Last year, after finishing up the most draining and difficult semester of teaching that I had had to date, I decided to reflect on my feelings about teaching and the academy in two blog posts. Instead of editing them down, I’ve decided to post them here in their entirety:
on bad teaching, burnout and bell hooks
july 19, 2011
Today is another very hot day–according to my weather channel app it is 94 but feels like 120. Yes, 120 (thank you, Minnesota humidity). It is Tuesday and it has been this hot since Sunday. This is very wrong. Especially since I don’t have central air. As I write this, I am holed up in one of the 2 bedrooms in the house that has a window air conditioning unit. As you can imagine, these conditions are not the most conducive to writing and thinking and engaging. I am struggling to focus my ideas. I have been at this since 10:30; it is now 3:51 and I really don’t have much to show for it.
I wonder, is it just the miserably hot and humid weather that is stopping me from writing? I don’t think so. I am also struggling because I feel compelled to write about my feelings of burn out, my disillusionment with teaching at a big research University, and my uncertainty over whether or not I can survive in the academic industrial complex. While I am compelled to write about these things, I don’t know how to properly (do I want to be proper?) or effectively express what I am thinking/feeling/experiencing. I can’t imagine going another day without putting some of my ideas on my blog (hmmm…why is it so important to me that I make these thoughts public? I might need to reflect on that in another blog post) so I am forcing myself to write right now. Since I don’t like coherent, smooth (untroubled) narratives and because I can’t imagine producing any like that in this heat anyway, I want to offer a few fragments of experiences, ideas, sources that are slogging around in my head.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bell hooks and Teaching to Transgress lately. In particular, I am reminded of her description in the introduction of the bad class that she taught one semester. It was a very early class and she would have frequent nightmares that she overslept and missed it. The students lacked energy and were very resistant to engaging with new ideas. hooks hated the class.
I came to hate this class so much that I had a tremendous fear that I would not awaken to attend it; the night before (despite alarm clocks, wake-up calls, and the experiential knowledge that I had never forgotten to attend class) I still could not sleep (hooks 9).
Before my class even started in the spring, I dreaded it. It was a big class (almost 3 times bigger than any of the class that I had taught before) and I was doubtful that I would be able to develop it into a effective and transformative learning space. Once the class began, I was certain that my feminist pedagogical principles/tactics (such as: discussions instead of lectures, frequent small group activities, student-lead activities) would not work. I hated that class. Unlike hooks I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t wake up and would miss the class. Instead, I had fantasies about not going to class and just walking away from the university altogether. I wondered, what would happen if I just didn’t show up?
For reasons I cannot explain it [hooks’ class] was also full of “resisting” students who did not want to learn new pedagogical processes, who did not want to be in a classroom that differed in any way from the norm. To these students, transgressing boundaries was frightening. And though they were not the majority, their spirit of rigid resistance seemed always to be more powerful than any will to intellectual openness and pleasure in learning (hooks 9).
I did have some great students in my class that semester. Some students who probably got a lot of the class and were excited to be exposed to new theories on sex, gender and sexuality. And who liked using the course blog and critically analyzing popular culture. But the students I remember most were the ones who complained. Who were unwilling to engage with new ideas. Who refused to claim their education or think for themselves. And whose “spirit of rigid resistance” made the class increasingly difficult to endure.
More than any other class I had taught, this one compelled me to abandon the sense that the professor could, by sheer strength of will and desire, make the classroom an exciting learning community (hooks 9).
Even as I grew to strongly dislike the attitudes of some of the students, I knew that their resistance wasn’t simply because they were lazy and didn’t want to learn. The more I taught, the more I realized that my painful teaching experience had so much to do with other factors beyond mine and the students’ control: the alienating space, the institutional emphasis–heightened by the economic crisis–on increasing class enrollment instead of enhancing engagement, and the overall conditioning of students into passive learners who aren’t prepared (or willing) to experiment with new ways of engaging with ideas and each other. These factors aren’t just accidents; increasingly, they seem to be built into teaching at a research university. It makes me wonder, if these factors are part of the teaching experience, (how) will it ever be possible to cultivate exciting and transformative learning communities within the University?
It is now 10 PM. After an extended break, I am back to finishing up this entry. It has cooled down (ha!) to 91. And it only feels like 105. Yes, at 10 PM it feels like 105. Anyway, I think the heat is finally melting my brain. I had intended to write even more about bad teaching, burn out and bell hooks today, but I think that’s it for tonight.
burning up and burning out in the academy
july 20, 2011
It’s hot again today. Well, not as hot as yesterday. Today it is only 91, but feels like 95, at 10:30 AM. Still, without air conditioning it’s pretty hot in my house. Since I’m burning up, it seems like a good time to talk about academic burnout. In my last post, bad teaching, burnout and bell hooks, I hinted at possibly being burned out. But, what does that mean? How do you know if you are burned out? And what can you do about it?
Post Academic (which I found via the totally awesome Worst Professor Ever) writes about job burnout in their entry, Job Burnout: Do You Have it? Citing a 2006 New York Magazine article, they identify several key aspects of it. Here they are, with my responses*:
1. Working too much Yes
2. Working in an unjust environment Yes
3. Working with little social support Yes
4. Working with little agency or control Yes
5. Working in the service of values we loathe Well, loathe seems a little strong. I would say, working in the service of values I often disagree with or that can come into conflict/at the expense of my own values is a better way to phrase it.
