Zinemaking My Burnout–Guest Post by Donna Witek

I am delighted to present this guest post that describes a creative way of dealing with burnout. Donna Witek is an Associate Professor and academic instruction librarian in Northeast Pennsylvania. She blogs at Information Constellation and tweets about libraries, parenting, and technology as @donnarosemary. If you’re looking for her, she’s probably in her office coloring.


Under this blog’s title is a tagline and an invitation: “what we talk about when we talk about burnout”.

So, let’s talk.

I’m burnt out on assessment.

Many who read this particular blog will likely see that statement and say, “Oh yes, indeed, been there (and maybe still am).” This helps me, because believe it or not, I am not in the mood to use words to analyze why I’m burnt out on assessment. Most of it feels too self-evident for me to do that productively.

But even for the parts that aren’t self-evident, writing words about why assessment, as it is structurally and institutionally handed down to librarians like me (which may not be the ‘ideal’ of what assessment could be, but is still my present reality)…writing words about this isn’t going to help me right now, because at the end of all those potential words, I still need to do assessment.

Words can be powerful. The act of naming things helps us understand them better. And by understanding them, we may* have the capability of doing something about them (i.e., reflection into action).

But the words I have inside me, in reference to assessment, are a mess that I’m not ready to shape into something fit for public consumption.

So I made a zine instead.

This is the part I’m excited to talk about in this post about what we talk about when we talk about burnout. (Try saying that three times fast!)

I took a thing I feel, in ways that are pretty big and overwhelming, and I turned it into a tangible thing that tells a small part of the story of what’s happening inside me in reference to assessment. And it helped.

There are of course words in my zine–including what can only be described as bad (but satisfying!) poetry, written by yours truly. So words certainly helped me along here. But zinemaking also involved cutting with scissors, writing things out in pen, drawing pictures with highlighters, and shaping the space that falls between the boundaries of the zine template I chose to use to tell the story I need it to tell.

The specific aspect of assessment I’m burnt out on right now is rubrics–writing them, teaching with them, and scoring them.

So I turned my burnout about rubrics into a zine.

This process challenged me to shape my burnout into something others can see and engage with, and my feelings about this one part of assessment have now been named, not through a detailed text-based analysis, but through and in a zine. Which I made out of my burnout.

It’s the best act of self care I’ve done this summer (with a close second going to taking up coloring). And Maria has encouraged me to share it with all of you.

My zine is called Outside the Lines, and over in my little corner of the internet you can access it, trade for it, or buy it at cost. Here’s the tagline I wrote for it:

A zine about the liminal spots on the page where learning / understanding / living / loving / making / doing / being must sprawl outside the lines in order to actually happen.

And here’s a sneak peak at the cover (scanned in color for digital viewing):

Using that red highlighter was sooooo satisfying.

There are so many things in my life, both professional and personal, to which this idea–this tension between order and sprawl–applies. Rubrics are the topic of volume 1, issue 1. I’m hoping to create a new issue twice a year on a different topic each time.

I want to make zinemaking a part of my praxis as an academic instruction librarian (to bring this back around to the project of this blog). I learned this summer that taking my burnout, and turning it into something material that tells at least a small part of the story going on inside me, helps me see it clearer, understand it better, and shifts my feelings toward it from burneverythingdownrightnowrageragerage, to “hey, look at this rad thing I made out of that crappy feeling”.

It’s hard to explain why this shift matters, but it does. It makes it so I can face fall semester, during which I know I will have to write, teach with, or score at least one new rubric. It also makes it so I can go through fall semester keeping an eye out for other things about which I have that ragey feeling, so I can target those things as topics for future zines, transforming my feelings about them into something satisfying and tangible to share with others.

It’s like I have a new twice-a-year therapist, made out of paper, post-its, pens, scissors, glue, and highlighters. So even when I can’t write out in detailed language what my burnout is like, I’ll now be able to talk about my burnout through the regular act of zinemaking.

And knowing this makes facing my next task involving (effing) rubrics palatable.


*I say “may” because, even if analysis leads to deeper understanding about a problem, and even if that in turn leads to ideas for how to change the situation to make it better, so often there are structural barriers in place that make putting these ideas into action impossible or close to it.

