Chronicle of Higher Education, The Pandemic Is Dragging On. Professors Are Burning Out.:
At first, she thought everything would work out if she just got up earlier. So Naomi Rutuku, an associate professor of English at Bakersfield College, began rising at 5 a.m. Her husband would make her coffee, then head out to his job as a wind-turbine technician, leaving her with a few hours of quiet before her kids, ages 2 and 4, demanded attention.
She had a lot to take care of: four composition courses, plus a literature class she took on for extra pay after the public college froze a promised raise in the wake of the pandemic. There were dozens of emails to field from colleagues, discussion posts to review, writing assignments to grade, Flipgrid videos to watch. Then she had her own videos to produce, while managing dozens of check-ins to keep track of nearly 140 students, many of whom remained dark squares on her screen.
She knew the pace was unsustainable. Legions of professors are hitting the wall in their own ways. For some, like Rutuku, the problem has been a crushing workload combined with child-care challenges. For others, it’s a feeling that their institution expects them to be counselors and ed-tech experts on top of their regular responsibilities, even if it means working seven days a week. Black and Latino professors are bearing additional burdens, supporting students of color and contributing to the national debate on racism. Meanwhile, adjuncts are barely hanging on, hoping that budget cuts don’t end their careers.
For professors of all types, their responsibilities as teachers are causing many of them to feel pressed to meet the needs of the moment. Like many instructors, Rutuku prides herself on her teaching. And she believes that her students, most of whom are lower-income and trying to get a leg up in life, need to know how to write effectively. She couldn’t cut back, she feels, or they would be shortchanged.
She has worried about shortchanging her own kids as well, as she tried to be both parent and professor. Yet day care did not seem viable because of Covid-19, and she hesitated to take them outside, where the air was hot and smoky from California wildfires. She felt stuck. Stuck with an enormous workload spawned by a pandemic with no end in sight. Stuck without the presence of coworkers, on whom she relies for camaraderie and support. Stuck trying to live up to the expectations she had set for herself.
As exhaustion sank in, the 5 a.m. rising turned into 6 a.m., to gain an extra hour of sleep. Then one morning she walked into her home office, and her brain simply wouldn’t work. She couldn’t grade. She just sat there. “To try to jam-pack everything in these three or four morning hours,” she says, “it became clear to me I couldn’t sustain that kind of work anymore.”
“It’s terrifying and expensive,” she says, “but I was just becoming this sort of person I didn’t like or even recognize, which wasn’t healthy for anyone in the house.”
She started getting up at 7 a.m., but that didn’t fix anything. Even a plea for advice from fellow instructors on Facebook, following that paralyzing morning, resulted only in well-meaning suggestions that would lead to more work.
Finally, she and her husband broke down, and this week sent their kids back to day care.
Burnout is a problem in academe even in the best of times. Shrinking budgets, growing workloads, and job insecurity in a profession where self-sufficiency is both expected and prized put many faculty members at risk before Covid-19 placed higher education on even shakier footing.
Now professors across the country are treading water, feeling overwhelmed and undersupported, and wondering, like Rutuku, how long they can hang on.
In a forthcoming survey of more than 1,100 faculty members, more than two-thirds said they had felt “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued in the past month. The survey was conducted in late October by The Chronicle and underwritten by Fidelity.
And a recent survey by the American Council on Education listed the mental health of faculty and staff members as the third-most-pressing concern for college presidents, behind the mental health of students and their institutions’ long-term financial viability.