What is burnout?

Burnout is a psychological condition in which a worker feels depersonalized, cynical, and emotionally disengaged from her work. Burnout can happen for all kinds of reasons that range from the external (inadequate organizational resources and support) to the internal (job stress) and possible solutions and interventions can be organized accordingly. While I read and thought about burnout while on sabbatical last year, I started to wonder if there was something specific and unique about instruction librarianship in higher education that makes it unusually conducive to burnout.

Here’s how I arrived at that hunch: The day-to-day life and work of an instruction librarian can be isolating and demoralizing, and this is certainly a contributing factor in library instruction burnout. This may stem from the fact, which has been documented in the literature, that instruction librarians often have marginal status within the higher education community. Even librarians with full faculty status, tenure track or otherwise, are often viewed as somehow different, less than, not full members of the academic community. Librarians are perceived as service providers in a higher education environment and culture that emphasizes a notion of “value,” of return on investment, on preparing students to populate a future workforce. Maura Seale (2013) and others have usefully highlighted the pernicious ideology of neoliberalism and the “value” movement in librarianship and identify social justice approaches as strategies to counteract the destructive power of neoliberalism.

I feel like lots of people are talking about neoliberalism in higher ed today, but I’m not bringing it up here because it’s trendy, but because it seems relevant. And yet it is not the only contributing factor for the problem of burnout and its concomitant sense of dehumanization. Sometimes I wonder if very nature of instruction librarianship as it is currently practiced is itself potentially dehumanizing. This seems so overdramatic, I know, but I believe it to be true. It’s certainly how I felt as I approached my sabbatical. For example, the one-shot approach to library instruction can lead to harmfully repetitive teaching. No matter how much we try to customize the session for the particular needs of the students and the desires of the teaching faculty, and despite our efforts to attempt new pedagogical strategies, the ultimate reality is that sometimes the primary content is mostly the same from session to session. And that feels so terrible and boring and destructive and soul-killing to me.

For example, during the busiest instruction season at my library, which mostly occurs from late August to mid-October, I feel like a teaching robot, churning out learning activities and worksheets and lesson plans and performing mostly on autopilot. The pressures of time and all of the other demands of the workplace make it difficult to innovate, to experiment with new techniques and strategies in order to keep things fresh and interesting. In addition, the nature of our work—one-shot sessions, for the most part, after which you may never see a student again, let alone know the true impact of the session—means that it is difficult to perceive the rewards of the hard work of teaching. While classroom assessment can provide a snapshot of what happened during that hour, it’s hard to gauge the lasting impact. Long-term studies of student performance and achievement post-library instruction are logistically difficult, and sometimes impossible, to carry out, depending on the particulars of the organizational situation of the library and the campus in general.

This may seem like a pessimistic view, one detrimentally colored by the specter of burnout (and a lingering episode of depression, let’s be honest), but it is a perspective that certainly warrants further investigation, not to mention solutions and remedies. The research and literature on burnout in librarianship in general, and library instruction in particular, suggest a number of interventions for dealing with burnout. Some of these suggestions address internal conditions specific to the librarian, such as finding ways of dealing with job stress, and external factors, such as cultivating an organizational culture that honors the affective dimension of teaching. (I will explore these in future posts.) The literature also examines causes of burnout, suggesting that it may stem from issues such as role stress and the lack of formal preparation for teaching in library school programs. Even “idealism, overdedication, and the setting of unrealistic goals” (Becker, 1993, p. 355) is blamed for contributing to burnout in instruction librarians.

