unique: it seems to describe a college professor’s life across institution types and across disciplines.
Now, is that the end of the world? No. Does it mean that I don’t like my job and think that I do valuable work? No. But I can also tell you that this type of stress was not something that I experienced when I worked in other environments, even if those environments did produce other sorts of stress. While it might be mind-numbing and terrible to work in a cubicle watching the clock and waiting for the end of the day, there is something satisfying about having specific, repetitive tasks that one must complete, and there is a sense that one knows exactly what one must do in order to earn one’s paycheck at the end of the week.
The “lack of control” stress source might seem contradictory to the “lack of certainty” one. But I also think that there is a component of the job that is all about not having control. We can’t control our students, as just one example. I mean, sure, you can write the most legalistic syllabus in the world, attempting to plan for every possible situation, but crazy shit will happen that you didn’t plan for. We can’t control whether the state will slash our budgets, or even expect us to give allocated money back after we’ve already received it and used some of it. We can’t control whether the classes that we were assigned will actually make their enrollments, and since we can’t control that we might get assigned a brand new class right before the beginning of a semester. We can’t control our schedules in the event of family emergency or personal health crisis. I’m not saying that this is unique to academia, or that it’s the worst thing in the world. But is it a source of stress? Yes.
So here’s the thing (and yes, I know this wasn’t the point of the original article): I don’t think it’s useful to hold the Stress Olympics, just as it’s not useful to hold the Oppression Olympics. But I also don’t think that it’s productive to indicate that if we feel stress in our jobs as professors that those stresses are self-created, or that it means we aren’t in the right profession. A better conversation, probably, would be to talk about ways to productively manage the stresses that are in our jobs, to look at the causes and to look at ways to manage if not eliminate the stresses that result.
*In other words: I am not trying to compare the stress of people’s jobs who involve life and death decisions and consequences with the stress that most people feel in their day-to-day lives.
**I’m going to talk from the perspective of having tenure in this post; I welcome others to give their thoughts from contingent/untenured perspectives in comments.