Flipping the switch on worry and burnout

“Illuminated light switch” by Mikewarbz at the English language Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illuminated_light_switch.jpg#/media/File:Illuminated_light_switch.jpg

When I think about being a little kid, my childhood memories are mostly filtered through a haze of stomachaches. I was an anxious kid who mostly channeled her anxiety into stomachaches rather than, oh, I don’t know, crying? Talking about it to a trusted adult? Acknowledging my feelings in general? I had a lot of very good, and very unbloggable, reasons to be anxious as a kid, but I think I have—and still have—an innate tendency toward worry. It seems to be central part of my mental landscape. Much of the work of my adult life has involved trying to deal with this anxiety, which seems to be more prevalent at some times rather than others.

Right now there’s this whole cluster of work-related worries that are occupying my energy. Much of these worries are also unbloggable. A cryptic and general way of describing these concerns would be that I’ve been worrying a lot about making do with scarce resources. I was going on and on about the latest permutation of my concerns while making dinner with my wife the other night, and she said something along the lines of, “They don’t pay you enough to worry about work in your free time.”

This assertion shifted something inside of me. I’ve always been a person who, in the words of Mem Fox, aches with caring about things that matter to me. I can probably attribute much of my academic and professional successes to this tendency. I care a whole fucking lot about things, and it pretty much consumes me. Or, I should say, I allow it to consume me. It also helps, or should I say “helps,” that I work in higher education, which fosters a toxic culture that urges people to give and give and give and give while eliminating more and more resources and support.

I’m going to start saying no to things. This means saying no to professional requests that make me feel stretched and for which there is inadequate support. But it also means saying no to myself, telling my mind to STFU (but perhaps more gently) when I’m ruminating (yet again) about some stupid work thing that I can’t do anything about. I’M NOT GETTING PAID FOR THIS. I’m not getting paid money, and I’m not getting paid in time or any kind of practical support and resources, and I’m certainly not getting paid in fulfillment and satisfaction to spend so much of my time and energy worrying all the time. I told my boss the other day that a current particular matter is literally keeping me awake at night. He told me, not unkindly, that this was pretty dumb. I know it is.

It’s become very clear to me that professional boundaries mean not just protecting your time from the forces that are only too happy to encroach upon it rent-free, but also protecting your mind. Basically, I need occlumency lessons from Professor Snape. Right now, what’s working for me is visualizing my hand turning off light switches whenever I start to ruminate about something. It sounds weird, but it kind of works. Sometimes, if the ruminations are particularly persistent, I line up an infinite row of light switches in my head and I mentally turn each off, one by one, until the thoughts stop, or at least quiet down considerably.

Is it really any wonder that burnout—the experience of it, and the idea of it—weighs on me so heavily? I mean, yes, the culture of library instruction is weird, and higher education is kind of jacked up, and there are all sorts of mitigating factors that make burnout particularly insidious and pervasive among my peers. But it certainly doesn’t help that I could beat a cow in the unlikely event that there were ever to be a rumination competition.

I am flipping the switch now in my head, and also by writing this, too. Maybe if I do it enough I won’t feel so terrible. Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else want to flip switches with me? It would help to feel not so lonely as I make my way down this endless hallway fill of worryswitches. Come flip some switches with me.

The consequences of public ideas and sitting with the feelings

While on sabbatical last year, I read all kinds of stuff, and two works that made a big impression on me were Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. Both books convinced me of the necessity of sharing my ideas instead of my usual practice, which is to jealously hoard my ideas, or share them only with a select few trusted people. It’s not that I think that my ideas are OMG SO GREAT that people are going to steal them and pass them off as their own, although this has happened. I also know that I don’t necessarily own ideas, that my ideas have an ancestry and lineage and genealogy and emerge from specific contexts, contexts that I of course cite, because citation matters.

So it was with that perspective in mind that I decided to make this burnout project a blog instead of a lengthy IRB-approved qualitative study of some kind. It’s not that studies aren’t valid and useful ways of sharing ideas; it just takes a whole lot longer, and this project had a sense of urgency to me that I could not ignore.

My vision for the blog is that all kinds of voices will be represented in the discussion of library instruction burnout, and that it would be a safe space for talking openly about the subject. (So far, my two guest posts have been really excellent contributions to the conversation, and I’m always interested in hosting more, so please get in touch if this is of interest to you.) And I knew that by making this a public blog, it would be freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the know-how to track it down. Still, though, it was hard to imagine that anyone other than librarians would really care about my writing, so that’s always the audience I’ve imagined and have written with that audience in mind.

