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Workplace Issues, Health, and Being a Professional Good Girl (language nsfw)

27 September, 2011

I’m not sure why I decided to post this here. Perhaps it’s because I used to post more personal things, once upon a time. Perhaps it’s because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in the wide world of academe that this has happened to. Institutional politics can be weird, and many academics tend towards over-thinking, introversion, impostor syndrome, and a lot of other things that can be a bit neurotic. So just in case this seems familiar to anybody, you’re not alone.

Or, possibly, I’m about to reveal the levels of my own neuroses and my readers will decide that I am so fucked up that they can’t trust me with their conference panels (speaking of which, if you’re on the Zoo panel, the paperwork is in), papers, or pets. But hey, I’m a risk-taker, as long as heights are not involved. So here goes.

I think I may know why I am unhealthy. I am honestly worried that my job is making me ill. Not directly, you understand. But I am starting to see stress as a possible major factor. Or, if I want to be generous to my institution, my inability to handle this particular kind of stress is a factor. I think I am suited to academia. I don’t think I am suited to particular sorts of dysfunction, and those sorts of dysfunction surround me every damned day. It is a vicious cycle that goes something like this:

Huge Piles Of Shit come down on me.

I think, or more likely react, because the thoughts aren’t all that conscious, by working all the harder, and taking on more work.

Why? Because if I were doing my job properly, Huge Piles Of Shit would not come down on me. My employers would protect me and make it stop, if I deserved it.

But, my conscious mind says, they are telling me that this is a pile of shit. And they are sorry. And while they cannot completely protect me, they value me, and in fact do things that normally indicate that they value me, like funding travel, etc. And also? we may not talk about the Huge Pile Of Shit. It is there, but we must pretend it is invisible, because others are not supposed to know it’s there.

But the Huge Pile Of Shit is there, and it does not go away.

And in fact, people who are not doing more — people who are demonstrably not even fulfilling the requirements of the position — are receiving things that look and feel to me like rewards.

In reality, they aren’t, probably. It’s more that there is no evidence that they are being held responsible for not fixing the things that are wrong. But when my classes are all filled to capacity or more, and a colleague’s classes are all undersubscribed to the extent that a course is cancelled, so that they end up with a virtual course release that they use for writing, or going to the gym more often… Well, in a world where time is at a premium, it feels a lot like I’m being punished.

I know that this is not true. Having full classes is good. Being on committees is part of the job. I’m pretty sure that my load is no worse than any of you who are teaching at a SLAC — and in fact, not worse than colleagues in other departments at my SLAC.

But by a weird chain of events, my department is separated from the rest of my campus by a seven-minute walk. So my daily world is one where I have to walk the line between two realities. So, for example, I am currently expected to do all the work that is normally done by a particular sort of administrator. In fact, most people think I am that administrator. The SLAC website says I am that administrator. But I cannot officially act or speak as that administrator at present.

I could probably refuse to do the work (and in fact, some of it I have let slide to what is probably inexcusable levels, which makes me feel like a Bad Person Who Deserves the Huge Pile Of Shit) — but doing that also means Not Doing My Job.

I am not a person who does not do her job, although I am sometimes a person who barely gets the job done — sometimes because I rebel against what feels like work I shouldn’t have to do by procrastinating and self-sabotaging. But I try, and things do get done.

Still, the feeling that I am not handling my work, which at the moment is true, because I have been ill, and because I cannot keep my mind away from how the Huge Pile Of Shit is affecting me, is stressing me out.

And the stress makes me not sleep, not eat properly, and not exercise. So I feel worse. Because these are bad things, and will lead to me actually, really, truly, deserving the Huge Pile Of Shit.

And I take on more things, to prove that I don’t deserve the Huge Pile Of Shit.

And you know?

It’s fucked up.

It’s even more fucked up that I can see this on clear days when the shit-proof goggles are working.

Most of the time, though, when the pile is so heavy that you can barely breathe, the Huge Pile Of Shit feels like the norm. If it’s the norm, the problem must be me.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

For my childhood.

For my marriage.

For this particular job, at this particular time — despite the fact that in other academic company here, and at conferences, and even with most of my SLAC colleagues, there is evidence that the Huge Pile Of Shit is abnormal, and there is evidence that I probably don’t deserve it.

And so I wonder if, perhaps, whatever the actual test results say, my job is really what’s making me ill.*

*Argh. As I typed that last line, the thought that went through my mind was, “or your inability to deal with your job is making you ill.” Probably a good thing I’m going to my therapist today. At least SLAC ‘s insurance pays for a lot of therapy.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 September, 2011 5:00 pm

    “But the Huge Pile Of Shit is there, and it does not go away.

    And in fact, people who are not doing more — people who are demonstrably not even fulfilling the requirements of the position — are receiving things that look and feel to me like rewards.

