A couple of weeks ago, Inside Higher Ed ran a report called “Why Academics Suffer Burnout,” which concluded that many academics experience emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and work-related dissatisfaction. To which I say: if you can’t take the heat, get your ass out of the kitchen. Sub-arguments in support of thesis:
1) Yes, we academics do a lot of things: we read a shit-ton of books, we write hundreds of words even if our brains don’t want to cooperate, we teach students who would rather be sleeping/screwing/eating/playing video games, we serve on committees with other crazy, narcissistic whack-jobs like ourselves, blah, blah, blah. It’s still not digging for coal, driving a truck, running a farm on the edge of bankruptcy, or, hell, living in the Third World trying to find a path out of poverty instead of a path toward tenure. Cowboy/girl up, nerds.
2) Let’s move beyond relative comparisons to other jobs — I’m aware of the pitfalls of that way of thinking (“just be grateful for what you have, peon!”). I’ve long believed that every person has a particular level of maximum stress, which s/he will fulfill no matter what the conditions. So the professors freaking out about having too many theses to advise are the same ones who pissed themselves for sixth grade spelling tests. I’m not sure when this particular neurosis develops — nature? nurture? alien abduction? — but I notice it in myself and everyone else I see. So I would speculate that the people suffering burnout in the academy would also suffer burnout if they were flipping burgers at McDonald’s. The only difference is the consequence: stressy-professy ruins part of a student’s education, while freaked-out-Mc-D’d-out gives Comic Book Guy salmonella. I think society should be willing to accept the latter over the former.
3) Make way for those who can hack it. From the outside looking in, your 4/4 load with research support, health care, retirement, and awesome-sauce job security looks mighty nice. I — an many of the other graduate students out there — would be happy to take that off your hands. And we’ll do a damned good job.
[note: I’m trying to write this blog post in five minutes. Sorry if it stinks.]
It seems that I need to learn how to write bigger stories. That, at least, is the message from my dissertation committee, the members of which have universally signaled that my chapters are short on long narratives: things like the Rise of the New Right, the Cold War, or the environmentalism movement. It’s taken me a while — three chapters, to be precise — to understand my committee’s advice, because of two things. First, I have been focusing on straightening out my dissertation’s particular story, which is complicated and nuanced enough on its own. I haven’t done justice to the detail of my own story as it is; the thought of stripping out some of that detail in order to make room for bigger connections makes me feel a little dirty. Second, I have, in fact, been making some of those big connections…just not in the right direction, apparently. I’ve been using bigger themes and contexts to explain the origins and causes of the events within my story, but I haven’t flipped that arrow to show how my story explains those bigger historical trajectories. So, I know how the Cold War shaped the events in my narrative. But now I need to explain how my narrative shaped, or at least helps us better understand, the Cold War. Sounds (a) super interesting and (b) super difficult. Whee!
I’m about to start writing a new chapter, and that means pushing through the inevitable pre-writing panic. I have an outline and a (vague) sense of where this chapter is going, but the first step always frightens me a little. Perhaps many/most/all writers experience the same kind of anxiety, but believing that doesn’t make it any more pleasant for me. But why do I experience such fear? What scares me, exactly? I’ve come up with two ideas:
- That I won’t be able to write anything. This has happened before and will probably happen again. But I’ve always managed to push through. By acknowledging the probable appearance of writer’s block, perhaps I’ll be better prepared to not panic and keep working my way through it.
- That I will write crap. This will most definitely happen. After all, I’m writing the first draft, which, as I’ve discussed before, is inevitably crap. But it’s a start, and I will go back and re-write and re-write again. Again, if I just accept the inevitability of crap and know that I will revise that crap later on, maybe I won’t get scared away from starting to write.
My advice to myself, in short: combine acceptance of my slow production of crap with the knowledge that I have got through it before and will revise it again. Presto: writer’s block solved.
Now, how exactly will I begin this chapter…