So it was very surprising and not a little worrisome to me when I was recently notified by WordPress that my last post had been Freshly Pressed. Honestly, my first instinct was to take the post down, or to make it private, and I still kind of wish I did, because over the last 48 hours, hundreds of random internet strangers have liked the post, commented on the post, or become a follower of my blog. The comments have not always been insightful or useful and many times completely miss my point and are kind of annoying. I have not approved any new comments, actually, because it made me so uncomfortable to even countenance interacting with random internet strangers, and then this morning I disabled commenting altogether.

My discomfort as a result of being Freshly Pressed made me seriously confront my previous revelations about sharing ideas. Isn’t this how innovation happens? Isn’t this how hunches grow and develop and progress? Ideas cannot flourish in isolation, right? They need other ideas to connect to and bounce off of. That was the whole point of making this blog a publicly accessible project.

The difference for me, though, is that in order to connect and be productive and fruitful, the networks that connect the ideas need to be cultivated in a safe place. Suddenly having my ideas on full blast, and having people who were not my intended audience reading my stuff, felt unsafe to me.

It occurs to me now that publishing a blog post that is widely read is not necessarily very different from publishing a book. I’ve done that, too, and that too feels a little weird and terrifying to have all manner of unknown strangers reading your stuff, especially when it turns out that a lot of people read it and like it. My book came out two years ago, and I’m still getting emails from strangers who want to tell me that they like my book. It is a singularly bizarre feeling. It’s very nice and not unwelcome, don’t get me wrong! But it’s just so strange to me that the book I spent two years writing mostly in isolation has a life outside of me now.

I don’t know how to reconcile the tension and discomfort of wanting to have a public platform and then the actual consequences of having that public platform. Austin Kleon and Steven Johnson and all of the Share Your Ideas people don’t really talk about what it feels like to share those ideas. So here’s how it feels: NOT GOOD. NOT SAFE. It feels FEELINGY. One of the lessons of my adult life that I have to keep learning and relearning is to Sit With The Feelings. Even if it feels terrible, I just have to let the feelings happen, and then eventually they pass, for the most part. So I think that this is the answer here, for now, for this present discomfort. I did a thing, and now things are happening, and I’m just going to sit with it.

Now hiring smiling faces (and who cares about your insides)

This morning I drove past a Burger King that was announcing via outside signage: “Now hiring smiling faces!” My usual response to seeing signs like this is to conjure up a mildly disturbing mental image of disembodied grinning visages rolling (how else would a disembodied face travel?) into Burger King and filling out job applications with…I don’t know what. With a pen in their mouths? How does a disembodied smiling face do anything, really?

But this morning, my customary weird mental picture faded as some more troubling thoughts emerged. What does it mean to advertise that you’re hiring “smiling faces”? I think it mostly means that you don’t really give a shit about what’s on the inside of a person as long as they are presenting a picture of friendliness and happiness on the outside. I’ve been on the receiving end of some unpleasant customer service interactions in which the worker had something less than a smiling face, and it certainly doesn’t make that encounter very fun, but at the same time, I am uncomfortable with this idea of emotional labor, that employers can demand that you feel a certain way—or at least display a certain feeling—as a part of doing your job. The space between the display of feeling and the actual feeling is often cavernous and disorienting and feels pretty terrible.

When I was on sabbatical last year, the ideas I originally wanted to explore ended up meandering into—guess what?—burnout. I started reading everything I could find about burnout, especially as it related to instruction librarians, and the earliest article (Becker, 1993) I could find on the topic is also the one that offended me the most. Becker basically says the solution to burnout is maybe we should be less enthusiastic and aspirational about our work. No, really, here’s what she says: “Unfortunately, emotions and attitudes (such as this ‘enthusiasm’) are very susceptible to the causes of burnout listed above. The individual strategy of lowering unrealistic goals is seldom mentioned” (p. 355). Becker also notes:

At the professional level, to relieve the heavy burden of guilt and feelings of failure caused by the setting of overly idealistic goals, philosophies of bibliographic instruction should be reexamined and restated in light of typical real-life situations, without sacrificing vision or discouraging exploration. Bibliographic instruction librarians presenting pragmatic sessions on practical library research skills should not be reviled or maligned in the library literature (p. 355).

