Untangling the idea of self-care

As I read and write and think about burnout, I find myself repeatedly circling back to this idea of self-care, that in order to do this bell hooksian caring for the souls of students, we must also care for ourselves. I wrote about this a little bit in my book, and while I’m happy with what I wrote, I’ve still always felt like I might have more to say about it, that there’s more going on and I’ve only just scratched the surface.

A lot of the burnout literature I’ve read talks about self-care and the necessity of having a rich and interesting life outside of your job. I’ve read about engaging in positive self-talk and using affirmations and pursuing professional development opportunities and trying building supportive relationships both inside and outside the organization. All of this is well and good and perfectly fine and yeah, sure, okay. I’ve been reading annotating lots of these burnout articles—especially ones that address burnout in academic library instruction—and the solutions offered are all pretty much along these lines.

What strikes me as interesting is that few articles that offer inwardly-focused solutions (such as self-care or just feeling your feelings) as opposed to outwardly-focused solutions (such trying new techniques in the classroom or collaborating with supportive allies or whatever). And the articles that do address the internal, affective landscape of what it’s like to be a teacher focus on very practical things, like the positive self-talk affirmationy stuff. But no one, as far as I can tell, wants to talk about why we feel the feelings we feel about library instruction and in what context these feelings are emerging.

So this is why I find this work by Ken Winograd so interesting. In his 2003 article “The function of teacher emotions: The good, the bad, and the ugly,” Winograd analyzes a journal he kept during a year of returning to elementary classroom teaching. This is how he spent a sabbatical year as a college professor of education. What is really useful to me about this article is not just that he describes the importance teachers engaging in of “collective naming and examination of emotions” (p. 1642), because this is not a new assertion to me, but that teachers can “learn to use some of these emotions as catalysts for social activism and change” (p. 1642).

Here is where the game show “YOU WON” bells started ringing in my head. Anything that connects the teaching profession to effecting social change gets my heart beating faster. It rearranges the furniture in my heart. While Winograd is talking primarily about K-12 teachers, I think this is very applicable to teaching in higher education, including academic library instruction.

I think Winograd very helpfully emphasizes the importance of not just feeling those dark feelings about teaching (as opposed to suppressing them, because they are “bad” feelings and not socially acceptable, or engaging in overly critical “self-accusatory” blame about having those feelings), but transforming those feelings in to activism. This is so powerful! Here’s what Winograd says: “I suggest that the self-accusatory stance of teachers [regarding negative emotions about teaching] diverts the teachers’ attention from structural problems in their working conditions and, instead, focuses attention on the inadequacies of teachers as individuals” (p. 1642).

YES YES YES.

So, when I have negative feelings about a teaching experience, I feel bad for having those feelings, and I engage in harsh self-criticism, and my attention is so occupied with why I’m a terrible person for being a bad teacher and having bad feelings that I forget why I might have those feelings to begin with or what external, systemic issues might be contributing to these feelings.

And I think it’s important to note here that I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be honest and reflective about our teaching practices. Rather, what I’m saying is that we can be reflective in a way that is kind to ourselves. We can be reflective without beating ourselves up. And we can be reflective in order to, as Winograd suggests, channel those feeling of anger, frustration, boredom, inadequacy, and guilt into action.

Here’s the thing: information literacy library instruction can be fun and energizing and meaningful and fulfilling and soul-feeding. But at the same time, there are structural and cultural conditions that make this practice very challenging and frustrating and, yes, soul-crushing. Like, why are we stuck with this imperfect and inefficient one-shot model? Why do we cram so many sessions in the first four to six weeks of the semester in such a way that we can barely see or think straight, let alone innovate? Why is information literacy such a weird and marginal thing that we constantly have to justify and explain within our own institutional cultures? Why do I keep having to fight to describe my work as “library instruction” rather than a “library tour”? Why do so many faculty members see instruction librarians not as partners with similar goals but instead mere service providers? Why do I feel so alone when I emphasize the sociopolitical dimensions and ramifications of information literacy? Why are faculty members on my campus surprised to learn that 1) I’m a tenured faculty member, 2) I wrote a book, and 3) I won an award for the book?

And why can’t I just be mad about these and other conditions that make my work so frustrating, rather than suppressing my feelings or feeling isolated and alone or engaging in dysfunctional coping mechanisms?

Maybe self-care, for me, means not just being kind to myself, going for long walks, making healthy food choices, and listening to nature sounds music. Self-care also means: giving myself permission to be really fucking mad about the dumb things that make my work harder, and then working to chip away at these dumb things.

So how exactly do we chip away at these things? Short answer: intersectional feminism. Long answer: I have so many things to say and I’ve only just begun.

Reference:

Winograd, K. (2003). The functions of teacher emotions: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Teachers College Record, 105(9), 1641-1673. doi:10.1046/j.1467-9620.2003.00304.x

 

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