What Is Our Work Now?

Our Religion department chair always begins meetings with a round of check-ins. The check-in question changes, but the invitation to share from something professional or personal is always there. This feels right—perhaps because the members of our department have worked together for over a decade. Or maybe because we know intimately how twined and tangled the personal and the professional are for those of us who out live our teaching vocation.

This week, a department member opened our check-in saying, “I’m having a rough day, but I’m doing my best in this moment to be present to the work.” Before I could think, I blurted out, “I’m also having a rough day, but I’m not sure what our work is now.”

On the surface, my comment made no sense. The agenda for the department meeting was clear: discuss core curriculum revisions, construct a shared assignment on “identity” for all first year religion and theology classes, and set hiring priorities for the fall (we lost three faculty this academic year). But eight weeks into the semester, five semesters into the pandemic, and two plus years into educational upheaval, my confusion was real.

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Caring for the Care-givers: A Plea

When I sat down at the computer at 4 am this morning, my intention was to write an entry summarizing some remarks I made during a recent NetVUE gathering at Pepperdine University.  Instead, I ended up writing about a conversation I’d had during a car ride at the conference—a conversation that, I think, is the reason I was awake at 4 am. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and I’ve had several other conversations about it since I got back to my own campus. It was a conversation about vocation, burnout, and suicide.

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Passion vs. Duty

Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.

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Vocation and the Realities of Burn-out

Finding a vocation in work can fulfill your life. It can also ruin it. I know this firsthand; both have happened to me. I used to be a tenured faculty member at a small Catholic college. For years, I was happy and successful by every measure. I was a respected teacher. I published. I won grants. I led committees that got things done. I was flourishing professionally.

From “Avoiding Job Burnout in Academia”

Until one year, I suddenly wasn’t. I kept doing all the things a good faculty member does, but I did them with diminishing joy and increasing resentment. I started to get furious over small slights. I gained weight. I struggled to get to class on time. I struggled to get out of bed. The only thing that saved me from deeper miseryperhaps even saved my lifewas a well-timed resignation letter.

I burned out. As I have explained in the pages of The Chronicle (“The 40-Year-Old Burn Out”) and Commonweal (“A Burnt-Out Case: Aquinas and the Way We Work Now”) that means I exhibited the three major components of occupational burnout, as defined by the psychologist Christina Maslach: exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of inefficacy. I wasn’t simply tired. I took a semester’s unpaid leave after these symptoms became hard to bear; the time away didn’t change anything. That’s because the problem wasn’t just within me. Continue reading