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Answers have been edited for length and clarity. In order to show the full range of candid responses, we have kept all participants anonymous.
Has your relationship to your work and your college changed since the pandemic started? Do you feel supported by your administration?
Prior to the pandemic, I was working toward taking on leadership roles. I was committed to working with students outside of traditional class hours and attending evening or weekend events at my institution. I did more with my professional organization. All this has changed. This is my job and I do it for the requisite number of hours for pay — I have let go of the vocational awe that made it a calling worthy of sacrifice. I’ve learned I don’t want to do more work. Work isn’t my life; it is what enables me to live my life.
I cycle between nihilism and rage when I think about my tenured position. The administration has ignored the massive effort and time required to adjust for either remote or socially distanced hybrid learning. Every effort has been made to focus on enrollment with no regard to the mission of the university, culminating in the sudden decision to not enforce its own vaccine-mandate timeline. Shared governance on items that truly matter does not exist. I am desperate to find a new career.
I feel the pull to disengage strongly now as I talk to friends not in academia who make six-figure salaries with guaranteed cost-of-living raises, while my salary has not even kept pace with inflation. I’m giving it all I’ve got, but I’m middle-aged, burdened with enormous educational debt, and tired of living only marginally better than a grad student for the last 10 years. I’m starting to feel hopeless for the future.
Our administration initially had a vigorous response to the pandemic. At first, we pivoted to all online. But this is a deep-red state, and in 2021 the administration sent us back to classrooms. Despite the Omicron surge, we have continued to be in the classroom over faculty objections. The feeling of support we had in 2020 has steadily eroded as our leadership bowed to state leadership that opposed even minor concessions to safety.
Everything requires more effort now, and after two years of the pandemic, I have less effort to give. I need to be more choosy with my time and priorities, professionally and personally. It’s like I’ve been slowly peeling an onion since March 2020, getting to the essence of what must be done and what I truly want to get done.
In one way it’s been awful, but as a formerly lifelong people pleaser, the deterioration of a sense of belonging and connection to my work-life has, in another way, been liberating. As a tenured faculty member with a bit more job security, I can now say “No” to all the superfluous service that used to comprise far more than the supposed 20 percent in my work allocation. It has been a guilt reducer and transformed my outlook for the better.
My relationship with work and my institution has changed from love-hate to hate-love. For the first time in 17 years, my job feels like work more than vocation. I do not feel supported, valued, or even acknowledged by my administration.
If you feel disengaged, what would it take to turn your attitude around?
I have supported my students who need to take “mental-health days” as they struggle with burnout, exhaustion, and exacerbated mental-health challenges. As faculty, we are not exempt from these challenges, yet the idea that I or any other faculty could use a day to recoup would be otherworldly. When I have become ill, I am expected to teach virtually. The simple acknowledgement that our health and well-being are important to the institution would make me feel a bit better.
I need a really long break, without email, without extra assignments I “should” be working on. I might use the time for my research, but I want it to be my choice. I need more support from the administration to re-evaluate what the myriad tasks and responsibilities of my job are, and how I can move, change, remove, delay, and otherwise make room within my assigned duties for the increased workload the pandemic created.
A promotion and salary raise, for starters. There’s no support system for women, and we tend to do far more service that goes unrecognized and unrewarded. It would also be nice to get more regular verbal and written recognition and appreciation at work.
My level of disengagement is healthier for me. Yes, this means I’m giving less of myself and my time to my students, but I think the boundaries create a clearer model of what working relationships should look like. I’m no longer considering the move up into leadership because of the frustrations of navigating institutional barriers and bureaucracy. I don’t want to become that bureaucracy.
A substantial increase in compensation, even in nonmonetary ways that would improve my quality of life (like housing subsidies or assistance, better work accommodations, etc.), or some kind of broad, public recognition that the sacrifices I have made were not poor life decisions but actually valued contributions to the future of American cultural life.
Universities should stop hiring upper administrators from outside. Internal hires would engage the community more and help re-establish the sense that we are one community.
At this point, I cannot think of anything that would change my attitude. Too much damage has been done with too little leadership regarding the pandemic at my university.
The fact that we are now pushing against a system that has been exploitative for generations is not an attitude to be “turned around.” My students are not my children, to deserve unending emotional support from me. Maybe what we are now calling disengagement is just a version of what Bipoc colleagues have been telling us for years about the abuse they receive and the lack of care or response at an institutional level. Now we are all subject to that lack of care, in one way or another.