6. Working for insuficient reward, whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback Yes
*For now, I’m just giving my brief responses. I don’t think I’m ready to expand on what they mean…yet. In fact, I’m not even sure what they mean.
There are all sorts of ways that we could discuss this question, but I am thinking particularly of my feminist debates class this past semester and our repeated discussions about feminist education. Early on in the semester (on this day), we read an excellent article by Joy Castro: On Becoming Educated. Castro is critical of the “trickle-down” theory of academic ideas/theories/knowledge and the inability of much academic work to ever reach audiences who need/hunger for it. She doesn’t want to reject academic knowledge, but to expand it (maybe include internet knowledge as academic knowledge and/or spread ideas cultivated in academic spaces across the interwebz?). Check out this passage:
“The academy—as we fondly, misguidedly call it, as if it were some great, unified thing—is lumbering along amidst eviscerating budget cuts, pressures to corporatize, to streamline, to justify its existence to hostile anti-intellectual factions and a skeptical public, to become purely instrumental, a machine that grants job credentials to twenty-two-year-olds so they can get on with their lives. In the face of such intense and varied pressures, the academy must find ways to preserve itself as a place for thought to flourish—yet everyone needs to be invited to think. The discussion has to matter to everyone, and everyone’s voice must be heard.”
I like this passage from Castro because it also reminds me how much I cherish critical thinking. I find that it can be hard to remember this when working in certain academic spaces; critical thinking is presented in such narrow ways and is often used to shut people out and to actually shut critical/creative thinking down. Personally, I feel that the pervasive attitude within the academic spaces that I inhabit is extremely damaging to my creative and intellectual spirit. While I have had some great experiences with many of my classes and exciting conversations with some colleagues, much of the “good stuff” seems to be in spite of the academy and not because of it.
I also wrote the following in a post on surviving the academic industrial complex:
When I first started writing the entry I was already feeling burnt out and disenchanted with the academy. Those feelings have greatly intensified over the course of the semester as I daily confront the limiting (and debilitating) logics of the academic industrial complex.
In their post, Post Academic links to a burnout test that you can take on the site, Stress Management. I scored very high. After taking the test I clicked on Recovering from Burnout. For those of you who don’t score quite as high as I did, you can click on How to Avoid Burnout. Here are the different ways that they suggest people cope with burnout:
- Do nothing
- Change career
- Change job
- Use burnout as trigger for personal growth
Notice how, “take a break,” isn’t listed as one the options. Apparently, once you hit burnout, summer vacation or the semester break just aren’t enough. Stress Management strongly favors the fourth option, devoting a huge portion of their article to understanding why we burn out and how we can move on and find new direction for our lives. As a teacher (and daughter of a devoted fan to the self-help genre), I must admit that I can appreciate the emphasis on critical self-reflection and the call to learn from our experiences. However, as a feminist who has spent a lot of time thinking about the limits and possibilities of individualized self-care, I am also troubled by these solutions, especially the language of “personal growth.” Ugh…too self-helpy for me (and neoliberal-y, but let’s leave the jargon out for now). Note: I have self-help on the brain right now.
While focusing on one’s own care and physical/spiritual/mental health are extremely important, analyzing the problem as an individual opportunity for growth can fail to address the larger structures that cause burnout in the first place, structures that may affect us in different ways, but that contribute to a more general academic culture that demands too much, values too little and excludes too many.
Here’s another passage from my post on surviving the academic industrial complex in which I talk about the dangers of making survival about our individual ability to cope:
In her article, which is part of a roundtable discussion on “Got Life? Finding Balance and Making Boundaries in the Academy,” Smith argues that our attempts at negotiating between academic and personal/activist lives require more than searching for ways to balance our various demands. Instead, we must ask why, as in: “Why has being a good scholar and academic come to mean that one should be working incessantly at the expense of doing social-justice work, having fun, or maintaining interests outside academia” (141)? And we must “deconstruct the logic of the academic industrial complex to see how it has trapped us into needlessly thinking we must choose between academia and having a life” (141). Yes! Finding a balance is not enough; the struggle to find that balance places the burden on individual academic laborers to adjust their lives while leaving the larger system that prioritizes academic production over personal/activist practices intact and untroubled. We need to interrogate why the academic system functions as it does and why it so often encourages (and demands) that we be unbalanced (and by unbalanced I mean an overemphasis on work over life and a dysfunctional approach to work/life that contributes to emotional/physical distress).
As I finish this entry, it is 2:15 PM and 96 (feels like 103). So, what I am going to do about my academic burnout? Not quite sure. I think I’ll start by continuing to write and engage with other writers. I’ll keep reading Worst Professor Ever and her reflections on why Teachers Can’t ‘Do’ Because They’re Too Freakin’ Burned Out and her guest posts by people like Dr. Karen Kelsky who document the death of a soul (on campus). I’ll also look closely at Lucy E. Bailey’s essay on women’s experiences as contingent instructors. And I’m planning to reread Teaching to Transgress for the tenth time, giving special attention to passages like this one:
The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries to transgress (hooks 207).
Do I believe this? I hope so…