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The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track Without Losing My Soul

I am inspired by Dr. Radhika Nagpal‘s essay, “The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life.”  In it, she writes about taking control of her life while she was on the tenure-track, rather than letting tenure control her.  If you have not read it yet, do so right now (you’re welcome) and then don’t forget to come back here!

There is some great reflection that I suspect will be useful to tenure-track academics with young children.  But, I feel the essay is missing other important contexts that are omnipresent in the stories of marginalized scholars: prejudice, discrimination, stereotypes, harassment, double-standards, invisibility, hypervisibility, tokenism — just to name a few manifestations of oppression in academia.  There is a good chance Nagpal faced some of these realities herself, though not addressing them explicitly in her essay.  So, a great way to repackage her essay to scholars on the margins would be to infuse the experiences relayed in Presumed incompetent and the advice from The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul.

A 7-Year Experiment

Of course, as a brand new assistant professor, I do not have a story of the tenure-track without the stress (in the contexts of racism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression).  But, rather than telling my story after I receive tenure, I offer my story while pursuing tenure without the stress.

Consider this my 7-year experiment.  Beginning today, I have decided to work toward obtaining tenure without compromising my health, happiness, authenticity, or politics.  I will reflect on my experiences over the next seven years so that others may learn from my successes and failures.  Yes, I am putting myself on the line to test this hypothesis: can marginalized academics win tenure “without losing their souls”?

Starting Points

First, I should note that I feel relatively comfortable embarking on this experiment for the world to see because I accepted a position where the tenure requirements seem doable.  So, a first step toward pursuing a stress-free life on the tenure-track is placing achievable tenure expectations as a top priority for a job, rather than letting the school’s prestige dominate the list.  Yes, I do want to be challenged, and the expectations are high enough that I cannot do research or teach once in a blue moon.  But, I struggled with anxiety long enough to forgo signing up to be challenged at anxiety-provoking levels.

I can also tweak Nagpal’s own guidelines to fit with my journey toward tenure without losing my soul:

  1. I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  2. I stopped taking advice.
  3. I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  4. I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  5. I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  6. I found real friends.
  7. I have fun “now”.

1 — I printed out a similar little note that says “This is a 7-year postdoc.”  But, I am inclined to see this more as “I am a professor at this university for at least 7 years.”  This is my reward for six difficult years in graduate school, plus four years in college.  My time in graduate school entailed many instances of remaining silent, or censored, or deferential — even when I saw injustices or was the target of a microaggression myself.  I learned to present myself, my work, and my perspective in “safe”, apolitical, and mainstream ways to get ahead.  Why be silent, censored, and subservient for another seven years?  I worked hard for my freedom (the PhD), and I have my “papers” to prove it.  My PhD will serve its intended purposes of liberating me, my voice, my perspective, and my communities.

2 — “I stopped taking advice,” especially from people who are not of the same or similar social locations, or, at a minimum, clearly do not have my best interests (as a whole person) in mind.  Upon hearing the awful, and sometimes oppressive advice throughout graduate school (“remind them that you’re Black,” “man up!”, “a little bit of anxiety is good for you”), I have learned the hard lesson that there is a lot of advice that is thrown around, and most of it speaks to privileged scholars’ experiences (if it is based in truth at all).  The most helpful sources of advice as I progressed through the difficult year of job market and dissertating were my partner, my family, my friends, and my own heart, mind, and spirit.  My career will never mirror that of another person, so I have to do a better job of listening to that internal adviser.

3 — I acknowledge the institutionally valued markers of success (i.e., publication, grants, student evaluations, awards), but I will stop ignoring other signs of being loved, valued, and respected.  I have been collecting nice notes from friends and family in a Word document.  After attending the American Sociological Association annual meeting this weekend, I realized that I should better appreciate how many people value this blog.  (I heard from a dozen people, “I love your blog!”, but only once heard “I’m familiar with your research.)  This includes allowing being valued to work both up (i.e., from senior and higher-status scholars) and down (i.e., from younger and lower-status scholars), for chasing the attention of overburdened “stars” in my subfields places too much of my self-worth in the hands of people I must convince to notice me.

