Chris Bouton: In this week’s chat, we’re going to talk about what happens to academics/intellectuals when they start to feel tired or burned out. For those of us, whose work is primarily mental in nature that feeling can manifest itself in different ways. For me, I know I’m starting to feel burned out when I just stop typing and stare at the screen. Normally when I write, the process between brain and page is continuous. When I’m tired, it takes effort to translate thought to page.
And I know I need to stop, when I can’t make the connection at all.
Erin Bartram: I have been doing a lot of reading lately, and re-examining of all the research notes I took during my dissertation years. I take notes by hand, because that’s the method that works best for me, and yesterday I used the last page of an 80 page notebook I started on June 9th.
I’m not denying that a job with physical labor is exhausting, but this is also exhausting. You can rest your body at the end of the day, hopefully, but resting your mind is much harder.
Chris: Yeah, we’re not comparing mental labor to any other kind and making better/worse judgments. We’re just talking about it in the context of how we and other academics work. And how we deal with it.
For me, generally when I reach that point, like I did yesterday, I need to get up and walk away from the computer.
And I won’t come back to the computer until I’m ready.
I’ve tried forcing myself to do that in the past and it doesn’t work out well in my case.
Erin: I have dyslexia (though fairly mild, by comparison), and I know that I need to stop when I start mixing up letters in my own writing, not just my reading.
And being an academic has given me a new appreciation for housework, in a sense.
There’s always something to be cleaned when your brain needs a break.
Chris: Yes, I’ve found that housework can serve that same purpose.
There’s always dishes in the sink or the dining room table that needs to be wiped down. Shoes go back in the closet, clothes in the basket etc.
Also, when I start a new project or a new part of a project, I clean my desk.
I generally keep a sparse desk, but the longer I work on something, the more it gets clouded by pieces of paper, books, and legal pads.
Erin: Yep. There are academic heroes on Twitter with immaculate workspaces. That is not me, but I know the line between productive clutter and “I can’t move for stacks of paper and old tea cups”
Chris: So I need to clean it up and start from a blank slate as it were.
Erin: That’s why I usually grade at the library or the cafe down the street. Nice big square tables where I can make piles. My desk at home just isn’t big enough for that.
Chris: Now that I have pets, I find making a visit to the bunny or the dog to be useful.
I usually don’t have to go far to find the bunny since she lives in my office. Right now she’s laying alongside the baseboard sleeping.
Erin: I will go find the cat who lives with me (my roommate’s cat) and talk to her for a while.
I think academic culture isn’t great at acknowledging/making a space for the fact that thinking happens in lots of ways and takes time.
That’s why a hike is good whether I spend it thinking through what I’ve read or whether I listen to a new episode of Mission Log or just look at trees.
I give my students an assignment that’s designed to make them read a primary source closely and then take time to let it percolate
Chris: I exercise every day.
And I don’t consider it lost time or time taken away from my academic work. Rather I consider it part of my academic work.
It keeps me healthy (or healthier), burns off energy and stress, and makes me happier in general.
That means I work better.
Erin: It’s a reverse-lyceum
Moment to brag here. A year ago next week I started working with a personal trainer, my treat to myself now that I was earning a slightly higher salary. When I started, I could only do 3 sets of 20 lb. deadlifts. Yesterday I did 3 sets with 130 lbs.
Chris: It’s an important part of being a person.
There’s a false perception in academia that all you are is your academic work and that should be your whole life.
I reject that narrative entirely.
Erin: I was joking with my trainer yesterday that in my academic work, the heaviest thing I lift is a dry erase marker, but now I’ll be able to hold it up for the whole class!
I also sing, and sat on the board of my choir for three years. I was brought into it by one of my professors at UConn. It helped me get through grad school, no doubt, and keeps me happy now.
Chris: Exercising, running errands, taking care of pets, cleaning, cooking, these are all parts of being a successful person. That makes me better at what I do.
I like sleeping, I like cooking. I like walking the dog. And I don’t apologize for making time for those things.
Erin: They’re also necessary for being a person.
I’m uncomfortable with the old but still present narrative of “thanks to my wife for taking care of the kids, translating my sources, and typing my manuscript”
But also I’m a single person. Even if I wanted to dump all of the things that make life run onto my partner, I couldn’t.
Chris: Yeah, there is/was a Twitter feed that highlighted all of those lines in acknowledgments.
I love work, but I also love watching Fargo or a Red Sox game.
Chris: I’ve also divided my life into separate spaces.
So I have a space where I work, a different space where I exercise. My bedroom is for sleeping, the couch is for watching TV. My chair is where I read.
I found that necessary since we do so much work from home.
Erin: The kitchen is where my roommate and I shout about politics while the cat looks confused.
