268. Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout

This episode is a live recording of a panel session at the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. The panelists were Michelle Miller, Liz Norell, and Kelvin Thompson.

Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory in a Wired World, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the Teaching Online Podcast.

Show Notes

  • Panelists:
  • Miller, M. D. (2014). Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology. Harvard University Press.
  • Miller, M. D. (2022). Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching, Learning, and the Science of Memory in a Wired World.
  • Norell, Liz (forthcoming). Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. West Virginia University Press.
  • BlendKit
  • TOPcast
  • Brandon Bayne’s twitter post on the adjusted syllabus.
  • Nick Sousanis’ syllabi
  • Behling, K. T., & Tobin, T. J. (2018). Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virginia University Press.
  • Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository (TOPR)
  • Joosten, T., Harness, L., Poulin, R., Davis, V., & Baker, M. (2021). Research Review: Educational Technologies and Their Impact on Student Success for Racial and Ethnic Groups of Interest. WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET).
  • Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin Press.
  • Eaton, Robert; Steven V. Hunsaker, and Bonnie Moon (forthcoming, 2023) Improving Learning and Mental Health in the College Classroom. West Virginia University Press.
  • Enneagram test


John: This is a recording of a live panel session that took place during the Online Learning Consortium’s Accelerate Conference in Orlando on November 17, 2022. We hope that you enjoy it as much as we did.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Welcome to “Advancing Inclusivity while Mitigating Burnout.” I’m John Kane, an economist and the Director of the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

Rebecca: I’m Rebecca Mushtare, a designer and an Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUNY Oswego. We’re the hosts of the Tea for Teaching podcast and the moderators for today’s session. We’d like to let everyone know that we’re recording this session in order to release it in an upcoming episode of Tea for Teaching. And today’s session will include 30 minutes of moderated discussion, followed by 10 minutes of questions from all of you, and I’ll turn it over to John to introduce our panel.

John: Our panelists are Michelle Miller. Michelle is a professor of psychological sciences and a President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Michelle is the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and also more recently, Remembering and Forgetting in the Age of Technology: Teaching and Learning and the Science of Memory, which was recently released by West Virginia University Press. We also have Liz Norell. Liz is a political scientist, and an associate professor at Chattanooga State Community College. She is also an experienced registered yoga teacher with over 500 hours of training completed. She is currently working on a book on Why Presence Matters in High Quality Learner-Centered Equitable Learning Spaces. We also have Kelvin Thompson. Kelvin is the Executive Director of the University of Central Florida’s Center for Distributed Learning, and graduate faculty scholar in UCF’s College of Education and Human Performance. He developed the open courseware BlendKit course that many of us have taken, and cohosts TOPcast, the teaching online podcast.

Rebecca: This wouldn’t be a complete episode of tea for teaching if we didn’t ask about tea. So Kelvin, our coffee drinker, are you drinking tea today?

Kelvin: I am drinking tea today, Rebecca, this is a mint tea from Tazo. I have to admit, I went looking for my favorite conference tea, which is that orange Tazo tea that I looked everywhere and they didn’t have any.

Rebecca: Ah, a little bummer. Michelle?

Michelle: Well, true to form, I’m drinking coffee and I’m going to admit that I also mixed it with Swiss Miss hot chocolate, [LAUGHTER] a very guilty pleasure on many levels.

Liz: I don’t drink anything hot. So I’m drinking diet coke.

Rebecca: Woo!

Liz: Thank you.

Rebecca: As many guests before you have as well.

Liz: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: John?

John: And I am drinking an English breakfast tea today.

Rebecca: And I have some very strong Awake tea, so that we’re really awake for this episode.

John: The pandemic spurred a rapid transition of instructional methods and an increased focus on inclusive teaching, and we want to talk a bit about that in today’s session. We’d like to ask the panelists: What were some of the improvements in inclusivity and building a sense of belonging, that you’ve observed during the pandemic? …with particular emphasis on remote and asynchronous courses. And Liz is going to start.

Liz: What I found, particularly in asynchronous online courses, is that I have noticed this has much broadened the ability of neurodivergent students and students who have some kind of disability, especially an invisible disability. And the way that it’s done that is by really forcing us to accept multiple kinds of student engagement. So what I noticed in March of 2020, is that students who had been almost invisible in my face-to-face class, when we came back to Zoom after spring break, I didn’t see their faces, but I heard their voices, if not vocally than in the chat. And I have so thoroughly appreciated that. I also learned from my students that you can change the way you show up in Zoom by getting one of those little lens things over your camera and changing your virtual background. So oftentimes, they would come into a Zoom room, and this would be in a synchronous class, and they would have a different cartoon character of the day. And this is a wonderful way to get to know more about them and their personalities. What I’ve also found is that when we are meeting synchronously, recording the classes is really helpful for a lot of learners. And so, since I’ve gone back to face-to-face teaching, I always open a Zoom room and record it and sometimes students will join by Zoom because they can’t come to campus that day. My partner who teaches math has also started doing this because they found that it’s really helpful for the students to be able to review what they did in class when they’re trying to apply it in their homework or preparing for an exam. The last thing I want to mention is that I teach political science, we always do a unit on civil liberties. And one of the things that I did in person was bring in a prop box and have them do skits where they acted out the precipitating events to major Supreme Court civil liberties cases, and I thought there’s no way we can do this over zoom, right? Yes. And it’s just getting really creative with Zoom backgrounds, with props that they have in their houses. It makes it so much more campy that it’s much more fun, because in person they always like “Oooh, I’m nervous.” In Zoom, it’s going to be a train wreck, okay, we’re just gonna embrace that, and that really creates a really fun dynamic in the classroom.

Kelvin: I would agree with the broad brushstrokes of what Liz said, I would like to broaden it further though, and say that throughout the last couple of years, what I’ve seen in a way that I’ve never seen before is an emphasis on empathy, and what we might call a human first orientation. I was really heartened to see that in a lot of ways in the early days of the lockdown era of remote instruction, and I still see ripples of it now. Two things that come to mind from the early days that are worth a review, if you haven’t looked at him in a while. One that got kind of viral, the so-called adjusted syllabus of Brandon Bayne from UNC, where he got really kind of real and transparent with students and released it out all over for adaptation. And then Nick Sousanis from San Francisco State University more recently had what he called notes on now as a syllabus section that just kind of, in a more encapsulated way, he sort of said that he wants to keep anchoring down to that human-first element, and just keep that a present part of every course’s syllabus.

Rebecca: Thank you, both Liz and Kelvin for giving us some insights into what we’ve already been experiencing and reminding us about some of the strong improvements that we’ve had. Many campuses are moving back to onsite instruction, while also considering how much of their portfolio should be including online options. And while each campus continues to adapt and adjust, how can we maintain the momentum around inclusive practices and avoid slipping back into our old habits? Michelle, will you start us off?

Michelle: And I love the framing here as momentum, because I think that many campuses have generated a lot of great energy around the why of inclusion, the why of equity, the why of justice, and why this is so important. The trick is going to be to follow that energy on with more on the what and how… how do we put that into practice. And I really struggle when I think about it, because our students, they need practice when there’s a new skill, a new way of responding. They need practice in lots of new contexts. And I talk a lot about transfer. And we may remember a skill or develop a skill in one context and we just don’t remember to activate it and carry it through in a new context. And we’re going to need that. We’re going to need to have certain techniques and teaching moves that do become second nature to us and be able to recognize, hey, this is one of those opportunities to put those into practice. So I was just doing a session this morning by a group from the University of Wisconsin. And they talked about, for example, the need to provide lots of concrete examples to faculty like what does this look like? Maybe even in your discipline? So, for example, increased course structure, we know this is proven to be an inclusive teaching practice. So I need to say, “Oh, yeah, this is the place to do this.” The frequent low-stakes assessments, we know that that reduces disparities in opportunity and disparities in achievement across many student groups. And so offering those concrete paths, making sure we know how to set them up, and then showing faculty that we see it when they’re making the effort and rewarding that. We don’t always need that little extrinsic reward, but institutions have to really keep that up if they’re going to see that this carries through, because that’s going to be the difference between institutions that really have that momentum moving forward and the ones that fall behind.

Liz: I agree… [LAUGHTER] with what she said. I come at this from a little bit of a different perspective, because I am in the classroom, or at least in a virtual classroom. But I think the word that comes to mind for me when I think about momentum is intentionality. And I think if we can remember to teach through our values, especially those values that became so crystallized during COVID, that’s a really good first step. And I’m fond of saying that what’s good for students is good for us. So I want us to think about the ways that we prioritized care, humanity, grace with our students, and also make sure we’re doing that for one another and for ourselves. And I mentioned this before, but COVID really revealed a lot of inequities that had been there for a long time. And now that we know that they’re there, we have to be very intentional about ensuring that they don’t just kind of go back to being invisible again now that we’re not all on Zoom together. So those are the things that I’m thinking about. It’s really leaning into our values, not forgetting what we learned, being intentional and doing for ourselves what we have seen we need to do for our students.

Rebecca: That’s a great reminder to think about not just the students, but the whole community, faculty, staff, etc.

John: During the early stages of the pandemic, we saw a lot of experimentation. And we saw the rapid growth of remote synchronous instruction and HyFlex instruction. And one of the things I think many of us are wondering is what roles they will play as we move forward into the future. Helvin?

Kelvin: Well, my crystal ball never was working. [LAUGHTER] It’s not even broken. But here’s kind of what I think is happening and what may continue to happen. I think synchronous online options will continue to be a factor in our digital teaching and learning in a way that it was not before the pandemic. And it is certainly possible that what I refer to as true HyFlex may still have a place as well. It’s just, gosh, it’s hard to pull real true HyFlex off, right? It’s such a design-intensive approach. What I contrastingly refer to as pseudo HyFlex… dual mode, simulcasting, webcasting of classroom experience… that has challenges. It has a place, perhaps, in individual instructor preference. But I’m going to tell you, firsthand from faculty colleagues I talked to as well as data I’ve seen, it’s exhausting. And it’s challenging for students, the what is sometimes touted as student flexibility ends up just becoming sort of a lowering of expectations and come and go as you wish and the intentionality and momentum seems to dissipate. I’m a big fan of intentional design and modalities of choice, and so forth,,,that way, instead. So, I think synchronous is around and I think our mutated modalities are around. And true. HyFlex has a place. But I’d love to see a diminishing of pseudo HyFlex.

Michelle: This is sparking so many of my own thoughts that I’m really feeling in a way validated here. And I’ll echo a lot of this as well. I think that again, in true HyFlex, where I am fully engaging the folks who are all spread out, I’m fully engaging whoever’s in my classroom, and we’re achieving all of our objectives. That really is a lot. And it’s not the technology. It’s the cognitive capacity. And as a cognitive psychologist, I say, “Well, when you practice remembering to read the chat and read the room at the same time, those demands get a little bit less, but they don’t go away. It’s just too complex.” So I think that we are going to have, yeah, the true bonafide HyFlex courses going forward, they need to be designated, they need to be supported in a particular way. So they may not be unicorns exactly, but I kind of see that coming forward. What I feel like I’ve kind of settled into a more HyFlex light, HyFlex infused is, for example, if you’re home and you’re remote, you need to be remote today, I don’t have an elaborate Google doc with a structured discussion maybe for you. But you can follow along, you can send in a participation card, I do give a lot of credit for participation, and so we’re kind of moving to that. I do think that we still have a sense of possibility. I mean, we have definitely gotten those skills, and we will find new ways to use them. But even just the basics, like “Hey, you can record your class meetings.” And I offer that too as an option for catching up sometimes where needed. I really thought that was going to be a disaster for a lot of different reasons going on. I said that’s not going to work. And I will eat those words now. So we have a few of these tools in our toolkit that we can use in this lower key way, I think.

Rebecca: So Kelvin, you mentioned the ability of changing modalities and offering some flexibility here. And the ability for students to choose the modality that they take the course in is just one of the ways that we’ve seen increased flexibility. But we’ve also seen increased flexibility around attendance, assessments, and many other aspects of teaching. How can we continue to support increased flexibility for students without overburdening faculty. I’m really hoping you all have some magic that you can help with.

Michelle: Yeah, so increased flexibility without the overburdening of faculty… When I reflect on this, I think we can borrow from the plus one strategy that you might be familiar with from Universal Design for Learning. Tom Tobin and his colleagues who write about this… the idea being that, yeah, we’re working towards perhaps a very rich environment with many different ways to demonstrate what you know, to take a test, to participate in in a learning activity, but you don’t do it all at once. And I also think, too, that I know that I’ve gotten, I think, pretty adept at finding those opportunities for flexibility that don’t necessarily add more for me to do and I think an example of this would be the way I give exams these days. So during the pandemic, I said, there’s always going to be an option instead of sitting for a traditional test. So I have an option that’s an essay paper with length and scope parameters and so on. But students can structure this. I suggest they often structure it as an email home to your family about what you’ve learned during this portion of the course. I’ve had a few students who have run with it as a science fiction writing exercise, which works great in psychology. So people will report home to their alien commander or home base about what they’ve learned about humans on Planet Terra. And those are, if anything, just a change of pace for me to read. I’m reading the exams anyway. So I’m always about the efficiency and so that’s something that I’ve tried to capture as well. But here too, we have to remember there are risks when we offer these and faculty who do go out on that limb and try it the first semester or two… maybe it doesn’t work perfectly… they’ve got to be affirmed, and they’ve got to be protected especially untenured. Folks,

Kelvin: I feel like I want to report to my alien commander now. [LAUGHTER] “Mork calling Orson, Mork calling Orson,” that’s a deep cut call back, you have to be of a certain age to appreciate that. I agree with a lot of that. I don’t think I disagree with any of that. But I will broaden out a little bit and maybe anchor back, Rebecca, to your prompt a little bit. I personally think we should lean into intentional course design in intentionally designed and created modalities for which student flexibility is the intent. Asynchronous online is probably the most flexible thing we offer outside of maybe true adaptive learning, which is… don’t get me started… that’s another whole tough banana to peel. I need a better metaphor… bananas aren’t that tough to peel… [LAUGHTER] a tough onion to peel, there’s lots of tears. I don’t know… something. And then I think we need to reiterate to ourselves and to our faculty colleagues that there are codified effective practices in each of these course modality domains, like… a shameless plug… at UCF, we host the teaching online pedagogical repository (TOPR), an online compendium of online and blended teaching and design practices. So there’s stuff that we know that are research based, time honored, that work well and benefit students, things like the broad category of learner choice, which I think just echoes a little bit of what Michelle was saying. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel if we lean into those things. And there’s real student benefit for doing that.

John: The disruptions we experienced in education during the pandemic when people were learning remotely affected all students, but disproportionately affected students who are first-gen, students from low income households and minoritized students. How does higher education need to adjust to meet the diverse needs of all of our students, some of which were not as affected by the pandemic if they were in well-resourced school districts and others that were left behind a bit when they didn’t have access to the technology or the resources that better funded school districts had?

Kelvin: Yeah, we could do better. Even here at the conference in which we’re participating here as we record this, we saw even today, student voice represented on stage and I think we can do better with that. There’s knowing who our students are, there are data that we are collecting and could collect that tell us something. But there’s also just attending to students’ personal stories, keeping a human face on the student experience, being grounded in our work there. But broadening further, again, I’m a big advocate of research-based and time-honored teaching practices. And in our digital teaching and learning domain, many of those have been shown to benefit minoritized and disadvantaged student sub-populations. I would do a shout out here to Tonya Joosten’s research review that has its long title. It’s got educational technologies and student success and racial and ethnic groups of interest all in the title. It can be Googled, it’s free, it’s available, but she does a nice job of reviewing and synthesizing the extant literature and making some recommendations from that. And so there are ways in which our online and blended in particular design and teaching practices benefit everybody but in particular, benefit first-gen, minoritized students, and so forth. And here’s a little free factoid… in a little fascinating recommendation. She says, you know, there’s some evidence to suggest that reduced seat time blended courses at the lower-division level particularly benefit disadvantaged students subpopulations and then going into online courses at the upper division in the major kind of courses. Those two things together. You know, it’s stunning, that’s not whiz bang, whirly gig shiny, right? …but it’s just doing the work but as we align that it really has benefits that evidence would bear out.

Liz: I just want to start by echoing something that Kelvin mentioned, which is that if we’re going to serve the students we have and the students that we will have, we have to know who they are. And there are studies of generations and qualities, but I don’t think anything replaces asking the people in your classroom about themselves in a way that is safe and non-threatening, but comes from an authentic place of curiosity. So I do this with my students. At the start of every semester, I ask them questions, none of them are required, but I ask them questions about things like, what kinds of technology do you have? And how many hours a week are you working? And which of this very long list of challenges do you think you might face during the semester? What kinds of things can I do to help you? …just so that I have a sense of who’s in the room, and what might be going on with them. So just yesterday, I was teaching my Zoom class from upstairs in my hotel room, which I was very grateful for, because I’m an introvert, and this conference is overwhelming. So I was happy to have an excuse to get away for three hours to teach. But we spent 20 minutes just asking, “How are you? No, no, how are you?” Not, I’m fine. I’m okay, but what’s going on? And one of my students said, I’ve always struggled with depression, and I thought I had it under control. But the last week has taught me that I don’t. And it’s only because we’re in week six of a seven week class that that student felt like he could say that, and the whole class could say, “Me too.” And those moments, I think that is so critical. And it’s just the humanization that we’ve already talked about, and meeting people where they are, I want to put in a plug for Zaretta Hammond’s book about, I don’t remember the full title, but it’s the brain and culturally relevant responsive teaching. It’s got a lot of really good buzzwords in it. But it talks about how, when the brain is in a state of trauma, or stress, you can’t learn. And so we can talk about all of these things that we can do. But if our students are not in a place to hear it, nothing that we do is going to make a difference. And I think if we’re talking about how to teach the students we have, we have to be aware of that before we can move forward.

Rebecca: So you’ve nicely connected to our next topic. [LAUGHTER]

Liz: …almost like I meant to.

Rebecca: lI know, it’s almost like you knew it was coming. Campuses are seeing a rise in mental health needs in their student bodies, both prior to the pandemic and it obviously continues to increase. And shifting to more inclusive practices is shifting the relationship that students are having with the faculty, just like you mentioned, being able to be more open about some of these things. In my own experience, I’ve seen an increase in disclosure of mental health challenges and distress and the need to refer and actively engage in suicide prevention. These are things that I didn’t need to do five years ago, [LAUGHTER] or maybe I didn’t need to do but didn’t see, but definitely see now. So how can faculty and institutions more effectively respond to mental health challenges facing our learning communities? And obviously, Liz, you kind of started us off on some ideas here. Michelle?