4 — I will continue working weekdays during reasonable work hours (sometimes 8am-6pm), as I have been doing since the second to last year of my graduate training.  Labor rights activists worked too hard to block off Saturday and Sunday as days off from work for me to relinquish the weekend.  That, and my salary is based on a 40-hour workweek, so I would rather save time in which I am volunteering for community service rather than to academic service.  I learned that I ultimately become too tired to work, and trying to do so every day left me unproductive and riddled with guilt and anxiety for not working.

Me - Rock Star5 — I must be a whole person.  This means I will have to stop extensively managing my self-presentation.  As a student, and even as new professor, I find it incredibly reassuring to see advisers as whole people — people who have families, laugh, cry, dress up and dress down, drink, etc.  I can stop using a professional-looking photo as my profile picture on Facebook.  I will not fall into “shop talk” outside of the office with colleagues who are also friends.  I owe it to myself, my partner, and my friends and family to be something more than the one-dimension of scholar.

6 — I will work at finding “real” friends, which may include my colleagues, but should include non-academics, as well.

7 — I will start having fun now because my health depends on it, and tomorrow is not promised to me.  It seems odd to me to work so hard for 6-10 years for a PhD, to then work even harder for another seven — all in the name of the job security we assume non-academics are not promised.

Status Or Happiness?  I’m Choosing Both

Inherent in this experiment, as well as Napgal’s post, is the assumed contradiction between status and happiness.  I have reflected in personal writing on these two paths as a series of major and minor crossroads throughout my life as a marginalized scholar:

These crossroads are just one aspect of the larger decision I face: do I choose status, or do I choose happiness?  In some ways, I have already made decisions toward both ends.  Unknowingly, I chose a top-ranked PhD program; I liked the feel, and assumed I would have support for my work in sexualities.  But, I took a liberal arts position close to my family, forgoing a longer stay in graduate school to increase my marketability (to research intensive schools).  My work took on a mainstream approach, while pushing the envelope.  I present myself in normative ways, but make no secret of my politics, views, and experiences.

I was reminded of the importance of reflective writing.  Immediately after I wrote the previous paragraph (yesterday, on my flight back from the ASA conference), I wrote the following:

The more I reflect on this, I realize I am actually on neither path.  I have not selected the “easy” route, completely relinquishing hope for status or prestige.  But, I also have not completely sold my soul for the status-driven route.  By bouncing back and forth between the two routes, I am actually on my own path.  And, it is my hope of hopes that I actually pave a new path, that my footsteps are making visible a new route for others.  With a commitment to paving the way, I must be open and honest with others about my successes and missteps.  My tale may even be a cautionary one for others behind me.  I must tell my story and live openly for the purview of others like me!

That is, it was this personal reflection that sparked the idea for this post.  I have done some digging to find out about other scholars before me who pursued alternative paths, for these individuals were either invisible in my graduate training or the more radical aspects of their lives were stripped away.  For example, though sociologists are slowly beginning to recognize the work of W. E. B. DuBois, we never talk about his work with NAACP, his experiences of racist discrimination, or anything other than his published works.  This, in my opinion, speaks back to being a whole person, even for other academics.  I would love to hear, “wow, I liked your article in Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and omg, your blog is amazing!”

Tenure

So, here it goes.  For the next seven years, I will continue to publish research, teach courses, mentor students, blog, and work with community organizations.  I have chosen to stop biting my tongue because I am tired of tasting blood.  I will be a whole person to my colleagues, students, friends, and family — and myself.  I chose not to stress about tenure, working on projects that meet my goals of social justice and accessibility at my own pace.  I will focus on “connecting up”, forging connections with senior scholars and the “big names” in my field, as well as “connecting down” by making genuine efforts to connect with my peers and younger scholars and students.  I will give occasional updates, and, in the end, report back on the findings of this 7-year experiment.  Wish me luck!

