Semester Rhythms and Recurring Burnout

What you may be feeling could very well be more than simply end-of-the-year exhaustion, advises Beth Godbee.

April 25, 2019
 
 
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It’s April, the time of end-of-the-year exhaustion when daily demands have worn down students, faculty and staff members alike, leaving everyone overextended and on edge. Tensions erupt: students leave conferences crying, faculty meetings devolve into fighting and tense hallway interactions echo the strain of multiplying emails. There’s far too much scheduled, with end-of-year exams, celebrations, defenses, graduations and more.

This April should be different for me. I’ve stepped outside higher ed, so I don’t have institutional responsibilities. No meetings to attend or grades to submit or reviews to complete. Still, my body remembers the sheer exhaustion of spring.

It’s been almost a year since I left a faculty position, and throughout this year I’ve noticed how deeply my work patterns, daily habits and even sense of the seasons have been shaped by life in higher ed. I’ve learned to associate seasons with semester rhythms, and those rhythms have contributed to my experience of burnout.

What Are Semester Rhythms?

Having spent my life in educational institutions, I experience the passing of time through academic calendars. Summer doesn’t start on June 21, but in late May, aligned with graduation. Similarly, summer is cut short when the month of August involves course prep, meetings, more meetings and the start of a new school year. October and March mean midterms. The winter break is reset for a new semester more than a new year. And by early April, I’m again experiencing the exhaustion of the full academic year.

Many, and perhaps even most, of us in higher education have internalized similar rhythms: if not according to semester calendars, then for quarters. Certainly, those rhythms vary across institutions and academic roles, but the broad patterns are so widely shared that each spring my social media is full of the signs of exhaustion -- from stories of illness and overwork to motivational posts, encouraging others to push through those final stacks of papers.

Why Do These Rhythms Matter?

In contrast to daily rhythms, which can be adjusted in small increments each day, these semester rhythms can be much harder to change, as they’re connected to larger social and material conditions. Other people -- including students, colleagues and managers -- expect us to show up at particular times of year, and those expectations typically run counter to maintaining an even-keeled schedule or balanced workload over time.

Moreover, semester rhythms can be difficult to anticipate. In the past weeks, I’ve talked with several academic friends who’ve wondered aloud, “Why am I so tired?” Our conversations have revolved around end-of-the-year demands, disappointments and due dates, so I’ve countered, “It’s amazing that you aren’t more tired!” We’ve talked about how the exhaustion shows up again -- each spring -- but it surprises us anew each year. It’s like forgetting winter (the layers of clothes, the bone-chilling cold and the dry and cracking skin) when in summer.

Even when we remember and anticipate end-of-the-year exhaustion and other semester rhythms, is it possible to navigate them with ease? I’m not sure, because at least some of those rhythms -- like the intensity and exhaustion of spring -- run counter to the season’s energy of emergence: warmer and longer days, budding trees, colorful flowers and direct sunlight. How does one put in extra work at the same time as experiencing the restlessness and excitement of “spring fever”?

How Do These Rhythms Relate to Burnout?

I knew I was experiencing burnout when making the decision to leave academe, but I thought that recognition had brought healing. I’d been making time to grieve and saying no to more and more things. In fact, my last spring as a faculty member was arguably the most easeful, as I was rotating off committees instead of taking on new responsibilities. I was surprised, therefore, when burnout seemed to hit harder after leaving my faculty position. By August, when friends and colleagues were gearing up to start the new year -- sharing stories and social media posts expressing equal parts excitement and anxiety -- I realized how much more I needed to rest. My body’s awareness of the academic year starting (and semester rhythms kicking back into gear) sent me into full-on reset mode.

For several months, I spent hours each day coloring, crocheting and curled up on the couch. Certainly, I was doing important journaling, identify shifting and visioning to start a small business. But I saw myself in the midst of chrysalis, or the gruesome transformation caterpillars undergo to become butterflies.

I needed time for a transformative and therapeutic process, and I was beyond grateful for material conditions that made it possible for me essentially to take several months “off work” and “in retirement” before launching a new website and building new courses. I also needed that time to do self-work and sit with anger that these same material conditions are denied for many people, particularly people structurally oppressed and “conditionally accepted” (in and out of higher education).

During those months, I invested in “parenting myself 101” -- allowing myself to sleep as much as I wanted. But by December, I noticed that whether or not I was ready, my body was back in motion. Since my days as an undergraduate, I’d experienced December as an especially intense work month, and this year was no different. It was as though my body remembered that finals were upon us, and I had to finalize something before I could rest again.

That kick start from internalized semester rhythms felt supportive -- like the best of what these rhythms have to offer -- probably because I kept prioritizing self-parenting while working long hours.

Only a few months later, now in April, I’m remembering the downside of these rhythms. When stress and strain continue over time, and when self-parenting is near impossible, it’s no wonder that exhaustion sets in, making us question, “Where do I put my energy?” It’s no wonder that burnout is a common topic across the pages of Inside Higher Ed. And it’s no wonder that many us essentially crawl into summer, needing extended recovery time before fitting everything -- research, reflection and recreation -- into a few short months.

How Do We Work With Semester Rhythms and Recurring Burnout?

There are no easy ways to interrupt or revise semester rhythms, which have deep historical, cultural and socioeconomic roots. Still, I see value in recognizing and naming the problem, because when something is named, it can also be inquired into, organized around and no longer ignored.

Both personally and collectively, we need different ways to work in higher ed that don’t create recurring seasonal burnout.

Now that I’ve left my faculty position, I’m working to rebuild trust in myself -- trust that I’ll recognize what my body needs and act on those needs. I’ll rest when needed, play when needed and work when needed. I’ll recognize internalized semester rhythms but also question and counter them.

Trust feels important to countering burnout, as adrienne maree brown writes in Emergent Strategy that we can only “move with the speed of trust.” With this guidance in mind, I ask:

  • How do we more consistently show up for ourselves, our responsibilities and our commitments -- not simply in bursts or to the point of exhaustion?
  • How do we change departmental and institutional cultures that stack so much up -- one thing on top of another -- at the end of the year?
  • How do we better recognize when semester rhythms are dehumanizing -- treating us as machines rather than fully embodied humans?
  • How do we shift discourses away from imagined “work-life balance” and purely personal responsibilities to make change toward the need for collective, widespread and structural change?

Bio

Having recently earned tenure, Beth Godbee announced the decision to leave academe to pursue public writing and community education -- saying no in a way she hopes will lead to more yeses. You can find her online at Heart-Head-Hands.com -- a blog about feeling, thinking and doing (everyday living) for justice -- where she also offers e-courses, including Career Discernment for Academics: Aligning Career With Commitments.

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