Making choices to keep burnout at bay

The spring semester is usually not as hectic for me, and this spring has seemed even calmer than usual. My mood is better; I feel consistently happier. This morning I was trying to figure out why this semester feels better than previous springs, and I realized: BECAUSE I AM DELIBERATELY MAKING CHOICES TO KEEP IT THAT WAY. I’m sorry/not sorry for the all caps, but it is important for me to realize, and to document, the ongoing impact of deliberate self-care: my life feels better. This isn’t an accident of fate or circumstance. It is, for the most part, ME.

Here are some things that I’ve been doing to care for myself and keep burnout at bay.

  1. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Originally designed for people with borderline personality disorder, which I do not have, this is an approach to therapy that involves learning and applying various skills, and the mindfulness skills have been especially invaluable to me. The realization that I don’t have to judge my feelings, or judge any kind of event, was liberating. You mean I don’t actually have to freak out and panic when something goes wrong, or when a stressor is getting me down, or when I can’t find a parking spot in front of my house, or when my wife emails me a grocery list to shop for on my way home and it has 79 items on it? I actually don’t! It’s amazing! These things that cause stress or worsen my mood are just things. I try to observe and describe them as though I were a scientist conducting a study instead of attaching myself to them and getting all worked up.
  2. Saying no to things. This something I’ve been working on continually, and I’m seeing the results. For example: for the past few years, I’ve taught as an adjunct in various departments on campus, in addition to my actual full-time job. This counts as overload pay, which is certainly very helpful, but it is very, very tiring and taxing on multiple levels. Last fall, I taught 200-level research writing, and the stress of this, on top of everything else, made me realize that the extra money was not worth the heartache and despair. I was fortunate that my domestic life was in a place where I could say no to extra teaching, and the extra income, in the future, and so that’s what I decided. The relief is amazing. I have more room in my life and in my head for other things, things that feed me more.
  3. Praying the Daily Office. I started doing this on Dec. 31 of last year, because you don’t actually have to wait until Jan. 1 to start a new habit, as it turns out. I use this little book, excerpted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I do morning prayer and compline (bedtime) without fail daily. I do noonday prayer 95 percent of the time. Evening prayer is hit or miss, because it’s at a challenging time of day for me. Sometimes for noonday prayer I use the New Zealand version, because their Anglican prayer book is gorgeous. The Daily Office feels like this little nimbus of protection that follows me around and holds my day together.
  4. 30 minute daily walks, five days a week, weather permitting. The liberating stress-relief of walking cannot be understated. I do a lot of my walking during the day as a part of my lunch break. (Oh, yes, actually taking lunch breaks, prioritizing that time and protecting it, and not just scarfing down my lunch at my desk–this matters, too.). I listen to podcasts, and I know I’m probably the last person to realize this, but y’all, podcasts are SO COOL. I’m obsessed with Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast as of late. I’m also a big fan of The History Chicks. I feel purposeful and alive when I walk. I find myself unconsciously improving my posture when I walk, holding myself straighter, head held higher. I feel like I am a real person in the world and it is a fantastic feeling.
  5. Quiet time. In the morning, after waking up and saying morning prayer with my wife, I spend about 30 minutes writing in my journal, reading, or listening to music. To me, this is a self-care variation of the idea of paying yourself first; not only do I contribute to my retirement account, but I also contribute to my ME account. (Million dollar idea: put this on a bumper sticker and sell it.) Instead of jumping out of bed and rushing to begin my day and get to work, I move more slowly, deliberately. My time is mine, and I am going to feed myself before giving my time to work. I try to do quiet time in the evening, too, with dim lighting and soothing music and more journal writing (which includes gratitude journaling), to help me wind down and mentally prepare to end the day and sleep, although sometimes evening TV watching gets in the way of evening quiet time. Working on it!

These have been regular practices and habits since the beginning of the new year, and they are working. And I know that my life privileged enough so that I can do a lot of these things. I don’t have to figure out child care; my work-life is very flexible and I have a lot of freedom. I recognize the privilege I have that allows me to structure my life in this way. And I should note that my life isn’t perfect; I’m not super happy 100 percent of the time. I still have stress and worry and anxiety. But the difference is that these things don’t rule me as much as they used to. I feel more in charge of my life; I feel more steady and even. I find myself singing to myself one of my favorite lines from Hamilton, in “The Schuyler Sisters.” “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I feel less dread; I feel more distant from burnout. I feel powerful, and this is a very, very good feeling indeed.