Michelle: Yeah, I’d like to put another book on the radar actually, as well. And full disclosure, I was an editor on this book, but I really believe in it. It’s coming out next year, actually, it’s called Learning and Student Mental Health in the College Classroom, lead authors, Robert Eaton. And it is in this space of friendly, actionable strategies when we do have increased disclosure. I mean, I found too, that Zoom itself is a sort of a dis-inhibiting space, like many online spaces are and going in I should have known that. it’s like on paper, I’ve read it, but then it became very, very real. So what do we do with that? Because the thing for faculty is, we mean this well, but our minds immediately go to: “How do I fix it? Oh, my gosh, do I have to kind of do amateur therapy that I’m not qualified to do?” And no, that is absolutely not what we need to do next. It’s a good thing to be concerned about not crossing boundaries at that same time as we are responding to what students are disclosing for us. So the strategies that I like are those that say, well, let’s start by not accentuating the crises and the stresses that are there. And a few other kind of concrete things… For me, not asking for doctor’s notes. Boy, when I started teaching a long time ago, I was all about the documentation and “show me exactly what happened at the emergency room,” and that type of thing. So now I offer flexibility and many paths to catch up that much like universal design for learning are built in for everyone from day one of the course. So if there’s something that prevented you from coming to class or making that deadline, okay, we can talk about it if you want, but we don’t have to. And you can simply take those paths that I’ve already laid out for you. I think taking the time to empathize, many of us did practice those skills and we can continue to do so. When I get to talk to people who are just starting out as teachers, I say, “You have this big loud microphone, this megaphone to a student’s ear. Your words land very, very powerfully. So you really need to think about those.” I find that my students seem to come to me expecting very harsh treatment and very harsh reactions, when they tell me about what they’re going through. And so I remind myself to simply start with warmth and compassion and human empathy, and a way forward. So that’s something that we can do. And when all else may fail, I say “How would I want my own child, in the same situation, a crisis, which is hopefully temporary and passing… how would I want them to be spoken to? How would I want that email to be phrased? What kind of pass forward would I want for them?” So that’s how I take it.

John: We’re a little behind schedule. So we’re going to ask anyone in the audience to come up to the microphone. One of the issues we haven’t quite gotten to is the issue of preventing burnout. Maybe if Liz could address that briefly while people come up.

Liz: So I want to talk about burnout in a very particular way. Because I think we often think of burnout as a me problem. And I think of burnout as an every one problem. It is a system that is creating it. And so I want to tell every one of you listening, that you are not the problem, and you haven’t done anything wrong. But in order to mitigate burnout, we have to be aware of what our boundaries are. And that often requires getting really quiet, and listening to ourselves. Because we’ve been steeped in this culture that tells us that hustling and productivity is the only way you’re valuable. And that is not true. But you’re not going to be able to figure out what your boundaries are if you’re listening to those voices. So you got to step out of that for a minute, and figure out what really matters to you. And here’s a good way to do it. Think about yourself 20 years from now. What are the things that are going to have mattered about what you’re doing right now? And what are the things that you won’t really care about? Choose to spend your time on the things that will matter to you 20 years from now, and all of these other kind of petty political debates in your institution… because we all have them… that’s not what you’re going to be remembering when you look back on your career. Focus your energy and your care on the things that you’re going to care about over a career and make choices accordingly. I think that’s the advice I would give.

JELISA: My name is Jelisa Dallas, I’m representing the University of Phoenix. My role is as a recognized student organization manager, a program manager. And so my question was, “How do we effectively work with students in a way that’s going to help streamline their purpose as it pertains to connecting with them in the classroom? So a lot of students have a lot of things going on, and how do we streamline that to get them to stay focused and prioritize when so much is going on and around?”

Liz: Thank you for the question. I mean, I think it’s making sure that what we are doing, we’re transparent about why it matters to them. And it’s creating relevance to whatever their goals are. And of course, you can’t do that if you don’t know what they are. So again, you need to know your students, but designing the work for your class, so that it feels intrinsically valuable, I think, is the best advice I can give.

ALI: Hi, I’m Ali Kirwen, I am a course operations specialist with the University of Michigan, we are an all online program, or I work for an online master’s program. It’s asynchronous, we have students everywhere in all different time zones. And we have faculty that care a whole, whole lot about our students. So I’m wondering, as a designer, how can I help encourage my faculty to set boundaries with their students in a way that honors their joy of teaching and interacting with their students, but is working towards preserving them and not burning them out as well? [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Well, I think that even subtle things like wording choice. So are there things that say over and above, do we give awards for the person who did the most? Or do we give awards for people who did the best? So I think that faculty, especially when they’re new, are really looking for those cues. And so those can be powerful.

Kelvin: What Michelle said… [LAUGHTER] No, what Michelle said but just maybe that underscore and amplify that for a second, I’ve thought about doing this myself, and I just haven’t. But I love the colleagues and maybe some of you are them who have those little statements in the bottom of your email, right? Like, “if you’re getting this email, when you’re not working, don’t feel some sort of obligation to respond right now. I sent it at a time that I was working, that might not be the time that you’re working. And, in a collegial sort of way, we can have that same kind of a vibe, I think, in our course interactions between faculty and students. And then again, wording… I got a note just last night on a book project I’m working on from a colleague who’s gonna peer review. And he said, “I show my respect by being direct and blatantly honest.” And so I think framing is everything. Word choice is everything. And making explicit where you’re coming from without just sort of caving to the implicit pressures and cultural expectations. That’s hard. But it’s important.

Liz: Yes. And women in the academy, we do a lot of emotional labor. And that comes very naturally to me, if you know anything about the Enneagram, I’m a 2, like, I want to fix all your problems, okay. But the way that I do this, because students tell me everything. I think they tell me everything, because they know that I will listen. But what I have learned for myself, and this has been the difference between moving towards burnout and not, is that I am here to listen to you deeply. I am not here to fix your problems. And I will refer you to people who can help you. But if you just need to be heard, I will listen. And sometimes that does get heavy. But I also recognize that if I fix all the problems for all the students, I’m going to be exhausted. And that doesn’t really serve them in the long run. Because they don’t need someone to fix their problems. They just need someone to tell them that they’re okay and that I believe in you, and I care about you. And so I would say that, but deep listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give someone else. And that’s just listening to understand what they’re saying, not to respond. So that’s what I would say. And please never send pictures from the ER, never. [LAUGHTER] You know, students tell them, no ER photos,

John: We always end by asking: “What’s next?” …and we’ll start with Kelvin.

Kelvin: Crystal ball, still not working. [LAUGHTER] But here’s, I guess, my read on the situation, there are more options for people to learn and work than there ever have been before. So I think that we can either meet the needs of our colleagues and our learners, or someone else will when they go elsewhere.

Michelle: What’s next for me, I want to keep doing the absolute best I can teaching my actual classes. I’m just reconnecting so much with that. And I think that’s a good thing for now. And I’m eagerly looking at, hopefully, deeper changes in the academy, also looking for rebuilding online presence. Twitter used to be a big part of my online life and I quit that in May, and saying what kind of connections was this yielding with other faculty, even with students and the big ideas in my field. And maybe I can take more charge and have more agency in that going forward?

Liz: I’m working on a book. So you should all buy it when it comes out. Michelle is the editor, so it’s going to be really good. [LAUGHTER] It’s tentatively called The Present Professor. And we mentioned it in the introduction. But really, I’m just looking for ways where we can create more student centered,e students supportive and faculty well being centered places of learning. That is my passion. And I’d love to talk to any of you who are interested in that.

John: Thank you all for coming. And on your tables, there’s little packets that Rebecca designed with some tea in them, so please take them with you so she doesn’t have to bring them back to Oswego.

Rebecca: Yeah. Thank you all for joining us. And thanks for those that asked questions. And thank you to all of our panelists and we finished on time. [APPLAUSE]

Liz: It is exactly 12:30.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.


243. Trauma Aware Pedagogy

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been much discussion about student disengagement in their classes, but little discussion about why student engagement has declined. In this episode, Karen Costa joins us to discuss the role that ongoing trauma has on students and all members of the academic community.

Show Notes

  • Costa, K. (2020). 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos: A Guide for Online Teachers and Flipped Classes. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Jaschik, Scott (2022). “Provosts Stand Firm in Annual Survey.” Inside Higher Ed. May 11.
  • Thompson P. and J. Carello, eds. (forthcoming, 2022). Trauma-Informed Pedagogies: A Guide for Responding to Crisis and Inequality in Higher Education.
  • Brown, A. M. ProQuest (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. AK Press.
  • My Fest 2022
  • Brown, A.M. (2021). Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation. AK Press.
  • Lang, J. M. (2021). Small Teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying learning science in online classes. John Wiley & Sons.


John: Since the start of the pandemic, there has been much discussion about student disengagement in their classes, but little discussion about why student engagement has declined. In this episode, we examine the role
that ongoing trauma has on students and all members of the academic community.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca:: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and

Rebecca: Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca:: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Karen Costa. Karen is a faculty development facilitator specializing in online pedagogy, trauma-aware teaching and supporting ADHD learners. Karen holds graduate degrees and certificates in higher
education; trauma and resilience; trauma-informed organizations; and neuroscience, learning, and online instruction. She is the author of 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos, and has served as a facilitator for the Online
Learning Consortium, the Online Learning Toolkit, and Lumen Learning. Through her business, 100 Faculty LLC, Karen offers supportive, fun, and engaging faculty support and development to faculty from all over the world. Welcome back, Karen. Thank
you for having me back. It’s been a couple years, believe it or not,

John: It seems like it was just yesterday, it was like right after we got that announcement about campuses shutting down for a couple of weeks until COVID was over.

Karen: I looked back at my calendar, and I think it was April 2, 2020. So early COVID days, there was so much we didn’t know. And here we are two years and change later, still dealing with so many challenges. Yeah, wild.

Rebecca:: …with this very small pandemic. [LAUGHTER]Today’s teas are… Karen, are you drinking tea?

Karen: I feel that I should be, but I’m not. I wish I could say something clever here. I wrote a book with the words “simple and sustainable” in the title. I’m a simple person. I drink water all day long out of my water
bottle. And I have nothing interesting to share. I can say that I’m very proud that I kicked my diet coke habit… not that I’m judging anyone that still carries that. I have simplified [LAUGHTER] over the past couple years, down to water pretty

Rebecca:: And water is the foundation of tea.

Karen: Oh, there you go. Thank you. [LAUGHTER] I feel better?

Rebecca:: How about you, John,

John: I have something not quite as simple, but pretty close. It’s just a simple peppermint tea today.

Rebecca:: That sounds good. Sounds like the perfect kind of tea for the day, I have a hot cinnamon spice for the day…

Karen: Interesting.

Rebecca:: …which is not my normal choice.

John: When we last talked to you, as you noted, it was very early in the pandemic. And we talked about trauma-informed pedagogy during what we hoped would be, as

Rebecca: said, a relatively short experience. But now we’ve had a little bit more experience with this pandemic and with trauma on the part of pretty much everyone involved in higher ed or in anything else in the world.
So we thought it might be good to revisit the issue of trauma-aware pedagogy. It might be helpful if we start with a review of what’s meant by trauma-aware pedagogy.

Karen: Yeah, it’s surreal that I’m coming back here a couple years later to talk about this. And it’s strange that so much has changed and also it feels like so little has changed as well from a couple of years ago. So
it’s wild… this work. When I spoke to you in 2020, I had been doing this trauma-awareness work on a much smaller scale. And to be honest, I had felt like there really wasn’t a ton of interest in it. I would find other people who are interested
in it and get so excited: “Oh, you want to talk about this.” And then the interest level soared. And I have been sharing this work with so many educators over the past couple of years. And they have helped to inform the way that I think about
trauma-aware pedagogy. So it’s been really wild. In short, in honor of, again, keeping it kind of simple, trauma-aware pedagogy, for me, it’s about looking at trauma through the lens of pedagogy and looking at pedagogy through the lens of trauma.
It is not about being a clinician or aiming to be a therapist for our students. I am always very clear about that with people. We want to have a very clear scope of practice, very clear boundaries. I am not, certainly, a clinician. However, pedagogy
is my area of expertise. So I work with faculty to help them develop a fundamental awareness of: what is trauma? We hear that word tossed around, what is it? And how does it show up in our classrooms? How does it show up on our campuses? It shows
up in our relationships, it shows up in our relationships with colleagues, with administrators, with students, and how does it impact students’ ability to learn? And we can work around that. There are strategies that we can use in our classrooms
immediately to help address some of those things. Certainly one of the things I would add is that I’ve been talking more about this concept of collective trauma over the past six months or so, really with this idea that, again, as you mentioned,
this is still ongoing. And there is really, in my awareness, there is no end in sight. And we see this intersecting with so many other social ills and challenges and climate change. So we are being called to ask questions about the very fabric
of society and higher education. So I’m absolutely still talking to folks about the impact of trauma on student learning and in your classroom. And also, I would say, now, much more of my work is around this idea of collective trauma, and what
is the future we want to create for higher education and the world? That wasn’t very simple, but… [LAUGHTER]

John: …it’s a relatively complex problem.

Karen: Yeah, I did my best.

Rebecca:: Maybe we can start with a little bit of conversation about the impact that trauma has on student learning and some strategies we can use in the classroom and then move up to these bigger institutional kinds of
conversations and system conversations.

Karen: Yeah, absolutely. So, trauma shows up in the classroom… one of the primary ways is how it influences what we call executive function. So those are things like focus, concentration, time management, the ability to
prioritize… Did I already say decision making? …if not, that’s one of them. So we talk sometimes about executive function skills as the little CEO in the brain who is directing everything. And trauma really puts a stress on those executive functions,
our brain actually diverts resources away from executive functions toward survival mode. And I always remind people, that’s really not a bad thing at all, right? That’s why we’re still here, because we learned to focus on our immediate survival.
That is why we’re still here. However, in higher education, when people are focusing on their very survival, that certainly impacts their ability to succeed in that traditional higher education learning environment. So we can come at this from
a lot of different angles, that, again, as I was just talking about, that really begs the question about what is the higher end of 2022 in the future going to look like but in the immediate, what I’ll say is that faculty can do things like simplifying
their messages, not sending out huge info dumps of information, being very mindful about not overloading students. We can offer appropriate supports, such as task lists for each week of a course. Students and faculty that I work with and me, we
love checklists. So things like that can be very helpful. When people are having a tough time deciding “what do I work on next?” …offering, for example, videos with assignment tutorials, to clarify expectations, being flexible with deadlines,
oh, this is such a big one. It does and doesn’t baffle me. There were formal policies put in place in 2020. Faculty were told you really need to take these late assignments, we need flexible late policies, we move toward pass fail. We are two
years into this pandemic, we have report after report after report about the mental health challenges that people are facing… life threatening mental health challenges. And those policies, those flexible learning policies vanished, probably sometime
around spring 2021 or early 2021. And that’s wild to me, like it’s just completely out of alignment with all of the [LAUGHTER] science of learning and the realities of the mental health challenges that folks are facing. This is difficult stuff
to talk about. I literally was just reading a report an hour ago, we just saw record numbers of overdose deaths, looking at the 2021 data. This is the context in which we are all learning. So anything we can do to be more flexible, to be more
supportive, to direct students to additional resources, is going to relieve some of that burden. We cannot do it all, we cannot fix trauma writ large with our pedagogy. I do think we can help to mitigate it. At the very least we can be a kind
word in the midst of this storm for our students.

Rebecca:: There’s a lot of conversation happening about disinterested students. But what you just described, Karen, I think is what faculty are responding to… the inability to plan and make decisions and manage time. And
that comes across as being disinterested in learning, but maybe it’s just not being able to function in our current system.

Karen: I would argue that we are functioning in the way that we were designed for lack of a better word in that we are focusing on our very survival. So one of the analogies that I give people is: if you’re teaching and
a building in this building catches on fire and your students are all running out of the door, and you stop and say “Why aren’t you focusing on my lecture? Why aren’t you focusing on this group activity?” or “We’ve got a big test coming up. We’ve
got a review session right now, what are you all doing? Where are you going?” That is the mindset that so much of this student “disengagement” framing and discussion and discourse comes from. Why aren’t students paying attention to these things
that are not related to their immediate survival? And instead, they are very interested and focused on these things that are very much related to their immediate survival. And when you frame it that way, I think it helps people… well, people who
are willing to face that reality. To consider it in a new light, it feels like we’re blaming students for running from a burning building, for focusing on their very survival. And I would add, we are then putting a pressure on faculty and staff
to put out a fire with their pedagogy. Whether you’re in the classroom or teaching outside of the classroom in a tutoring center or a library, it seems that there is this energy of what teaching strategies can you use to stop students running
from this burning building. And again, we’ve got these students whose very fundamental human rights are being stripped from them, and a huge increase in eco-anxiety, which another way we can frame that is, eco-anxiety is looking at the reality
of climate change and our general failure to act on that. And we wonder why students are not interested in the upcoming exam. I think students are interested in the realities of their lives, and that higher ed is going to have to figure out how
to speak to the realities of our lives.

Rebecca:: I think related to that is also the reality of faculty lives.

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca:: There’s a lot of focus on conversation on supporting students and not necessarily on focusing on supporting faculty, staff, and all the people that make higher ed run.

Karen: Well, if I may, this morning, there was some data that came out from Inside Higher Ed report, I think it was called the Provost Report, I’m sure we can put it in the show notes. And something like only 4% of Provosts
interviewed said that they strongly agreed that there was a specific plan in place to support faculty and staff mental health. Only 4% strongly agreed with that. How is that not 100%. We have seen this coming…. again, I see a report every day
that is talking about faculty burnout, student burnout, broader mental health issues, and this is not being addressed on campus by our leadership. I really see my work is at the intersection of faculty and student success. And this is a really
big challenge. And to be honest, I am increasingly telling faculty and staff to stop investing their time and energy in places and people who are not investing in them, and to think about how they can create smaller, more inclusive spaces and
communities, regardless of what their administration is not doing [LAUGHTER] in order to protect their wellness and to start working toward creating a better, more inclusive, future for all of us, because so much of our leadership just is not
showing up to do that work.

John: I think one of the reasons why the official policy on campus is to back away from the request for faculty flexibility with deadlines and so forth, is a recognition that faculty have been overwhelmed. But yet, I think
a lot of faculty are still being quite a bit more flexible, and that adds to the stress that they’re dealing with. Because when you have lots of students turning in lots of work at random times, it makes work a little bit more complicated. Do
you have any strategies that might work well for faculty who are trying to be flexible, but still trying to find time to deal with their everyday stress?