This remarkably pessimistic view is kind of depressing to me, and it seems like it would be more conducive to burnout than being disappointed that my high expectations weren’t met, or if my enthusiasm were disillusioned. Becker’s view also seems to acknowledge that there is a difference between how we feel and how we’re expected to publicly enact our feelings, and that this difference is just something we should accept as normal, something we should live with and try to regulate and maybe even stifle. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but this strikes me as an unusually damaging and dehumanizing prescription for the problem of burnout.

This idea of emotional labor is something I’ve talked about here before. Hochschild (1983) studied flight attendants, who certainly are required to engage in emotional labor to a significant degree, and she notes that one of them reported to her that being required to display positive feelings all the time made it hard for her to recognize and understand her real actual feelings. This is, as the kids say these days, relevant to my interests.

Here’s where these two things are getting entangled for me: The confusing space between how I actually feel and how I’m supposed to visibly feel is, to me, a factor in burnout. If I’m expected to behave as though I’m always on, always ready to be at service, always poised to answer your question or teach you how do to a thing, but I don’t feel appreciated or acknowledged or valued as a person who has expertise and who can do all of those things, then I feel like my feelings don’t really matter either, which is ultimately dehumanizing. Furthermore, Becker’s argument that librarians should somehow be less enthusiastic and idealistic about teaching as a way of combating burnout also feels really invalidating and dehumanizing to me as well, which is the opposite of what I think she claims it will do.

Encountering Becker’s article while I was beginning to unravel this whole burnout thing last year was kind of disheartening. My reading of it almost made me feel like burnout was my own fault. It was my own fault for having idealistic and enthusiastic visions of the exciting potential of library instruction and what it can do for the students I teach. It was my own fault for idealistically and enthusiastically linking my politics to my teaching practice in an effort disrupt the damaging power relations that govern higher education, and, ultimately, the world at large. I obviously needed to lower my expectations and focus on “real-life situations,” right?

But what is more “real-life” than to acknowledge, make visible, and provide resources to explore racism (Pagowsky & Wallace, 2015) or the Iraq war or the Occupy movement (Ryan & Sloniowski, 2013). How is it not “real-life” to teach students about the imperfect structures and methods libraries use to organize information and make it accessible and knowable (Drabinski, 2013)? Or what exactly is not “real-life” than to encourage critical examination of Wikipedia as a way of talking about how privilege and power dictate who gets to say what and about whom (Jacobs, 2010)? These are actual real things in the world, and to ignore these actual real things and just stick to “pragmatic research skills” is a missed opportunity and does our students a disservice and makes me feel like I’m supposed to be some feeling-less teaching robot.

If this makes me idealistic, then fine, I’m idealistic. And to ask or imply that I should do otherwise as a way of combating burnout? This is what I would call—wait for it—“unrealistic.” An approach to teaching and reference that sheds light on how information is produced and disseminated and tries to empower students to transform the power structures that obscure and erase the marginalized—this is one way I am able to shorten the distance between “now hiring smiling faces” and my real actual feelings. And I really don’t know any other way of doing this work and not wanting to crawl in a hole and disappear.


P. S. Citation matters.

Becker, K. (1993). The characteristics of bibliographic instruction in relation to the causes and symptoms of burnout. RQ, 32(3), 346-358.

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the catalog: Queer theory and the politics of correction. Library Quarterly, 83(2), 94-111.

Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jacobs, H. L. M. (2010). Posing the Wikipedia “problem”: Information literacy and the praxis of problem-posing in library instruction. In M. T. Accardi, E. Drabinski, & A. Kumbier (Eds.), Critical library instruction: Theories and methods (pp. 179-197). Duluth: Library Juice Press.

Pagowsky, N., & Wallace, N. (2015). Black lives matter! Shedding library neutrality rhetoric for social justice. College and Research Libraries News, 76(4), 196.

Ryan, P. & Sloniowski, L. (2013). The public academic library: Friction in the Teflon funnel. In L. Gregory & S. Higgins (Eds.), Information literacy and social justice: Radical Professional Praxis (pp. 275-296). Sacramento: Library Juice Press.