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Learning from the 2020-2021 Academic Year

Learning from the 2020-2021 Academic Year

Author : Christopher Blake

As I sit in my hotel room in Savannah, GA for a much needed vacation, I've had some time to reflect on this past year. Finally taking a step back from what can best be described as a whirlwind of a year has been both necessary and informative. In particular, I've been thinking a lot about my career and asking myself: is this right for me? I find myself completely burned out. As I thought about the reasons for this among the larger existential questions, I have found a sense of clarity regarding my experiences this past year and how I hope to glean positive lessons from them.

For starters, I tried to source the burnout itself. When school went virtual in March of 2020 in response to COVID-19, I freely admit that I thought Fall 2020 would resume like a "normal" semester. Experts predicted a 2-week shutdown would slow the spread sufficiently in the United States... 4-weeks tops. As weeks turned into months, with no end in sight, the excited anticipation typically associated with the start of an academic year gave way to feelings of mostly keeping my head above water. Indeed, March and April consisted primarily of work pivoting current classes from in-person to online; summer 2020 consisted of preparing to pivot an entire academic year to an online format; and Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 consisted of adapting to the new class formats on top of COVID-related protocols for in-person classes. Combined with numerous trainings during off-peak semesters, the best any teacher could hope for was to keep their head above water; most (if not all) of my colleagues surely relate.

Staying afloat in water

No wonder teachers at every level are exhausted, myself included. Losing all breaks since last March--summer, winter, and spring--to trainings has disrupted the typical ebbs and flows of teaching work. Teachers were asked to do more for their students, despite facing their own personal challenges, with no opportunity for respite. From my perspective, it felt like "pedal to the metal" for one year and two months. For those, like me, that operate "pedal to the metal" during semesters with breaks becoming necessary to maintain some semblance of sanity, the demands of the past year would inevitably lead to burnout.

"Great, no wonder I felt this way" I thought. The question then became what to do about it. A quick search for open source images around the theme of burnout yielded a Venn diagram that really got me thinking. Contextualizing burnout in terms of exhaustion, inefficacy, and cynicism made sense to me as I have felt each of these over the past year. What struck me, though, is that the diagram implies that feeling exhausted, ineffective, and cynical lead to burnout whereas I found myself feeling burned out and this caused those feelings. Reflecting in this way has led me to see that I am not the only one that needs to learn from this past year as there are some systemic lessons as well. The remaining sections of this piece focus on those lessons with the hope that they resonate with other faculty feeling this way as we all revisit the future of the workplace.

burnout diagram


I often think back to my undergraduate or graduate experiences wherein sleeping 5 hours per night (at most) and operating at a high level was sustainable. I have leaned on this mindset far too long. Outside of the negative physical health effects, I found myself tortured by my inability to keep up with work, which drained me mentally and caused a not insignificant amount of anxiety. This past year has effectively screamed at me for thinking this work style is healthy. More importantly, though, I realized that I put too much stock in being able to do everything.

In many ways, the entire teaching profession is predicated on being able to do it all. Whether someone is on the tenure track or not, we are asked to teach, research, professionally develop, advise, mentor, and provide service at a high level. While the pandemic has demonstrated that each of us should work to better establish work-life boundaries moving forward, we should also think about what we ask of teachers to reduce the risk of exhaustion. The number of teachers I talk to that worry constantly about job security, promotion, and appropriate compensation far exceeds that of a typical profession. More experienced teachers indicate that that's just the nature of the profession. But why? Why maintain a system that causes so much worry and strife for its employees just because "that's the way it's always been?" Many industries and occupations are in the middle of rethinking what work looks like and I can't think of a better time for academic professions to do the same.


As I grew more and more exhausted this past year, I felt increasingly ineffective in my work. I simply didn't have the energy to adapt my teaching in the way I wanted to. My course content videos are a great example of this. With more limited interaction between myself and students, I decided to record short, 7-10 minute videos about course topics students found challenging. They could then refer to these videos at their convenience before asking for more help if questions remained. I ended up recording nearly 200 of these videos across all my courses, but ran out of steam near the end of each semester. After reaching that point, I felt ineffective because I hadn't met my established expectations to help students.

In another example, the changes to meet COVID protocols for in-person classes fundamentally altered my teaching style. I could no longer have students work in tight-knit groups easily, I couldn't see their faces (which were masked) to assess their understanding, and one-on-one interactions were all essentially digital. The number of changes further raised the specter of whether I was being effective at my job or not. 

Taking a step back, I think the entire academic system has had to grapple with what it means to be effective. Students continue to tell me that some of their online experiences paled in comparison to in-person courses. This begs the question: what value are we providing our students? What outcomes are we really looking for from our students? Some courses are better suited for online, while others are not. As a result, a shift to more hybrid teaching formats seems inevitable. As this transition takes place, my own experiences suggest we should be thoughtful and make sure that we are still being effective.


Finally, I know many faculty and students who grew increasingly cynical over the past year. Most often, this cynicism revolved around feeling like a cog in the system. Faculty felt that administration was not valuing their effort to transition online in a quality manner. Some institutions even reduced pay temporarily to stop the hemmoraghing of money caused by reduced on-campus enrollment. This is not to say that administrators are to blame, as I'm sure the same cynical/undervalued feelings apply, but I do not have any personal experience on that front. What I can say is that I too felt cynical at times as it's tough to feel valued when being asked to do more for less; it sent the message that the bottomline was more important. From the student side, tuition rates remained largely the same while they felt the quality of experience suffered. In much the same way as faculty, this led to a general feeling that students were less valued members of a community and more simply as a source of revenue. 

Here again, I think a larger message emerges. It's easy to provide lip service about how students, faculty, and administrators are all on the same team, that we are all part of a community. It is another to actually make people believe it. The pandemic has exposed the risk of becoming complacent in that form of community-building. Schools cannot exist without students, systems cannot run without happy and effective administrators and staff, and classes cannot be taught without teachers. Each group is surely intertwined, but all too often narratives persist that pit one group against another (I hear this often from staff with respect to faculty at Oxford College, for example). Communication will be central to altering this narrative and preventing feelings of cynicism from creeping if/when operating conditions change as they did in the pandemic.

Parting Thoughts

I'm sure many can relate to these feelings of burnout and their contributing factors. What stood out to me, though, is how many of the personal feelings I had translated to thoughts about the academic system as a whole. Now that I've had time to put the academic year in the rear view mirror, I am hopeful (and less burned out). Now is the time to learn from this academic year and find ways to adapt the system in ways that would benefit everyone. 

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