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"Burning My Candle at Both Ends" by gfpeck is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Even in a typical academic year (which this one was not) we tend to burn our candle at both ends as we work our way from August toward graduation. I don’t know if you have felt it, but I have certainly felt the increased pressure of keeping up the past few weeks—letters of recommendation, student advising, and wrapping up goals for the academic year have all made demands on my time.

Adding this pressure to an already-stressful year can increase our risk for burnout. Burnout has become a popular term during COVID, especially for educators who have had to reimagine their teaching. In fact, NPR’s Life Kit podcast just did a timely episode on burnout, complete with tips to avoiding it.

Burnout, a concept studied psychologist Christina Maslach since the 1970s, doesn’t just mean we are overwhelmed and exhausted (though exhaustion is at the core). It also includes becoming cynical about our work, which in higher ed can lead to "phoning it in" to our classes, complaining about our students or colleagues, and disengaging from our institutional missions. (Salvagioni and colleagues provide a thorough, empirical review of the physical and psychological consequences of burnout.)

However, there is recent evidence that what we have called burnout might actually be a form of job-related depression. In a meta-analysis, Renzo Bianchi (University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland) and colleagues looked at evidence from from 12,417 participants in six countries and found that characteristics of burnout were more strongly associated with depression than they were with each other. The implications of this data? Burnout is something that both institutions and faculty should take seriously.

If you are feeling physical or emotional exhaustion or cynicism, I encourage you, in these last fews weeks of the semester, to engage in some of the following that work for you.

  • Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits.
    Give yourself permission to invest in you own good health. Yeah, you have a lot to do, but none of that work is going to get done if you are too ill to do it.
  • Balance work and play.
    Be sure you have downtime and take breaks to do things you find truly joyful. In the academy our work is never truly "done." It's up to us to set some boundaries.
  • Take a daily break from technology.
    Need I say more about this? Take some time each day to completely disconnect and perhaps even look at a tree.

Photograph of Jose Bove speaking at a conference.
Jose Bove was one of the early proponents of what would come to be called the Slow Food movement.
I'm at an interesting confluence of professional development methodologies. For the Xavier University Faculty Writing Group, the guiding premise is Just Do It™ -- force yourself to write, even if only for 15 minutes a day. Squeeze it in however you can. (I've been pushing myself to do 30 minutes.) This makes sense; it's the same advice I was given as a creative writing graduate student; it's the same advice you get from any successful writer: write every day no matter what. But I'm also in a book club that is currently reading and discussion The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, a book that attempts to embrace the ideals of the Slow movement while living the life of the modern academic. Berg and Seeger, I think, would not agree with the Just Do It™ premise of my writing group.

Berg and Seeger argue for a greater mindfullness of our time, even if they never use that particular language. They argue for faculty to incorporate into their lives what they call "timeless time," sessions that are purposefully (mindfully) organized in order to allow us to focus wholly and completely on an activity... an activity like writing. According to Berg and Seeger, a session of "timeless time" requires several things of us:

  • A period of transition, time to focus our energies on the upcoming activity;
  • The acceptance that we will probably need more time than we think accomplish this activity;
  • A sense of "playfulness"; and
  • A silencing of our inner and outer critics who think that such activity is a waste of time (and money).

So on the one hand, I'm encouraged to squeeze in 15 or 30 minutes to write, no matter what, to be consistent and regimented -- the same 15 or 30 minute every day of the week, while on the other, I'm encouraged to not simply carve out a chunk of time during which to write, but to create an extended session of timelessness -- a meditative, almost spiritual experience.

At first, this seemed contradictory, but they're not. They just need to balance each other. So I'll be trying something new in the next week: I'm still carving out that 30 minutes each day (I've been doing it at 8:30 every night, after I've read to and put my son to bed, because I'm not a morning person (I'm really just not)), but I'll be leaving the first 5, 10, or 15 minutes to prepare myself to write for the rest of that half hour.