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

Racism, as a social system, shapes and structures every aspect of society.  As sociologist Eduado Bonilla-Silva argues in his structural perspective of racism (PDF), racism operates as a social structure that has taken on a life of its own, and serves as an “organizing principle of social relations in itself” (page 475).  So, a more appropriate conceptualization of racism reminds us that it operates as a system of oppression, not merely an ideology (i.e., racial prejudice or, the more sanitized reference to “racial attitudes”) nor actions (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination).  Borrowing from sociologist Barbara Risman‘s thesis of gender (specifically sexism) as a social structure (PDF), we can think of racism as system that operates on multiple levels:

  1. Racialized Individuals: aspects of the self directly related to race (e.g., racial identity, racial attitudes) and consequences of racism (e.g., health, income, education, values, aspirations).
  2. Racialized Interactions: re-creation and reinforcement of racial inequality in interactions between individuals (e.g., racial discrimination; “doing” race and holding one another accountable for “appropriate” performances of our presumed race; immediate, automatic categorization of others by race).
  3. Racialized Institutions: laws, policies, organizational practices, cultural and social norms that re-create and reinforce racial inequality (e.g., racial disparities in the criminal justice system, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, pay inequality, “professional” standards that privilege white middle-class ways of living and behaving).

When framed this way, our challenge is not to “prove” when race does matter or when racism is at play.  Rather, racism is understood as universally and perpetually relevant, shaping the core of every aspect of social life.  We are hard pressed, then, to prove when race doesn’t mater or when racism isn’t at play.  This puts to rest the misguided and naive discussions about the supposed “post-racial” society.  And, it helps to maintain attention to racial prejudice, while not being completely distracted by playing the “who’s a racist?” game.

Everyday Racism

Even in this modern era — supposedly “post-racial,” or even “post-racist,” — racism operates as a daily burden in the lives of racial and ethnic minorities.  As such, scholars have introduced a fitting concept: everyday racism:

Racism is easily recognized in its extreme forms (e.g., white youth beating up and killing dark-skinned people), or in its overt forms (e.g., throwing bananas at black players on European soccer fields). Everyday racism can be more coded (a white teacher saying to an African-American student: “How come you write so well?”); ingrained in institutional practice (appointing friends of friends for a position, as a result of which the workplace remains white); and not consciously intended (when lunch tables in a canteen or cafeteria are informally racially segregated and the white manager “naturally” joins the table with the white workers where only they will benefit from casually shared, relevant information and networking).

The term is quite apt, first, because of its reference to the daily occurrences of subtle actions, slights, and microaggressions, and second, because it refers to a common, “everyday” feel of the reality of racism.  By attending to the extreme, overt expressions of racism of a few “bad apples,” we miss the widespread existence of minor, subtle expressions of racism.  Though a rare slight here or there has little effect, the everyday exposure to these slights adds up, taking a toll on the health and well-being of each person of color.

In fact, the health consequence of everyday racial discrimination is comparable to, and may even exceed, those of major events of discrimination, like being unfairly fired or denied a job.  This is, in part, due to the heavy cognitive and emotional toll of processing — “was that discrimination?  was that because I’m Latina?”  Despite the stereotype that people of color are quick to “play the race card,” to assume unsatisfactory or differential outcomes are the result of discrimination, most probably go through a series of steps in their heads before concluding racism may have been at play.  That represents a lot of used up mental and emotional energy, on top of all of the other stressors everyone experiences regardless of race, as well as those disproportionately faced by people of color (e.g., poverty, barriers to important institutions like education, health care, etc.).

Ironically, because of accusations of hypersensitivity or that one is “playing the race card,” people of color face even greater pressure to process potentially racist events before making such conclusions.  Yet, one still faces the risk of having one’s claims of victimization denied or dismissed.  This, then, could lead one to doubt or question their own experiences, or feel that white people — even those who proclaim to be allies, liberal, anti-racist, or “color-blind” — just don’t “get” it and thus aren’t worth speaking with about issues related to race and racism.

