Here and Now: Buddhism, Mindfulness, and Burnout–A Guest Post from Jessica Olin

Mishka The Buddhist
source

Today’s guest post is from Jessica OlinJessica Olin is a Buddhist. She is also the Director of the Robert H. Parker Library at Wesley College in Dover, DE. Her professional interests include building communities at liberal arts college libraries, bringing the lessons of intersectional feminism to bear in professional settings, and helping others bridge the gap between library science graduate programs and professional practice. She blogs regularly at Letters to a Young Librarian and tweets (somewhat obsessively) at @olinj.


 

Last year, I wrote a post on my blog about the routines I’ve built to avoid burning out professionally. Shortly afterward, Maria approached me about writing a guest post. In her invitation, she said something that struck me as particularly apt:

“I would to love publish something by you on my burnout blog that is a closer look at the role meditation and Buddhism plays in your life as it relates to burnout prevention and/or recovery. My hunch is that there is a spiritual dimension to burnout that people don’t really talk about that much, so I’m eager to shine some light on that.”

A lot of things got in the way of me following up on my promise to write that post, such as a crushingly busy Fall semester, but I think the biggest hurdle for me was my uncertainty about how to approach the topic. I tried multiple times, from a lot of different angles, before I finally realized there is a slight disconnect between how Maria phrased her request and my actual religious practice.

You see, for me, Buddhism isn’t spirituality. At least not my personal definition of that word, which in my mind gets at mysticism and deities and following dictates handed down from long long ago. That isn’t how I practice Buddhism. For me, Buddhism is practical. It’s almost like a coastal map that helps me avoid shoals and reefs. If you’re really interested in a history lesson about the evolution of this religion, I can recommend some books and/or websites. But the important thing to know here is that Buddhism is much more about the here and now than about any kind of hereafter.

In the interests of sharing the practical aspects, here are three ideas/practices that I think can help you avoid or even recover from burnout:

  1. Non-attachment. Try to avoid getting attached to ideas or people or things or places. Attachment makes us afraid to lose those ideas or people or things or places, and that’s the root of suffering and anxiety – that fear. I’m still kind of crap at non-attachment, but not getting too upset about not being good about this yet is itself an example of non-attachment. No matter how hard we try, pretty much all of us are still going to get attached to people, places, things, ideas, but we need to keep working towards non-attachment without getting wrapped up in (attached to) the results.
  2. Mindfulness. This is the idea of being in the moment instead of somewhere in the past or somewhere in the future. Try doing only one thing at a time, and really concentrating on that one thing. Another way to practice being present is to take a couple of minutes each day and concentrate solely on your breathing. I’ve got an Android app that I use to help me, but you really just need to count your breath.
  3. Daily meditation. Don’t think of meditation as quieting your mind. It’s letting the thoughts rise and fall without attaching significance (non-attachment again) to any of them. If I’m sitting with others, I can meditate for a lot longer, but in my daily practice I sit for 10-15 minutes. Even five minutes a day can help you. (This LifeHacker post has a good rundown of the science.) Also, even if you don’t sit in a lotus position on your fancy meditation pillow, just being still for 5-10 minutes can be beneficial. I read once that our minds are like ponds, and the events of our lives are like wind or pebbles or even boulders that disturb the surface. Meditation allows you to stop the input for those few minutes, and the surface clears a bit. No other explanation of the benefits of meditation has ever felt truer to me.

I know that Buddhism isn’t the right fit for everyone, but the benefits of meditation are proven. Give it a try, even if you just sit still for a couple of minutes per day. And if what I’ve said about Buddhism intrigues you, let me know? I’ve got about a bazillion books I can recommend.

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Rejection Burnout–A Guest Post by Kaitlin Springmier

Today’s guest post from Kaitlin Springmier offers helpful and practical tips for dealing with the burnout that can result from rejection in the workplace. These suggestions really resonate with me! Kaitlin Springmier is the first Resident Librarian at the University of Chicago. She’s still trying to understand the twitter-verse @kaitlinspring.


 

As the information environment is rapidly evolving, librarians have opportunities to dramatically alter what they teach, how they define themselves, and how they embrace change. However, it seems new members in the profession struggle with getting some of their more experienced colleagues to agree to new and innovative ideas. I say this because, as a member of the New Members’ Round Table listserv, this week’s discussion topic was, “How to respond to common ways of shutting down ideas.”

