What living with my mother-in-law has taught me about burnout

It was around this time of year seven years ago when I received a notification from match.com informing me that someone had sent me a message. I still had a match.com profile, but I had long since let my subscription lapse, so in order to actually see the message, I had to renew the subscription. I could see who the message was from, but not the actual message itself. The message was from this poet lady who lived in Virginia. I had actually heard of this poet lady and was familiar with her work.

I was at the ALA Annual Conference in Anaheim at the time, and my conference roomie, Emily, urged me to just do it. I simply had to grit my teeth, cough up my credit card number, and pay to renew my subscription to see the message, she said. The fact that this poet lady lived far away from me in Virginia was immaterial.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when your ALA conference roomie gives you very important life advice on very important lesbian business, you basically have to do exactly what she says. So I did. I read the message, responded to it, talked on the phone with the poet lady, met her in real life, and before you could even say “U-Haul,” she sold her house in Virginia and we made an offer on a condo in Louisville a mere six months after we had an official understanding.

It’s been six years since we finally closed on the condo, and today we are trying to unload it, because earlier this year we bought a house and moved my poet lady wife’s mother in with us. Yes, I live with my mother-in-law. On purpose. When I inform people of this fact, they get this rather alarmed expression on their face. And I understand why. People aren’t supposed to really like their mothers-in-law. And it took me years to get to a place where I felt okay with changing my domestic life so inalterably in this way. But even though we have incredibly different lives—she’s an 83-year-old African American Mormon with a 10th grade education who has lived her entire life in Arkansas until now—we get along splendidly.

First of all, it helps that my mother-in-law and I have similar tastes in television—Judge Judy, most of the Food Network lineup, General Hospital, and The Bachelor franchise. Also, she is deeply fond of our cats, referring to herself as Grandma when she talks to them. She likes to wash dishes and mop the floor. She is very funny. When I asked her how she got my 5’ 11” wife to grow so tall, her response was: “I put fertilizer in her shoes.” Yes, she is a Mormon, and she watches preachers of all varieties preach terrible, troubling things on television, but she loves me and accepts my relationship with her daughter as valid and real and legitimate and important. Overall, I like her, and her presence in my life has been an unexpected and enriching gift.

I knew that living with my mother-in-law was going to be an adjustment but probably ultimately rewarding, and it was, but not in any ways I anticipated. Because I have a tenured and economically secure job for life with a flexible schedule and a lot of independence, she is continually remarking: “Maria has a good job.” My mother-in-law no longer works, not because she chose to retire, but because the mom-and-pop drug store where she worked as the delivery clerk went out of business, and at age 78, she found herself out of work. She had worked there for 40 years but had no retirement savings, no pension, no 401k, just Social Security. I think that the impulse to compare yourself to others in order to improve your mindset or make you feel grateful is not always the most affirming mental move to make, but thinking about my life in terms of my mother-in-law’s life has certainly informed and enriched my perspective, because while I do feel marginalized in some areas of my life, I also exist on multiple axes of privilege.

I fear that this is devolving into something like: “Educated, Privileged White Lady Learns from Elderly Black Lady’s Humble, No-Nonsense Wisdom.” That’s not what I’m trying to express here. I think ultimately I’m trying to say that in a sense, feeling burned out on my professional life is a form of privilege. I am weirdly and paradoxically fortunate to experience burnout. I am fortunate enough to be in a profession that I care deeply enough about that frustration and dissatisfaction with it is an opportunity for personal growth and enrichment. I am fortunate enough that I can speak openly about my burnout with my real name and not worry that I’m going to get fired or experience some other form of retribution for speaking negatively about my professional life on the internet.

I didn’t know that my match.com subscription would yield this unexpected life with both a wife and mother-in-law, but I will always be grateful for the following: 1) my wife, for being as constant as her name, 2) Emily, for telling me to take the risk and respond to the message, and 3) this quirky little trio, this matriarchal tribe to which I now belong, which has changed my life for the better, and which has demonstrated to me the power of perspective and privilege.

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Keeping Our Own Time–Guest Post by Emily Drabinski

I’m excited to publish a another guest post, this time from my former co-worker and current dear friend Emily Drabinski. Emily Drabinski is Coordinator of Instruction in the heart of #BlackbirdNation: Long Island University, Brooklyn. She edits Gender & Sexuality in Information Studies, a book series from Library Juice Press/Litwin Books, and tweets about libraries, running, and The Bachelorette as @edrabinski.


 

After seven years of working diligently away on the three legs of my tenure stool—librarianship, service, scholarship—I was awarded that most obscene privilege this spring: tenure in the university. As someone who grew up inside a few different kinds of precarity, this is a stability I can hardly believe. People told me it would be a letdown, that life wouldn’t feel much different, that tenure just means more of the same but with less urgency. So far, it hasn’t been like that. In fact, it’s the thing that’s come closest to undoing the persistent burnout I’ve been struggling with for the past few years.