Another Consequence Of Everyday Racism: Daily Disappointment

I will say up front that this may be my own, personal burden: daily disappointment.  It may come as a surprise that I am stubbornly optimistic.  I have chosen to devote my life’s work to challenging inequality, prejudice and discrimination, and exclusion, and promoting equality, acceptance, and diversity because I have high hopes that such change can (continue to) occur.  And, though a product of their time and social context, humans are capable of good, humanity, and peace.  So, despite the crappy things that I may experience, witness, or read or hear about today, I will sleep tonight and wake tomorrow with replenished hope for peace and justice.

My optimism is a gift.  And, it is often a curse, leaving me open to constant disappointment.  An example:

I spent my first Christmas with my partner a couple of months ago.  Deciding against participating in the capitalist take-over of the holiday, we spent the day together as our “gifts” to each other.  I decided to take a brief walk to get some fresh air, and used getting sodas from the local gas station as a fine excuse.  (There wasn’t much else open on the holiday.)  I walked to the store jamming to Shangela’s “Werqin’ Girl,” and feeling great (I’m digging songs by drag queens these days).  I headed to the back toward the coolers, and two women entered the store after me.  With sodas in hand, I got in line to check out.  Two people were ahead of me in line.  I watched as the cashier told one customer (a young white man), “you’re coming back later?  Oh, you can pay for this then.”  Such trust.  And, sadly, my first thought was, “there is no way this white cashier would trust me to pay for something later, no matter how many times he sees me as a customer here.”  It is what it is in this racist country.

Then, another customer (a white woman) cut in front of me in line.  I thought many things in that moment: maybe she hasn’t seen me yet; maybe she is planning to get behind me once we move forward; maybe she is with this other (white woman) customer.  Maybe there is some logical reason for her otherwise rude behavior.  The other customer began checking out.  The person who cut in line did not check out with her.  She did not move behind me upon seeing me.  I became angry.  “Should I tell her, politely, that I was next in line?”  I decided to let it go, albeit unsuccessfully.  My anger started to beat out my logic.  I moved closer, attempting to rely on her presumed fear of me as a large brown man to get her attention.  Nothing.  With her purse on the counter, partially open, I rested my hand close to it, trying harder to make her uncomfortable.  Nothing.  She checked out.  I checked out.

Outside, I noticed the two white women were together, though they did not check out their purchases within the same transaction.  I walked out toward the street, putting my headphones back on.  I noticed the two women pull up behind me in their van.  An opportunity for revenge!  I stood in the way of their exit.  I looked both ways before crossing the street: once, twice, three times.  When it was obvious that the street was safe to cross, and had been for more time than presumably necessary, I looked back at the woman who cut in front of me in line.  Then, I looked her up and down, and proceeded to cross the street.

The entire event disappointed me.  Can’t I go one day — even Christmas day — without being forced to think about racism?  And, my own (constrained) actions disappointed me.  Wasn’t there a better way to handle the situation?  But, unfortunately, people of color are constantly placed in these situations to process, to weigh appropriate courses of action (or inaction).  We are placed in situations in which we are forced to ask, “was that about race?”  And, no matter our response, we are left thinking about it days, months, or years later, while it never develops into a significant memory in the minds of our privileged counterparts.

The insult to the injury of these events of everyday racism are the responses that belittle our experiences: “are you sure that was about race?”; “maybe you’re overreacting”; “maybe…” [some other “logical” explanation]; “just try to forget about it.”  Upon facing some subtle, minor, and presumably “innocent” incident, we are then told by a group who are not faced with such a burden that our reaction, how we feel, think, or act, is inappropriate or excessive.  Figuratively speaking, you are punched in the gut and then asked why you are curled over and groaning.

I suppose I could avoid these daily disappointments by assuming the worst in people.  But, disappointed or not, I am inclined to continue to see the potential for good and kindness in every person.  I can’t imagine that great leaders of yesterday and today would be as strong in their conviction if they had little hope for humanity.

Are Professors Really The Least Stressed?