Karen: I’m so glad you brought that up. Because yes, absolutely. I agree with you. And I want to come at that from two angles. And I might forget the second as I’m talking about the first. But, the first thing I want to
say here is that institutions could choose to invest in supporting faculty through reducing their course loads and reducing class sizes. Now I know some people that are listening to this just said, “Oh my gosh, Karen, that’s never going to happen.”
It could happen. We make choices about our values through where we invest our time and energy and money. And if your institution, for example, is invested in, I don’t know, I’ll throw out proctoring technology and spending tens of hundreds of
thousands of dollars on these tools that we have increasing amounts of data that they don’t even work, number one, and that they do harm to students, particularly students of color, and students with disabilities. So If your institution is investing
in those, they can certainly choose to re-invest instead in creating systems and structures that allow faculty to have more time to do the work of inclusive teaching, which includes adapting to deadlines and giving students flexibility. It doesn’t
mean you get rid of deadlines, it doesn’t mean you get rid of structure. It means that we meet students where they are and help them as best we can. I want to direct my answer first to leadership and say if this is something that research and
science is showing us that we need in light of the findings we have right now about this mental health crisis in faculty and students, then start investing in faculty and students. So the second thing I would say is to the faculty: we cannot sit
around and wait for leaders to do what is right, we have to act in this moment with what we have. So I’m taking a breath here because there’s so much work to do. And I’m just watching people continue to suffer and struggle. And it seems like the
theme is that leadership is not showing up for people. And what people tell me, time and time again, is that my institution has betrayed me, it has failed me, and I have just lost faith. Okay, I had to get that out. What I invite faculty to do
is to do what they can. So trauma-aware teaching is not self sacrifice. So it is not: “I am going to make myself sick, or put myself into worse burnout or into burnout to take care of my students” …because that in the long run does not take care
of your students. That means that you’re not able to do your work, and you’re not able to support your students as effectively, and we don’t want that. So the first thing that I tell people about trauma-aware teaching is that we have to take care
of ourselves. That is our responsibility as humans, that is our responsibility as educators. And this is murky and messy, but we do our best to take care of ourselves. We say no to whatever we can, perhaps, that doesn’t immediately impact our
wellbeing or our students wellbeing. And we focus on what we can do. We find supportive communities to talk about this in a real way, to talk about the hard stuff. I have been part of communities of faculty who have been able to show up together
and just cry at what is going on and listen to each other and listen to each other’s family stories and life stories. And then we carry on with the work of teaching. So do what you can, this is not about being some perfect teacher, there are things
I could probably do to be more flexible and inclusive, that are just not within my bandwidth. I have a book chapter coming out in a book called Trauma-Informed Pedagogies about this concept of a scope of practice for educators. And I think that
might help some people to put a very practical structure around this. And what it really causes us to ask is: “What belongs to us?” and “What are we qualified to do?” amd “What is not ours or what can I refer to somebody else?” But we cannot do
everything for everyone. We can do the best that we can where we are and continue to take care of ourselves. And I know that so many faculty are doing that already and have been doing that. So, know that it is not your fault if your institution
does not invest in supporting faculty and students. Do what you can where you can and take care of yourself.

Rebecca:: I love that advice. I think there’s some struggle, though, probably for faculty, depending on their position… that some faculty can easily do that and others can’t or can’t do as much or can’t be as flexible
because of their own circumstances. And then students say: “But XYZ faculty does this. Why can’t you do it too?” Do you have some advice for how to handle some of those situations and to support one another?

Karen: Absolutely. So I’m an adjunct myself. So I think that would be one category of folks that we might be talking about here. I have chronic illnesses, I have disabilities, I have ADHD. And I also carry many privileges
that protect me from some of those particular challenges. So again, we can only do what we can do where we are with what we have. In that case, depending on your relationship with those students or with your students in general, one of my pieces
of advice is to talk to and be transparent with students. And perhaps I would have a conversation with them about how faculty, in general, are not always going to teach in the same way and the pros and cons of that. And I also might enlighten
them into the fact that different faculty have different resources at their disposal and different expectations. I would start by being transparent with students. And then I would certainly, to the extent possible, be raising my hands… I say that
to people a lot, raise your hands to whatever extent you can with what power you have, to administration, in meetings,amongst leadership to say this is the reality of what is happening. This is what my students need. This is the bandwidth that
I have to give it to them and the limitations that I’m facing them. And we need to invest in faculty and students. The more of us that are pushing for that… Do I expect them to listen? No, but I long for the day when they will. And I will continue
to ask, for as long as it makes sense. And the other thing I would say is to faculty who do have that privilege and power, we need your voices to be advocating for us on campus. So we need you to be calling for an investment in faculty and students
in a way that supports the least resourced among us.

John: Over the course of the pandemic, faculty became much more aware of student trauma that had always been out there, but it became so much more obvious. Do you think that’s something that faculty will carry forward
into the future, or as we move more to traditional classroom teaching, will people forget some of the inequities that our students face?

Karen: I would like to believe that we are facing a future where we will have the luxury of forgetting, I do not think that is the future that we are facing. If I’m being completely honest, I think that what’s coming is
going to be… I’m mindful of saying this… but I think that what’s coming in terms of climate change is going to make the past two years look not as difficult. And they were incredibly difficult. I think we are going to face increased challenges.
I say to people, pandemics are a symptom of climate change, we can expect more and more intense and more frequent pandemics, in addition to all of the other life threatening, species threatening, impacts of climate change. So I don’t think we’re
going to have the luxury of forgetting, I will say that the vast majority of faculty that I work with are incredibly caring, are curious about what they can do to support students. That’s not where my concern lies. I’ve been reading a lot of the
work of adrienne maree brown. She talks about and writes about a system called emergent strategy, and it’s about shaping change. And I’ve been really diving into her work, thinking about how do we shape change in higher education. And one of her
mantras is “small is all.” So we get together in these small communities. And we make these small choices and changes, whether it’s raising our hand and a meeting, or giving a student an extension, and we recognize that every small act matters
and builds towards something bigger. And the faculty that I work with are doing that work right now. What I’m trying to figure out is where do we go from here? If our leadership and administration are focused on this idea of “it’s post pandemic,
it’s the new normal, everything’s wonderful, everybody’s back on campus, isn’t this great?” …and they are refusing time and time again to address the realities of our lives. Where do we go from there? And again, I’m increasingly finding myself
telling people: “think about where you are investing your time and energy, and if that makes sense for our current reality and the future that we want to create.” And I hope that administration and leadership will start to get on board more with
that. I think faculty and staff, by and large are, with some exceptions, are already doing so much of that work.

Rebecca:: Karen, what’s the future that you want to create?

Karen: You know, I’m hosting a workshop on this, part of My Fest 22, a group of educators are putting this together. And we’re gonna get together for 30 minutes, because small is all. And we’re going to talk about emergent
strategy. And one of the questions is: “What is the higher education that we want to create?” I will say that as somebody who is fairly newly diagnosed with ADHD, that I have been part of communities in the past couple years, with fellow ADHD-ers
where we get together online, which is accessible for me, and we ideate and we create and we’re weird, and we’re wonderful, and there’s not really these rules and boxes that we’ve so long been forced into. And it’s just like an explosion of creativity
and goodness. And I was at a conference recently. There was a lot of sessions, it wasn’t for ADHD folks, but the session I went to was about ADHD folks. And later in the day, the conference organizers said this was our most engaged session. One
of the things I think about is having our ADHD learners, our disabled learners, our neurodivergent learners, really centering them in the future of higher education. We are the ones who are coming up with new ideas. We are the ones who see connections
between ideas that other people, neurotypical people, don’t see. We are the ones who have often suffered greatly and been let down by institutions and been so savvy and strong in adapting and figuring out how to do it with no support. And I would
love to see a higher education that starts to center these learners and these educators. Because the sky is the limit, there are no bounds to our brains. So I would love to see a higher education that does that. An example of that: I like to go
really big and out into outer space and then bring things back down to planet earth for people. We have long had these centers for… sometimes they’ve recently been called Centers for Disability, but they were long the Disability Center, Center
for disabled students, different names, but they’ve been focused and grounded in that accommodations model. We’re starting to see centers for neurodiversity pop up. And they are not just for students who have a formal disability diagnosis, they
are for all students, because we need to educate non disabled or pre-disabled folks. And we need to educate folks without learning disabilities, about the gifts and challenges of these populations. And they are centered around… I use the term
strength-based, challenge aware, so they’re not deficit based. And I really think these could be sort of hubs for a new, brighter, more colorful, more interesting, more inclusive, higher education. They are few and far between right now. But when
I talk to campuses about ADHD, people get very excited about this idea. I was at a workshop with a school in New Jersey a couple of weeks ago, and someone said, “I’m starting that on this campus.” And I was just like, “Oh, my gosh, this is emergent
strategy.” This weird lady named Karen showed up to talk to your faculty, and you got this idea. She learned it from somebody else. And now this person feels motivated to create the center on their campus for neurodivergent students. What could
be next? Those are the reasons to be hopeful when we see those small connections and people sharing and building off of each other’s ideas. And I could go on and on, but that was the first thing that popped into my mind for a future for higher
ed. So I’m gonna trust that it came into my mind for a reason. But there’s so much there. And I think that question is really important for everybody to ask themselves. So I’m glad that you asked me. Thank you.

John: Could you comment a little bit more on the focus that many faculty and administrators have had concerning student disengagement during the pandemic?

Karen: Yeah, my primary goal is to really help us reframe this idea of student disengagement, which often is equivalent to student blaming, and putting the weight of the world on faculty and staff. As I mentioned, that
Provosts’ report, I have never, other than when it came out of my own mouth, heard anybody talk about provost engagement or provost disengagement, I would like to see that on the cover of the Chronicle, or on the front page of Inside Higher Ed.
Why aren’t we talking about that when only 4% are saying we have a concrete plan in place, which leads me to believe 96% aren’t doing that work. So let’s talk about provost disengagement with the realities of students and faculty and staffs lives,
I would like to have that conversation. So we got to be curious about the systems here. Why are we so hyper focused on this conversation about student disengagement? One, we got to reframe the fact that students are very engaged in taking care
of themselves and their families and communities. And why aren’t we focusing on leadership and their engagement? Higher Ed doesn’t live in a bubble. What about our elected representatives engagement with the reality of students and faculty and
staff lives, the judicial systems engagement, we could go on and on here, but we zone in on students, and we blame students and then again, we wonder why faculty aren’t putting some pedagogy on it to fix it all. So that was the main thing I want
to invite people to think about is whenever you hear that phrase, student engagement or student disengagement, to think about systems, to think about power, to think about whose engagement we aren’t talking about, and to be really critical and
thoughtful about that conversation,

Rebecca:: I really agree with you, Karen. I’m always thinking about the design of things as a designer. And so what was this designed to do?

Karen: Yeah.

Rebecca:: …and what does it support? And how does the design need to change if we want things to change?

Karen: Right.

Rebecca:: …but we have to be willing to redesign.

Karen: Yes, I love that. And I have that design background as well. And we have to be willing to redesign. Is this the higher education that we need in this moment in time? That’s a scary conversation to have. I’ve been
prepping a workshop and one thing I have in there is what I’m calling “the great letting go.” But I think we’re going to have to let go of some really deeply held attachments in higher education and in our teaching, to redesign for the world that
we have now for the students that we have now, for faculty and staff. We are entering into what I suspect is going to be a really intense volatile era. And all hands need to be working toward, again, creating, imagining this brighter future. And
I’ve been saying this a lot lately, higher education was built to exclude me, it was built to exclude, I would say, most of us who are currently teaching and learning in it. And so many of those systems and structures that were built around exclusion
are still how we do business and how we teach and learn. So I talked before about where are you going to invest your time and energy? I’m very careful lately about where… it’s something I learned in the pandemic, and I had learned it before, but
I learned it even more. Where do I have power? Where don’t I have power? Where do I want to invest my time and energy? Who do I want to spend time with? Who do I want to learn with? And I want to be with people who are looking to create that more
inclusive, more colorful, brighter, higher education.

Rebecca:: I think there’s probably many of our listeners who are ready to do that too. [LAUGHTER]

Karen: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.

Rebecca:: There’s many of us that would like to see change and are working towards change, so we’re glad that you’re speaking out, Karen.

Karen: And that’s why I have adrienne maree brown’s books next to me. Sometimes I just hold on to them, adrienne maree brown’s books: Emergent Strategy, and then I recently got her book Holding Change. So I think one of
the critical conversations we can be having right now is how do we shape change? That is a question that adrienne maree brown is asking. How do we work toward this higher education that we want to create and a world where people all have enough,
and where everybody can show up as their weird and wonderful selves and be supported and learn together? And do that in service of not only humanity, but the entire planet and all species. What does that look like? And emergent strategy is a tool,
it’s a tool to help us shape change. When you’ve got no resources, when you’ve got an administration that does not seem to be willing to acknowledge these realities, people who are interested in protecting the elite, rather than opening up these
systems, what are you going to do? How are you going to move through your day? And I feel like why I’m so drawn to emergent strategy is it gives me answers about how to do that work. Small is all. What can I do? What small thing can I do to move
this idea or conversation or energy forward in this moment. And I do the next best thing. And that’s been so helpful for me.

Rebecca:: I love the idea of taking these small steps. It makes it much more manageable. Yeah, exactly.

John: And making small changes that make your classes more inclusive so that they do work for everyone, no matter what challenges they face, can do a lot to help our students.

Karen: Absolutely. There’s a book series, I know Jim Lang, and I think Flower Darby did it online, called Small Teaching. So these ideas are out there, they’re circulating. And I think the more of us that are gathering,
again, in these smaller, inclusive communities. Divest from the spaces that are not supporting us, take your time and energy away from those and put them to where this work is already being done. So many of our marginalized communities have been
doing this work for centuries. Let’s invest our time and energy more mindfully to intentionally shape change in higher education.

John: It’s also very similar to Tom Tobin’s notion of the “plus one” strategy, make small changes and do it incrementally and it can add up to a much larger change over time.

Karen: Yeah, and we can do that in our classrooms. And I think we can also do that in this broader work as advocates for higher education as a whole and moving again toward a more inclusive system or redesigning the system,
as we just said: plus one, small teaching, emergent strategy. We have systems in place that we can look to to do this work.

Rebecca:: Culture changes when the people involved in the culture make a change.

Karen: Yes.

Rebecca:: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Karen: I have some fun things planned coming up. Again, I’ve been really focused on doing the work that just feels right in my body and that has a spark. I mentioned that emergent strategy workshop coming up. I am the,
I guess, person who will be welcoming people but not actually facilitating a Zine workshop. Remember Zines from the 90s? We’re going to get faculty together to do that work. And I also have imminently, hopefully, some really cool workshops around
what we’re calling climate action pedagogy or CAP for short. So helping faculty to infuse principles of climate action into their classroom. It will involve if you couldn’t figure it out already, it’ll be relying on principles of emergent strategy,
which is really exciting. And then I’m taking time off this summer. I’m very excited for that and protective of that time. So, good stuff coming up, again, very focused on small communities, supporting faculty and students, investing in faculty
and students, and doing whatever small thing I can where I am. I don’t know what’s coming, I get absolutely overwhelmed at times, and hopeless at times. And what I find really is critical for my mental health and for my work, is to just ask that
question, take that time to feel that way, and then to ask that question: “What can I do? What small thing can I do?” …and the future is really quite terrifying, but what I’ve realized lately is that I’m gonna go out swinging and fighting. And
I’m not certain about really anything, but I know that I’m going to do everything that I can, while I can to make this world a better place.

John: We very much appreciate all the work that you’re doing.

Karen: And to you all I want to say that, I was sharing with

Rebecca:, earlier, I’ve been working on a podcast, it’s going to be 10 episodes, and I know how many episodes you all have recorded, and I knew it was going to be more work than I thought it would be. But it’s definitely
like that, and then some. So thank you all for investing your time and energy into holding this space for educators. And I have a new glimpse into how much work it is. And we so appreciate all of the work that you do.

John: It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. And we get to talk to some great people like you.

Karen: Good.

John: Thank you.

Rebecca:: Twice. [LAUGHTER]

John: Three times.

Rebecca:: Three times, yeah.

John: Actually, we first talked about 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Videos….

Karen: Oh my gosh.

John: …which is something that our faculty have loved.

Karen: Okay, that was lost in the pandemic brain. So that’s interesting. People send me things that I’ve written or said, and I go: “That’s really nice. I have no recollection of that, but it’s really nice.” [LAUGHTER]
Our brains make choices. [LAUGHTER] Thank you. Third time’s the charm. It’s great to be here with you again.

Rebecca:: Well, thank you so much for joining us. We always appreciate having you and value everything that you do.

Karen: Thank you.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca:: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.


240. To Teach or Not to Teach

Faculty do not necessarily see themselves as administrators but good faculty can be valuable in administrative roles. In this episode, Kristin Croyle joins us to discuss how and why faculty become leaders at their institutions. Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego.

Show Notes


John: Faculty do not necessarily see themselves as administrators but good faculty can be valuable in administrative roles. In this episode, we discuss how and why faculty become leaders at their institutions.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristin Croyle. Kristin is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego. Welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you. I’m glad to be with you again.

John: Thank you for joining us. Today’s teas are…

Kristin: I am drinking Lipton black. And it says right on the tea bag that it’s “America’s favorite tea.” I’ve got to believe that, right?

Rebecca: I guess. I mean, that’s what a lot of places would have you believe. [LAUGHTER]

John: I think it probably is, in terms of sales, it’s been around for a long time.

Kristin: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: I have Supreme English breakfast again. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have Tea Forte black currant tea.

Kristin: Lovely.

Rebecca: Many administrators in academic affairs—chairs, deans, provosts—were once faculty, yet faculty do not necessarily start off their academic careers planning to be administrators. Can you talk a little bit about your own journey, Kristin, of moving from a faculty position into a leadership role?

Kristin: Absolutely. So before I came to Oswego three years ago, I spent 17 years in South Texas at the University of Texas–Pan American that became the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. So that’s where I started my tenure-track faculty position. And within the first year, the faculty in that department were extraordinarily supportive of new faculty, it was a great department to be hired into. And they said, “We want you to meet other people on campus, so you should be on the faculty assembly.” So I was on the faculty assembly in my first year. And I got there in my first year, and they said, “Oh, guess what? You’re advising students.” Which is not an uncommon thing for new faculty to be told. So I was advising students. And I think this was actually an important thing for me. Because what I did was I went door-to-door to the faculty in my department and said, “How do you advise students? What do you tell them? When they say, ‘What do you do with a bachelor’s degree in psychology?’” which is a pretty common question for psych students in a bachelor’s program, “What do you tell them?” And I did get from a couple people: “I don’t know what to tell them. I never had to get a job with a bachelor’s in psychology.” Which is not a good answer, by the way, not a good answer. And in those conversations, I figured out that our advising resources were pretty scant. We had hundreds of students that needed better resources. So I put together an advising handbook. I asked the Department Chair, “I want to do this, I’m gathering this information anyway.” She said, “Sure.” And that was my first year. And then I had some significant committee service. And within about four years, the Dean of the College said, “I’m looking for an assistant dean to come into the office.” In that place in time, there weren’t associate deans in that role, they were called assistant deans. “And I’d like you to work with me.” Which is not, I think, an uncommon experience, that oftentimes people who start to step more into administrative roles or service-heavy roles in any way, generally start with a period of volunteerism, really. It’s faculty service, but it is volunteerism, you’re volunteering to do stuff that needs to get done. And then someone says, “Oh, look, you’re pretty good at that. We could use someone who does more of this stuff that you’re pretty good at.” And you’re exactly right, I had never thought about doing significant service in that way. But it’s not that big a step from what I was already doing. And I think some of the things that I was working on that drew the eye of people who would ask me to step up to a role is that I consistently want to make things better. If there’s a problem that I think I can fix, or at least make significant progress on, I’m more likely to want to work on it, than to complain about it to someone else. Because you know if you complain about it to somebody else, unless they really are as excited about that problem as you are, they’re probably just going to say, “Well, thank you for sharing that problem. That’s not something I can work on right now.” So I was excited about creating solutions to problems that I saw. I really value my colleagues and my students and their experiences. So oftentimes, the problems that I would see were around the faculty experience and the student experience. And honestly, I’m a pretty even tempered person, I don’t lose it at inopportune moments. So asking someone to step into, for example, an assistant dean role and knowing that they’re not going to freak out and curse at their colleagues, that’s a good thing. And I served in a number of roles in Texas. I served as a vice provost, I served as a vice president, I came here as dean. And in many of those cases, I was happy in my role, I was working on things that were interesting and challenging for me. And then someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, it would be great if you could work on this other thing. The university could use your service.” Now, when you’re listening to that, somebody’s going to think, “That sounds pretty undirected.” [LAUGHTER] Yes! It does. It’s not like I had a 20-year plan: “I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do this.” My plan was I was going to do teaching, research, and service, and get tenure. That was the plan, and that’s a good plan. I still endorse that plan for people who are hired as assistant professors. But I have no fancy plan about exactly how to do that, and what one does after one becomes an associate professor. It was doing things that I found interesting that I found challenging, making a difference in a way that I could make a difference. And that lead into more administrative work. I’m going to jump in with my own question there.

