Category Archives: Burnout

I Choose to Be Here

It’s the middle of Finals Week. Other semesters, I’d be thick in the muck of a grading backlog, trying to get caught up so I could start grading finals. This time, I came soooooo close to having the backlog done before finals started coming in.   Didn’t quite make it, but I’m still in a good place, on track to have grades turned in on December 23.  Which is before Christmas. Which is fantastic.  (I hear from my family I’m not very pleasant when I’m still grading over Christmas.)

Because I am a master procrastinator, and because over the years I’ve been slower than I’d like to in terms of returning graded work to students, I have a spreadsheet going back more than ten years with precise records–when students turned things in & when I returned them.  This semester wasn’t my best ever, but it’s the best in a while.

Why? Was it because it was a lovely, unencumbered semester in which my family life was smooth as pudding and my work life was also smooth and lovely? NO.  We’ve found 7th grade challenging in my house. We’ve been virus magnets this fall. And at work? Well , my campus administrator is moving on. In a couple weeks. And there’s work to be done.

And, oh, what else? Let’s see. My campus is in the process of merging (though we’re not supposed to say “merging” any more, I don’t know why) with a larger campus. All over Wisconsin, fine, little campuses are merging (not-merging) with fine, larger campuses. This has resulted in many, many more meetings and phone calls and emails. None of which are my favorite things about my job.

And yet.  And yet.  I’m feeling as genuinely copacetic as I have felt in a very long time.

Here’s one reason. In September, I listened to Episode 057 ,”How to Stop Fighting Against Your Life & Fall in Love With It Instead,” of the Courage and Clarity podcast. It’s a great podcast–each interview has two episodes. One is the “courage” episode, in which a woman entrepreneur explains how she broke away from her regular life and had the courage to do something risky.  The “clarity” episode explains some specific process or task.

On Episode 057, Steph Crowder (the host, and part of the triumvirate at Fizzle.co, which I love, seriously, ♥, and which I’m sure I’ll write about more at some point) interviewed Catherine Rains, the Hotel Artist.  I was hooked early on, because they were talking about “resistance toward the day job.”

Even before the merger-not-merger was announced, I was finding my job challenging. Maybe everyone does?  But I’m working with Fizzle because I’m trying to develop a side hustle in creativity consulting, and part of the motive for that is being able to retire from my day job, which I’ve been doing since 1991. So even though I wouldn’t say I was miserable in September, was I loving my job? Happy to be there every day? Giving it my best? Prolly not.

A lot of this episode resonated with me, but this especially:

Catherine says that at some point she was in an academic job that wasn’t thrilling her, but she was captivated by a phrase she thought of, “What you resist persists.”  So she started doing what she called a game, of saying, “This moment is my destiny” any time she was in an unpleasant moment at work.  She also said, “I have lived my entire life to be sitting here at this moment doing this thing.” She said these things “over and over again for three months, and at the end of three months, I realized I had fallen in love with my job.” Catherine also talks about:

  • “learning new ways to surrender to what’s in front of me, as opposed to resisting it.  Because resisting it is what keeps you stuck where you are.”
  • “I think that what makes people think that they haven’t gotten far enough is because they’re resisting where they already are.”
  • “When I stopped trying to get somewhere else, and fully sunk into where I was, that’s when the next step revealed itself, without me doing anything.”

There was just level after level of resonating for me. Somehow I decided to go for it.  I tried saying “This moment is my destiny” and that phrasing just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it felt too whoo-whoo. But then I tried, “I choose to be here” instead, and snap!  Every moment when things at work seemed tense, when I was feeling tired of any particular task, when I just wasn’t feeling the love for what I was doing, I said to myself, “I choose to be here.”

It wasn’t as if everything was suddenly rainbows and sunshine, but there was a subtle transformation. Work just felt good. Within a week or two (which seemed sudden), I wasn’t working on my side-hustle to escape my job. I was working on my side-hustle because it was an important thing I wanted to develop to spend some time on now and more time on later.

