The past few weeks I’ve seen so many posts about burnout that it made me wonder about how academics in particular (and everyone in general) conceptualize their boundaries around work. Academics receive little to no instruction (depending on your advisor) about establishing healthy work boundaries in graduate school, and then, I suspect, this tendency to overwork persists until we face total burnout. The blessing and curse of academic life is the semester schedule where, on the one hand, we get a break once the final grades are turned in, but, on the other hand, we keep telling ourselves that “once the semester is over,” we will suddenly arrive at a place where we will have work life balance.
Oddly enough, I didn’t realize I lacked work boundaries until I left academia to work at what was essentially a start-up as a marketing lead. One of the downsides of working at a start-up is the lack of clearly defined roles, rules, and success criteria. You met or exceeded bar X? Well the bar is now Z! It didn’t help that I was doing the work of a whole team essentially by myself. This experience fundamentally changed my relationship to work boundaries. First, I started tracking my work time. I had just read I Know How She Does It by Laura Vanderkam, and it made me wonder how much time I actually spent working vs. not working. So I tracked it, and I forced myself to stop at 40 hours each week. I also realized at this time that I had developed an anxiety response to my smartphone. Every time I went to do anything with it – check the time, check the weather – I could feel a wave of anxiety. I realized that it’s because I had work email notifications enabled on my phone, and my body was responding to the dread I felt seeing those emails outside of work hours. So I turned off all email notifications.
I’m not sure why it took working outside of academia to force me to evaluate my boundaries. Perhaps because I saw my marketing role as “just a job” (as opposed to a life calling). If that is the case, it speaks to the prevailing issues we have in academia (and teaching more broadly) of putting up with poverty-line wages and overwork because “we love it.”
You might be wondering if I’ve been able to maintain boundaries now that I’ve returned to teaching. Do I see a difference between my obligations for a profit-driven start-up and a struggling student? Absolutey. But what I’ve come to realize is that having firm boundaries in place acts less like a solid barrier to good teaching and more like bridges to good teaching.
Picture a moat around your teaching island over which you’ve placed several sturdy bridges. Now you might be tempted to add as many bridges as possible but at some point you’ll be surrounded by students clamoring to get onto teaching island and unable, as just one person, to help them all at once. Fewer bridges means you can actually help the students who make it across. Sure that means some of them will have to walk for a while to find the nearest bridge, but that’s not too much to ask, and often, by the time they get to the bridge, they’ve figured out the answer to their own question and no longer need the bridge. This means that the students who make it across really need your help AND that you are in a position to actually help them.
I won’t attempt to say what your work boundaries should look like because everyone’s job looks different and what works in one context won’t work in another, but I do invite you to reflect on your boundaries and to ask yourself if there are ways that you could build fewer (but stronger) bridges.
Some of the teaching-related boundaries that work for me are:
No work email notifications on my phone or computer. I can still access email from my phone, but I don’t have to see the icon or hear annoying dings coming from my computer every few minutes.
I only check email M-F from 9am-5pm (and sometimes once on Sunday at 11am bc my asynchronous students have things due that day). I communicate this policy to students over and over so they can manage their expectations about when they will receive my attention.
I batch my emails 3 – 4 times per day; meaning I only check it 3 or 4 times to respond all at once instead of as things come in.
I’ve implemented the 1 or 2 “takes” rule for any video or audio designed for teaching to avoid spending excessive time on teaching materials. In general I try to have a “good enough” approach to all teaching materials with an eye on making incremental adjustments toward better content (more on this in a future post).
I have a less is more feedback strategy.
For most academics there are other aspects of our jobs besides teaching that contribute to the feeling of overwork (admin and research/writing to name two big ones). And I have ways of dealing with those as well. I try not to work on weekends, for example. I do not take work with me on vacations. I say “no” to some things to make space for the good stuff. I try to make room for more awesome.
Of course all the work boundaries in the world won’t help if you are in the wrong work environment. I ultimately returned to academia (without a solid prospect for full-time employment, I might add) in spite of the work boundaries I implemented at the start-up. No amount of boundary-making will entirely compensate for the fact that our university system is crumbling under the weight of late-stage capitalism. And the pandemic? It simultaneously erased so many essential boundaries AND created circumstances in which boundaries were more necessary to our mental health than ever (doomscrolling anyone?). I’m betting ALL of us could use a boundary refresh.
So what is one boundary you want to work on in the coming months? Leave a comment below! I’d love to hear from you. Also, if you have questions I can answer in future teaching tips posts, let me know.
Stay tuned for more posts this year about teaching, research, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions and Instagram: @ecacademic (where I really nerd out about planning). You can also follow this blog (see the email subscribe button on the home page).