Rebecca: Of course you are. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Of course I am.

Rebecca: I remember you from last time. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: John, you spend a huge amount of time directing the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and doing this podcast, this really significant service. I would be very surprised if you thought of that as administrative service, but it’s significant service. And it is different than a typical faculty role. So what led you to provide such significant service?

John: Well, I suppose I got started by wondering what would let me help students learn more effectively in my classes. So I tried writing some software, I had tried doing some evaluation of it and measuring learning gains that might have occurred or might not have occurred. And I had done some research in general areas of the scholarship of teaching and learning. And then I was asked to present some of that to the advisory board to the teaching center. And then I was asked to join that, and then I was asked to chair that. [LAUGHTER] And then when the former director stepped down, Mark Morey, he suggested that I may wish to apply for the position. So I figured I’d try it because I was already involved with the center quite a bit. And I figured it was just a little bit more than what I was doing at the time. And it ended up growing to be a lot more [LAUGHTER] than what I had been doing at the time. The teaching center used to run about maybe 25 to 30 workshops a year and then a teaching symposium for a day. And it’s grown quite a bit, as has happened at pretty much all colleges since then. But I still wouldn’t consider myself an administrator, and I still maintain a full-time teaching load in my department.

Kristin: Mmhmm, mmhmm. Yeah, so some similarities definitely there where you saw a problem—and when I say a problem, I don’t mean there was something wrong, per se, more like a problem in search of a solution—and you investigated it and led you into more and more service. Yeah. How about you, Rebecca?

Rebecca: I think that I subscribe to that same idea, Kristin, of that continuous improvement model. And I just can’t help it as a designer, that’s the designer in me that speaks to every part of my life. So I too, would seek out things that I was interested in and wanted to work on. And my first teaching position that was full time was at Marymount Manhattan College, it’s a really small private school. I loved my colleagues there. It was so small that it was so easy to collaborate on things, and so I had a lot of opportunities there. And one of the opportunities I had was to really increase the service learning initiative that was on that campus. I was really interested in making a community impact, and still am, and still do a lot of work like that. I started learning about service learning and community-based learning and being the faculty liaison for community-based learning at our institution and doing research around that, and got really involved with that. And then I came to Oswego, and I told John about that when I met him at faculty orientation. And John is really good at roping people into things, he immediately asked me to join our advisory board for the center. And I did that for a while, and then the associate director position opened up and then I moved into that role and learned a lot by doing that. And at the same time, I was getting involved in a lot of campus committees that I think helped me understand how the institution worked more, right? Like one of the ones that we have on our campus is called the Campus Concept Committee. And for me, that was really eye opening, because it was all about the physical facilities and the priorities around that. And to me, that was really, really interesting, both as a designer and as a member of the campus. That led to many other things, including, eventually getting really involved in accessibility and doing big, huge accessibility initiatives on campus. And so I saw this opportunity opened up in the Graduate Studies Office, and I applied for that position as a new opportunity, because I love learning new things. And I’m learning a ton.

Kristin: I’ll bet you are. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I’m getting an e-du-cation! [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Good. Well, I’m glad I asked you after the first question here, for both of you, because I think there’s going to be themes that come up as we talk that connect to both of your stories.

John: Actually, one thing I was thinking is, you did mention the podcast, and Rebecca and I started that just as an experiment, and it certainly has grown quite a bit beyond what we anticipated.

Kristin: Yes, yes. That’s another great example, that when you do things that are interesting and meaningful and connect, they do grow, they grow beyond what you thought they would. And at that point, you get to decide: Do you want to continue to invest your time and energy in that direction?

John: And a lot of it was not something I think either of us had planned, that neither of us started our career thinking that we’d be spending a lot of time running a podcast and editing audio and doing all these other things related to this.

Rebecca: I probably would have laughed in your face if you suggested that. [LAUGHTER] One of the things that I’m thinking about a lot, transitioning into the role that I’m in now, is how many times people will say “the administration” or “the faculty.” And I’m in a place where I’m still teaching, and I’m also on this other side, and seeing things from multiple perspectives. And I always feel really awkward because the people who are critiquing were once part of that group. So administrators might be critiquing faculty, but yet, they may have started as faculty. [LAUGHTER] And then faculty may be critiquing administrators, yet, many of them love teaching…

Kristin: Yes,

Rebecca: …you know? and maybe you have had to give it up. So I’m curious about how to bridge some of those gaps between thinking through the role of faculty and the role of administration.

Kristin: Yeah, and I think you raise a really good point. I still remember… I worked with an exceptional Provost, Havidán Rodríguez, in Texas, who’s now president of SUNY Albany. And I still remember that when he first started, we had been through a period of stress as many institutions are, cyclically, especially when they’re looking for a new Provost. And people were a little cranky. And there had been a fair amount of “Oh, the faculty” talk. And then he started. And I remember some of the first meetings he led, and I had to go and talk to him after the meeting and say, “I so appreciate that you don’t run down faculty. You don’t say, ‘The faculty do this. Oh, how can we get them to do this?’” And he said, “Why would I do that? I’m faculty too.” And I think it comes from an innocent place, that separation…

Rebecca: I agree.

Kristin: …because all of us are trying to achieve our goals every day. And when there are little speed bumps in achieving those goals, we get frustrated. And this is a normal human thing. So if I’m trying to negotiate workload with specific faculty where the number of courses and what they’re doing aren’t adding up to a full workload, I just want them to say “yes,” honestly, because I want to move on to the next thing I have to do. So there’s that little element of frustration. And I’m sure on the side of faculty who are working with administrators, administrators are asking them to do things that take them away from the goals that they’re trying to achieve in that moment. And that’s frustrating, too. So it’s easy to demonize and label when people are frustrating you in getting your goals achieved, it just is. The extra challenge is that oftentimes, faculty have very little understanding of what a full-time administrative job is like. So I think it’s even easier in that case to demonize because it’s an unknown, like, “Well, what in the world is the Dean doing all the time?” So just that vacuum leaves lots of room to fill in imaginings. And I will say on the administrative side—and when I say administrative side, I mean any kind of supervisory side, department chair, anything—the faculty that end up taking the most time are the ones that are problematic in some way, let’s just say. So if there’s a student complaint or a personnel issue, those issues take a lot of time. So there will be that level of frustration involved in trying to get over those bumps and get back to what you were trying to work on. But it’s not an excuse. It’s a bit of an explanation, but it’s not an excuse.

Rebecca: You talked about the unknowns of what administrators do. So could you demystify what a Dean does all day? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Email, all day! No… [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I know, I spent at least two or three hours yesterday, [LAUGHTER] just email. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Yes, yes. I actually have to spend about three hours a day on email, I do. And when I say email, I actually have to reconceptualize that just for myself, because I find it very discouraging to say, “I spend three hours on email,” it sounds so insignificant, and like such a ridiculous time suck. But it’s not, it’s work. It’s people who need input or asking for approvals or who are trying to plan a project and would like assistance with it or a policy that needs revision. So it is work. It’s just occurring via email. So I tend to spend a lot of time in meetings. I spend a lot of time, let’s just say, on paperwork that is not actually paper, on electronic work. Let’s think about today… So today, I have a really excellent faculty member who’s been nominated for a teaching award, and I agreed to provide a letter of support for him. So I visited his class, so I could have really good, specific things to say in his letter, and talked with him about his approach to teaching. I’m PI on a grant that’s going to go in next week. So we had our final grant meeting to look over our materials and make sure that they are ready to submit. I approved some travel requests, checked to make sure we have some money. We have a board meeting next week for our engineering advisory board, so I’m finalizing the agenda. I’m going to share that with the board members and make sure that they’re ready to come visit. So a variety of things, but each of them to forward the goals of the university, they’re not my goals. I mean, they are my goals, but they’re my goals because it’s good for the university, good for the faculty, good for the students and staff.

John: But they may not be the most enjoyable tasks all of the time.

Kristin: Not all the time. Today was pretty good, visiting a class in Native American studies… if you have had a chance to talk with Michael Chaness, he’s exceptional. And finishing a grant is much better than starting a grant.

John: Yes. [LAUGHTER] In an earlier podcast discussing burnout, you suggested that faculty who were experiencing that issue, might want to consider taking a break from teaching by learning something new, or trying to do something different. Is transitioning to another role within academia worth considering for faculty experiencing burnout?

Kristin: I learned this actually from my first department chair, who was an excellent teacher and researcher and a very talented administrator. And she said, “When I get tired of dealing with students.” If you’re teaching a full load, after a while, there’s a little fatigue there. “When I get tired of dealing with students all the time, I become department chair. I push some papers around, I do the schedule, I check the budget, I supervise staff, push some papers around,” that’s what she said, I know it was much more meaningful than that. “And then, when I get tired of pushing papers around, I go back to full-time teaching.” She was also faculty senate chair, intermittently, she was asked to step into other administrative roles which she declined. But one of the strengths of a long-term faculty position is that there’s actually a huge amount of flexibility that’s possible there. It’s not baked in to the contract, but universities are complex organizations that have a lot of different things that need to be done. And someone who has a passion, or even less than a passion, let’s just say an interest, an interest in getting some of that work done, an interest…

Rebecca: A vague interest. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: And I’ll give our Middle States review as an example. Our Middle States Chair is often a faculty member. It’s a huge amount of work over the course of a couple years. It’s not exactly the most fun thing to do, but it certainly is really different. It’s very different than the typical faculty role. And it’s challenging in a different way. And many of us joined academia because we love to learn, we enjoy the challenge, we enjoy the questions of our fields and finding interesting solutions, whether that’s through research or other activities and administrative roles. When you shift into a different role, you have all of that back, you get a whole new set of things you have to learn, a whole new set of challenges, a whole new set of problems to sink your teeth into that are immediately meaningful in your environment. So I’ll give Middle States as an example, again, it may sound from some perspectives kind of like torture, to have to lead that effort. But it’s incredibly meaningful. If we’re not accredited, all kinds of bad things happen to the institution beyond losing access to federal financial aid. Accreditation is one of the most important activities of the university. So you can see immediately the work that you’re doing and the impact that it can have. I think when we had talked about it in the context of burnout, it’s about the flexibility that’s possible in a long-term faculty role, that what you did five years ago, doesn’t have to be the same thing that you do now, and it doesn’t have to be the same thing you do in five years. And if that stepping in and out of the department chair role, that’s one aspect. But another could be taking on some leadership of important committees or faculty assembly, it could be leading the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, it could be doing some consulting, it could be all kinds of different things. And that’s all within the contract. And so people who have a strong affiliation to their institution, who really are still closely tied to their colleagues and their students and the mission of the institution, don’t have to leave to try something different. I will say that I’ve seen, and I would guess you have also seen, we’re not going to name names here, we’ve also seen people who have stepped very successfully into administrative roles or service-heavy roles that are trying to get out of an unpleasant or toxic environment in their home department, and have done that really well. That it’s been an environment that they don’t want to continue to work in, but they don’t want to leave the institution, they have a lot of talent and things to contribute. I’ve worked with a number of people over the years that have made that shift because they don’t want to work with somebody anymore. And the university needs them, and they’re thrilled to take on a different role and move their office and continue to contribute and work and have seen that shift as a real success. So I don’t think that’s typical. I’m not saying that everybody who chooses administrative roles are trying to get out of a toxic environment. [LAUGHTER] But there are certainly people who have done that with great satisfaction.

Rebecca: So related to that, there’s also a lot of people who move into leadership roles and administrators are really good teachers, and sometimes leaving their home departments can cause some tension because there becomes some staffing issues. But it also can provide some internal tension, because you’re giving up something that maybe you love really deeply. So what advice do you have for faculty who might feel pulled in a few different directions?

Kristin: So that’s a two level. So one is like just the internal pull of: “What if I’m teaching less, and I really love teaching?” And I’m with you, I love teaching, and I really think that many people who make really excellent teachers are also very good at administrative work. I think it draws from many of the same strengths. Okay, some of you listening may disagree with me, but I could elaborate if you want, but I do think it draws from many of the same strengths. And thinking, “I’m going to be in the classroom less,” can be a really painful personal decision. On the other side of that, you can think about what kind of impact you can have with the skill sets that you have. So I’ll give an example. My father was an academic and directed the graduate program for a number of years that he was a faculty member in. And it was an applied field so that there was internship experiences for the students. And when he came in, he changed the course schedule completely, not the curriculum just the schedule, to open up time for students to be in more placements. And then he negotiated with all their placement sites so that they would be paid, because previously they had been unpaid. So he, in the matter of about two years, when he first started working on this, he had changed a doctoral program that had unpaid placements into a program with 100% paid placements for students who really needed the money. Now, I can guarantee you within about three or four years, most people did not remember that he had done that.

Rebecca: But what an impact.

Kristin: It was just the way the program worked. But I can also guarantee you that they followed that same model for 20 years. And he kept those students from being homeless, essentially. So the time that he took away from teaching in order to do that administrative work had a significant impact on students in a different way. So stepping out of the classroom with one foot doesn’t mean that you’re not working with students and impacting students and doing things that can have a broader impact in many ways. The way that I think about it, because I do love to teach, is that, if I’m in the classroom, I love to teach both small and large classes, I actually really love big classes. So if I’m in the classroom, with 100 students, that’s 100 students that I can work with and impact. But if I can support faculty to be more effective in their teaching, that’s 1000s of students that we have an impact on. Now, then there’s the separate question of: What do you do with your colleagues who were like, “But we were depending on you to be our next department chair and advisement coordinator and recruitment coordinator all in one. What are we going to do without you if you step into this other role?” And this can be particular pressure for faculty of diverse backgrounds. If you’re the one African-American woman in the department, it can feel extremely painful to think, “How am I going to not be present every day in the classroom with students who are depending on me to be the person that they look up to, that they can talk to, to be that special person in their lives?” So for that, I would say you go right ahead and be a little selfish. Think about what it is that you want to try next, and just give it a shot. Because when you’re in a current role, you can see what you can do there and what you’re leaving behind if you step away from it. In the role you’re going to step into, you can’t see what impact you’re going to have there and what the advantages are going to be there. So you have to kind of take the leap of faith and just give it a shot. Because as soon as you do that, you’ll start to see, “Wait a minute, in this different role, I have all these other ways that I can impact students, and my colleagues and my department, that I didn’t anticipate.” So you have to be a little selfish and step right into it, recognizing that there are going to be huge advantages that your colleagues and your students and you don’t even know until you give it a try. Plus, again, universities are big complex places, we could really use a lot of good service in a lot of different ways. Just because you’re stepping away from one doesn’t mean that what you’re stepping into isn’t going to be even more impactful.

John: And the people we’d most want in the administration would be people who are trying to improve the environment for our students. So as you noted, many of the people who are the best teachers are also the best administrators. And that does make it a little bit more challenging often. And we’ve been pretty lucky with that here, in general, with our administrators, certainly all the administrators I can think of from the last 15 years or so [LAUGHTER] have fit that definition quite well. There have been a few exceptions during my time here, I’ve been here for quite a while. But for the most part, I think the administrators and faculty shared a similar attitude towards students and the institution.

Kristin: Yeah. And I think it’s worth saying, when I think about how I approach the classroom and my classes, I’ve got the one aspect of… How do I design a learning experience that is empirically supported? So I know I’m doing the best things that I can do, that is structured in the most effective way possible, that I can test with data. And at the same time, when I’m interacting with the students, I’m essentially trying to pull them in, pull them along with me. How do I keep them engaged and get them excited and get their best work out of them? And to me, that is the exact same thing I do every day. I’m trying to figure out how to construct great programs based on the data and how to evaluate them. And at the same time, how do I pull people in so that we can share similar perspectives that we’re working towards the mission of the institution? It feels, honestly, exactly the same to me.

John: Except there’s a bit of a multiplier effect when you’re working with a large number of faculty, if you can get them to implement some of the same techniques and approaches that you were using in the classroom, it reaches, as you noted, many more students.

Kristin: Exactly. Exactly.

Rebecca: So we’ve talked about it a little bit, but do you have some advice about leadership opportunities that an early-career faculty might explore if they have an interest beyond the classroom? And how might those opportunities be different for someone who’s maybe farther along in their career?

Kristin: Yeah, absolutely. So, of course, service is a required component of a faculty day, it’s every day, right? [LAUGHTER] There’s always a little bit of service happening every day, if not a lot. And I understand the message, and I respect it and support it, that we don’t want to ask our assistant professors to do too much because they have commitments to teaching and research as well. But that doesn’t mean nothing, do some service. Because that’s how you find out as a professional person where your strengths are on contributing to the institution, you get to meet different people that you wouldn’t meet that are outside of your department and create collaborations in that way. So for early-career faculty, if you see an issue, don’t be afraid to step up and say, “Hey, there’s an issue here, I would like to work on it.” If you see that there is committee work, and somebody needs somebody to serve on a committee, volunteer. Yes, don’t volunteer for everything, that’s unwieldy. And some of it will be really boring, if you’re not interested in it. But I’ve also seen faculty who struggle, who say, “I’m trying to do more service, but I don’t get picked for committees.” And as we talk about it, what it usually ends up being is, “Oh, I’m only interested in this, this, and this. And those committees don’t have any openings.” Well, a little broader than that. [LAUGHTER] Yeah. So volunteering, noticing when, if there’s something that you want to work on and stepping up for it, and tell people, talk to people about what you’re interested in. Rebecca, as you said, at faculty orientation…

Rebecca: Mmhmm.