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For the lucky librarian about to go on sabbatical, especially @donnarosemary

If you are a librarian about to go on sabbatical, I probably don’t need to tell you how lucky you are. I’m pretty sure you already know how luxurious it is to have extended paid time off to think and write and read as much as you want. But even if you are fully aware of how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and are eagerly awaiting the day your leave begins, you still might have some anxiety about what’s to come. Having experienced, enjoyed, and returned from a semester sabbatical leave, I have some words to share that may be wisdom or may be useless. Do with this what you will, keeping in mind that your mileage may vary, etc.

  1. Do what you need to do to tie up loose ends before you leave, but try not to stress too much about it. Do the minimum required to be a good and respectful departmental citizen and move on. Don’t kill yourself over it. You don’t have to leave your office, your desk, your inbox, or your anything in a perfect, pristine state. The library and the university will go on without you.

This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: "You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up" followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
This image is a screen shot of a tweet to @donnarosemary that reads: “You do not need to be the valedictorian of pre-sabb-loose-end-tying-up” followed by a spiderweb and thunderbolt emojis.
2. Do not listen to the grumblings of resentful colleagues who want you to know how inconvenienced they are going to be by your absence. If your institution is anything like mine, your sabbatical would not have been approved if there wasn’t a way to do without you for awhile. The solution may not perfect, and yes, people will be inconvenienced, but that is for your boss/dean/director/etc. to figure out, not you. Your job is to take the leave and do the work you proposed to do to the best of your ability, so do not feel guilty.

3. When you start your leave, you may feel unmoored by the sudden lack of structure in your day. You will likely need a routine of some kind to help you make the most of your time and not feel like you’re just frittering the time away. I urge you to experiment with developing a structure and schedule that works for you so you don’t feel completely untethered. However, make your schedule flexible, because life happens, and and there’s no point in beating yourself up if you don’t read X number of pages or write X words per day. For example, I abandoned my schedule and read all 800-plus pages of Anna Karenina in great big gulps over three days, because I could, and because I wanted to, and it was awesome. Sure, I didn’t get anything else done, but I got back to work when I was done, and it was fine.

4. Read and write stuff unrelated to your project. You’ll need breaks from the intellectual labor of your sabbatical project, so try doing some exercises with a creative writing workbook. It may help stir things up and ideas will click into place when you’re concentrating on other matters. Also, read for pleasure, if you can. See Anna Karenina above.

5. You do have an obligation to do or begin to do whatever you proposed in your sabbatical application, but you also have an obligation to tend to more than just your mind. Your physical/emotional/mental/spiritual health need attention as well. You have probably applied for sabbatical after the long, arduous, emotionally-fraught tenure process. You need a rest, so take one. Sleep in for as long as you need to when you start your leave and get it out of your system, because let’s be real: you can’t sleep your sabbatical away. Go to a daytime movie on a Tuesday. Explore the wonders of daytime television. (I recommend General Hospital. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t watch it growing up like I did. You’ll catch up.) Take naps. Start meditating. Learn how to bake bread. If you are able and interested, incorporate physical activity into your routine. Go for regular walks, or get a yoga CD or DVD. Just whatever you enjoy and brings you energy and pleasure and satisfaction.

6. Don’t feel like you need a special, dedicated space to do your work. When I was on my sabbatical, I did not have a study or an office or private space. I mostly read and wrote at my kitchen table while listening to the local classical music station. It worked just fine. (Also, because apparently no one else listens to my local classical music station during the day, I kept being the lucky caller who won tickets to things. I went to the opera and the ballet!)

7. After you’ve had some quiet time to yourself and the chatter in your mind has quieted down, you might find yourself feeling lonely. This is normal. I was surprised by how isolated and lonely I felt. Reach out to people and connect with your friends. If you know other people who are available during the day, have weekday lunch dates with them. This will refresh you and help you get focused back on your work.

8. Avoid going to your campus if you can help it. Check out all of the books you think you’ll need ahead of time. (I brought home two suitcases full.) Set up an out-of-office message for your voicemail and email directing people elsewhere if they need something, and try not to check your voice or email if at all possible. I personally checked my email maybe every other week, mostly to delete stuff, just to keep things from getting out of control.

9. And since you’re avoiding campus, this is a good time to become an avid user of your local public library, if you aren’t already, and if your local public library is a good one.