    In reality, they aren’t, probably. It’s more that there is no evidence that they are being held responsible for not fixing the things that are wrong. But when my classes are all filled to capacity or more, and a colleague’s classes are all undersubscribed to the extent that a course is cancelled, so that they end up with a virtual course release that they use for writing, or going to the gym more often… Well, in a world where time is at a premium, it feels a lot like I’m being punished. ”

    Oh, sister. Replace “SLAC” with “4-year regional state university” and I’d have thought you were talking about where I work. Except my response, whilst covered in shit, is to lash out and be rude to my colleagues (which I don’t recommend, but it does feel good in the moment, even though everybody hates you later and you have to spend a lot more time apologizing).

    • 27 September, 2011 5:21 pm

      Most of the time, reading your blog is like reading my life!

      You’re right — and one of the reasons this particular HPOS won’t go away is because, after almost two years of its presence and the fact that it included a level of personal hostility and disrespect (characterized by passive-aggressive behavior that actually prevented me, and was intended to prevent me, from Doing My Job) directed at me, I lashed out. I did not apologize, nor will I. Nor, to give credit where it’s due, have I been asked/told to. But I’d rather I hadn’t.

  2. 27 September, 2011 5:16 pm

    I was feeling like this last year. The only way to maintain my sanity has been to detach. I will be on committees, but I will not chair them. I no longer volunteer for stuff. I treat my job as a job. I give my all to my research and teaching, but all that other stuff? No. And also: no.

    I feel bad as I type those words, but while this is a job worth giving your all for, it’s not worth killing yourself for.

    If the problem lies in ourselves (rather than in our stars), it is only in that we tend to stick around for the intolerable long after more sensible minds have bailed. We throw good time/effort/money after bad, in the hope of reclaiming a lost ideal. But the longer we do this, the more space we allow for a small resentment to grow huge, until it blocks out the sun. But we have control over this, and the control is to walk the hell away from the things that are making us miserable.

    • 27 September, 2011 5:17 pm

      (Which is not to advise you to quit your job, but rather to excise the parts that are slowly killing you.)

      • 27 September, 2011 5:25 pm

        Oh, hell — I’ve been thinking about it really seriously. Except that I have been doing this since 2002 without a break, and unless I can work out a research leave-fellowship at the beginning of a new job, I’m stuck here for three years, so I can have a sabbatical and come back for the required year after.

        And honestly, without the research leave/sabbatical, how can I publish enough to be competitive on the market?

  3. 27 September, 2011 5:36 pm

    ADM

    • 27 September, 2011 5:43 pm

      You’re not alone–see my day sucks so much the comment form hates me! Seriously, I think this is the landscape of tenure-track in so many places–large state university for me, btw. “Oh, we can’t call you an administrator, because then we’d have to pay you like one, and NOOO, we can’t do that!” I am looking and dreaming of a way out. I can’t do it anymore; I don’t sleep, I don’t exercise, I eat lunch at my desk.

      I think Notorious has a great point, but I don’t know what to excise. My priorities are whatever my chair decides they are that day–they will change tomorrow.

      Sorry for the rant–just meant to say that you are not alone. Any thoughts/suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

      • 27 September, 2011 11:42 pm

        I’m going to be counterintuitive here and suggest what my therapist did: Take the time for some sort of mindfulness exercise, whether breathing, or meditating, or whatever. Now, if only I can follow that!

  4. newkidonthehallway permalink
    28 September, 2011 2:07 am

    And law-type people sometimes ask me, in disbelief, why I left academia…

  5. Elizabeth Mitchell permalink
    28 September, 2011 2:11 am

    Good advice, ADM. I’ll also work on adding something to the conversation, once I have a little emotional distance. The situation just makes me so angry for all of us.

  6. jliedl permalink
    29 September, 2011 1:13 am

    You do know why you’re unhealthy. You are right to be aware that you’re being punished with heavier workload and vituperative attacks while other people in this toxic situation are able to shed their responsibilities without recrimination. Even if there are very good reasons why an administration can’t come down on the culprits, by not protecting and/or rewarding their team players, they wear those same people out.

    About the only positive spin I have on the late succession of crises we’re experiencing is that it’s really hitting everyone and that, in my unit, we’re all pulling for each other. Too be in a crunch and not feel that you’re being supported and understood is unsustainable.

    Take time to cultivate your garden, figuratively if not literally. I’m not the best at this, myself, I must admit, but at least this year, my posted schedule includes lunch time and research blocks of time which I’m willing to fight for. Of course, what I can fight against is pretty limited.

    There’s one particular committee – I’m pretty sure they’ll run roughshod over my lunch hours, research hours and office hours when it comes to setting meeting times. If I have to swallow those impositions, when the scheduled time comes to an end, I’m walking out that door whether my colleagues are done pontificating or not. If they can be sticklers on requiring my attendance any time I’m not in class, I can be a stickler about attending only during that scheduled time. It’s only by protecting one’s self, minimally, that these overwhelming obligations become bearable.