Kristin: …you talked to John about some of the stuff you were interested in.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Kristin: Yeah! Tell people, because we all are always looking for collaborators in the kind of work that we’re doing. And if we know somebody is interested, trust me, there are literal mental lists in people’s heads: “I need someone for this. I need someone for this. What if we took on this initiative next?” Yeah, tell people, talk about what you’re interested in. Now, for faculty who are more advanced in their careers, of course, the promotion to associate, big deal, it’s a bigger deal, sometimes, then you think it’s going to be, at least emotionally. Because oftentimes, people who are assistant professors have a good sense of what that trajectory looks like, until they hit associate. And then they realize that there’s this whole universe of possibilities that they weren’t really aware of until promotion. So at that point, there are certainly more opportunities for service that is really meaningful, where the protection of promotion and tenure can be a big boon. But honestly, if there’s something that you’re interested in, I wouldn’t wait for that. If you’re really excited, say: “I’d like to work on this.” And even doing it at the assistant level, if it’s something that excites you, it’s worth giving it a shot.

John: And even if you’re not invited to a committee, you can always talk to people on the committee and make some suggestions about things that might be worth exploring. And usually, once you do that, you get invited pretty quickly to join, because committees are always looking for people to help share the workload.

Kristin: Exactly, exactly. And there are at all institutions, there are ones that have very set membership, and then there’s just a whole bunch of other ones that are working on important interesting issues, where the membership is not that set. Where if you say, “I want to work on this,” they say, “Yay! Our next meeting is tomorrow, you should come.” [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: And picking out things that might give you the opportunity to work with colleagues beyond your own department is really beneficial. And although often warned against early in the career, I think that was actually something that I did early on in my career that helped me at both institutions I worked at. I met faculty across campus really quickly and by doing I mean that it opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of research opportunities, other collaborations, and even other committees or things to work on that I was interested in.

Kristin: Exactly.

John: In a workshop you offered for our faculty, you introduced Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow by Don Clifton, as a tool to help individuals become more effective leaders. Could you talk a little bit about what this tool is, and how someone could use it in their own career journey?

Kristin: Absolutely. So sometimes people are familiar with StrengthsFinder, which is a Clifton tool, particularly people in student affairs. So if you know what I’m talking about, this is the same assessment, but it’s a different report. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s okay, I’m just going to go from there. So, the strengths-based approach is based on significant research. So it’s an empirically supported approach to looking at human potential from a strengths-based perspective, as opposed to a weaknesses perspective where you’re trying to consistently remediate the things that you’re bad at. Instead, you’re trying to get a better awareness of the things that you’re good at, so that you can build off of those. And the strengths-based leadership approach takes those strengths and applies them to a leadership context. Saying, as I said, many of us in academia really love learning, “learner” is one of my strengths when I take this assessment, one of my top strengths. And the interpretation that I get from this kind of leadership report and development says how I can use my strength and orientation towards being a learner to be a more effective leader. So there’s a couple of reasons why I like this approach. One is that well, just overall, anytime you reflect on challenging things that you’re doing, regardless of whatever role you have, it helps you to grow. So if you’re trying to figure out… What does it mean that I’m in a leadership role? I never expected that. What am I supposed to do with that? I don’t know how to be a leader, I don’t even know what that is. All of those things. Reflecting on that in a structured way can help you to grow and to find your footing. And there are lots of tools out there to do that, there are a number of development programs, this is a great tool. If you want to do it yourself, if any of the listeners want to do it themselves, it’s super easy. You can buy the book on Amazon or from any bookseller.

Rebecca: Like your local bookstore.

Kristin: Like your local bookstore! And with that comes the assessment code and the personalized interpretation. But another piece of this strengths-based approach is that there are many, many ways to be a successful leader. And sometimes you’ll hear this, for example, from a dean or provost or a department chair, who’s figuring that out. And they’ll say, “Well, I can’t do it like the previous person did.” Well, that’s right, they can’t, because they’re not the previous person, they’re going to lead in a different way. There are many ways to be a successful leader and the research suggests that if you build off the strengths that you already bring with you, you’re going to have much more potential to grow quickly than if you’re consistently trying to fix your weaknesses all the time. So I’m okay at budgeting, I’m not great, I’m okay. But sitting and spending a lot of time in the budget system and really sinking my teeth into it is going to be kind of boring for me. And I’m not going to develop any dramatic insights through doing that. Instead, I have a much stronger orientation towards people development. So I have an excellent staff member in my office, Jennifer Cook, who is great at budgeting. So we work on it together. And I support her, she figures out all the details, we take a hard look at it and figure out where there are opportunities to save money and reinvest in other ways, and together that is a much less stressful and more successful approach. Similarly, as a faculty member, I really find solitary writing to be an unpleasant experience. I can do it, it’s just a little bit like pulling teeth all the time.

Rebecca: Sounds great.

Kristin: Yeah, yeah. But I am much more motivated by working in collaboration. So I know, that took me several years to figure this out, but I know that if I’m working in a collaborative project, I will write much faster and find it to be much more rewarding than if I am writing all by myself. Now working in a collaborative project, I’m still writing by myself, but I have those other people and those deadlines and my commitment to them in mind. So working off of that strength is a much less frustrating, much more successful experience than trying to constantly focus on, “Oh, I’m so bad at this. I need to get better, better, better.” That’s also true in lots of other ways. It’s certainly true of faculty in the classroom as well, that if you have in mind what the excellent teacher looks like and you can’t do that, you’re probably thinking in far too restrictive a way. There are many ways to be an excellent teacher. If you can’t do the one that you have in your head, talk to the people on your campus that do teaching development because they’re going to have lots of other suggestions for you that will fit much better with the strengths that you already bring with you into the classroom.

John: So for faculty who are considering this, how might faculty find some mentors who might give them some advice or some assistance in the process of considering a transition into a leadership role?

Kristin: Well, my preface here is that I have a good answer, but I’m really bad at this myself. [LAUGHTER] So it is one of the things that I’ve had to think more explicitly about because I have spent so many years just trying to do stuff by myself, without realizing, “Oh, this is something that other people ask for support and assistance with.” So I do have an answer, but it’s because I’ve had to think so hard about it. There are certain things we clearly know about mentorship. One is that the individual mentor model is spectacularly unsuccessful, that if you expect one mentor to be able to serve all your needs, that actually doesn’t work very well. And we all expect that because our graduate programs assigned us individual PIs or supervisors for our dissertations. So we think of mentorship as an individual model, when actually a team model, it works much, much better. And many people grow into this very naturally in their careers. When I was first serving in the Dean’s office in Texas, I had my little group. So I’d go to this really amazing sociologist who was down the hall when I was trying to figure out how to populate committees and relationships like, “Well, what about this person? I don’t know this person.” And he was a wise person who knew everybody. And so I could say, “Well, if we have this junior person and this senior person…” And he’d be like, “Oh, but they hate each other.” [LAUGHTER] “Okay, well no, but what about this one, and this one?” And I had my person who was very successful with grants. So if I had questions, I could go to him about grants. And he was also the one that would come and knock on my door real hard every so often and say, “How many publications do you have? Are you on track?” And we could talk about it quickly. And I had a couple of people that I would talk about teaching with. And this is the same kind of thing, if you’re thinking about other options in your career, other roles to take on, a team approach is really the best. So don’t be afraid to approach people, both on and off campus. Be clear on what you want from them, and then ask for that. So if what you want is just a little advice here and there, just go and ask for advice. People love to give advice. It’s not like they’re going to say, “No, I’m not going to tell you what I think.” If you want to develop a plan for your next five years, which some people really like, and it’s a good approach, say, “I’m going to be looking at my career trajectory. Can I talk with you about that?” If you want sponsorship, which is different, that’s the person who’s in the room, when you’re not in the room who says, “You know who would be great at this? Rebecca would be great at this.”

Rebecca: Stop volunteering me for stuff. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: So if what you want is sponsorship, be sure that you ask for that, too. And when I say be clear with what you want, part of that is because some of us have been so poorly mentored in some aspects of our career, that we don’t spontaneously offer that type of mentorship because we haven’t been socialized to it. I have had some exceptional mentors. And that was because I was lucky, it’s not because I asked for it. Ask for it, it’s much more reliable. And when I say don’t be afraid to approach people, I’m being absolutely literal. And I have had people say, “I would like you to mentor me for this reason.” It’s a perfectly normal thing to do. I have been really privileged to be able to work with the Hispanic Leadership Institute with SUNY for the last few years. And one of the things that the cohort of participants in the Leadership Institute does is approach people to serve as mentors. And it can be a scary thing for them to approach someone that they admire professionally, but have never met. And typically, the response they get is fantastic. So don’t be afraid. If there’s somebody you admire, reach out to him and say, “I admire these aspects of your career. Would you be willing to talk with me for a few minutes? I am an assistant professor at this institution. I am interested in growing in this way. I think your perspective would be really helpful.” Chances are good you’re going to get a yes from that.

Rebecca: Especially if you’re asking someone to do something that they already know.

Kristin: Exactly.

Rebecca: Right? [LAUGHTER] That’s their expertise for something they have experience with. It’s not like it requires a lot of prep work or extra side work. I think we underestimate that sometimes, that like, “Oh, you want my perspective on this? Great, yeah, I can do that right now.”

Kristin: Exactly.

John: And in academia it’s always a pleasant break from grading, for example, to talk to a colleague about their career path. It can be a nice diversion, so people often enjoy it.

Kristin: Exactly.

Rebecca: Academics are really great at procrastination just like students are. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Well, most of us get a real kick about helping people with career path.

Rebecca: Definitely.

Kristin: I’m sure that part of the aspects that you enjoy about teaching are the students who are like, “I’m trying to figure out, what can I do? What are my choices? How can I prepare for that, given my interests and strengths?” So, it’s the same kind of conversation, it’s just a later stage. So it’s something that is already appealing. Yeah, don’t be afraid to ask and have a whole committee of mentors that you can draw from.

Rebecca: Just don’t try to schedule them at the same time. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: No, no, no, no. [LAUGHTER] No, they don’t like that, they don’t like that.

John: And a really good way of dealing with collaboration is something you said before, Kristin, about having collaborators, because, as you noted, that serves as a bit of a commitment device, which makes it much more likely you’ll pursue things because you don’t want to let the other people that you’re working with down. So it’s a really effective strategy in many aspects of our careers, I think.

Kristin: Exactly. We are social creatures, so having the social aspect helps to keep us motivated. Plus, for the many of us who really hate letting other people down, that commitment device, it can help us to stay on top of things. That you’re not going to let your team down if you’re all working together on something.

John: It’s also a strategy I suggest to my students, that a really good way of making sure that they work on things they need to do is to work with others and to form times when they’re going to do that and make a commitment to others.

Kristin: Exactly, exactly. And I know that writing groups for faculty are similarly effective, as long as they’re very focused.

Rebecca: Any kind of accountability club, right?

Kristin: Mmhmm.

Rebecca: However you want to call it. Even if we’re working on different things, but you’re checking in with someone to tell them your progress because they’re expecting to hear from you can work in a similar way.

Kristin: Exactly.

John: Do you have any other advice for our listeners on this topic?

Kristin: Oh, I do have one thing. I just have a little plea, a plea. So a periodic thing that people will say on campuses is, “I don’t know why ‘the administration’ doesn’t do something about XYZ.”

John: COVID.

Kristin: Anything! Exactly. “Why they don’t do something about workload and this issue? This problematic person that everybody knows is a problem. Or how the furniture is falling apart in this one area of campus, or something, the giant potholes. I don’t know why the administration is not doing something about something that is an actual, real problem.” If you find yourself saying that, my plea is that you try and share a solution for that. Because I can guarantee you, if somebody knows it’s a problem and isn’t doing something about it, that probably means they don’t know what to do about it. They don’t have a solution yet. So if you’ve got a solution, share a solution. And even if you don’t, it’s totally fine to share the problem. Because if we’re talking about, “the furniture is literally falling apart,” it’s possible nobody knows that except for the people that are there. This is a perennial issue, by the way. I’ve heard it on different campuses for things like, “The water is leaking, there are mice, or whatever. [LAUGHTER] Why doesn’t somebody do something about the mice?” Yeah, well, you never told anybody. So that’s why. But if the issue is like the workload is out of hand in this area, people are at the end of their rope, please share your ideas and share the problem. Nobody wants to leave, I can guarantee it. There isn’t anyone in a leadership position at an institution that wants to leave a festering problem that is making people’s lives difficult. Either they don’t know about it, or they don’t have a good solution. So that’s my plea. It’s not directly related to what we’re talking about. But we’re always looking for good ideas.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, What’s next?

Kristin: What’s next… So I’ve been in this role for three exciting years. They have been exciting. And I have, over my career, there have been episodes in which there have been “the big problem,” the big problem that takes multiple years to work through. And clearly the big problem has been COVID, and the way that it has disrupted all of our lives, and the way that everything works at the university. So what’s next is to try and figure out what we do next with that. Because, clearly, we’ll be in a different place next year than we have ever been. We’ve never been at the, hopefully, tail end of a pandemic and trying to figure out what is the best way to help people reengage, to feel safe, what have we learned that we can use in different ways? All of that is a whole new set of sticky, wicked problems to deal with and to try to figure out solutions.

Rebecca: So a fun adventure then.

Kristin: Yes! I think it’s better to be at the tail end than at the tip of the nose. [LAUGHTER]

John: And I hope we are.

Kristin: I certainly hope we are too.

Rebecca: I remember us saying this about a year ago around this time.

Kristin: Yes, [LAUGHTER] yes.

Rebecca: But maybe this time.

Kristin: Maybe this time.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle, Annalyn Smith, and Joshua Vega.


204. Preventing Workplace Burnout

Faculty who have spent the past 18 months teaching during a global pandemic often report that they are experiencing burnout. In this episode, Kristin Croyle joins us to discuss the causes and symptoms of burnout and strategies that individuals and campus leaders can use to reduce faculty burnout.  Kristen is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Oswego.


  • Maslach, C. (2018). Understanding Job Burnout, presentation at the Devops Enterprise Summit, October 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRPBkCW0R5E
  • Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2(2), 99–113.
  • Maslach, C. (2017).  Finding Solutions to the Problem of Burnout.  Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 69 (2), 143–152.
  • Karlan, Dean (2019). Commitment Devices. Tea for Teaching podcast. Episode 103. October 16.


John: Faculty who have spent the past 18 months teaching during a global pandemic often report that they are experiencing burnout. In this episode, we examine the causes and symptoms of burnout and discuss strategies that individuals and campus leaders can use to reduce faculty burnout.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Kristin Croyle. Kristn is a psychologist and the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Oswego. Welcome back, Kristin.

Kristin: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

John: It’s good to talk to you again. Our teas today are…

Kristin: I’m doing an oolong jasmine green tea this morning.

Rebecca: Well, that sounds good.

Kristin: Yeah, it’s very tasty.

John: I had never heard of an oolong green tea.

Kristin: Actually, it is one that I snagged from a University event. They’re the ones that show up on the tea tables when there’s occasional tea. So I grabbed it off of the Provost Council meeting yesterday. It’s good to use the actual University resources that are available. It is tasty, though.

Rebecca: I have just an Irish breakfast this morning.

John: And I have a black raspberry green tea from The Tea Republic, which I got from our office and it has not gone bad. It’s one of a few [LAUGHTER] that have not gone bad during the year and a half that we were away.

Kristin: It still has flavor and has not completely deteriorated to dust, that’s good.

John: It tastes wonderful.

Rebecca: Yeah, when your tea starts tasting like dust, we’ve had a guest who mentioned this… we’re good.

Kristin: Yes, yes. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So we invited you here today to discuss the topic of faculty burnout. What are the symptoms of burnout?

Kristin: I’ll preface this by saying that much of what we’re going to talk about today is based on the research of Christina Maslach, who’s an Emeritus Professor at UC Berkeley, and she’s been working on this topic with her collaborators such as Michael Leiter since the 1980s. So, as an international authority, much of what we know about workplace burnout is really based on her research, and we owe a debt of gratitude to her, absolutely. One of the things that Dr. Maslach has looked at is what characterizes burnout, and there’s a specific definition. Actually, the World Health Organization, just a couple years ago, added burnout to their compendium of areas of concern and it’s important as we talk about it to recognize that they added it in a way that’s consistent with her research, which is that it is, an “ occupational phenomenon.” Meaning that, it’s a characteristic of the workplace and the fit between the workplace and the individuals in the workplace. It’s not an individual problem. It’s not a mental disorder. It’s not individually diagnosable, and it’s experienced individually, but it’s experienced individually because of the workplace situation. So as we talk about it, and we’re going to be often talking about the individual experience of it, but we can keep in mind, all the time, that even though it’s about the individual experience, it’s not an individual problem, it’s a workplace problem and the way that burnout is characterized is in three components that people experience. One is exhaustion, and of course, all of us will recognize all of these things, because these are normal human experiences. It’s just when they come together in kind of a toxic combo, that it becomes burnout. So the first one is exhaustion, feeling emotionally drained and physically exhausted by work, on a consistent basis. The second one is cynicism, feeling callous, for example, or not caring what happens at work, and sometimes faculty who are feeling particularly cynical, you’ll hear this in the way they talk about their students and their colleagues. A student will come to them with a tough situation, and they’ll basically be communicating “I don’t care what is happening to you in your life, all I care about is what I need to accomplish,” which is an experience of cynicism. The third characteristic is a feeling of ineffectiveness, feeling like you’re not accomplishing worthwhile things in the workplace, or kind of a decline of professional efficacy. An example of this for faculty is feeling like no matter what you do, your students are not going to learn, that you can’t be helpful to your colleagues, that in the past, you may have felt like a resource and that you could accomplish something in the workplace, and now you feel like you don’t have anything to offer. And it’s important to think of those, together, as an experience of burnout, and not as the God’s truth. For example, in feelings of ineffectiveness, that’s a feeling, a perception of ineffectiveness, a subjective experience. If someone feels like they don’t have anything to offer, that doesn’t mean they actually have nothing to offer. If they are feeling cynical, it doesn’t mean that their colleagues and their students actually don’t matter, even if they have that feeling at the moment. If they’re feeling emotionally exhausted, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have reservoirs underneath that. So this is a subjective experience, together, and yes, people can feel different combinations of that. The way that Dr. Maslach looks at it, if you have all three together that are relatively high, that’s burnout. If you have more one versus another, they don’t characterize that in their research as burnout, but of course, we’re really talking more about the subjective experience. If you’re completely exhausted by work, but you’re not high in cynicism, it’s still not a very pleasant experience, whether or not in a research setting that would be called burnout.

Rebecca: Because we’re talking about burnout today, some faculty might say, casually, I feel really burned out, but maybe don’t really fit that definition, but maybe really experiencing high stress or feeling really overwhelmed. So, as we’re talking about things today, are the pieces of advice that we talk about things that will help those individuals as well, or is there a different set of characteristics or things we should be thinking about?