It is no secret that some jobs are stressful, while others may be less stressful.  So, it makes sense that some who are seeking employment for the first time, or may be looking for a new job, would like to know which careers come with high levels of stress.  Just as the new year started, CareerCast.com, a job listing site, released a list of the top 10 most stressful and top 10 least stressful jobsHere is the list:

The least stressful jobs:

  1. University professor
  2. Seamstress/tailor
  3. Medical records technician
  4. Jeweler
  5. Medical laboratory technician
  6. Audiologist
  7. Dietitian
  8. Hair stylist
  9. Librarian
  10. Drill press operator

The most stressful jobs:

  1. Enlisted military personnel
  2. Military general
  3. Firefighter
  4. Commercial airline pilot
  5. Public relations executive
  6. Senior corporate executive
  7. Photojournalist
  8. Newspaper reporter
  9. Taxi driver
  10. Police officer

How Is Stress Measured?

CareerCast ranked 200 careers listed on its site on 11 indicators of “stress”:

  • Travel, amount of 0-10
  • Growth Potential (income divided by 100)
  • Deadlines 0-9
  • Working in the public eye 0-5
  • Competitiveness 0-15
  • Physical demands (stoop, climb, etc.) 0-14
  • Environmental conditions 0-13
  • Hazards encountered 0-5
  • Own life at risk 0-8
  • Life of another at risk 0-10
  • Meeting the public 0-8

So, even considering travel, deadlines, competitiveness, and other indicators of stress, professors rank among the least stressed?

Professors Are The Least Stressed?

Wait… professors are the least stressed among the employed?  Yep, according to ABC news, “Looking for a low-stress job? Being a full-time university professor is the least stressful career for 2013 … It’s the first time that career has won the title of least stressful in the site’s 20-year history of assessing jobs.”  A writer at Forbes further explains the cushy job held by university professors:

University professors have a lot less stress than most of us.  Unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year, including a month over Christmas and New Year’s and another chunk of time in the spring. Even when school is in session they don’t spend too many hours in the classroom. For tenure-track professors, there is some pressure to publish books and articles, but deadlines are few. Working conditions tend to be cozy and civilized and there are minimal travel demands, except perhaps a non-mandatory conference or two. As for compensation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for professors is $62,000, not a huge amount of money but enough to live on, especially in a university town.  Another boon for professors: Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020, according to the BLS. All of those attributes land university professor in the number one slot on Careercast.com’s list of the least stressful jobs of 2013.

Forbes notes that the “least stressed” jobs stand out from all others because of their high level of autonomy, and, of course: “At the end of the day, people in these professions can leave their work behind, and their hours tend to be the traditional nine to five.”

I cannot imagine a professor, regardless of rank, who would agree.  Dr. Audra Diers, a professor of Organizational Communication and Public Relations at Marist College, wrote extensively about the reality of the 60-hour-plus workweek for most professors.  And, the writer at Forbes received so many letters and comments outraged by the picture she painted of the relaxed professor taking long breaks from work that she amended her article:

***ADDENDUM***

Since writing the above piece I have received more than 150 comments, many of them outraged, from professors who say their jobs are terribly stressful. While I characterize their lives as full of unrestricted time, few deadlines and frequent, extended breaks, the commenters insist that most professors work upwards of 60 hours a week preparing lectures, correcting papers and doing research for required publications in journals and books. Most everyone says they never take the summer off, barely get a single day’s break for Christmas or New Year’s and work almost every night into the wee hours.

Many of the comments are detailed, with time breakdowns laying out exactly how many hours the writers spend doing their jobs. One commenter, Jonathan Reynolds, sent me an itemized list of tasks he’d performed since Dec. 19 which included writing a 12,600-word book chapter and a 1,000-word book review, peer reviewing a manuscript for an editor, reviewing manuscripts for a professional journal and one for Oxford University Press. He also worked on an annotated bibliography and helped a struggling student. I agree that doesn’t sound like a relaxing schedule.