    Back off to keep doing the work of two people!

  7. Susan permalink
    29 September, 2011 4:52 am

    One advantage of physical illness is that it gives you a reason to do what Notorious suggests, and either excise the toxic parts of your job, or bargain for whatever will help you do it without killing yourself. If I recall correctly you are chair, so a conversation with your dean that lays out “I can do this but not that, or if you want me to do that, I can’t do this other thing” is perfectly appropriate. (And really, you ought to have been able to ask that without being physically ill, but some of us have too highly developed responsibility genes.)

    • 29 September, 2011 5:28 pm

      yes, well, my dean only today told me I had an uncontrolled desire to solve all perceived problems. That actually seems to be part of what’s happening — it’s the reaction to the HPOS.

      Just getting the perspective to say, “wait — this is not my problem,” is a necessary step.

  8. Dereva permalink
    2 October, 2011 2:59 pm

    As someone relatively new to working in higher ed, I’m already experiencing the tension around how we are “punished” for being more responsible, which only adds to the HPOS. The more diligent you are and more you demonstrate effectiveness the more committees you end up on and the more responsibilities come to you — both via others asking and by seeing what needs to be done and not wanting to “let it drop.” As the responsibilities build you’re time and emotional and energetic resources take a nose dive. And so starts the the negative feedback loop. Great HPOS, Poorer quality work. Or poorer quality of work, Greater personal distress. And I have to think that this is mostly an internal thing… that administrators and colleagues have no idea how harsh we can be to ourselves until we let it show in a public, less than graceful way. [Fairly internal, introverted people think they are being demonstrative when everyone else is registering mild complaint… it takes a lot of frustration to get squeakly-wheel mode, which is what it takes for others to realize what situation I’m in. And there will be consequences for that too. Welcome to being marginalized when you open your mouth with your tired complaint.]

    I always wonder what sort of behavior I’m modeling for students and for new-to-higher ed colleagues. Given what I teach, I talk a lot about self care. So I have to dodge the Can-I-Look-Myself-In-The-Mirror-And-Keep-A-Straight-Face test frequently. Recognizing your own hypocrisy is definitely a stressor.

    I know this is a systemic thing, and that I am an individual… one that doesn’t have the patience to wait for the glacial pace of university change to address this inequality. So it’s a day to day struggle to figure out how to respond to requests and demands — internal and external. And most importantly, I’ll do my work best when the POS that is dumped on me is smaller in proportion to the part of my job that energizes me and keeps me. So I have an ironic fight to beat back the POS in a way that looks to others that I’m self sabotaging by taking on more work. But I’m trying to do the things I love [which by the way is not writing, but teaching] … the thing that lets me charge toward the mess daily with humor and energy.

    Good luck!

    • 3 October, 2011 5:00 pm

      I think that you’re right about the “thinking we’re being demonstrative, but people don’t see that” thing. I actually say to people that I feel burnt out, or overwhelmed, but I also downplay it, because I don’t want people to think I’m a big whiner. Hell — I say it out loud on the internets! And yet, people still seem to have this impression that I’m relatively together!

      • 4 October, 2011 12:48 pm

        That’s kind of the flip-side of what you say about people ducking responsibility and getting rewarded. As long as you can perform, you are in some sense functional. In some of these kinds of situations—I’m mainly thinking parenting—you don’t get to quit unless you actually can’t go on. But no job should ever get one to that state and if you’re coming close to it you have got to get those issues raised with those who might otherwise eventually be liable for it, if no-one else. Not that you would sue! But that’s why support structures are there, in so far as they are, isn’t it?

  9. 3 October, 2011 3:37 am

    I see this happening to younger people at my institution, and we don’t even have publish or perish! I think part of it is wanting to please people, part of it is wanting to solve problems, and a huge part of it is not having yet defined one’s role.

    II can’t emphasize enough the importance of defining one’s role. When I began at my job, I had no clue what my role was – what the unifying factor was that would drive my choice of institutional tasks. I was vulnerable to being handed all sorts of random ‘opportunities’ that pulled me in different directions, few of them directions I wanted to go in. Now my focus is on teaching science to nursing majors, and I relate most of what I do to that role. Once you have a defined role that is of obvious use to the institution, you gain power to choose/create the projects you want to do and consolidate your workload.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know any shortcut to finding your role. I’ve had two or three in the course of my career, but there was a long wretched period when nobody really knew what to do with me, including myself.

  10. gesta permalink
    6 October, 2011 5:13 pm

    Thank you for expressing so articulately what I’ve felt in the past and am feeling now. Like other commenters here your situation is horribly reminiscent and could describe parts of my own situation perfectly, right down to the separation of campuses. I hope we all work out how to negotiate the HPOS soon…

  11. 3 March, 2012 2:53 pm

    This is hilarious and I can relate to it all. Made me roar when I read it!

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  1. There’s This Thing I Do… « Reassigned Time 2.0
  2. ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education
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