Kristin: Oh, absolutely, it will absolutely be helpful, because, as we’re talking about it, the experience of burnout is a subjective internal experience, and just because it’s defined one way in a research setting doesn’t mean that someone can’t say to themselves, boy, I am really burned out… totally fine. I mean, we use similar words like “I feel really depressed” when, clearly, we’re not experiencing clinical depression. It’s a subjective mood state of feeling sad, and maybe losing some interest for a little while, but it’s not at a kind of a professional definitional level, it doesn’t really matter for the individual. If you’re saying “I’m feeling burned out,” …yes, absolutely, all of this stuff will still apply.

John: What are the causes of burnout?

Kristin: That’s an important point because, I think I’m just going to use the same answer to every question, by the way… [LAUGHTER] We’ll just start by saying that burnout is a workplace phenomenon, but it’s experienced individually, so it’s not an individual problem. I’ll just start by saying that for every answer. So when we talk about what are the causes of burnout, there are some individual factors that can contribute, but it really is an issue of workplace and individual fit. So, in the research, they tend to look at six characteristics of the workplace. And this is based on lots and lots of interesting work with different types of workplaces. So, let’s go through the six. First one is workload, and remember, this is always a question of individual to workplace fit. So if the workplace is manageable, with time to rest and recover, people are less likely to experience burnout, but of course, some individuals vary in what workload they consider to be manageable. The second aspect is control, when people can influence decisions that impact them, when they can exercise autonomy in the workplace, when they can get the things they need to do their job, those aspects of control help. Now people on the podcast should know that even though we’re doing this remotely, we can see each other’s faces. I like the nods I’m getting here, that when you feel like you can influence the things that you need to do your job, that aspect of control can reduce burnout. The third one is reward, that there are rewards that are commensurate with the work, and sometimes those rewards are specific to the individual needs, financial rewards, institutional rewards, social benefits, the whole slate of rewards. We know that being underpaid does not help, but also never being told “thank you,” also doesn’t help. So making sure that there are a slate of rewards that are commensurate with the work and commensurate with the needs of the people who work there. So there’s three: workload, control and reward. Next one is community, that there are job related relationships that are characterized by social support and effective conflict management. We know, for example, in higher ed, that one of the top reasons that faculty will leave is because their colleagues are not nice to them, a kind of a broken culture at the departmental level, that that kind of broken community builds burnout and drives people away from one institution to another. The fifth aspect is fairness, that decisions at work are perceived as fair and equitable. And anyone who’s been in any workplace longer than about six months, you understand how important this is, right? Even if stuff is just really a struggle, if it’s perceived as fairly impacting people, that some people are not getting ahead over others in mysterious ways, that is much easier to take, like we’re all in this together, this is happening in a way that is fair. And the last one is values, that the individual’s ideals and motivations that are relevant to work are consistent with the practices and values of the employer. I interviewed a highly qualified person for a faculty position fairly recently, and one of the reasons that she was on the job market… she was already in a tenure-track position. She was on the job market because the institution she was at was dramatically changing. They were structurally changing, everything was different, and one of the things that she had valued was undergraduate research, and that was not going to be an important value of the institution going forward. So it kind of broke her relationship with her employer. Another way that we’re seeing this with COVID is when you hear people talk about “I didn’t get into this work for this reason,” that sometimes speaks to a values mismatch. You hear it often with healthcare workers who are under a lot of stress right now, you hear them talking about having to make decisions about who to help first, having to tell people: “You can’t be with your loved one while they’re dying” …those are things that directly cut against the things that got them into healthcare, and it builds this feeling of burnout. So those are the six aspects: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. And those pieces, the mismatch between the individual and the workplace, in any of those areas can dramatically contribute to burnout.

John: And I think the pandemic may have affected nearly all those categories. Could we perhaps talk about some of the ways in which the pandemic may have affected things like control and some of those other issues?

Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. And I would bet anyone in higher ed, who’s listening to this, could write them down immediately. Like, for example, “How has the pandemic affected your workload like, “Fwahah… these 83 different ways,” and you know, the most obvious example is when people were asked to go remote very suddenly, especially people who had not been teaching in an online environment… that the workload, like straight up, of just having to completely retool materials that were intended for one delivery into another one…. whether or not you had the underlying knowledge base for that, or an orientation towards it… just separating all of that out, just the work involved in shifting everything was dramatic. Control is also a really excellent example. Control is something that has made the pandemic so stressful for so many people in so many different professions, that there are critical aspects of our work lives that we now feel are controlled by an invisible virus. Our feelings of how we control our environment and what keeps us safe, have been completely thrown out the window. And at the same time, our ability to shape our workplace, our individual ability to shape our workplace to maintain that sense of control, has also been completely thrown out the window. I know there were some faculty who would have preferred to stay face to face even when we moved things remote, whose sense of risk was low, and were upset that they had to make that change, and that there are faculty who would much prefer to stay completely remote now, even though institutionally, that’s not always a choice, especially across the country, different institutions are in very different places where faculty may not have as much control as they would typically have over how they’re delivering their classes, how they’re interacting with their colleagues, how they are interacting with their students. And, when you’re talking about something that is a literal existential threat, that is terrifying in a way that I can see would dramatically increase this loss of control and experience of burnout and we could talk about all the other ones as well… [LAUGHTER].

John: But those are certainly the big ones, I think, and I think Rebecca and I have both experienced those as well in different ways, but it’s been…a challenge.

Kristin: Absolutely. I also think that from some of the things I hear from colleagues in other states, some legislatures or boards that have gotten very involved with how universities are delivering their classes, I think that also contributes to burnout for both faculty and administrators where you think you’re doing the best thing you can and then somebody who has no idea how you’re doing your job, or how a university work says “No, this is the way we’re going to do it” …that can be a crazy-making experience. Rebecca and John know that I relocated to New York just two years ago. I’m happy to be in New York, where universities are empowered to make more of their own decisions, then in some states, and my heart goes out to our colleagues in some states where they have been prevented from making decisions that they think are good for their students and for their faculty.

John: That was a topic we talked a little bit about last week in the episode dealing with legislatures affecting what topics are allowed in the classroom.

Kristin: Exactly

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between burnout, the workplace phenomenon and discussions around work-life balance?

Kristin: Yes, work-life balance is a really fraught topic, isn’t it? On the surface of it, it seems like this great ideal that we’re all shooting for, right? That we can hit some individually adjusted perfect balance, but underneath it is all of this social baggage of who is positioned in a way to be able to achieve what is more of a work-life balance, who is socially and economically positioned in such a way as to have that be almost a completely unattainable goal, all of that kind of stuff. So, I think that there are similarities to kind of pushing for the ideal work-life balance and the concept of burnout. Because work- life balance is also experienced individually and there are aspects that you can individually control, but it is also a workplace phenomenon. So I know we’ve seen in the news, for example, that China is having conversations about the 9-9-6 work week. If you’ve seen this, the 9-9-6 work week is the idea that you should work from 9am to 9pm six days a week, and this is an ideal that is pushed in some companies. And finally in China, people are saying, “Wait, no!”

Rebecca: That sounds horrible.

Kristin: This is not good for people… like they collapse from exhaustion and illness. So we can say that work-life balance is an individual ideal, but at the same time, there are workplace variables that push people in one direction or another, that’s in a broader sense. It’s hard to hold that kind of dialectic in mind, that the work environment requires this of me on the one hand, but on the other hand, I still have control over many aspects. How can I exercise and grow that control in a way that can help me to live a healthier life? That those two things are both simultaneously true and need to be kept in mind at the same time. So burnout is a great example of that. Burnout is a workplace phenomenon that is best addressed institutionally or across the workplace culture, but at the same time, individuals maintain control over various aspects of their lives, and how do you focus on the pieces you can control and make the most of your areas of influence over your own life, over your own time, over the way that you’re allocating your energies and your emotions?

John: Since most of our listeners don’t have control over their workplace environment to the extent that they might like, what can individuals do when they’re faced with an environment where they’re feeling these types of pressures?

Kristin: So one thing that helps me to keep in mind is the three components of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. And I know, for myself, that when I am edging towards burnout, ineffectiveness is one of the first things that I start to feel. I start to feel like I don’t have anything to contribute, and I recognize that that’s a sign of burnout, and I tell myself that I actually do have things to contribute. Just because I don’t feel that in the moment, it’s not a sign I don’t have something to say, it’s a sign that I need to take more stock of how I’m approaching things and reduce my level of stress. So, the first thing I would suggest is keeping in mind what are signs of burnout, because otherwise, it’s very easy for people to blame themselves and see it as an individual weakness… say, “I’m just not up to this,” when really an alternative interpretation is “I’m experiencing burnout. It’s not an individual flaw, it’s not an individual weakness, and there are things that I can do about this,” and at the same time, those three things, exhaustion, cynicism and effectiveness, what you’re shooting for is kind of the counter for that. So what can you do that counters exhaustion? What can you do that builds your energy? What can you do to counter cynicism? What can you do to build your emotional engagement and your compassion? And for ineffectiveness, what can you do that builds your sense of effectiveness and your sense of accomplishment? So there are a number of things that we all have individual control over that help us to build our energy, to build our emotional engagement, and to build our sense of accomplishment. Just for example, all three of us have worked very hard to figure out how do we set boundaries in time? We don’t have magical solutions to this, but we try really hard. How do you decide when to stop working and to start having fun, or sleeping or exercising? Because those are all things that build energy, and when you don’t set those boundaries of time, it sucks the energy out of you, because you’re spending all of this time exhausting yourself in the workplace, and although we may feel some pressures to spend all our time exhausting ourselves in the workplace, that actually is not required. We do have some control over that. Now, I’m specifically speaking about a university setting, there are certainly some workplaces where it is literally a job requirement to exhaust yourself in the workplace, and that is really a toxic environment to be in. I know we’ve seen that with some health-care workers where they have been given no choice but to exhaust themselves in the workplace, and it’s a horrible situation to be in. So when I’m talking about a university workplace where we may feel like we have to put everything into our jobs all the time, but that’s actually not a job requirement. So how do we say, “I’m going to stop working now, because it’s 11 o’clock at night and one should sometimes go to bed and get some sleep?”

Rebecca: I hear it’s good for brain function.

Kristin: Yes exactly, and those things actually help us to be more effective at work. I often don’t do email on the weekends, for example, which for a Dean is unusual, but that’s because we spend 30 years socializing as grad students, and further on, that you work all the time, nonstop seven days a week, because that’s how academia works. It doesn’t have to work that way. So as another example, how can people, if they’re feeling cynical, if they recognize that increase of cynicism, how can they address that? Because one thing that brings people into higher ed is often a connection to students, especially in institutions like ours, comprehensive institutions that really value undergraduate education. We hire people who got into higher ed because they love students, and they are excited by working with students, and they have compassion for students, and they want them to live better lives when they graduate, and it can be particularly distressing for people who got into higher ed for those reasons to feel that aspect of themselves retreating, to lose patience and to lose compassion for their students. So what if you feel that? What can you do? So the first thing is, you recognize it’s a sign of burnout, you say “This is not me, this is not my weakness, this is not me becoming a harder person, this is a sign of burnout.” So it helps you to identify it as external to yourself, and something that you can approach as a problem instead of an individual failing. And then, oftentimes, we find that when you want to be feeling something that you’re not feeling, honestly “fake it till you make it” is not a bad approach. So if your student says this terrible thing is happening in my life, I need some accommodation for that in this class, perhaps some days, you have a hard time coming up with a compassionate response to that. That’s okay, as long as you don’t tell that to the student, you have it in your heart, like I just don’t have the depth of compassion that I typically have, so today, I’m going to say to the student, “I’m so sorry, you’re going through that, let’s talk about what kind of accommodations will work for class for now.” If they need extended deadlines or something like that, because later, you know, you’re going to go back to that, and you will feel it. It’s okay to say, I’m sorry, you’re going through that knowing that, cognitively, you’re sorry, and later you can be emotionally sorry for them, if that makes sense. And you’re allowed to have more depths of compassion some days than others or more depth some semesters than others, that’s okay. As long as the way that you respond to your students is the way that you want them to feel. I’m not expressing that very well. It’s okay when you feel emotionally out of control inside, it’s okay to go to your social support network and talk about that. It doesn’t have to affect the way that you work with your students. And I know some of the faculty that I have worked with that sometimes go through this, they feel horrible later if they don’t treat their students with compassion, because they were having a bad day.

John: I think also, with a pandemic, some of those support networks broke down a little bit, making it a little harder for faculty to connect to their support networks.

Kristin: Oh, that’s absolutely true, partly because we are social creatures who have evolved to be able to respond to in-person support, and when we’re not able to access that in-person support in the same ways, it doesn’t feel as powerful. I lived in Texas for many years, and hugging is, in South Texas, a big thing. You hug your colleagues when you see them, you hug a stranger when you meet them, there’s sometimes a little cheek kiss in there, you hug when you’re happy, you hug when you’re sad. There were like 80 hugs in my professional day when I worked in Texas. And, if you’re used to that level of both physical connection and social connectedness, and that is suddenly withdrawn, like it has been in the pandemic, it’s very difficult to feel the same kind of level of support. Plus many people in higher ed, we get our professional support from colleagues that we feel friendly with, but we’re not close enough friends that we would seek each other out if you have to work at it. So like, going to a department meeting, the meeting may not be that fun, but seeing your colleagues can be a highlight, like “How are things going?” …but you’re not close enough friends that you actually seek each other out outside of that. During the peak of the pandemic, those kinds of relationships were very difficult to maintain, because you weren’t having those kind of casual informal social interactions, they had to be planned and scheduled. Is this is going to be outside with masks or is this going to be in video? And without having a social support network that was that strong, much of those kind of collegial connections just melted away, and I think all of us have seen the effects of that on social loosening between colleagues and how it shows up in email and how it shows up in like people are just kind of rude to each other sometimes, because they haven’t seen each other and they haven’t rebuilt those social connections, But I should be talking more about how to build a defense against burnout. So we talked about setting time boundaries, I think that’s really important. Another aspect that, okay, it’s gonna sound individual and it is individual, but remember, burnout is a workplace phenomenon. Didn’t I say that I would say that over and over? One of the reasons that burnout can be so damaging is that it physically stresses you, and it can set you up for health impacts. So a way to build your physical resilience can also help as a response to feeling burned out. So making sure that you’re taking care of your health the best that you can. If that is starting to walk when you’re not walking, making sure that you take ergonomic breaks at work to stretch, watching how much you’re drinking, all of those aspects that build physical resilience, they make you more resistant to the stress response of the exhaustion aspect of burnout and they’ll also help protect you against the health effects that can come from an extended period of burnout.

Rebecca: Things like eating lunch seem important too in that department, right?

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: Because, one of those time barriers… that lunch just escapes away. There’s all these meetings.

Kristin: Yes, absolutely, absolutely! I had a wonderful colleague that I worked with that was so committed to students, and in her job, she was both an instructor and an advisor for a fairly large number of students, and I talked to her when she was feeling really stressed out one semester, and she said, “I don’t have time to eat or go to the bathroom. From the start of the day, to the end of the day, I’m talking to students non-stop.” And we talked about how she could build control back into her life, and as the teacher of these students, she was the one making the appointments, and they would come with a question, but she would set the agenda of how you address that. So it’s not good for your students to see that you don’t eat and go to the bathroom, it’s okay to say, “I’ve been talking to students for two hours, I need to take a restroom break, I’ll come back in 10 minutes.” That’s okay. It’s also okay to say “I need an hour here for lunch, because I also need to kind of disengage.” So we talked about how she could set time barriers so that she literally was making herself go to the bathroom and eat. Also, as just a side note, her other colleagues who had similar job responsibilities did not have this issue. That doesn’t mean it was her fault. It wasn’t her fault, it was a mismatch between what she was being asked to do and her, like a workplace issue. But, it also speaks to how boosting your own level of control can help to combat burnout. And we see this also sometimes in our colleagues who are like, I’ve been assigning these amazing projects and papers for students, and they take me so long to grade and I give them six versions of feedback along the way, and they never make revisions. They can figure out how to achieve those learning outcomes in a way that requires less instructor time. So how to exercise control in a way so that you can pull back some of that time, pull back some more flexibility.

John: And maybe doing things other than work to get back some of that work-life balance can help. I know I recently started playing with a band again.

Kristin: Yay.

John: Somehow in the next couple of weeks, I’ve got to learn 60 songs [LAUGHTER] before we do this long show. But it does help, it’s very refreshing to do something that’s not involving Zoom meetings for 8 to 10 to 12 hours a day.

Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. I worked with a psychologist who ran one of the only inpatient PTSD units in the country who was really fabulous, and that was a high area of potential burnout and emotional exhaustion, listening to people talk about their traumatic experiences. And his advice, which is just the same as the literature is, you got to have fun, you got to have fun in between all those. In fact, he said, “the more stressful the work situation, the bigger the fun has to be, you have to have big fun.” Oftentimes, when people feel exhausted, it’s difficult for them to imagine doing something that would be enjoyable, it’s difficult for them to plan it, it’s difficult for them to think it’s gonna be any fun to imagine it as being fun. Don’t let any of that stop you, you just do it anyway. You say, “Usually, I like to do this, I don’t feel like doing it right now, but go do it anyway.” Because it really does have a mood lifting effect, even if you don’t feel like it when you’re going into it, and that can be little fun, it can be going on a walk with somebody that you like and enjoying nature, it can be big fun. Many of us are not doing a lot of traveling right now, and it can also include sometimes people who practice mindfulness experience increased joy in their daily life as well, because they can kind of suck the little moments of joy out of the day in a more focused way.

Rebecca: I know one strategy I used during the summer when I was starting to feel overwhelmed, was I just signed up to take a poetry class because I had time to do extra stuff, and I paid for it, and it had a regular meeting time, and it had a schedule associated with it, and it really helped me get back on a creative path, because there were some structure to it. So I didn’t have to put any brain work into the structure, I just signed up, and then the structure came to me, and that really helped because that was one less thing I had to think about.

Kristin: Mmhmm, absolutely.

John: We’ve talked a little bit about what individuals could do when they start to experience the symptoms of burnout, what might institutions do to help reduce the likelihood of burnout?