The burnout has been very real, manifesting most clearly in me becoming a person who is late. I am all about being on time. I read and write and think about time. I act on time, three hours early to the airport and one to the movies. I can’t remember the last time I missed my train. And yet, my last article was two months late at the time of first submission, took another extra two weeks to complete first round revisions. This blog post? Maria emailed me about it more than a month ago. I’d said soon. And here we are. I barely recognize this late person. It’s a sign that not all is right with me.

So tenure means time to recover, right? That’s what everyone keeps telling me. Coast for a year and write nothing! You deserve it! Inside of this is the assumption that reading and thinking and writing are the cause of burnout, not the increasing distance between the everyday tasks of the job and the professional joy—no! really! professional joy!—of meaning-making.

Because that’s what I think happened. It wasn’t the scholarship that set my clocks awry, but managing my work inside structures that demand more and more reporting and assessment, data collection and proving value, counting classes taught and questions answered not because there is inherent good in this work, but because the counts of students and classes, comparative rubric scores, questions at the desks, all add up to the only argument for survival that seems to have force in higher education today: what does the data tell us? There are of course good and useful things that come from structured reflection, but that can sometimes be hard to see in the fog of accountability.

Tenure doesn’t mean a break from the corporate university. I still have all those reports due. But the injunction to write nothing! coast awhile! has made me think about the roles reading and writing have played in my path to tenure, in my career as a librarian, and in my life as a person who encounters the world through words and ideas. It turns out it’s not the conversation that exhausts me as much as the documentation and reporting of it. Scholarship doesn’t produce the burnout, it’s a casualty of it. They tell you to never go into librarianship just because you love reading, but now I’m thinking it’s the only way to reset my clocks to my own time again. So I’m reading, and want to suggest it as an old school librarian anti-burnout strategy. Having located my burnout in the project of producing data and complying with standards, that’s what I’m reading about, Geoffrey Bowker and Lisa Gitelman, Lawrence Busch and Bruno Latour. I think I’ll have to read Sorting Things Out again. I’m also reading about polar exploration, and occasionally the newspaper. Maria’s blog, maybe yours too.

So if burnout is a response to an absence of meaning, meaning-making seems like the solution. I was asked recently to give three! top! tips! for new librarians (always this field with the top tips!), and that was my first one: find something inside the field that matters, and then do your best to set your watch by it. Mine could do with a little rewinding right now. How about yours?

Neutrality Burns–Guest Post by Nina Clements

Note from Maria: I am very excited to publish the first guest post on Academic Library Instruction Burnout. Today’s post comes to you from my friend Nina Clements, who is a reference and instruction librarian outside of Philadelphia, where she lives in a house of books and cats.


 

In addition to struggling with instruction burnout from the grinding machine that is the college semester, I also find myself burned out on particular ideas. For instance, the neutrality of our profession as manifested in the ACRL Standards and the RUSA guidelines. If I believe the personal is political, how can I promise to espouse apolitical neutrality in my working life? Does such a thing even exist? In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks says that it doesn’t. Education is never politically neutral (Teaching to Transgress, 30).

As Lauren Wallis writes in her recent post on silence in libraries, “Whether it takes the form of a database demo or something else (CRAPP test, anyone?), skills-based, apolitical IL instruction silences librarians.” She goes on to explain what it is that we really do in instruction sessions:

“We lecture and demonstrate, we present research as sterile and detached from students’ real lives, we cover so much material that students absorb nothing. We might be talking a lot, but we are silenced because we are not able to truly teach, or to address the complexity of information literacy.”

This resonates with me; I almost never refer to myself as a teacher in library settings. I am an instructor and often provide very sterile instructions: access this course guide here, click there. I try to avoid this, incorporating as much active learning as I possibly can in my plans, but there’s a certain amount of pointing and clicking that seems inescapable. Wallis also notes that “Coming out of silence means we will make some people angry. After all, we’ve convinced everyone we’re just obedient, cheerful helpers.” I’m certainly guilty of this. I project an easy-going, “how-can-I-help-you” persona, even if there are very different thoughts and emotions buried under the surface.

I recently had an interesting discussion with a colleague about the need to meet students where they are, and how this means becoming complicit in the capitalist hegemony and commodification of education. One way I’ve struggled to resist is to avoid the language of capitalism when discussing my work. Instead of “reference transaction,” I refer to it as a conversation or interview. I tell students that we don’t rent books, we loan them, the way a friend might loan them a favorite book. A group of students approached the circulation desk where I spend most of my public service hours (another possible source of burnout, but that’s another post for another time) and mused, “Wouldn’t it be great if the library rented out computers you could use anywhere on campus, not just in the library?” I explained that we don’t rent computers, but we do lend them out, for a week at a time. Their reactions to this were mixed. They were thrilled and excited. Then they asked, “Why didn’t we know about this?” These students were business students, so they also expressed some disappointment that a potential business plan had fallen through for them. “We could have charged a lot of money for this,” they told me. I wish I had said something really pithy at that very teachable moment, but I just explained that libraries aren’t in the business of making money and that the campus library was a large benefit of going to school here. They looked at me like I was crazy. They couldn’t fathom an organization that was not in the business of making money, that was not in business in any recognizable way.

