This week:

  • College leaders discuss the challenges of faculty burnout.
  • An educator looks at the problems of breakout rooms.
  • I point you to readings you may have missed.
  • I introduce you to a new newsletter about race on campus.

Burned Out

Are we hitting peak burnout? College instructors have been moving at 100 miles per hour since March, building their online, hybrid, or socially distanced classes even as they teach them. Add child care and other personal stressors, plus service and research obligations, and it’s no wonder people are feeling simultaneously frazzled and numb.

In an article earlier this month that resonated with a lot of readers, I told the stories of several professors on the edge of burnout. Some are teaching four or more courses online. Others are working six days a week. Still others are trying to conduct research when lab access is limited.

This week, I tuned into a Chronicle webinar in which college presidents and researchers talked about faculty burnout and what colleges can do to support professors. First, the bad news: nobody sees these problems disappearing anytime soon. Job satisfaction, employment prospects, work-life balance, the ability to conduct research — all have been dramatically, perhaps permanently, affected by the pandemic.

“This is a three- to four-year solution we’re looking at,” said Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University. “There’s going to be a long tail to this virus.”

If there’s a positive note to the turbulence, said Katherine Rowe, president of the College of William & Mary, it is that it has made the invisible labor of women and faculty of color visible. Sometimes this happens literally, she noted: We now all see each other’s children in the background of videoconference calls, highlighting how professors who are also parents have had to do double duty since March.

That’s why, said Rowe, naming and recognizing these challenges, then making structural changes to address them, have to be part of any conversation around supporting faculty. Otherwise the inequities baked into academe will only worsen.

Kiernan Mathews, executive director of the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University, noted that research has shown that some gender-blind policies, like extending the tenure clock, tend to benefit men. So colleges also need to rethink the ways in which they evaluate faculty members, such as increasing the rewards for service.

“We’re just going to have … a whiter, more male academy in the future if we don’t change those tenure and promotion policies,” Mathews said.

While nobody offered any grand solutions, they discussed a few steps colleges can take. They include:

  • Document the impact of the pandemic on faculty workloads. That helps administrators understand the magnitude of the challenge and see the differential effects on various groups on campus.
  • Ensure that faculty and staff members are aware of existing resources and think creatively about new ones. Sian Leah Beilock, president of Barnard College, said they extended child-care and elder-care benefits, allowing faculty members to use their own providers, which proved successful. Barnard also deployed hundreds of work-study students to help professors monitor chats in online classrooms and to tutor the children of faculty members.
  • Lean into shared governance. Rowe said William & Mary “radically expanded” the decision-making body on her campus responding to the pandemic. It has grown to about 80 people, up from 20.

For more on the impact of the pandemic on faculty life, read the results of a survey we ran in October on faculty well-being, underwritten by Fidelity. And tune into a webinar on December 1 with chief financial officers discussing faculty career paths.

Has your campus come up with some ways to address faculty burnout? What kind of policy or action would you find most helpful to support professors at this time? Write to me at and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

The Trouble With Breakout Rooms

Last week Karen Costa, a faculty developer, posted a Twitter thread about breakout rooms, those often awkward attempts to arrange small-group activities online. She noted that a lot of people at a professional-development conference she attended online were leaving as soon as they were put into breakout rooms. And she used that as an opportunity to talk about why breakout rooms may not work.

You can read the thread here, but a couple things jumped out at me. For one, she notes that if you don’t first build community in your online class (or conference session), you’re basically just throwing a bunch of people together with not much to talk about. Or, as she put it: “Sending people into a small room with strangers is awkward-sauce.”

Another is that breakout rooms are a good illustration of how something that might be effective (people being active participants in their own learning) is also something that people want to avoid.

That got me wondering: Have you had problems with breakout rooms in your classes? And were you able to do anything to make them work better? If so, drop me a line at and your story may appear in a future newsletter.


  • Read how students are fighting back against test proctoring companies in this Washington Post story.
  • Focus on concepts, not content, for deeper learning, writes Terry McGlynn, a biology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills, in this Chronicle advice piece.
  • In her newsletter, Culture Study, Anne Helen Petersen talks with Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, about her research around motherhood and work.

New Newsletter: Race on Campus

This year laid bare our country’s stark racial inequalities. Almost everyone in higher education — and at your institution — feels the impact of race, but they feel it from different vantages. That’s why The Chronicle is starting a new newsletter: Race on Campus. Once a week, a team of reporters will try to make sense of how the national reckoning on race is unfolding at colleges across the country. The newsletter will share the different perspectives of people advocating for change, and explore what colleges can do to become more equitable, inclusive places. Sign up for the newsletter here.

A programming note: We won’t be sending out a newsletter next week because it’s Thanksgiving. Enjoy your holiday and we’ll see you in December!

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