I come from immigrant people. My great-grandfather was a carusu and had a second grade education. So believe me, I understand my good fortune to have had a sabbatical, and I’m sure you do as well. Your sabbatical will end before you know it, and then you have to figure out how to reintegrate yourself into your workplace and worklife. But that’s to worry about later. For now, just enjoy your time, and your space, and the quiet, and your books, and revel in the luxury of being paid to not go to work. :hearteyes:

 

Coming out of the spiritual closet

This is a dark time of year, a time when I think a lot (or more than usual) about meaning-making in a world that feels so broken, about shining light on what is real and true and good, about what my values are and who I am and why am I here. You know, just the normal stuff.

So it’s in this mindset that I was recently reflecting on a #critlib chat moment. I do not participate in the #critlib chats because I find them hard to follow and process and keep up with. My thoughts aren’t always easily digestible into 140 characters, and by the time I have figured out a way to express my thought concisely, the conversation has usually already moved on. Also, there are so many people all tweeting at once, and I have difficulty understanding who is saying what and to whom.  So while I will occasionally watch part of the chat, I don’t contribute.

Sometime earlier this year, maybe over the summer, when I was lurking on a #critlib Twitter chat, a participant made a snarky comment about people who go to church. I don’t remember the exact context or wording, but it came across to me as sarcastic and mocking. I felt stung and offended and hurt by this comment, but I didn’t respond.

Part of the reason why I didn’t respond was because I never participate to begin with, and I felt like jumping into the conversation to challenge this comment wasn’t really the best way to begin my participation. I also know that because of the reasons I describe above, it’s really easy to lose nuance and context in a Twitter conversation, so for all I knew, there was some legitimate context for the assertion about people who go to church that I didn’t know about. I also felt worried that chiming in to say, “hey, what do you mean by that?” might sound a bit too much like the people who protest #NotAllMen (i.e., pointing out that some people who claim to be representing Jesus do terrible, terrible things and I’m Not Like That) and that would derail the larger conversation.

So I did nothing except stew over it all night. And maybe I’m still stewing over it now. It’s on my mind because I was corresponding with someone recently about feeling like you have a minority viewpoint within a dominant culture. And maybe it’s also on my mind because yesterday was the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent, which might be my favorite season of the church year. Advent is all about expectant waiting, about lighting candles in a dark season and anticipating the promise of light at the end. To me, there is so much magic about Advent that has nothing to do with presents and Santa Claus and everything to do with my belief that the God of my understanding came to earth as a helpless baby in the unlikeliest of places. (Don’t get me wrong, though–I’m still super into Santa and presents under the tree.)

I was born and raised Roman Catholic and educated at Catholic schools for K-12, and I also spent two years at a Jesuit university before transferring to a state school, where I graduated. Today I identify as Episcopalian, but mostly I am just me, and I am someone who finds thin spaces in quiet contemplation, in the familiar symbolism of rich and ancient rituals, and in the life-affirming inclusive language of the liturgy. Sometimes, though, it’s not the Book of Common Prayer but a teaching and learning moment that will leave me breathless and disoriented. Sometimes, during a reference encounter or in the classroom, I will truly see a student, really see the student as a person, a human, a unique and beautiful child of the universe whose inherent dignity and worth are so precious. I’ve written here before how the spiritual dimensions of teaching have been immensely healing to me and the burnout I struggle with. The funny thing is that while my spiritual practices and beliefs are of some comfort to me, I also feel lonely in my beliefs. It’s not something I really talk about, for fear of being mocked in a manner not unlike that #critlib comment I observed over the summer.

I’m writing this in the hopes there are other people like me, spiritually-closeted or otherwise, who see spirituality as an essential component of their identities as teachers. Are you out there? Maybe we could talk.

Resisting burnout through the spiritual dimensions of feminist pedagogy

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to wrap my mind around this past semester. My campus has a master’s of interdisciplinary studies program, and I taught a course about feminist pedagogy in this program this spring. The class consisted of seven graduate students and two undergraduate students, since the class was cross-listed with the undergraduate honors program. There was something about teaching a course about feminist pedagogy using feminist pedagogical methods that was simultaneously exhausting, to such a degree that it’s taken me awhile to be able to talk about it coherently and without wanting to cry, but at the same time incredibly enriching. Teaching this class opened a door to a way of teaching that embraced the affective dimension of teaching rather than shying away from it or resisting it, and it also provided access to a spiritual aspect of teaching that was unexpected, but still profoundly meaningful.