How do we change students’ consumerist ideas about education into something more personally and intellectually transformative? I don’t have an answer to this question, though this problem is not particular to librarians. bell hooks discusses this at length in Teaching to Transgress. She writes, “the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring.…and if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere” (3). I’m in total agreement, but how can we disrupt students’ notions of consumer-based education in a fifty-minute one-shot session? hooks continues to say that teaching is a performative act, and that is certainly true of library instruction, even if the performance often makes me feel like Vanna White. We are not a spectacle, as instructors/teachers/educators; we are catalysts (11).

Perhaps the fifty-minute one-shot is simply broken; perhaps we are expecting too much of ourselves in our desire to introduce students to library resources while disrupting their thoughts about such resources? To participate in the engaged pedagogy hooks describes, we need to “not merely…share education but…share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students” (11). But if this is impossible, what are we to do? These one-shots are our homemade bread and vegan butter.

The first step, I think, is to resist this view of education as individuals. Sometimes this means being unpopular or braving conflict even though the library profession as a whole is much more familiar with passive-aggressive strategies. But it is possible to engage in substantive disagreement/conflict while still remaining respectful of the positions/ideas of others. One way to unpack the burnout we feel is to dig a little deeper. Is it the sheer number of sessions that we’re asked to do without input from the teaching faculty, or is it the false construct of neutrality that undergirds these sessions? Is it the repression of the self? It seems that getting to the root of our exhaustion is the first step in understanding and combating it. The second step is reaching out to other librarians and creating space for a larger conversation.

Learning outcomes and choosing less harm

Like many people who were #capal15leftbehind, I followed with great interest what people were tweeting at the Canadian Association of Professional Academic Librarians (CAPAL) conference recently. During Henry Giroux’s talk, I kept seeing tweets about outcomes assessment, and the tone of the tweets seemed negative. It’s hard to get the full context of anything in 140 characters, so I honestly didn’t get what was going on or what Giroux was saying. I tweeted: “And what’s so bad about outcomes anyway? Why is it bad to state what we hope students will learn? #capal15 #capal15leftbehind

People tweeted all kinds of things in response. My friend and collaborator and fellow lesbian-feelings-sharer Emily said: “I think it’s joining outcomes to accountability and power that makes outcomes regimes dangerous.” I totally get this. It makes sense. I think learning outcomes can be used as a weapon: “Here’s what we think you should be learning, and god help you if you don’t get it at exactly the right timetable we’ve prescribed and DEAR GOD if you don’t graduate in precisely four years you’re really fucked.” In the context of individual classroom sessions, or in a program, or for general education purposes, learning outcomes can be wielded to homogenize, to police conformity to hegemonic understandings of what it means to be “educated,” and in this current climate—especially at public institutions like where I work—“educated” is basically a euphemism for “employable” or “future workforce fodder.”

I’ve argued in a bunch of different places that the marginal status of academic librarians, while exhausting and frustrating, can actually be an advantage in cases like this. I know it’s not true for everyone, but in my situation, my institution has defined information literacy as a general education student learning outcome. Students fulfill this outcome by taking a First Year Seminar, which has an embedded library session component. So this makes them instantly “information literate” (whatever that means), right? Well, no, of course not. But the bottom line is that my program has its own internal outcomes, outcomes we are currently revising in light of the Framework. (As I wrote a few weeks ago, I see the Framework as an invitation to rethink what I do and how I do it, and not a mandate to change, and certainly not incontrovertible ex cathedra wisdom engraved on stone tablets handed down from on high.) And since these outcomes are internal, as long as they mostly match up to the very broad, vague institutional definition, I can pretty much do what I want, within reason. This means that I can be creative and critical with learning outcomes and pretty much no one really cares or tells me I can’t. If I want to incorporate ideas about information power and privilege alongside teaching students how to think through an information problem or research need, I can and will do that. While developing activities that invite learners to evaluate information sources, I can also ask questions that invite students to think about who and what are made visible and invisible in information/research environments, and why they think that is.

Ultimately, I think it is irresponsible to not have specific learning goals for a library instruction session. You need to have outcomes and then guide the session accordingly. But if you aren’t required to use pasteurized cheese food product learning outcomes, for heaven’s sake don’t do it. If you can find a way to flatten the teaching/learning hierarchy in a way that puts learners in the driving seat, do it. If you can figure out a way of consciousness-raising about cultures of power and how they influence who gets to say what and about whom—and who gets paid to have the loudest voices—then do it.

If you’re wondering what this post has to do with this burnout blog, it’s this: I get really incandescently mad about unearned power and privilege and how they are deployed to marginalize people. Finding ways of combating and resisting that power and privilege through the library instruction classroom and reference desk makes me feel alive and purposeful. Feeling alive and purposeful gives me reason to hope and therefore resist burnout. The paradox is that critical approaches like the ones I describe are more taxing and draining than traditional modes of teaching, and this can contribute to burnout. But I really honestly cannot live with myself as a person and a professional if my politics do not inform my work.

So I guess I’d rather do what I know and believe to be right, which is ultimately more soul-feeding, rather than reinforce and support the dominant culture through my teaching practice, a culture that actively wants to erase people like me, which is obviously soul-killing. There are no perfect choices, only ones that do less harm. I’m choosing less harm.