The question now is what to do with that "period of transition." I want to say I'll do some kind of focusing meditation; however, I'm guessing that will often be supplanted by a need to review some research before I start writing. A challenge I've found with the write every day model is that you need to be prepared to write -- not psychically prepared, as Berg and Seeger suggest, but prepared with the research in mind. When I do creative writing, that's often not an issue, as it's all in my head. But scholarly writing, but its nature, can't be all in my head. So I've found myself leaving big gaps in my writing these days, notes to myself to "check the literature on this" and "verify this idea." So that transition period may become a literature review period. We'll see.

Note: This post first appeared on the Xavier University Faculty Writing Group's blog.

By J. Todd

When I first started teaching, as a graduate student, I would would plan my classes in excruciating detail. These classes were largely lectures, interspersed with the occasional individual or group work. Often, I would even write out a joke or some irrelevant comment I wanted to start the class with. I still have the legal pads that I filled up with this extensive planning. Meanwhile, I had friends who could walk into the classroom without any real preparation and lead a successful class.

Post-It Notes saying, Do it! I've always been a planner; although, now those plans are just outlines with approximate times -- things to help me keep the class on track. But I've also always been a procrastinator; I do much of my best work under a quickly diminishing deadline. These days, I do most of my daily class planning the night before class.

However, recent innovations that I've become involved with are challenging me to plan in different ways. There are plenty of great and potentially powerful pedagogical innovations available now. Two new ways I'm dealing with this semester are inverted teaching and collaborative teaching. Both of these, I'm slowly learning, mean that planning for class is not simply getting ready to teach class on a given day. As a result, I'm (very) slowly coming to accept that I have to do significantly more planning significantly earlier.

Inverted Teaching

While video lectures are not a necessity for inverted teaching, they are one effective way to deliver content without using up class time. The videos, to be honest, are killing me. I suppose, as is often the case, this will get better over time, assuming I decide to reuse the videos from this semester the next time I teach this class. (Although, given my propensity for making significant changes every time I teach a class, I probably won't.) I had grand plans to record all the videos for my grammar class this past summer, to have them done and ready to go throughout the semester. Then, once the semester began, and I hadn't recorded any of the videos, I developed a plan for recording each video at least two weeks in advance. Here too, I failed.

Aaron Sams, one of the pioneers of inverted teaching, tells stories of recording videos for his Chemistry classes late at night in the laundry room, so as not to disturb his sleeping family. This past Saturday morning, I recorded a lecture on rhetorical grammar in my car while my son was at his Tae Kwon Do class. The video needed to be watched by my students before class this Monday. Granted, it's only a 15 minute video (I know, I know. It should be under 10 minutes.), but still, it feels like cheating to tell my students in class on Friday, "Please watch the video on Rhetorical Grammar before Monday's class. It's not done yet, but when it is, be sure to watch it."

This has been the pattern for much of the semester. For the composition classes I'm teaching in the spring, I have a list of about 20 videos I'm planning on recording over the winter break...

Collaborative Teaching

Meanwhile, I'm also team-teaching a class with a colleague in the Art department. The class itself is pretty well planned out, with a fairly set schedule that we've managed to stick with throughout the semester. It's a largely discussion-based class, so as long as both of us arrive having done the assigned reading and supplemented it with some additional research, the classes themselves go pretty well. We both come to class having individually prepared, but we never seem to have enough time to get together to collaborate on the planning and grading. Much of that takes place via email, often sent late at night.

The literature on this is beyond clear: you have to co-plan to co-teach. It's another new way of thinking about teaching: as I said, I do most of my best teaching planning the night before a class. That doesn't leave much time for co-planning, though, so it's another change I need to make in my time management. Maybe next time, we need to schedule at least one joint office hour to have a set time each week that we can be together to plan for the following week.

What's the Point?

The point, I guess, is that these innovations, which I believe are having a significantly positive impact on student learning, are also having a significant impact on the way I prepare to teach. I suppose that is another improvement, but the growing pains aren't that fun. Innovation is about change, and change can be a challenge. These innovations, while done to help our students, can also help us by forcing us to rethink the way we do things.