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?