The Radical Act of Self-Care
How education benefits from teachers who practice good self-care.
Posted Jan 21, 2019
As faculty members, we devote ourselves to helping students develop their creativity and cultivate their voice and sense of self, and the university administration generally finds ways to support those endeavors. Yet one of the great ironies of academe is that we tend to give ourselves less permission, time and space to do those same things, and we rarely receive encouragement and support from the administration to pursue these goals.
As a result, we can feel and be rather isolated in our pursuit of a work/life balance and our own self-care. But even though such activities may appear to be individual endeavors, they are actually more effective and productive when grounded in, and supported by, the broader academic community.
Life in higher education is often filled with the tyranny of perfection, competition, and delayed gratification to the point that something that is fulfilling or a great accomplishment—like publishing a book or earning tenure—often becomes anticlimactic. And balance, self-care and joy become like hanging juicy fruits, reserved for indulgence at another time.
With virtually everything in academe structured far in advance—semester curricula and schedules are planned way ahead, articles and books are years in the making—it is no surprise that most scholars are more firmly rooted in the future than the present. It is as though the “P” in Ph.D. stands for Postponement. For those who have come to realize that constantly suspending the present is no way to live, and for those curious and ready to engage in work/life balance and self-care, this article is for you.
Given the numerous roles faculty members play—as professors, writers, researchers, artists, activists, parents, partners and caregivers, among others—we are stretched beyond belief. We need space and time to think, reflect and follow the threads of our intriguing ideas and projects. Yet we somehow are deprived of this, and it feels like everyone and everything is pulling on us. As a dear colleague likes to joke, it seems as if we barely have enough time to floss our teeth.
But what is an institution of higher learning without a better capacity for reflection? How is it possible to encourage mindfulness in our students as they pursue knowledge, vocation and purpose when we give ourselves so little time to practice mindfulness ourselves?
Something is seriously lost when we can’t get quiet in a way that connects us back to ourselves, the world and what truly matters. Once we access the depth within ourselves and find our still small voice, we might discover that our writing, research, pedagogy, community activities and personal lives are filled with greater meaning and joy.
So while your institution’s emphasis may be on student retention, consider how you yourself will be retained and sustained. The general health of departments and the vitality of colleges and universities depend on this. If the structure of our universities does not support faculty retention with appropriate compensation, realistic workloads and expectations, and material and human resources, then we as faculty need to work creatively to save our own souls, spirits and bodies—as well as to support our colleagues who share similar goals.
As we begin the new year, here are some key points we need to keep in mind.
Self-care is a radical act. The work of a professor largely means being in performative mode—always hyperconnected and available. And when the work is embedded in an ideological context of the university as a business and students as customers, self-care becomes a form of radical resistance. With workloads, salaries and so much else often distributed unequally across gender and racial lines, pushing for self-care is a social justice issue.
We faculty are used to reporting to committees—the dissertation committee, the tenure and promotion committee, the committee of peer reviewers for scholarship, the other myriad committees we serve on and the committee in our heads. All that can result in our feeling alienated. The act of engaging in self-care has the transformative possibility of freedom, connecting us back to ourselves, our own creative process and the relationships we most cherish. Through reclaiming our time, our priorities and ourselves, we can move farther along on the path toward clarity, wholeness and survival.
It’s OK to not always be available. Unfortunately, the ethos of the university as a business and students as consumers has led to feeling like we are each operating a 24-hour store. Unless you love writing at the institution, don’t go in on days you aren’t teaching. Other than monthly department and faculty-wide meetings, don’t agree to attend committee meetings on writing days, and by all means, don’t agree to meet students when you do not need to be on the campus.
Have you ever called to get an appointment with a physician and the receptionist invites you to come in on the doctor’s surgery day because it works better for you? Of course not. Remember, your writing day is surgery day! Creativity is stifled when other people are calling all the shots on our schedules.
Years ago, when I was working on my dissertation, adjunct teaching at multiple campuses in two different states, and working as a counselor with violent men, a dear friend who left academe when it literally made her sick gave me what has become unforgettable and indispensable advice. She told me, “Guard your time. Be ruthless about that. Be like a mama bear protecting your cub.”
Do everything in your power to salvage and preserve the three cornerstones of an academic career: creativity, autonomy, and flexibility. Ask for a schedule that works with the rhythms of your creative life as well as possible.
Perfect the art of saying no, and practice setting boundaries. For me, saying no early and often has been hard won, and I’m still working on it. As a young girl and woman, I learned to be hyperresponsive—to acquiesce to others’ demands and to be self-sacrificial. At some point, I realized I did not want to measure my career and my life by phone calls and emails returned or getting involved in projects because someone else thought they were good ideas.
