The most recent assignment from Preparing for the Future Professoriate was to write about something you think should change in higher education. For that topic itself I want to focus on more concrete changes – educational requirements and structure. However, I think there are a number of changes in academic culture that should change.
If I learned anything in the Peace Corps, it is that the most successful people are those who can maintain resilience; not a mythical human who never has days they just hate or one who insists on not feeling the bad days, but those people who have constructed a network of coping mechanisms and supports that allow them to weather ever-changing stresses. But even the most resilient people can be knocked down by exceptionally poor circumstances.
Have you ever felt “burned out”? Being burnt out is a crumbling of your motivation that can occur when you don’t engage with effective coping mechanisms in the face of constant stress – this often happens to students and, I suspect, to faculty. There is a different feeling when you pass the limit of your coping mechanisms, even if you have employed them to the best of your ability. It is like if you were out in a winter rain and you progressively lost your umbrella and your rain jacket, and then when you were already soaked to the bone, your boots. The feeling is looking ahead of you knowing the direction but not the distance, somewhere between angry & hopeless, right before you start forging on.
Some people get to this point, where they know more stress and trouble is coming but they’re out of help and shields, and they start to fight bare-handed, leaning in on the anger. Other people may lean in to that hopeless feeling, sit down, and wait for someone else to fix the problem. Still others refuse the mix of emotions, letting it go until they’re safe. This is how many people respond to trauma, too. I’ve been becoming more familiar with how similar responses to long-term stress and trauma are lately.
Fortunately, being burned out isn’t nearly as bad – you can avoid it if you use your coping tools (not just sleep, but exercise, social time, etc). However, a prominent cultural value in academia is busy-ness. The busier, the better. It is a proxy for success and to be busy frequently means perpetuating unhealthy physical and mental habits like skipping sleep.
So, here is my position on skipping sleep:
Our living waking experience is all we get, which means that sufficient sleep is essential to insure that we have the best (and most productive) waking time possible.
Many people resent sleep for cutting into time to have experiences or do work, and so they cut into their sleep instead. By doing so, you’re giving away your protection from stress while actively pursuing a stressful lifestyle. I think that we would be much more productive and happy in academia if we prioritized sleep and quality work over as much work as possible. I know what burning out and worse feel like, so I can’t condone sacrificing health for status.
So, what would I change about higher-ed culture? The absurd value placed on being tired and busy.