Currently, I work for an institution that steeped in a history of traditional intellectual pursuit. The library is branded as a place for serious intellectual inquiry. Students are prompted to wander through the massive stacks to encourage ‘serendipitous discovery.’ When the main library hit capacity, the institution decided to spend $81 million in order to keep collections on campus.

This perception means that sometimes my proposals for new ‘fun’ outreach events can be shut down with a ‘we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,’ or ‘that’s not welcome on this campus.’ And hearing ‘no’ can be hard. It can make you feel like your ideas are not welcome, and after so many ‘no’s, you can feel discouraged and give up.

However, my past experiences in the workforce have prepared me to work with the nos that I hear. I now have a toolbox to work within the outright rejection which can sometimes eventually turn into a ‘yes.’ I’d like to share my experiences, in hopes to help my fellow new librarians be the best change agent that they can be.

So first- a little history. Before I decided on library school, I worked for a chain of used bookstores. I started as a part-time bookseller and within a year had climbed my way up to a position of assistant manager. My promotion came with a change in location, which meant new coworkers, new responsibilities, and a new boss. Most notably, though, the location change also meant a new culture.

In my 2 years as an assistant manager, I proposed a lot of ideas, and was shut down a lot. I went from working in a place I loved with friends who cared for me to dreading walking into the store everyday. I was not accepted, appreciated, or respected. When I put in my two week notice, I had turned into a person that was jaded, discouraged and unsure of my ideas. In hindsight, my presence impacted the store immensely. Employees interactions with customers improved, sales went up, and the store started buying used product smarter. It’s only in reflecting on what worked and what didn’t that I can give recommendations on how to approach and innovate in a culture resistant to change. Here’s 5 tips I’ve learned that can greatly reduce the rejection of new ideas or the burnout you feel after hearing ‘no.’

  1. Find your wolfpack

The hardest thing to do is to change a culture all by yourself.

When starting in a new place, find people (or groups of people) who have the similar ideas who can support you and your endeavors. When I started in my new position, this meant asking people out for coffee, dropping in on committee meetings, or just sitting next to strangers at staff meetings. Once you’ve found a great support system, see if they’ll help you propose new ideas. If your superiors see that there is a group of people interested in supporting a new idea, they are more apt to say yes. And if they still say no, at least you’ll have a group to commiserate with.

  1. Ask why

Don’t let someone tell you no without an explanation.

Learn what it is about your idea that’s getting the no, and tweak it. Personally, my proposals tend to be rejected because they’re too lofty. When I hear why my superiors have said no, I can come back with a more manageable, cheaper, or smaller idea that is more likely to get a yes. Asking why also begins a conversation with your superior. You’ll be able to learn more about your library’s culture, and what types of proposals are more welcome.

  1. Work within the system

Propose in a way that that seems to benefit them more than you.

If you’ve ever gone to a workshop on writing cover letters, you’ll know that one of the most recommended techniques is to speak directly to the expressed needs in the job ad. This is the same for proposing ideas. When crafting your proposal, ask questions like:

  • “How does this align with the library’s strategic directions?”
  • “What benefit would my supervisor find in this?”

Find your answers, and explicitly speak to them in your proposal. In doing so, you are acknowledging that your ideas are inspired by the directives that your superiors have labored over.

  1. Make it an extracurricular

Keep that work-life balance

Sometimes, no matter how great your idea is, your library won’t have the time, resources, or support you need to make it happen. When this is the case, see what you can do to make it happen in your own life. Maria previously wrote about the importance of maintaining a consciousness of who you are outside of work. Being a librarian is a job. Make sure you keep it that way.

  1. Find a new job

When your job is toxic, it’s time to get out.

By the end of my time at the bookstore, I knew that my only relief would be to leave the job, and move on. And while I miss my bookstore job everyday (so much so that I’ve begun to volunteer at my local bookstore), I know that I’m now in a work environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and happiness. Make sure you find the same.

I hope this is helpful in mediating the burnout you might be feeling. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, have discovered other ways to overcome the “no”s in your professional life. Please share!

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.

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.