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If you work at a college or university, you’ve probably read some of the many news articles about how the Great Faculty Resignation is underway and faculty members are reporting greater rates and intensity of burnout. Recent surveys indicate that half of university staff are considering leaving their jobs, and some institutions are already having trouble filling positions. For those of us who intend to stay in higher education, all this change and discontent makes it hard to feel optimistic about our career choice.

But have we perhaps discovered a solution to burnout that doesn’t involve resigning? TikTok user @zkchillin’s recent video about “quiet quitting” sparked significant conversation on social media and NPR. Quiet quitting essentially means staying in your job but treating it like … a job. The TikTok user defines it as, “you’re not outright quitting your job, but you’re quitting the idea of going above and beyond. You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life—the reality is, it’s not.”

“Going above and beyond,” however, seems to be just what’s required to do well and advance in academe. When I think of my faculty colleagues who have achieved success, I think of the people who regularly go above and beyond with their research, their teaching and their service. In fact, I sometimes wonder if they have more than 24 hours in their day, because how else would they get so much more done than I do?

And while some people may argue that academe does not have a hustle culture, it can certainly feel that way to nontenured faculty members. My own experience suggests that it’s the extra work that helps to secure my position, beyond what I am obligated by my contract to do.

In fact, many of us faculty members, both tenured and nontenured, are trying to figure out how to fit all our work into a container of some sort, because it has become a spreading blob throughout our lives. We’ve lost the ability to draw a line between being at work and at home, even if we aren’t working remotely. We worry about our students and our colleagues, justifying answering emails at all hours just in case our efficient answer makes someone else’s life easier. We have said yes so much that saying no feels scary—as if saying no somehow may mean we aren’t seen as valuable (a big worry for nontenured faculty and maybe for other people, as well).

Quiet quitting would most certainly impact the students we teach. We could recycle last year’s syllabi and PowerPoints and call our teaching prep done. We could answer emails during business hours only and stick to meeting with students only during our published office hours. We could advise only the students we’ve been assigned and point other students toward other faculty members or advising offices. We could use test banks to create multiple-choice exams and develop simple rubrics to more easily grade writing assignments. And so on.

But quiet quitting sounds awful for the students, and not much fun for faculty, either. There has to be a better solution for burnout, one that doesn’t involve leaving academe or staying yet simply slogging through each day with little to no enthusiasm.

For all of us who are returning to the classroom now, let’s reclaim the excitement that comes with the first weeks of class. Building a sense of community with our students as we present our syllabus can remind us why we got into this work in the first place. We can, for instance, use a gallery walk exercise to give students a chance to get out of their seats and interact with their peers. Or we can crowdsource a playlist so we and our students can hear each other’s current favorite songs. I’m brushing off my own contemplative methods for teaching, shelved during the pandemic but sorely needed now to help students truly arrive to class and take in the material.

Recommitting to our students shouldn’t translate to more work for us. That said, I am terrible at not going overboard when preparing to teach a class. To ensure that I am not setting myself up for more burnout, I am now using a time clock app to monitor the time I devote to my work and to remind myself to clock out for family time. Silly, maybe, but it reminds me to be more present, so I’m sticking with it.

And I urge my nontenured colleagues, let’s creatively collaborate on ways to re-establish our own sense of value in our institutions while saying yes only to invitations that nourish us instead of sucking up more of our energy. There is a thin, invisible line here between engaging fully in academic service and overextending ourselves. Getting clear about your values (beyond keeping your job!) allows you to use those values when invited to participate in another committee, research project or the like.

For example, my key values are belonging and collaboration. I am now actively looking for ways to join efforts to create a sense of belonging for all students on my campus. Sure, I still need to say yes to regular committee assignments, but I am now much better prepared to say no to invitations that don’t speak to those core values.

Perhaps we can also gently nudge our tenured colleagues to recognize that contingent faculty cannot stop hustling for fear of losing our precarious positions and ask for the support of those colleagues as we assert our value. This means that we may need to show up for faculty socials again and look for ways to rebuild our relationships with each other. The pandemic reminded us that we are all human, with cats and kids and partners at home. Finding tenured allies who will support our ability to say no and will advocate for us has always been crucial. Maybe now that we have been through the challenges of teaching through the pandemic together, we can see each other’s value more clearly and asking for support will be easier.

As faculty members, we share the experience of training students in our field, and we inevitably build intellectual and, if we are lucky, emotional ties with each other. Quiet quitting involves dissolving those ties and just showing up to do what we are obligated by our institution to do. For me, that is the worst potential outcome—that by distancing ourselves from our jobs, we end up distancing ourselves from the colleagues and students who make these jobs so worthwhile in the first place.

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