First you burn-out; and/or then you get old and senile

The other day, Inside Higher Ed ran a story called “Burning Out, and Fading Away.” Here’s a quote:

In an analysis of professional burnout among professors, a Texas Woman’s University Ph.D. candidate found tenure track professors had more significant symptoms of workplace frustration than their tenured and non-tenure track faculty counterparts.

Janie Crosmer, who conducted the survey of more than 400 full-time faculty across the U.S. in December 2008, said she was unsurprised that the high stresses of pursuing academe’s most coveted status led to burnout. As she discussed those stresses during a presentation Wednesday, audience members nodded in agreement, and one faculty member among them described the pursuit of tenure as “a living hell.”

The comments on the piece suggest that for at least some, that burn-out/living hell thing continues into tenure, promotion, emeritus status, and beyond.

On the same day, Dean Dad (aka Confessions of a Community College Dean) had a post titled “Lions in Winter,” in which he takes up this post by Tenured Radical, in which TR contemplates Helen Thomas rather sudden  retirement and how her situation and obvious deterioration (I believe Thomas is about to turn 90) is similar to that of some “Venerable professor famous for irascible personality and eclectic remarks goes right over the edge one day and has to be forcibly retired, when in fact the signs of ineffectiveness and mental decline have been clear to close colleagues for several years: inappropriate remarks, fits of rage and/or confusion, memory lapses of gargantuan proportions.”

Dean Dad goes on to lament this situation:

Since the Supreme Court decided — absurdly, in my view — that tenure is fine but mandatory retirement isn’t, there’s literally no way to push the declining self-caricature out the door short of a documented public meltdown. Of course, by the time that happens, there has typically been a long train of abuses that either weren’t public or weren’t quite enough in themselves, as documented, to stand up in court. (Part of that usually has to do with the power that senior faculty have, and the fear that others have of that power. Fear of retaliation for coming forward is powerful, and it prevents the effective documentation of some very real behaviors.) And the combination of age discrimination laws, tenure, unions, the ADA, and public sympathy can make it effectively impossible for even a conscientious administrator to solve the problem.

So, on the one hand, faculty are burnt-out, bitter, stressed, emotionally exhausted; on the other hand, they hang on to their tenured positions far too long, sometimes to the point of being far beyond their prime.

Now, I can think of colleagues who fit both of these caricatures.  Because the tenure and promotion requirements in my department are both modest and humane, I think my colleagues here who see that process as a “living hell” are more or less creating that for themselves.  The self-inflicted notion of all this is something I’ll return to in a second.  The very senior colleagues who appear to be “losing it” is arguably more common at EMU, perhaps because the place is less of a “living hell” than the kinds of places where faculty burn-out long before they reach senility.

And I can also think of faculty who are both burnt-out and bitter, and appear to be “losing it” and behaving more and more irrationally.  Actually, this is not an uncommon combination in the aged, right?

Still, there’s something of a contradiction to me here.  How is it that faculty can be both burnt-out and holding on to their jobs far too long?  Is the suggestion that there are basically two different kinds of faculty, those who are burnt-out and bitter and thus retire/exit academia as soon as they are able, and those who aren’t burnt-out and outstay their welcome?  I’m not sure.

I’m at an age where I can see retirement conceptually, kind of like the way I could see what it might be like to have a “real job” when I was twelve, but I have a hard time right now imaging retiring. As I said to a colleague the other day, what would be the point?  What else would I be doing?  I pretty much get to do what I want to do now as it is.  A lot can and will change in the next twenty or thirty years of course– assuming I make it for that long and (hopefully) longer– but right now, I suspect I am more likely to leave academia as that “crazy old guy” as opposed to the more bitter/burnt-out one.

But it also seems to me that those who are being identified in Crosmer’s study as being burnt-out are perhaps in that state of affairs more because of who they are rather than their chosen profession.  There is a link between the two, but I’m questioning the causality; in other words, I would suggest that it isn’t the work of academia that inherently burns people out, but rather, that the people who go into academia tend to be of the type who are going to burn themselves out and describe any number of work/life environments a “living hell.”  I’ve worked any number of low-stress (and generally low-paying) jobs over the years, and from what I can recall, there are lots of people who are able to turn almost anything into a “living hell” with their bad ‘tude.  What I think is probably the case is academia attracts more of these kinds of folks than some other fields.

