Burning up and burning out

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

2. Working in an unjust environment

3. Working with little social support

4. Working with little agency or control

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

*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.

Hmmm…looks like I have burnout. The signs have been there for awhile. Check out this passage that I wrote in a comment on KCF’s post over at It’s Diablogical!:

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 BurnoutHere are the different ways that they suggest people cope with burnout:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Change career
  3. Change job
  4. 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. Must write more about it soon. Personal growth? Makes me think of an exchange between Tony and Stephanie in Saturday Night Fever:
Stephanie: Nobody knows how much I’m growing!
Tony: Why don’t you go on a diet?

But, seriously. 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…

4 thoughts on “Burning up and burning out”

  1. I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting it. Someone needed to say it. As a student with a disability there are levels of burning out that have been so much part of my student life that at times it can become easy to place all the blame on the inside. While coming back to campus after being away with the intent to finish a BA degree it was difficult to hear that it would be to my advantage to retake a language course i already have credit for, to review, refresh. It hurts to hear that more money will need to be taken out in the interest of funding the U of M. I am grateful to be able to speak freely. It is an industry. It is unfair and life outside is not kind to us openly gay/queer/trans/lesbian folks. It’s much to ‘show up’ for & it is hard to know that people can profit off of others value creation, knowledge, or the like. The ‘burn out,’ is real. Almost 30, $60,000 in debt, looks like a year or more to wrap up this BA degree, no strong alliances with student groups & activists on campus, & a crazy work world to be born into as i shed the student identity. No plans to bring children into this, a love relationship that is solid but stressful as there is discrimination and bigotry to combat in her workplace. It is much to fight against and much we stand to loose if we do not continue to speak the truth, reach out a hand and grab on to help each other advance in any way we can.

  2. reflecting on burn out a ‘lil more: I was thinking how hard is it to conform? Is it as hard as causing trouble? Is conforming worth as worth it as causing trouble? Is it even possible for me to conform? Many times my life is governed by fear usually that society will not recognize me within my efforts to be. My fear with conforming is that i will be disappointed with what i get. Is conforming nothing more than the simplicity it secures in terms of survival/material ascurance. (I’m done with spelling correctly in blogs- i’ll make trouble that way for sure). The truth is i am not the best thinker, not the smartest, not the best at much and yet am happy to be, but not when i am. Which got me thinking on the ego. I’ve been trying to get adjusted to this new kick that living within the rules of society, that it’s ok. I am very attached to my ego and read the first part of this article called “Ego-The False Center,” which says,”Ego is a need; it is a social need, it is a social byproduct. The society means all that is around you-not you, but all that is around you. All, minus you, is the society. And everybody reflects.” So, that kind of makes me think less of my self, my i and more about being less negative and more happy and reflecting that in as much as possible. Maybe following the rules more and agreeing to be part of society more, (even if i’m on the margins with my sexuality, “gay, lesbian, queer, whatever” and bipolar, “disability.”) Maybe it’s cool to work towards living within the limits, it still may be just as hard as making trouble, but perhaps i will burn out less. Truth be told i like people as messed up as they are, the ones who agree to the limits of society with as lil free thinking as possible. Recently i put a Zine up at the new bookstore on franklin where i wrote an article about mental health and being a student. I don’t share these things with anyone because i feel like they don’t really care. I share it here because, it is activism and it did make me feel really positive to add to an practically empty Zine collection on mental health. i started reading and re-reading from my zine collection on mental health and i came across one article titled, “Questions About Burnout and Aging in the Activist Scene,” it was cool. Anyway, i am trying to say that being an activist in this time is kind of lonely and i’d rather be hurt by people in mainstream that don’t understand than alone fighting for what’s right. My heart is a tool to love this place, society for what it is and the rules are not as demanding as the burn out, light up, burn out, light up, reality of challenging of a messed up system. My only fear with this perspective is that i may be hurting other people, by exercising this privileged position, based on class, race and other social constructions i can choose to maintain or subvert. Who’s getting the pain from my maintaining and can i accept it’s a kind of violence to myself and others. Because it is a little un-self-recognition (until that social construction/ socialization pattern replaces self disaplined conforming) in other words (self violation, policing self). And then, how does that in turn hurt other people, living with the fact that this choice is violent to others. I guess everyone has got their own life to live. Truth be told i never wanted children so it may or may not be the systems fault but i certainly feel better about that choice now than i did when i spoke about that same fact in the last entry. Anyway this touble bolg space is cool. I like the virtue writings as well. Like marley says, “One Love,” My one independent thought at 29, “i respond to truth not reason,” Lana Trendov.

  3. Wow, Lana. I really appreciate your thoughtful (and beautifully stated) comment. You’ve got me thinking even more about the mental/physical/emotional costs of pushing at the limits, making trouble and not fitting in. Thanks for sharing it. I would enjoy reading your zine.

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