A commenter named Gwen Schug sent along a link to a well-written piece responding to the study I cited, detailing the hours it takes to do every aspect of a professor’s job, including the three hours preparation required per lecture, the fact that most professors have up to 55 advisees, each of whom requires at least an hour per semester, and grading, which can take a half hour per assignment. The piece also says professors are expected to attend 2-4 conferences a year, and points out that universities rarely pay the full expense.

I appreciate all of the comments and encourage you to read them. My intention here was to relay an intriguing list put together by a career and job listing site, CareerCast, that surveyed data on 200 jobs and drew up a list of professions it deemed least stressful, according to metrics I describe above, which are weighted toward categories like physical demands, environmental conditions and risking one’s life. CareerCast didn’t measure things like hours worked and the stresses that come from trying to get papers published in a competitive environment or writing grants to fund research.

I think there is value in CareerCast’s list, but I also welcome the observation that my characterization of a professor’s duties failed to include the stress brought on by long hours and the pressure to publish scholarly work. Though I happen to know a tenured professor who enjoys several breaks during the year and takes a several-week vacation over the summer, I didn’t set out to report exhaustively on the hours professors work. Unquestionably, the number varies greatly and is often high.

All of that said, to me the most striking thing about the comments I received is the fact that so many professors write that while they find their jobs stressful, they are deeply satisfied and happy in their work. This comment from David Perry is typical: “I love my job. It’s definitely deeply rewarding. But the stresses are intense and the workload never ending.”

Yes, professors do have a high level of autonomy.  But, obviously, the notion of a professor with her feet propped up on her desk for half of the year, and on vacation for the other half, is inaccurate.  Further, it misses the vast diversity of faculty positions: those on the tenure-track and those with tenure; variation across disciplines; liberal arts, regional, research-intensive, and community colleges; and, private versus public institutions.  Even senior tenured professors in the natural sciences at top-tier research universities face high levels of stress to remain active in teaching, publishing, obtaining grants, and serving on committees for the department, college, and discipline.

I would add to the outrage that these 11 indicators of stress are poor measures of job-related stress — or, at a minimum, are limited.  One major limitation is the skewedness toward physical demands.  Still, in having to frequently move around campus, at least teaching in a different location than one’s office, professors face greater demands than many careers that keep employees in one location for the entire day.    These 11 indicators miss aspects of careers that are mentally, emotionally, and socially stressful.  Arguably, the most rewarding, yet most stressful aspect of being a professor is the lack of routine.  There is a constant expectation for improvement and, for research, creating something entirely new — not just for oneself, but that no other researcher has produced.  One’s livelihood, whether a promotion to full professor, or obtaining tenure so that one can keep one’s job, is literally on the line, easily becoming a stressor that keeps one up at night or even putting one at risk for mental health problems.

Who Cares?

So, CareerCast offered a pseudo-scientific (at best) survey of careers.  The results have been picked up by various news outlets, but will likely become yesterday’s news by next week.  But, I sympathize with the many current, former, and future professors who are outraged by the assertion that faculty positions are the least stressful job in the nation.  What is at stake is the reputation of institutions of higher learning, and their funding.  Over the years, colleges have been receiving less and less financial support from the government, thus forcing colleges to increase the price tag for a college education and make sweeping budget cuts.  With so many who have attended college carrying debt and student loans, even years after graduation and securing a job, many Americans are left wondering whether college is even a wise investment.

The fear, then, is portraying college professors as well-paid teachers who are rewarded with long breaks threatens the sense that colleges need to be funded by tax-payers’ dollars.  Further, it leaves particular professors, especially their research and the courses they teach, open for witch hunts thinly veiled as concerns about government spending.  This, of course, is one of the very reasons why tenure exists — to protect professors from being fired because of the content of their scholarship.  Today, what is necessary to obtain tenure has ballooned, largely or even exclusively in terms of research expectations, into what many call the pressure to “publish or perish.”  Now, that’s stressful.

UPDATE (1/5/12, 4PM): Beyond a critique of the survey of stressful jobs, the articles written about the survey, especially that at Forbes, also warrant critique for so uncritically regurgitating its findings.  They, too, further contribute to the mystery surrounding what professors actually do.