Chris: Now I have the space to do that, not everyone does.
But having separate spaces allows me to keep the different parts of my life separate. When I’m in the office I’m working etc.
Erin: Absolutely. I’m incredibly lucky to have found the space I have, even if I did have to suffer through 2 months of plasterers and lead abatement people walking through my office and bedroom last year.
Chris: When I eat, I go out to the kitchen.
But it’s an important way to put up barriers between the different parts of your life.
Erin: I am less good about that
But I also think it’s hard to put up intellectual barriers
Chris: Definitely. I can’t turn that part of my brain off
Erin: Years ago, a fellow grad student told me and another grad engaged in a discussion of feminism at a party that we really needed to “leave that stuff in the classroom”
Chris: The skills I’ve learned earning a PhD apply everywhere, not just in the classroom.
I’m currently trying to perfect a roasted potatoes recipe. Because I cook it once, think what I can do better and then try it again next time.
Currently, I need to cut the potatoes bigger to get the crispy outside and fluffy inside that I’m looking for.
Erin: Are you half-cooking them to start?
It’s so hard to get that balance
Chris: Boiling them in baking soda for 5 minutes
Then roasting them at high heat, though I’m sure my electric oven runs hotter than advertised.
Erin: I think the past year or so has been particularly hard for historians, and probably all academics, because so much of the political climate has been contestation of the ideas that we hold dear
The importance of evidence, interpretation, deep understanding, and connectedness to the past
Chris: Yeah, it’s hard to see the values that you believe and espouse publicly rejected.
And not just rejected, but ridiculed.
Erin: People talk very glibly about how history is written by the winners, but I think we need to be clear that history and “dominant narrative advanced by those with the power to make it true” are different
There’s ultimately no “relaxation” for a historian in this climate.
Chris: The history is written by winners comment, almost absolves people of their responsibility to challenge or create their own narratives.
It’s a “well there’s nothing I can do about it” reaction.
Erin: And it sort of allows people to set themselves outside of the “winners” category, when a real interrogation of the past would force a confrontation with how each of us benefits from it
Chris: The key part of that is the confronting our own benefits.
People don’t want to confront their own, largely unacknowledged privileges.
They’d rather ascribe it to something unique about them. “I work hard.” “I pay my taxes.” “I play by the rules.” whatever it may be.
“I’m smarter/better/more charming”
Erin: Like that thread on the Louisiana couple who are mad about black Americans gaming the system by working and getting the EITC…
I am uncomfortable with the notion that the only way for me to relax my brain fully for more than an hour or two is for me to drop out of awareness of what’s happening in the world.
Usually I can manage two hours of disconnect in a movie. Last week I went to see Wonder Woman, and as much as I loved it, I couldn’t disconnect. (Same with seeing Rogue One in the aftermath of the election)
Chris: I think it is necessary to try. I only have a finite amount of energy in the day and sometimes I need to make sure I get through the day.
Or at least find a new or different way to engage.
Erin: I think the profession tries to make us feel guilty for not working and producing all the time. I tend to feel personally guilty for not engaging my mind and heart all the time in the current injustices produced by the things we study in the past.
Like, how can I disengage from this?
I know, I know, I can’t do anything if I’m burnt out, but a lot of people have done more than me being far more burnt out than me.
Chris: That gets back to the larger question we started with how do we function as academics and people
And the un-comforting realization that there’s very little in our lives that we can actually control.
Erin: That’s why the “inspiration” for the shape of the book I’m working on was A.Burr singing “I am the one thing in life I can control”
Chris: I love that song because it’s a position that I often sympathize with on a personal (not a historical) level.
I completely understand where Burr is coming from.
Erin: I just shouted at my car speakers: “Tell that to the people who are owned or barred from owning property!”
One thing that would make bearing the stress of engagement and activism more bearable would be if academia actually placed value on it rather than dinging you for it. It would not only validate the worth of that engagement, it would bring more people into doing it and the burden might be shared.
Chris: Yes, that’s a great point.
Erin: It would also provide a greater diversity of viewpoints.
Chris: Academia has its own sets of standards and most of the activism from academics, at least those that get the most attention, are from those with tenure, who already have that security.
Chris: So they can devote the time to it, because they have the security. For those without that security, that kind of activism is seen as distracting or detracting from the scholarly pursuits.
Erin: And I think it adds to the burnout as a result. Junior scholars and adjuncts can’t stop thinking about this stuff, but are penalized for expressing it.
Chris: And the only way to work through the burnout is by taking time off for yourself and that feels selfish in the face of everything going on.
Erin: Also it’s okay to have a good cry or rage-induced yell once in a while.
Chris: Or go see a movie, get a burger, or a pint of ice cream.
Erin: I approve!