This week:

  • I ask a scholar studying higher-ed burnout what instructors are dealing with — and what can be done about it.
  • I point you to a related article that reminds college leaders: “Your best people are your best resource.”
  • I share recent articles on teaching that you may have missed.

Professors Are the Tether

The newsletter I sent out two weeks ago was a bit of a to-do list, rounding up advice for professors to document their teaching success, reflect, and rest as the semester came to a close.

Taking those steps, I think, is a way for faculty members to help their future selves: It will make life just a little bit easier come fall. At the same time, I don’t want to lose sight of the context in which this effort is being made. It’s an incredibly difficult time to be an instructor. To help make sense of that, I turned to Kevin R. McClure.

Over the past couple of years, McClure has emerged as a go-to expert on higher education’s burned-out work force. McClure, an associate professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, emphasizes the problem’s pre-pandemic roots and the need for institutional, rather than personal, solutions. And he’s trying to get the challenges front-line faculty and staff face on the radar of more college leaders.

The burnout instructors are feeling, McClure told me, is not so different from what others in higher ed face, especially those in front-line roles. But the stakes of that burnout are high. Instructors design and teach courses and play an important role in students’ lives. “And there’s some real question,” he said, “around what bandwidth they have to be doing that.”

McClure described professors as the “tether” connecting students to their institutions, which struck a chord with me. It brought me back to an article I wrote in the early weeks of pandemic teaching, in which Sean Michael Morris described “finding yourself on a desert island with your students.” Especially in those first few months, professors were the college to their students.

Students, meanwhile, need a level of support that might be unrecognizable to someone who hasn’t taught in, say, the last decade.

Little wonder, then, that professors are tired. In response, McClure says, “there are many institutions whose solution to some of these challenges is to encourage faculty and staff to engage in self-care, to establish boundaries, to take care of themselves.” But it’s clear from research and conversations with faculty that such advice is insufficient, McClure says, because “these are workplace issues. These are organizational problems.”

Given that, McClure says, departments must better understand the work faculty put into supporting students in order to make their workloads more equitable. At most colleges, he says, human-resource policies are full of low-hanging fruit. For instance, McClure says, he’s seen examples of colleges providing funding so faculty who are parents can bring children along on research trips, or offering backup child care.

Despite glimmers of change, many instructors feel unsupported by their colleges as they take on an ever-increasing workload. What might a professor in that situation do? Collective action can help, McClure says, and there’s a case to be made for students — who benefit from faculty efforts — and faculty using their organizations to advocate jointly.

If these efforts don’t succeed, McClure says, it’s only natural for professors to consider taking their talents elsewhere. “That pains me a little bit,” he says — McClure teaches graduate students who intend to go into higher-ed administration. “But one of the clearest messages that people are sending to higher education right now is when they leave.”

The bottom line? “You don’t get student success,” McClure says, “unless you have invested in faculty well-being.”

Jumping Ship

My conversation with McClure made me think back to an opinion piece Sarah Rose Cavanagh, now senior associate director for teaching and learning at Simmons University (and the person who encouraged you to sleep), wrote for the Chronicle almost a year ago. The headline pulls no punches: “Your Most Important Resource Is Eyeing the Door.” It’s worth reading, or re-reading, now.

And it makes me wonder: Are you rethinking your relationship to your college, or your career? Share your thoughts with me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com and they may appear in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • Robert Zaretsky offers a different take on student disengagement in an essay for The Review.
  • Debra L. Berke, a professor and director of psychology programs at Wilmington University, and her colleagues, have created a “trauma-informed framework” for higher education.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

—Beckie

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