I think I wrote in my book (I say I think, because writing the book happened a long time ago and my memory is fuzzy) about how sometimes I feel like I have to obscure the feminist approaches to my teaching because I’m afraid of how people will react or respond. So to have the freedom to be unabashedly and justifiably explicit about my politics, and how they inform my teaching, was very exciting and liberating. To witness the power of feminist pedagogy each week, to see students’ perspectives—and even their lives!—transform each week—I don’t even know how to describe how moving and powerful this was for me. It was humbling. For example, I watched one of my students struggle to integrate her conservative Christian worldview with feminism all semester, and at the end of the semester, she wrote a paper that examined biblical passages to argue that Jesus was a feminist teacher. Another student experienced the death of her sister during the semester, and she shared with me that she employed feminist pedagogical methods to help her and her family plan the memorial service. Other students reported integrating feminist pedagogy into their work lives, into their relationships and personal lives, and it was a sincere and genuine privilege to witness their journeys throughout the semester.

I’m reminded of this concept from Celtic spirituality called the thin place or thin space, and it describes the place or space where you can sense and experience the divine more closely than you can anywhere else. This is my own definition of it, and if you Google around, you’ll read all kinds of perspectives on it, but this is the basic concept. I think that the term is meant to describe literal places, according to my understanding, but for me, teaching this course on feminist pedagogy using feminist pedagogy was a kind of thin place, where my breath was regularly taken away by a feeling of proximity to something much, much bigger than I, where reading final papers was a spiritual experience, and assigning grades to them felt like blasphemy. The papers still sit in a pile on the bed in my study, because I feel terrible about recycling or shredding or otherwise disposing of them.

I’d like to describe myself as a pragmatic Roman Catholic-turned-Episcopalian who is mostly anti-New Agey or woo woo or whatever. But it is a true fact that I am wordlessly and ineffably drawn to Marian iconography, that I have a Virgen de Guadalupe candle on the desk in my study, that I have the Rublev Trinity icon hanging above my desk, as well as various things I’ve cut out from my church bulletin. But I don’t know how else to express it, except to say that I’m reminded of when I was an undergraduate in college, and one of my psychology professors was conducting research on I don’t even remember what, and we, his students, were regularly asked to fill out surveys about various things. I remember one of the questions, which I think was rated on a Likert scale, was something like, “I feel chills when I see beautiful works of art or read good poetry” or something along those lines. I rated this as a Strongly Agree, and I recall thinking to myself: “Wait, so there are people who don’t feel this way? What’s wrong with them?” I bring this up to try to draw a parallel, to try to explain that this particular teaching experience provoked similar feelings that are difficult to explain: this sense of being unaccountably moved, altered, transformed, just as I am by Psalm 4 or Richard Proulx’s Exodus Canticle.

I think feminist pedagogy can be a deeply healing experience for a teacher. For me, feminist pedagogy, whether in a semester-long course, or in a library instruction one-shot, is more taxing than more traditional modes of teaching. It takes a lot out of me, but the rewards are so rich and soul-feeding that it is worth it to me. And, for me, embracing feminist pedagogy is a way out of the soul-killing dehumanization that is burnout. Feminist pedagogy insists on and honors the humanity of both the teacher and the learner. These feelings are echoed in the work of one of my students, Katie, who gave me permission to use her name and quote from her paper. Katie’s paper argues that feminist pedagogy is a sacred experience, and she notes, “When the personal is no longer considered a valid area of sharing and exploring, both the teacher and student lose much of their personhood.” I believe this to be very, very true, and for me, resisting burnout in the library instruction classroom and beyond means embracing the difficult and demanding but gratifying and soul-feeding work of teaching through a feminist lens. This means being fully present as a teacher, as a person and participant with thoughts and feelings and perspectives and filters and baggage.

On the last day of class, I asked my students to tell a story, using words, images, or both, about their experience with feminist pedagogy. I provided them with sheets of paper and a box of crayons and played soothing instrumental music, and I participated in the activity as well. My image is below, and here is what it means: for me, teaching this class was a way of accessing and being my whole self, and the hole in my self, my soul, that was caused by burnout and depression and all sorts of things was healed and transformed and made new. And as I continue to progress on this journey that is teaching, I need to remember to continually draw upon—and simultaneously feed—my whole self, my whole soul, in order to seek renewal, healing, and joy.

me