Now, when I consider any invitations for projects and other tasks, I think before I give the knee-jerk yes, and especially the yes expected of women faculty and faculty of color. You should, too. Pause and reflect. Ask yourself if responding positively will serve you well and benefit your life trajectory. Discern when to say yes and when to say no. Both can be done with heart.
Recently, I was at another university offering my self-care workshops, and the organizer asked me if I would be interested in collaborating with her on an encyclopedia on family violence. When I returned home a few days later, I sent her an email thanking her for the offer and letting her know that, in the spirit of being consistent with what I had shared in the workshop, I had to decline. The truth is, while I would love to collaborate with my colleague and friend, I have never understood who reads encyclopedias and knew that was not the best use of my creative energy. If I had agreed, I would have wound up resenting the project as just one more thing. In moments like that, I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s comment “Dwell as near as possible to the channel in which your life flows.”
We can say no in ways that still show an ethic of care for others. Last year, a small group of faculty members got together to try to start a mentoring initiative, something I applaud and deeply support. They sent an email to assess interest and to invite everyone to an initial meeting of mentors and mentees on a Sunday afternoon. I responded that I would love to serve as a mentor but was unwilling to meet on weekends. As a mentor, part of the message I would want to impart to junior faculty would be the life-sustaining quality of balance and self-care, which runs counter to having Sunday meetings.
Here are some other examples of things I think we can safely say no to:
Over-enrolling students in courses and then complain about teaching loads being too high.
Honoring numerous requests for recommendation letters. We should reserve these for students who have truly distinguished themselves and with whom we enjoy a real rapport and can support with specific examples.
Team teaching, unless the collaboration is intriguing for us and we are properly compensated.
Doing independent studies or accepting invitations to do book reviews and the like.
Volunteering to help with move-ins, pancake breakfasts and so forth.
Responding to every email with an elaborate response. We can just keep things to a few lines and not get entangled in every conversation.
If you are untenured, you would be well served to consult with senior faculty mentors as to what you can say no to and what you should try to say yes to.
Remember that it’s probably the students who need to do more work, not you. When I first started teaching, I spent what I realize now was a ridiculous amount of time prepping lectures, commenting on papers, planning classroom activities and providing individual students limitless office hours. I forgive myself now, for it was the journey I had to go through to gain confidence as a teacher. Now I am able to see what my mother, a former educator, was trying to tell me many years ago: students are better served when I pull back a bit to allow them to do more of the heavy lifting.
When students ask if they can email me their papers to read for feedback before they submit them, I tell them no, that it would not be fair to the whole class and they should use office hours to discuss assignments. And when they email with questions that I’ve addressed in the syllabus, I simply refer them back to that document. The students will benefit from learning how to find answers on their own and to rely on themselves.
How you nourish yourself reveals a lot. As an undergraduate student working on my senior thesis, I remember meeting with my adviser and watching as she ate sleeves of saltines between meetings and classes. I look back on that now and realize it was a signal for me of what to expect in this career and how unhealthy it can become.
When I was commuting between colleges as an adjunct, attending graduate school and counseling violent abusers, I drove around with bags of nonperishable food like pretzels, granola bars and animal crackers. Last year, when I facilitated a self-care workshop, a director of a program admitted that she used to buy Pop-Tarts and Coke out of the vending machine for lunch. But then she began to realize that this was no way to feed herself, that her time is not limitless and that we need to consider how to consciously limit how much we give to the institutions in which we work. We need time to eat nutritious foods, exercise, play, rest, reflect, stretch and grow in our lives off the campus.
Take a 10-minute sabbatical every day. Reflect on what truly sustains you. Honor the power of sacred solitude and silence. Constantly being tethered to devices can be draining. Get into nature, connect to the world beyond yourself and your work, and relish in wonder and hope. We all need to do that more. It is a way to be kinder to ourselves.
When you begin to engage in these strategies, your professional and personal life will be enriched, and you will experience greater spaciousness and breathing room, and another bonus is that your colleagues may express interest in trying out such practices. The students will ultimately benefit as well. With an ever-increasing number of students presenting a range of mental health challenges, the boundaries we set and the self-care we engage in can serve as living models for them and create the possibility for us to better hold space for them. Our efforts can create ripples that can shift and transform the pace and spirit of the campus culture.
Note: an earlier version of this article appeared in Inside Higher Ed on January 17, 2019.