Work just felt good.

So then when the seismic announcement of the merger-not-merger happened (about which I have many thoughts and feelings), my response wasn’t doom and gloom or terror. My gut-level response was positive. And still is.  And as we move through the muck of making a massive transition for this merger-not-merger (about which I have multiple thoughts and feelings), I’m still saying “I choose to be here.” It makes a huge difference.

It’s a huge part of why I’m feeling so mellow during finals week, looking forward to a full day of grading tomorrow, a Solstice bonfire tomorrow night, more grading on Friday, then an email to students asking them to check my data entry one more time, and then turning in grades on Saturday. Then celebrating Christmas starting on Christmas Eve. And actually taking a week between Christmas and New Years where I don’t check work email. At all.

So right now, at the end of a tumultuous semester, I’m sitting in front of my Christmas tree feeling copacetic even before I take a single sip of the brandy I’ve poured myself. This whole method isn’t just for tense moments at work. It’s also for moments like this. I choose to be here.

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The answer is, the question is

So when it all comes down,
what it all comes down to, what
the answer is, the question is
how I did, how did I
spend them,
those bits of time,
my moments, my allotment of them,
what did I do with them
where did I leave them
did I wring them dry
did I use them well
then clean and oil them,
put them away to use again–
impossible–not something
I would be likely to do
and not something
anyone can do with a moment

I gorged on some
and let the shiny wrappers pile right up
and this one–this one
I’m holding like an injured dove
but there are more, so many,
so many, they scuttled away
like roaches or I stomped them
like roaches
and anyway they’re gone

______

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I wrote this poem whilst on retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, Wisco (a truly special place)

If I Loved You Before the Election, I Probably Still Do

If I loved you before the election, I probably still do.
Even more than how you voted, I’m thinking about
what’s good and bad, what scares us most, what’s true.

I’m worried who the bad things are happening to.
Our list of bad things might be different, but
if I loved you before the election, I probably still do.

It isn’t like I thought we lived in a commune,
but Jesus, how can we be so far apart
on what’s good and bad, what scares us most, what’s true?

Do you feel this frightened when my side wins and you lose?
I’m sorry if you do. I didn’t know that.
If I liked you before the election, I probably still do,

unless I can only be your friend if I voted like you.
It makes me anxious when we’re asking what
is good and bad, what scares us most, what’s true

because we can’t even manage to watch the same news.
It looks like a storm cloud to me. What’s it look like to you?
If I loved you before the election, I probably still do.
What’s good? What’s bad? What scares us most? What’s true?

_____

Don’t get me wrong–I have really firm opinions about the election. My side lost in the primary and the general. I’m trying to figure out how to process it, how to understand it, what to do. But one of the things that freaks me out the most is how far apart we are as a country, as a state. It feels to me like we could bust out into our own version of the Troubles any moment. (Some violence is already here.) I honestly don’t know what to do.  I decided to start re-learning Spanish.  And I did buy, but haven’t started reading yet, Katherine Cramer’s book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

And speaking of Scott Walker, here are some thoughts I had on similar matters five years ago. I just read the Cadfael books again and they still seem to have so much to say about disagreeing and either empathizing or not with the people you’re disagreeing with. There are two parts,  Grief for the Uncousinly Chasm. And then Grief for the Uncousinsly Chasm, Part II. There’s a part III I haven’t had the nerve to write yet, on the chasm between what I believed when I was actively Baptist and what I believe now as what I call a Zen Baptist–the chasm between what some of my friends and family believe and what I do.

You can take this line from the villanelle as either taking the Lord’s name in vain or a prayer (or both–I mean it as both):

Jesus, how can we be so far apart?

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It looks like bleak November to me. What’s it look like to you?