Kristin: It’s a great question and something that all workplaces need to have an eye on. In fact, some of the most interesting work that Dr. Maslach has done is working with workplaces and helping them to identify what are the sources of burnout in your workplace and how can you institutionally address it? For universities, I’m going to shift it slightly to what can leaders do. So the first thing I would say, is to watch for their own burnout, because you know that one of the aspects of burnout is cynicism, this reduced feeling of compassion. Another is feeling of ineffectiveness. If you’re expecting someone to provide leadership, you want them to have compassion for the people at the institution, and you want them to feel like that if they do something, it’s actually going to make a difference, as opposed to feeling like it’s not gonna matter whatever they do. So to watch for signs in their own burnout, and recognize that if that’s impacting their work, that they need to address that before it impacts the people that they have some responsibility for. But in general, we know that one thing that reduces workplace stress in crisis and I would characterize us as having been in a constant crisis for the last year and a half, one thing that definitely helps is to provide information, lots of information. Be as clear as possible, communicate more often than you think you have to, in multiple modalities, just communicate, communicate, communicate, because in the crisis mode, it’s very easy for people’s emotions to escalate quickly if they feel that important things are not being addressed, or they don’t know what’s going on. So over-communicate, and do what you can, in every aspect, to build faculty, staff and student experiences of control. So there are some things where the institution has to take control, there has to be some direction. It’s very important, for example, that we stay in the black in our budget, because we really want people to get paid. That’s true for every university, that there are institutional goals that protect everyone, and sometimes you have to set direction that requires that. But at the same time, there are aspects where you can cede as much control as possible. It’s very helpful if you’re already in an environment in which there is a strong tradition of shared faculty and administrative governance, but there are aspects where faculty, staff and students can exercise control over their own lives and over what’s happening to them. Every piece that you can build for that can help. At the same time, it is another dialectic where if you say, “We don’t know what to do, what do you want to do?’ to someone who is heavily burned out, they may not be able to come up with a solution, and it’s a leader’s job to be able to come up with a solution. So you don’t say “We don’t know what to do? What do you guys think?” And sometimes the answer to that is, “Well, we don’t know either it’s your job, figure it out,” and that’s a fine answer. So if that’s the answer to the Dean or the Provost or the President, then they need to figure it out, [LAUGHTER] while allowing as much flexibility as possible. Another aspect, I think, is that we need to be extra conscious of faculty, staff, and students who have comparatively less institutional power. So in a time of crisis, with widespread levels of burnout, it’s definitely going to affect some people more than others, and those people are often on the margins of having a voice or having power to create institutional change. They’re people who may be already under extra stress because of low pay or because of discriminatory experiences in their department or inequitable workload assignment. Those people are already getting the short end of the stick, and may be more prone to burnout because of it, and may have less power to say anything. So it’s an institutional responsibility to be extra conscious of those voices, to go the extra mile to find out what their perspectives are, and to build them into whatever we can do to, again, build experiences of control. And finally, I think all of us should be practicing compassion as much as we can. We may not agree, that’s okay. Higher ed is really good at having disagreements. We have disagreements about ideas, we have very fundamental disagreements about policy, that’s okay. We can even say like “this person is super freaked out about going into the classroom right now, because of their own assessment of risk that is completely independent of anything else, and this person is not.” That doesn’t mean one of them is right or wrong, it means that their own perceptions are different, and that we should have compassion for people who have different perspectives on what is happening in their lives. I recognize that that list is too global. I would really like to say, “Here are these specific things that we should do,” but it does differ by institutional contexts. In terms of specifics, though, I think communicating as often as possible in multiple modalities and making sure that voices are in the room. Those are two specific things. When decisions are being made that affect their lives, faculty, students, and staff should be in the room so their voices can be heard, so that they can exercise as much control as possible over their workplace situations.

Rebecca: Sounds to me to based on what you were saying, Kristin, is that when we’re thinking about faculty or staff voices that need to be in the room, it’s not just tenured faculty, or full-time faculty or full-time staff, but people that are on a range of situations from those who might be really part-time to those who have been really established with the institution and been there for a long time.

Kristin: Absolutely, absolutely. And doing it in such a way that… and this is, I think, a tricky part… adjunct voices, for example, are very important in determining how to move forward in ways that affect adjunct work, but at the same time, we don’t want to burden them with extra service requirements of serving on a bunch of committees or put them in a position where they feel that their contracts are already unstable if they speak up and say something… are they going to lose a potential adjunct contract in the future? So it’s a hard line to walk, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. There is a way to make sure that untenured faculty, both part-time and full-time, have a voice in determining how the institution moves forward.

Rebecca: Some of that sounds like anonymity might sometimes be important to providing some feedback, especially with part time faculty.

Kristin: That’s an excellent point.

Rebecca: Maybe they can’t be in the room, but we can certainly ask them for feedback, in an anonymous platform, so that we have at least a representation of their voices in the room, even if they’re not there.

Kristin: Absolutely, and I appreciate the unionized environment in New York, where there is an alternative pathway to provide input, where people can feel protected in a different way.

John: Anonymity is one good way of providing that feedback, but also having a sense of trust that what you say will be taken under consideration seriously, and I think our campus has done a pretty good job with that, compared to what I’ve heard from many other campuses.

Kristin: I think so too. Both in the classroom, and in leadership, we have to walk that tricky line of like, “I think I know what I’m doing, but at the same time, I have to really welcome critical feedback.” Like if your students say, “I really don’t understand what you’re talking about,” you have to have some experience of gratitude for that, that somebody said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” so that you can explain. And similarly in leadership, when faculty say, “this is a dumb idea, don’t do this,” we have to be able to experience some gratitude for that feedback and say, “Well, thank you for pointing out all those potential horrible downsides that had not been considered.” So cultivating that attitude of trust and safety, because then you, on the one hand, you get some pretty negative feedback sometimes, so you suck it up. But at the same time, you need to feel grateful for that negative feedback, because it really does make the institution a better place. One aspect that we didn’t touch on, I just want to pop in, in higher ed, full-time faculty more than part-time, but full-time faculty of all ranks tend to have somewhat more control over their assigned work over time than in other workplaces, and that is another way to combat burnout in the long run. So if you say I have been doing the same thing for years, and I just can’t take it anymore, there’s so much interesting stuff that can be done at a university. If you got a better idea of how to spend your time, probably somebody is going to let you do it. I worked with a wonderful woman, I will give her a shout-out even though I don’t think she’ll hear us: Wendy James-Aldridge was my most influential Department Chair as an Assistant Professor, and Wendy was a great researcher. She studied primate family relationships for decades at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, but she was also a talented administrator, she was a great teacher, and she told me one day, “You know, when I just get tired of dealing with students, after years of a heavy teaching load, I go be Department Chair, and then I do some stuff, and I push some paper around, I take care of faculty, and then whenI get tired of dealing with faculty, complaints and paperwork, then I went to chair the faculty assembly and did that for a while, and then when I got tired of that, then I went back to full-time teaching.” And this is over decades of a career, and it’s a really great example that when work seems like a slog, you can actually change, if you have enough control, which in higher ed we often do, you can actually change the proportion of your time. And every university, I would hazard a guess, has some great faculty who are leading a center somewhere. And they often do that when they were doing one thing and being very successful at it and thought, “Hey, I would be really interested and excited to do this other thing,” then you do that for a while and you say, “Hey, you know what would be interesting? To do a different thing, because I like to learn, I like to grow,” You do a different thing, and in higher ed, we can actually do that. In many workplaces, that is not really an option. And I’ll say it again, as Dean, I can say, there’s so many things that need to be done that if someone comes up to me and says, “I have this idea, I want to do this really interesting thing that needs to be done,” there’s usually a way to make that happen, because we need a lot of stuff to be done. So I’d also suggest that people think about both control in the short term, how can you control your time and how you’re spending your time and allocating your emotional investment, but also think about control in the long term. If you’re tired of what you’re doing, and your institution gives sabbaticals, take a sabbatical, move in a different direction, apply for a leadership position, write a grant, those are all things that actually can help refresh people’s sense of engagement with their workplace. It’s interesting to me that sometimes the solution for burnout is not less work, it’s different work.

Rebecca: I’m definitely someone who has had a lot of different interests and jumps around and does all kinds of different projects, from research to creative work.

Kristin: Oftentimes, when I’m feeling particularly ineffective, I will listen to the podcast or do a good hour of development, because that kind of learning helps to re-engage me emotionally. And then I don’t feel so ineffective. It’s like, “hey, those are good ideas, I have ideas, I am thinking about these ideas.” I now have a little rejuvenation of energy, and I think a lot of academics are that way, we get turned on by learning and we get turned on by stretching and doing different things.

John: I know that’s something I’ve enjoyed about the podcast. I’ve received a lot of inspiration by the suggestions from our guests. The main problem is trying not to implement too many of them all at once. [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: All at the same time, all at the same time, yeah.

Rebecca: I know one of the lessons that I tucked away from that poetry class I’ve been taking was the idea of generative reading, and that’s really what you’re talking about.

Kristin: Yes.

Rebecca: Consuming something else from some other folks to be exposed to new ideas to remind yourself that you also have ideas.

Kristin: Yes, absolutely. I’ll add one other strategy: oftentimes we find people to hyper focus on their areas of weakness, and say, “I’m so stressed out, I have to get better at these 28 things,” and oftentimes, that kind of focus actually doesn’t help. It can be much more helpful to focus on your areas of strength. Say, “You know what, I’m bad at these things, but I’m good at this stuff, I’m gonna do this stuff I’m good at.” So for example, I am not good at writing by myself, I have never been good at writing by myself, I find it completely unrewarding. If I had a deadline, I would usually hit it, but if I have a collaborator, I can write because the social motivation is much more interesting to me.

John: A commitment device, as we talked about on an earlier podcast.

Kristin: Exactly, I also find writing articles to be really boring, but I can write a grant with no problem, because I see the impact it’s going to have, and that is much more motivating to me. So I could spend my career beating myself up for being bad at writing articles by myself, or I could spend my career saying, “You know what I like to write grants with a team, something that will make a difference, and that’s less frustrating for me, it’s much more rewarding, it has better impact for the institution because I’m actually doing something that I’m good at, as opposed to just trying to build what I’m bad at.” We spend so much time trying to say “I am bad at this, I should be better.” Well, that’s actually not very helpful. So the next time you find yourself thinking that you can say, “Wait, wait, wait, wait, what am I good at? I’m gonna focus on that instead.” And that can also help to combat that feeling of exhaustion, because you’re always trying to remediate what you’re bad at and being tired and being worn out. Uh hnnn. What are you good at? Where will you find that energy? What gets you intellectually engaged again?

Rebecca: Sounds to me like in tenure, promotion, retention practices that focus on the contributions made by an individual, rather than specific kinds of contributions, like contributions that are a good fit for the individual and the institution, would be something worth rewarding and emphasizing.

Kristin: Absolutely, and we see that at the Associate Professor level, how can we kind of spread it more to the Assistant Professor level, where when people are promoted to Associate and given tenure, sometimes they blossom in an unexpected way, because they don’t feel so much pressure to be evenly achieving across multiple areas.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Kristin: What’s next? That’s a good question. As Dean, I am very focused on what role that I can play and what role can the college play in supporting our faculty and students and I will remain both focused on COVID, ‘cause, you know, it kind of is a cloud over everything, right? But, at the same time, thinking about “What do we do next? What are we learning now? What can we use now that we can leverage to come out of this in a different and new way?” How about you two?

Rebecca: It’s always an adventure, right? [LAUGHTER]

Kristin: Yes, it is, yes, it is.

Rebecca: Well, what’s next, I’m going to learn my new job, which is the Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at SUN- Oswego.

Kristin: Well congratulations! And I am excited to work with you in all of the capacities that you have been in, including this new one, and the nice thing for me is that the Graduate Studies Office is right down the hall, so I’ll get the chance to see Rebecca more.

Rebecca: Definitely!

John: What’s next for me is continuing in the classroom after a nice long break. It was really exciting to be back in the classroom. I wish more than 60% of my students had been vaccinated that first day, but working with a challenging environment where I have a number of students in quarantine, a number of students testing positive every few days, and handling that mix in face-to-face and online is a challenge, especially when you have a very interactive class environment where there’s a lot of polling and group work taking place that, as many people experienced last year, it’s very challenging, and I was kind of happy to avoid it, but it’s so much more energizing, for me at least, to be back in that classroom environment.

Kristin: Right, absolutely. Well, good luck to you and to your students.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Anna Croyle.


171. Burnout

Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode, Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark joins us to talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.

Rebecca  is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty.

Show Notes

  • Project board with three columns: Backlog, Work in progress and done. The Done column is layers of stickynotes and the work in progress only has a few items.
    Rebecca Pope-Ruark’s current project board


John: Unrealistic expectations and increasing workloads have been present in higher ed for a long time, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic. In this episode we talk about the realities of burnout and the need for self-care.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together, we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.


John: Our guest today is Dr. Rebecca Pope-Ruark. She is a Teaching and Learning Specialist for the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Tech. Rebecca is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching, the co-editor of Redesigning Liberal Education: Innovative Design for a 21st Century Undergraduate Education, and is currently completing a new book on burnout and women faculty. Welcome, Rebecca.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Thank you so much for having me… big fan of the show.

John: Happy to have you here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are… Rebecca, are you drinking tea?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I am. I take teaching and tea very seriously. So I’m drinking PG Tips from England this morning.

John: We have some of that in our office.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: It’s a favorite. [LAUGHTER]

John: I still have some Christmas tea with cinnamon.

Rebecca: Yum.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: mmm, sounds lovely.

Rebecca: And I’m on I think my last pot of my loose leaf Scottish breakfast tea.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Ooh.

Rebecca: I’ll have to move on to something else.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yum. I’m a big fan of Irish.

Rebecca: The Scottish was a discovery for me during the pandemic, and I’ve been a little obsessed.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: [LAUGHTER] I’ll have to try that

Rebecca: My grandmother’s from Scotland, so maybe it’s that. I don’t know.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, my grandmother’s from England. So I gravitate towards the English breakfast tea. [LAUGHTER]

John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your work on faculty burnout. Perhaps we could begin by describing what burnout looks and feels like.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. So the World Health Organization defined burnout recently as a workplace related syndrome characterized by unrelenting stress that is unmanageable, specifically in the workplace. So that’s the definition that we’re mostly working from right now. And burnout has three characteristics that you can be on the lookout for. First, there’s exhaustion, so that mental, intellectual, emotional, exhaustion, where it’s just difficult to get out of bed in the morning, because everything is so tiring. The second sign is cynicism, or depersonalization. There’s cynicism toward the people that you work with, towards the job that you’re doing. You stop being people really as individuals, and they seem more like kind of an amorphous group. And then the last one is this lack of a sense of meaning or accomplishment. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to see the value of the work that you’re doing. We all kind of know what those three things feel like at the end of the semester. But this burnout, as we’re defining it, by the World Health Organization, is a sustained pace of unrelenting stress. And that looks different for everyone. And you can look for common signs like pulling away and isolating from the work context, unexplainable anger, an inability to concentrate or sustain thought to the level that you’re used to, and an inability to write for some folks. And that was one of my problems when I went through burnout. So those can be kind of heartbreaking things and not knowing what’s going on with that. And then if you don’t have a language for burnout, it can often feel like shame, because you can’t emotionally and intellectually do what you’ve always done. And the brain just doesn’t work that well under that kind of stress.

John: And during a pandemic, those things become much more serious. And a lot of it is people are trying to reach the standards they had set for themselves, but aren’t quite able to during the circumstances, and that gets really frustrating. So why do we set such high standards for ourselves and each other at any time, but during a pandemic, in particular?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, it’s endemic to the culture of higher education. The people who are attracted to higher education often come from a kind of a similar personality type, not to say that that’s a total stereotype. But we all have kind of a predilection toward achieving and excellence and knowledge and lifelong learning. And those are wonderful things. But when they get taken to a certain extreme, it becomes really difficult to see past this kind of expectation escalation, every step has to be a little bigger than the last step. And that’s an expectation. It’s not necessarily just something that we put in our own head. So higher education culture really does push that on us in a lot of ways. Burnout, specifically, is really hard in, like I said, the caring work like health care and teaching. And we have to think about: “What are the positive rewards on that?” So sometimes burnout comes from not enough rewards, from not enough positive interactions. And those can be part of the stress, and we have to really think that workplaces cause burnout. The definition and the research that we see says it is very workplace specific. But that doesn’t necessarily mean if you move over to another job, that those kinds of things are going to go away, especially in higher education, because the culture, the expectation escalation, there is kind of an unrelenting pace, and there’s no room to just kind of fit and be content or rest. And one thing I do want to point out too is that burnout itself is not a mental health illness. It’s a syndrome associated with stress. So there’s more that you can do to manage burnout, before it gets bad if you can catch it early enough.

John: For faculty,referring to what you said earlier, one of the symptoms is perhaps dehumanizing your students and, as you said, treating your students as this amorphous blob, rather than as individuals. And I think we often hear some of that in some of our colleagues who’ve reached their limit by the end of the semester, but when that becomes persistent, it becomes I think, a more serious issue.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, that was definitely my problem when I went through my own severe burnout. I was a teacher’s teacher, right? I mean, That was all I wanted to do. My entire tenure case was built on teaching and scholarship of teaching and learning. So when I started to pull away from my students, when I started to feel very negatively about them and their concerns, I was a tenure track faculty member tenured for 12 years plus five years teaching undergraduates with graduate students. So at that point, you’ve kind of seen everything in a way it feels like,so the compassion fatigue starts to set in, because it becomes repetitive for you. It’s the same thing over and over again. And that’s exactly where students should be. Right? That’s their developmental age. Of course, they should be there. The compassion dries up, and the empathy starts to dry up. And that’s a pretty big sign to look for burnout.

Rebecca: How does this impact newer faculty or mid-career faculty differently than faculty that have been around for longer?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: In some ways, I don’t feel like, at this point, there is a big distinction. I think we can all be prone to it. I think we are all prone to it. I think we probably experience in different ways. And by the time I went through my burnout, I was relatively close to going up for full professor and had been successful and was pleased with my career. But it just wasn’t the same anymore. I couldn’t find joy in it anymore. I started having panic attacks just going to campus. Those are signals to look for. And I think we all go through ebbs and flows. Yes, it was more stressful as a junior faculty member, especially given the expectations of graduate students coming out these days. It’s crazy. And what graduate students need to do and be prepared to get those few rare tenure-track positions is exponentially bigger than what I had to do when I finished my PhD 14 years ago. And especially in the pandemic, those poor junior faculty are thinking about their tenure clock, they’re thinking about the tenure case, they might have caregiving responsibilities at home. When do you have time to write? This kind of unrelenting stress makes it really difficult to focus and difficult to think. And I think a lot of the folks who are being productive now, that’s amazing. It could be a coping mechanism that some of us don’t have or don’t have the luxury of. So I really do feel for junior faculty, especially when all of those things are so uncertain. What’s the clock look like? How do you account for the time and publication and presentations in your clock? And I think burnout can be kind of common right after receiving tenure for folks, because there’s a sudden, “what if” kind of that midlife crisis there too. But it depends on how your workplace is kind of playing out in a lot of ways and that the people that you’re engaging with, the activities that you’re doing, things that you are responsible for, that you feel like you can’t step away from. So I think we can all be prone to burnout at any point, if we’re not at least on the lookout for it.

