On the liberatory power of doing just enough

I didn’t mean to disappear from this blog for a month, but somehow I did. The primary reason was that my work life became mind-bendingly busy and complicated and stressful and kind of awful, but making time for writing was not the only problem. I was so drained by the demands of my professional life that I felt like I had nothing left to give anyone anywhere else. Writing? Who could write!? All I wanted was to snuggle on the couch with my beloved watching MasterChef or reading a romance novel about lesbian astronauts going to Mars. I felt not unlike Blanche Devereaux in that one episode of The Golden Girls where she’s been up all night trying to write a novel.

This gif depicts Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls tiredly declaring, "My brain's gone!"
This gif depicts Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls tiredly declaring, “My brain’s gone!”
But as it became apparent that the blog was moving to the backburner, it made sense to lay low for a while. I am going to be a keynote speaker (!!!) for the College and Research Division at the Pennsylvania Library Association conference in October (program PDF available here). I’ve been asked to speak about—guess what?—burnout. I’d like for the bulk of my material to be new and fresh and not just rehashing of the blog. This means that I’ve been keeping lots of my burnout thoughts to myself as of late.

I still want this blog to be a safe place to talk about these things, so I continue to welcome ideas and submissions for guest posts. Please get in touch if you want to talk.

And in closing, I’d like to offer this bit of wisdom that is maybe not worth embroidering on a pillow, but has been pretty surprising and innovative for this achievement addict: sometimes doing the bare minimum is fine, and the world will not end, and you are not a bad person for doing just enough to get the job done, and this is in fact a valid form of self-care. So take that, all of you overachievers out there!

This gif depicts Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls opening the front door of her house, seeing her hated ex-husband Stan, and then slamming the door in his face.
This gif depicts Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls opening the front door of her house, seeing her hated ex-husband Stan, and then slamming the door in his face.
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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

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“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.

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