What the literature seems to lack, however, is a thorough and honest examination of the nature of the philosophies, culture, and common practices of instruction librarianship and how it may contribute to burnout in the profession. So I’m wondering: is the current state of library instruction working? Is it sustainable? Can the new ACRL Framework provide us with fresh examinations of library instruction and provide an inoculation against burnout? Is it something to even be hopeful about? (I have some Feelings about the Framework, which I may examine in future posts.) So, to me, given the conversations that the Framework and other recent work on instruction have inspired, it seems timely and appropriate to examine the ethics and viability of current library instruction practices if burnout is ever to be adequately addressed. And I’m not really interested in applying simple solutions that merely address symptoms. I want to look at root causes of burnout and try to figure out if a paradigmatic shift in the philosophies and attitudes of the profession is the true solution to the problem of burnout.

So that’s where this site comes in. I think that one way of combating the state of burnout, examining its root causes, and inspiring a culture shift in the profession is giving voice to those who are experiencing the problem. Sharing personal narratives about burnout serves numerous useful functions. For instance, it is helpful and cathartic to commiserate through sharing stories about burnout. It can also lead to productive problem solving. And while the literature points to varying causes of burnout, close analysis of personal narratives may also highlight new dimensions of the experience for further consideration. But perhaps most importantly, sharing burnout narratives also has the effect of reclaiming one’s sense of humanity. Dehumanization is one of the more troubling effects of burnout, but stories are what make us human. Using storytelling to combat, address, examine, and overcome burnout is what will make this site useful, I think (and hope).

Maria’s Story and Guiding Questions

When I think about teaching burnout, I feel this sense of hopelessness, despair, futility. I feel disillusionment with my subject area, a sense that it really doesn’t matter, that it’s pointless, that I’m tired of clawing for space and recognition in the margins, and that maybe I should retrain to become an accountant or something.

I’m standing in front of the classroom, or in the back, or along the side–I try to move around a lot–and I listen to myself. I am bored by my own voice, by what I have to say. If I have to explain what a scholarly periodical is one more time…I don’t know what I’ll do. I came into the room with a plan, an activity, a vision for making this room come to life with interaction and energy, and, of course, learning. But sometimes I find myself ditching the plan, tossing my carefully-designed activity sheets into the recycling bin, and resorting to the easy boredom of lecture, of point and click, of autopilot. It is crushingly dull for me, for the students, but I do it anyway, because it seems easier than trying to engage only to be disappointed, or trying to truly believe in what I’m teaching in order to paper over the cracks I see creeping over the surface.

I am tired of everything.

I wrote the above in October 2014, a little over one month into my fall sabbatical, and while my perspective has brightened considerably since then, the disillusionment I felt at the time was very real, and I can easily drift back into that mindset.

I think there is something particular about library instruction for most people that makes it unusually conducive to burnout. In the one-shot model, there’s so much repetition and so little opportunity for relationship building. A reflective practitioner can actively and regularly try to modify her teaching practices to keep things fresh and interesting, but that’s really hard sometimes in a fall semester when you are teaching maybe 40 one-shots in prime instruction season, about a 6 to 8 week time span.

Revisiting this piece several months later brings up lots of questions in my mind. I don’t have the answer to any of them, but I want to grapple with them over the next several months.

  1. Do I need have a more rigorous self-care regimen?
  2. Do I need to build self-care techniques and strategies into my library instruction program as the coordinator?
  3. What does it say about our profession that we habitually do this to ourselves every semester, every year: we cram-pack our calendars with session after session after session, leaving everyone feeling exhausted and disillusioned?
  4. What if I started saying no to library instruction requests? Or, put differently, what if I started saying things like, “No, I will not schedule this session on the day you requested, because we already have several sessions scheduled that week and the librarians need a break. How about a different date?” Or: “No, I will not schedule a library instruction session for your class if it does not have have a specific library assignment.”
  5. What kind of resources does a library instruction coordinator need to have to foster a burnout-resistant culture of self-care in her program?
  6. What kind of support does a library instruction coordinator need from her director?
  7. What kind of work do we need to do in our field as a whole to make it more burnout-resistant? What do we need to rethink or modify or eliminate?

These are some of the ideas I want to talk about in this project, and I invite you to participate in this conversation with me.