Rebecca: One of the things that you hinted at and that we’ve talked about on a previous podcast related to the pandemic is some of the particular challenges that affect women or faculty of color or contingent faculty who may have some of those additional caregiving responsibilities or other things that are happening if they’re working from home.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Right. And we know from higher education research that women, faculty of color, and contingent faculty, especially, tend to teach larger numbers of students. So they’re already doing significantly more emotional labor on our campuses than we might know. Because it’s hidden, it’s silent. And these populations are often called to do more significant service, more significant mentoring. So more time means more and more potential for secondary traumas on top of all the quote unquote normal workload, and whatever might be going on for them at home as well. It could be childcare, it could be eldercare, it could be a number of different things that they didn’t expect, or they didn’t have on their plates necessarily during work hours. So it’s going to impact time, it’s going to impact attention, the ability to research and write, and it’s just a heavy emotional load. Faculty, for the most part, are not trained counselors. We don’t have that skill set, necessarily. And we shouldn’t be asked, necessarily, to be counselors. But we need some skills to help our students as we’re all going through this unrelenting trauma right now, it’s impacting all of us. So we have to build up our own mental health and our own resilience to be able to help our students work through what they’re going through. And as a woman faculty member, faculty of color, we work with more students, and we see more students and students may be more comfortable talking to us about the struggles that they’re having. So how do we engage with them and point them to the resources that they need? We can be empathetic, but if you’re not a trained counselor, how do we connect them with the resources that are going to help them? And I think one blessing right now is that student mental health had been an issue that was gaining a lot of attention and a lot of traction in higher ed, so there are much better systems in place at many institutions for student mental health, as resources are available. So if we know what those are, we can direct our students to them, and we can ask them for help in helping our students. But we can’t help others if we aren’t helping ourselves. How do we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of our students as well, whatever that means for you?

John: What are some strategies that faculty could use to help mitigate burnout, to make it less likely, or at least reduce its impact?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: There’s a lot of things we can think about. And depending on how far down the scale you are in burnout therapy might be the best option. And that’s something to talk to your mental health care provider about. Most institutions have EAPs that might offer you some initial conversations with a mental health professional or a coach. So you could take advantage of that to kind of see where you are. Another point of, I don’t want to say diagnosis, but another point of maybe a way to kind of see where you are on a scale is to check out the Maslach Burnout I Inventory. Christina Maslach. It’s kind of the grande dame of burnout research. And she and her colleagues have one of the most validated scales for burnout right now, and inventories. So if you Google that, there’s a $15 version for educators, and that’ll show you where you are on those three dimensions of burnout, so you have a sense of what the challenges are, so that you can direct your attention to those specifically. When I took it, I was almost off the charts. So I waited way too long, because I didn’t have a language for what was happening to me. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it, because it was shameful. I couldn’t think straight anymore. I couldn’t decide what to eat for lunch, I had a panic attack when I got near campus. So if you’re a kind of a hard charging academic, and those things start happening to you, you start questioning “What is going on?” And how do you not display that weakness to other people. So the first thing after therapy, if that’s what you need in diagnosis, is connection. And that’s one of the earliest things that’s going to go, because you do start to isolate yourself. But once I started talking about my burnout, people came out of the woodwork, which is both good, because people are talking about it, and both terrible, because there are so many folks who have told me their stories, and they’re just sad… not just that their mental health, but their physical health has been impacted by burnout. So I think we can do a lot of things. Connection is the first thing and that might be talking to a trusted circle of folks around you that may or may not be in higher education, reaching out to folks in your counseling centers if those are available, reaching out to your centers for teaching and learning and faculty development, they might have coaching opportunities for you or, I know that my institution, we’re talking about how we can develop some programming for our faculty that they can come into and get a conversation and see that they’re not alone, which is a big part of starting recovery, honestly. So some of the things that I do recommend are redefining what your sense of productivity is. We talked a little earlier about that sense of expectation escalation. Once you’ve written a paper in this journal, you need to get into a better journal, you need to get into another better journal, then you need to get a book contract. And once that book is out, everything else needs to be a book with a better publisher. It’s almost never ending. When do we be content? I talked to one faculty member who was at an institution where the administration felt like there weren’t enough women in full professorships. So they wanted to hold events to convince women to go up for full professor. But many of the women at that institution were content where they were, and they had fulfilling careers. They had fulfilling family lives. They were happy at that thought in their career, which is sometimes kind of rare, I think, you know, to feel that kind of contentedness. So why push that just for kind of a sense of it almost feels like kind of a performativity of that. So rethink what productivity means. The uncertainty seems never ending. Now that the vaccines are out, I think maybe we have some hope that there’s an end in sight. But that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to write right now or do your research, especially if you’re doing research with people that you can’t interact with right now, whether that’s colleagues or contributors or a population that you study, right? It’s difficult. So what can you do now? and what is reasonable? And I think there needs to be transparency with administration at this point. They need to be having conversations about what’s reasonable right now, when we’re going through this. Not that this year is a total waste by any stretch. But we need to temper expectations for what productivity means and what we can realistically do right now. Some other options are setting some boundaries for yourself. Self care is a buzzword, we all talk about self care, the need to take care of myself, but we often think of it in a very superficial way: I’m going to get a massage, I’m going to get a pedicure, I’m going to go fishing for the weekend. And those are wonderful things, but they don’t necessarily take care of you in the long run. They don’t necessarily take care of your mental health in the long run. So setting boundaries is one of the key ways that you can take care of yourself. Brene Brown talks a lot about boundary setting and how to hold those boundaries. So that’s a resource to look into. But if we set boundaries for ourselves, we can model that for others, as well, right? We can’t start changing the culture of productivity until we all start thinking about what we’re doing and how we do it. And how we model those things for folks who are upcoming,

Rebecca: Sometimes setting boundaries can be difficult, at least initially. But I’ve discovered, and I think others will discover this too, that if you start small, it becomes a habit, and you can make bigger boundaries. And it really does help to have those boundaries, either in time or expectation boundaries in terms of how fast to respond to students. And once you have the boundaries set and you are okay with them, it’s pretty easy for other people to respect them, but you have to respect them yourself.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely, it’s like sending that time aside in your calendar or really committing to not checking email after 5pm and those kinds of things that we just kind of take for granted.

Rebecca: It’s so hard.

REBECCA P. It really is.

John:…and sharing those with your students can be helpful too, so that they know they should not expect a response at 2am or at 6am. Because otherwise, they might feel neglected if they don’t get an immediate response. But if they know that there are certain times when you will not be responding, they’re much more willing to accept it.

Rebecca: Or even sharing that your response time is at a weird time I respond at 5am. Because I have a small child. And that’s when I can.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, whatever boundary works for you.

John: I do have to say, our administration has been really good about this. Our Provost, at the end of his email, has a message saying he does not expect responses out of work hours or over weekends, I don’t remember the exact wording, but basically, he’s letting us know that we don’t have to respond right away. He’s writing to us when he has a free moment. But he expects us to do it when we have time during our regular work time. The Dean of Arts and Sciences has been wonderful in working with faculty and encouraging them to take breaks to do other things, to get away. And that’s been really helpful for faculty here.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: One thing that I think people can find helpful too, is hobbies. And I think sometimes when we’re kind of in the ruts and the hustle and the bustle, we let those things go by the wayside. But if you have a hobby or a pastime, that is kind of encompassing, and that helps turn your brain around… I ride horses, my husband has motorcycles… so, those are things that you have to focus on, you don’t want to not be mentally present if you’re on a horse, right? [LAUGHTER] …that’s not some place you want to be. So hobbies, whether it’s painting or music or garage science, whatever it is that makes you turn the brain off and think about things in a very different way, can be extremely helpful for your mental health as well.

Rebecca: And fun.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes. [LAUGHTER] Let yourself have fun.

Rebecca: Imagine that.

REBECCA P.: I’m a terrible horseback rider, I’m never gonna compete. [LAUGHTER] But, it’s fun. So, let yourself have that. When you see competition everywhere. I mean, that’s a feature of higher education as well, because there’s always someone who’s a little bit better than you doing a little bit more than you, that becomes the bar. And going back to that idea of how can we be content where we are. Striving is good lifelong learning is good, but when it becomes this unrelenting pursuit without a purpose behind it, that’s when we need to stop and think because burnout can be close behind that.

John: You’ve also suggested in some of your writing that during a pandemic, we should accept some degree of mediocrity in our work. That we can’t expect to deliver our courses in the same way we’re used to, or necessarily at a very high level of quality. I think that’s a very helpful suggestion.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: John, I get kind of in trouble for using the word mediocrity. But as academics know, our standards are very high, whether that’s in your research or your teaching and service. Really, what I’m arguing is, take a step back, or take two steps back. We are not in a place as a society where we can have really deep thoughts, for many of us. And the more we beat ourselves up for that, the worse it’s going to get. And the worst burnout is going to chase you. In addition to all the trauma that we’re getting from the pandemic, and all the social injustice in the world. Really what I mean is taking a couple steps back, you can still be rigorous, you can still do good courses, your students can still learn in whatever context, if you are flexible in ways that you might not have been before. I think common humanity is really important. We may be seeing the humanity of our students in very different ways. And they’re seeing our humanity in very different ways now, and that’s a good thing. Because they know that we’re not robots, and they’re not alone in the things that they’re feeling and that we’re concerned, we’re struggling, we are experiencing the burnout that they may be experiencing as well. So if we can be human with them, if we can lower some of our standards. And again, that sounds bad, you don’t want to lower your standards, but you can get there in different ways. There might be different ways than high stakes exams, for example, which we know are already very complicated emotionally and intellectually when you’re doing them in a fully remote course, for example. There’s a lot of things there to consider. So how can we help our students learn in ways that are productive, maybe a little bit more fun, but still focus on the learning and the learning objectives, rather than what you have always done in the past. And your students will appreciate that too.

John: And that’s not a bad strategy under any circumstances, but especially during this pandemic. But just as faculty are experiencing burnout, so are many of our students. I know a lot of students sort of faded away. And we heard the story from many of our colleagues this past fall, that students were getting burnt out from all the hours they were spending in Zoom. And what they felt was an increase in the amount of work demanded from them, which may or may not have been the case, but certainly it felt that way to them. What can we do to help our students avoid burnout? You’ve suggested that a little bit by doing some things that are a little more engaging, and perhaps more fun ways than just taking high-stakes exams. Not that there’s much that could be more fun than that. [LAUGHTER] But what can we do to help our students get through this, perhaps, while still meeting those learning objectives?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I think the first thing we can do is listen to them. So I have a lot of colleagues to our maybe weekly doing very short check-ins with their students maybe via Canvas survey or Qualtrics. Just, “How are you doing?” “Where are you in this unit?” “What’s still unclear to you?” …those kinds of things. So they’re checking in on their students’ stresses regularly. And these aren’t long surveys by any stretch. You can do more active learning with your students. I think one of the reasons that students might be feeling like there’s more work is that when we’re switching to more lower-stakes assignments, and more of those, it seems like more work, because you now have 10 homeworks, instead of two giant tests. So it feels like more work. So I think part of it is really looking honestly at what you’re asking your students to do. And is it comparable? …because it should be comparable, or even maybe a little less. But if you have other opportunities for them to engage, whether it’s in the hybrid environment, or in a remote environment, that there are different ways for them to engage the material, to engage with you. And explain why you’re doing things the way you’re doing them. Why is this a great project? Why are you doing these smaller quizzes instead of the big test? And focus on the learning aspects of those not the “I’m not doing big tests, because cheating is rampant…” That’s not going to help anyone. [LAUGHTER] So I’m doing this because it’ll help you learn over time, and it’ll help me see how you’re doing and check in with you, and we’re all going to get to where we were going, we’re just going to get there maybe differently than we would if we were all face to face all the time.

Rebecca: One of the things that I started noticing or that students were disclosing to me is that having more asynchronous opportunities was feeling like more work because they weren’t used to having to manage their time. So, although maybe the same amount of time was being spent on task, it wasn’t being curated in the same way, they might come into the classroom and do some active learning during class time. And maybe we were expecting them to do something similar outside of class on their own, but now that just felt like crazy big ask.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: And when you move big class discussions to a discussion board, suddenly they have to write things instead of have a conversation. So that does feel like more work. And in some ways it is, especially when it’s asynchronous, because then it’s over time, you have to keep going back to this discussion, rather than having it in class for an hour. So I think we just have to think about some of the realities associated with this. And I think we have to be listening to the folks who are experts in online education. It’s a different medium, there’s a lot of different pedagogical challenges and opportunities. But that’s another faculty stressor right now is many of us are completely pushing and flipping and hybridizing in ways that we never expected to be doing. So it’s another case of common humanity, right? So you can tell your students that this is unusual for you, you’re learning along with them in that sense. So that feedback from them is really helpful to make sure that they’re learning the way you want them to be learning and working toward the course objectives. But still in a fair and consistent way with the learning objectives.

Rebecca: Noticing behind you that you’re practicing what you preach with a backlog and works in progress and done….it looks like an agile project board. [LAUGHTER]

REBECCA P.: It is.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how some of the strategies in Agile Faculty might help in addressing burnout?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I think when you distill Agile Faculty and process down to its core, it’s about prioritizing and breaking things down into small chunks of work. I mean, that’s at the basic. You can layer the other things on top of it and the processes and the meetings. But I think visualizing the work, breaking down the work into small doable chunks, the example that I like to use as if you write literature review on your to do list, it’s gonna stay there for a month. And it’s gonna haunt you. Because there are a million little things you need to do to write a lit review. But if you break those down, and you visualize them, like the board behind me (and I can send everybody an image of that for the show notes, if that’s helpful), when you break them down and you see them, it doesn’t feel like you need eight hours of totally open time to do this thing. This thing might take an hour, this thing might take a half an hour, and it builds up over time, and you can see that. And seeing that visual progress is a wonderful psychological boost, especially if you use a physical board. I would love to do a study about what psychologically happens to people when they move sticky notes on a board. My students regularly cheer when they move something into the done column. They feel that success. So breaking things down as small as you can, realistically, of course, and then prioritizing what you can do now, and then just working consistently on small chunks when you have time.

John: And you also mentioned that there are a number of apps available for those people who are working on activities and groups. Could you share some of the apps that people might use for collaborative work online during this time?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I mean, you always have Google Suites… that’s helpful. Trello is a board software that I know people use, that you can set up lanes and things like you can on a board, if you need to do that digitally. Padlet might be another thing that you might be able to use. I love Mentimeter, so I’m trying to think if there’s a connection to Mentimeter, but I’m not sure that there is. [LAUGHTER] I don’t think that there is.

John: Jamboard, maybe?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, probably. Anything that kind of looks like a digital whiteboard, and those kinds of things,where you can put squares or sticky notes and things like that you can use. I’m a big proponent of a physical board, but that’s completely unrealistic right now. So something like Trello doesn’t have a huge learning curve. Padlet does not have a huge learning curve. So those are software’s that are available free that students can use, and that you can use with your research teams. And the nice thing about the boards as well when they’re digital, especially for student teams, for research teams, too, is that when you, as a faculty member, have access to those, you can keep track about what students are accomplishing, and not in a surveillance way but in a learning way. Okay, they seem stuck here. This thing hasn’t moved for a while. So I’m gonna have a conversation with this group. Or, most of the group seems stuck in this particular piece of the assignment, so let’s have a conversation about that. So it opens up opportunities for just-in-time learning as well, when you can physically see their progress.

Rebecca: I’ve used Trello with students and they had no problem catching on to how to use it, you can also make templates to get them started, so if they’ve never done any project management like that before, you can get them going pretty easily, which can be really helpful too. And they really appreciated learning how to manage their time. And this is a way to manage their time, just like faculty sometimes need to learn how to manage their time.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I frequently talk to faculty who, it kind of occurs to them, when they attend one of my workshops that they just assume that their students knew how to collaborate. They teach students how to write a lab report, they teach students how to give a good speech, those kinds of things. We don’t teach them necessarily how to manage their time or to collaborate successfully, and even just spending a little time on that could pay huge learning dividends for the students. So we need to think about some of the things that we take for granted.

John: Are there any other topics that you’d like to address that we haven’t addressed yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, I think I would like to just remind people that we need to normalize burnout through having the conversations about it, that this is not something that shameful, especially now we’re all struggling. And it’s not even creeping up on us anymore. It’s there, and it’s present. And it’s something that you can recognize, it is something that you can deal with the signs of. And across that spectrum, there’s a variety of ways to do that, but I think we need to normalize the conversation, but we need to change the culture that makes it normal. This is a cultural issue. Workplaces lead to burnout. Yes, as members of that culture, we perpetuate it, but it’s not going to change unless we really start arguing against it…modeling different things for junior faculty, for our graduate students, for our undergraduate students, and make those changes that live up to the values of lifelong learning and the pursuit of knowledge in ways that don’t become so competition based and kind of so capitalistic that we don’t lose track of the real reason and the purpose that we’re there.

Rebecca: Yeah, this is so important, and I think right now, during the pandemic, people are a little more willing to start to shift the culture. And so, although we don’t want to always say that there’s a silver lining with a pandemic, it’s one of those places where it’s a strategic time to start making change.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yes, absolutely.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking “What’s next?” But that sounds very, very, very perpetuating of such a culture, it could be fun. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Well, I’m looking forward to a quiet Christmas with my husband and Zooming with my family as much as possible.over the break, I will be working on the burnout book, and I’m starting my own podcast. So, I’m playing with that, which is a lot of fun. So that’s what I’ll be doing, hopefully reading some books and trying to set boundaries for when I do work and when I let myself relax.

John: Could you ell us a little bit about this podcast?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Sure. I’m calling it The Agile Academic, it’s a podcast for women in higher education, and it’s going to be an interview show. I’m gonna launch it in January. And really, it’s just an excuse for me to talk to really cool women in higher education and around the higher education space. I think, again, one of the silver linings that we hate to call silver linings, is I feel like I have reached out to talk to more people than I ever would have without this, to have conversations with people I admire that I follow on Twitter that I would love to just have a conversation with. I was enjoying not so much that I said, “Why don’t we record these and let other people kind of peek into these conversations?” So the first season will be out in mid-January, and I’m really excited about it. It’s a lot of fun.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting.

John: Have you set up a site yet?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Yeah, for right now, if you just send them to RebeccaPopeRuark.com, that’ll get them to the main site. And then there’s a tab right now that says “Listen to Me”, which is kind of selected stuff. And I’ll put the podcasts on there, too.

Rebecca: I look forward to listening to that.

John: I am too. And we started the podcast, mostly to do some professional development. But one of the things I think I’ve enjoyed the most. And I think Rebecca has too, is the ability to do exactly that, to talk to some of the people we admire the most and who are doing some really interesting work that we’d like to learn more about.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: I wanted to do one for a long time. But I realized very quickly that I don’t like talking to myself, you know? [LAUGHTER] And if you’re gonna write a script, I’m a writer. So by the time I have a script, that’s like six blog posts, so, why should I record it? Yeah. So I’m excited with the interviews and talking to some great ladies.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us and sharing some really good advice. I hope the conversation about burnout really does open up and that more people have the conversation, see it as normal, and that we start to really shift that culture.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to your new book. And I think we both really appreciated your past work. Rebecca has actually used some of this in her classes.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark: Oh, great, great. I hope it works well for you.

Rebecca: Definitely.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.