In my own experience, I experienced “workplace frustration” most acutely as a PhD student, especially when I was trying to finish that diss.  “Living hell” is a bit strong, but the situation for me at my first job at Southern Oregon was “challenging.”  But once I got here, and especially once I got tenured and promoted, the workplace frustrations– while still clearly present– became more manageable.  But as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I think that most academics who feel burnt-out and miserable about what they are doing ought to spend some time doing something like shoveling coal or cleaning toilets.  Suddenly that stack of essays and administrative busy-work doesn’t seems so bad.

4 thoughts on “First you burn-out; and/or then you get old and senile”

  1. I’d agree with you on this one Steve. I doubt there are very many first generation college graduates among that group of faculty who think of their job as a living hell. Compared to what my parents have done their whole adult lives (and are still doing) to earn a living, my job is a privilege. I never forget that.

    Also…in my experience, those folks who complain the most about academic work are the ones who are never at work! Never on committees, always somehow *way* busier to hear them tell it than the ones who are consistently publishing, doing admin work, AND teaching & advising.

  2. I would agree with you about the many (and it’s not limited to academe) who have “hellish” lives because they think they do. There’s an idea in Buddhism (which I can’t find to cite) that when we get frustrated and angry with life, it’s because we have a preconceived definition of what life should be like, and it’s not measuring up. So we carry on and pout and sulk, but life does not change– it just keeps on being life.

    On the other hand, there are people who have given their all to institutions only to have suffered discrimination and disappointment, but who have hung in there, making it possible for others like them (minorities, women)to consider careers in academia, and I am grateful to them.

    In terms of burning out, I wonder if that has more to do with institutional control over teaching–it’s far easier to burn out when you don’t have any control over what you are doing.

  3. I meant to include more in my original post about the required retirement issue: While I do think that Dean Dad and Tenured Radical do have good points, that it can indeed be difficult to deal with that aged faculty person who has held onto their positions longer than they should have, I don’t think forcing retirement or having tenure “expire” is the way to address these issues. I would rather see an incentive system– something like phased retirement and/or a buy-out program, or something that is more tailored to particular people– rather than an arbitrary number. I have colleagues who are in their mid-70s and who are going strong, and I have colleagues who are in their 50s who really ought to get out.

    And quite frankly, I am a lot more concerned on a global scale about a lack of forced retirement ages for members of the Supreme Court and Congress….

    Joanna, I think you’re entirely right here, and in my view, I think these two issues– the frustration over a reality that doesn’t measure up to the imagined ideal and the reality/perception of giving more than you get back– are the source of a lot of faculty burn-out. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think a lot of professors (and graduate students to be professors) have been set up to believe that being a professor is something that is more noble and important than a job. The reality is being a professor is a job– a great job, a really flexible and fun job, but a job nonetheless, and as a result, there are inevitably unpleasant and frustrating elements to it. The other thing I’ve said before and I’ll say again is a cliché my father always used to say: you can love your job, but your job will never love you.

    So, the way I look at is I don’t “serve” at EMU and I don’t “serve” academia as if it were a church or the mob or something else requiring my loyalty. Rather, I work at EMU, and while there are definitely “service to humankind and students” elements to my choice of profession, my service doesn’t pay the bills.

  4. For those of you who think academics are burned out because we are all whiny babies who have never worked a real job, I can assure you, having worked jobs cleaning toilets, bagging groceries, selling shoes, and managing a retail clothing store, nothing comes close to the massive physical and mental exhaustion that I experience as a professor. Everyone I work with is burned out. We all work 80-90 hours per week, have little or no time for our families, and are virtually never able to just relax. I have to teach during the summer as well just to get my pay close to $50,000 per year. I teach anywhere between 5-8 courses per semester, serve on two committees, and am minimally engaged in scholarship. My annual salary is below the salary required by the Fair Labor Standards Act to be considered an employee exempt from overtime. But teaching is the one profession that is not required to meet those standards. It seems like a waste intellectually, but I sometimes fantasize about going back to a job like selling shoes where I get paid for each hour I work and where I’m actually off work when I come home at the end of the day. Nearly a decade of higher education has earned me a job making less than $50,000/year with an 80-90 hour workweek. I’m sorry, but I don’t find that to be an equitable arrangement. Perhaps those of you who think that faculty burnout isn’t a real problem of university expectations and leadership work at institutions far different from the one where I work.

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