Monday Morning Nonetheless

“And all my senses rise against this coming back to you”  Leonard Cohen

Almost an ampersand of fog
against the bare trees on the bluff.
The wind must have swirled it around,
or maybe it’s smoke. It’s cold enough
someone could have had a fire last night.

Such beauty and such mystery right there
on a Monday morning, nonetheless,
I have to drive beyond it to where
light industrial meets water treatment
and everything is ordinary, planned, and organized,
and on the other side of that, my job.fullsizerender

Faithless Delegate, Brokered Heart

Being a battleground state is exhausting.
My red counties, my blue counties,
my precincts, my wards–they spar and spit
at each other, they tally slights, they want revenge.

The answer to Rodney King’s question is simply we can’t
get along. We don’t even all
get to vote, and still the turnout is huger
than it has been since the early 70s. But

when it comes right down to the chad of it,
my brain and all my good habits
don’t stand a fucking chance against
the power of illogic. This panic attack

is a faithless delegate on the convention floor,
voting for whomever he pleases,
my heart littered with campaign trash. I won’t
demand a recount. I just want everything quiet again.

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NOT THE EASIEST WEEK AT WORK? YEAH, ME NEITHER

“I was in the house when the house burned down”
Warren Zevon

The gears are grinding hard today, the sound
of conflict, disruption, and general unrest
is metallic, shearing, unpleasant at best.
The eruption of what used to be safe underground
is nothing like a garden coming up in spring
and also nothing like a shy girl speaking up.
It’s not a birth and also not a blossoming.
It is something like taking a painful dump.
And yet it’s very nearly exhilarating
to watch someone say “Enough. No more.
I’m done. Just stop .” Even for those who think
they could endure.

It really does and doesn’t matter.

You’re just trying to enjoy your sandwich, to appreciate
the privilege of being alive on this crazy day.

______

Because Letterman ended last night, I’ve been thinking again about Warren Zevon. We told our son at breakfast this morning that we considered “Zevon” as a first name for him, as well as “Warren.” We went with Wendell instead, but we’re guessing by the time he’s in college, he’ll have met at least a couple of Zevon’s.

Crazy week at work. So crazy, I probably can’t even talk about it. But wow.

Anyway, this Rolling Stone compilation is nice, of some serious moments from Mr. Letterman, and in the Zevon one, he says his famous line, “Enjoy every sandwich.”

_____

Even broken glass can be pretty.

Even broken glass can be pretty.

(image by Duke Lenoir photo from Creative Commons–attribution license.)

“Feedback is what happens second” Part I

Gearing up for spring semester begins late in fall semester for me. That’s a practical matter–if I waited until the fall semester was over to gear up for spring, I’d be behind schedule immediately. It’s more than a practical matter, though. There comes a time in every semester, the deepest, darkest time (which in fall corresponds with shorter days and longer nights) of a semester, when it’s easier to see what’s not working rather than what is working.

One of my ongoing goals as a teacher is to return student work faster. I struggle with it for a number of reasons:

  • I don’t like delivering bad news. I absolutely love sitting down with students and providing feedback on drafts and revisions, but at that point, the possibilities for success are still wide open. With a final draft, some doors are shut. I’ve wondered if switching to a portfolio system would help me here because of how much I enjoy giving feedback early in the process.
  • I’m a master procrastinator when faced with unpleasant tasks.
  • There isn’t a clear deadline for when student work has to be returned except in terms of when they need to turn in the next assignment, or at the very end of the semester. This is one reason I think a portfolio system might work better–I’d be grading final drafts at the end of the semester when the deadlines are very firm and real.

I’m not saying these are GOOD reasons, but they’re reasons I’ve discovered.  I just realized earlier this month that I’m always slower about returning student work in spring semester & one reason for that is probably because I tend to have more problems with anxiety and depression in the spring (ironic, because I love light and love when the days begin to grow longer). I discovered it because I keep track of when student work comes in and when I return it (I call it TIR for turned-in-returned rate) on a spreadsheet & I have numbers going back several years. The good news is that overall, I’m doing much better than I used to. The bad news is that my numbers have gotten ugly the last couple of spring semesters….

Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to try something I’ve never tried in relation to solving this problem. (Other things I continue to do: keeping track, rewarding myself if I meet my goals at different points in the semester, reporting to someone on how I’m doing–which is what I was doing earlier this month when I discovered the WORSE IN SPRING PATTERN.  I was putting my numbers in my yearly activity report.)

I’m problematizing the problem. I’m going to do research first, on feedback, and see what the research says.  That’s where I am right now, and at least at the moment, my plan is to report on the research at different points in the semester.

I know it’s important–feedback is the thing that an instructor can do in a real class that an instructor can’t do in a MOOC, and however good AI gets, it still seems to me we’re a long way away from computers being able to give good feedback to writers on much beyond sentence complexity, vocabulary, spelling, and some grammar. Feedback is what makes instructors invaluable.

The first article I’m tackling is called “The Power of Feedback” and it’s by John Hattie and Helen Temperly at the University of Auckland.

One of the first quotes that struck me in the article was this one, “Feedback has no effect in a vacuum; to be powerful in its effect, there must be a learning context to which feedback is addressed.”  That’s why they say “feedback is what happens second.”  Instruction has to happen first.  When I read this quote I thought immediately of my discomfort when a student in creative writing asks me for feedback on something they wrote before the class.  I tell them it feels weird because I don’t know what they were trying for, whereas if they wrote in response to an assignment, I know what they were supposed to be trying to do.

I appreciate Hattie & Temperley’s article for their definitions & clarifications, among other things.  Here’s one:  “The claim is made that the main purpose of feedback is to reduce discrepancies between current understandings and performance and a goal. ” To me this emphasizes the importance of backward design–if my students and I don’t know what our goals are, I just don’t stand a chance of providing effective feedback.

These three questions seem so crucial: “Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)”

I particularly appreciate the emphasis on the role students play in the feedback process. Here’s the good news:  it’s not a passive role. Here are some things students can do. They can

  • “increase their effort, particularly when the effort leads to tackling more challenging tasks or appreciating higher quality experiences rather than just doing ‘more.'”
  • “develop effective error detection skills, which lead to their own self-feedback aimed at reaching a goal.”
  • “seek better strategies to complete the task or be taught them, or they can obtain more information.”

So I dived into this article hoping for motivation for returning student work faster, and it does address that several pages in, and I’ll get to that as I post on the topic, but for now, it’s met a goal I didn’t even realize I had–get me pumped up about a new semester.

What can I do with this enthusiasm? Lots.  “Teachers can also assist by clarifying goals, enhancing commitment or increased effort to reaching them through feedback….More generally, teachers can create a learning environment in which students develop self-regulation and error detection skills.”

I need to model self-assessment and self-regulation by setting goals, monitoring them, and then making adjustments (all processes discussed in the article, but also widely discussed any time metacognition comes up).

So my goal for returning student work in terms of promptness is this.  By the end of Week 5, I want my overall average to be below 7 days, and the average for longer assignments to be below 10 days, but I want the standard deviation to be 2.0 or lower–this past fall my averages met those goals, but the standard deviation was too high (I was still keeping some longer assignments wayyyyyyy too long).

a little poem I wrote with big feelings

a little poem I wrote with big feelings

Beyond that, I’m setting some goals on the quality of feedback. I want to set the questions and good points from “The Power of Feedback” in front of myself as I start to communicate with students about their work, which I’m less than a week away from (classes start on Monday and the first assignments come in next Friday–sooner, since some students will want me to look at rough drafts, more than likely).

My plan is to report on my turned-in-returned rate after Week 5, or sooner, and I’ll also write more about this article & others I’ve found and will find.

Meanwhile–it’s back to finishing up syllabi & schedules for next week!