One of the gifts of this weird academic career that I’ve carved out for myself is the opportunity to have lots of conversations with folks across higher ed.
Overwhelmingly, the most consistent thing I hear from a diverse array of faculty and staff colleagues across the postsecondary ecosystem is the universality of negative bandwidth.
Negative bandwidth is a cousin of burnout, but not its twin.
For a while this summer, higher ed people couldn’t stop talking about (tweeting about) Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article "Burnout: Modern Affliction or Human Condition?" Lepore, a history professor at Harvard, clearly seems to be anything but burned out. The author of 11 works of nonfiction and numerous academic articles and popular essays, my guess is that Lepore is operating under conditions of negative bandwidth more than burnout.
What is negative bandwidth?
Bandwidth may be the dominant metaphor in our digitally networked age. In a world in which we rely almost totally on the internet for our productivity, more bandwidth is always preferable than less. Universities invest millions in on-campus wired and wireless networks, while the rest of us dream about fiber to the home.
The idea of personal bandwidth encompasses the twin variables of time and attention. To go into the negative bandwidth territory is to say that all our time and attention is now fully allocated. Anything new requires sacrifices in areas we previously reserved for nonwork time and attention. In a zero-sum game of hours in the week and psychic energy in the tank, work productivity comes at the expense of family happiness and physical health.
Why might academics -- faculty and staff -- now be suffering so acutely from the condition of negative bandwidth?
- The Pandemic. Everyone in higher ed is exhausted. The past 18 months feel to many of us like one long Zoom meeting. Even the most die-hard online learning champions can’t wait to get back a more balanced diet of face-to-face and virtual. A large part of our negative bandwidth is a hangover from the stress of keeping higher ed going during the pandemic. Everyone needs a break to recharge.
- Internal Motivation. The reason that negative bandwidth is not like burnout is that the former can arise from high levels of internal motivation. We tend to think of internal motivation as only a good thing -- and mostly it is. However, the reality is that high levels of internal motivation for our academic work can still result in the experience of negative bandwidth. We take on so much because the work is important, impactful and intrinsically interesting. Academics mostly love what they do, and in moments of weakness, they say yes to too many things.
- Endemic Understaffing. One of the big worries of the last few years -- both inside and outside academia -- is that robots are poised to take all the jobs. I say, bring the robots on! Higher education, like most industries, is suffering from endemic levels of understaffing. There are not enough people to do all the work. Every school, department, center, institute or unit I know operates under the thinnest of staffing margins. Colleges and universities have become lean because people are expensive and money is tight. People account for the vast majority of higher ed budgets. When revenues decline (due to public disinvestment and the need to engage in tuition discounting), schools are reluctant to hire.
- Technology. My childhood memories of my dad’s academic career date back to the years before email and the internet. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I watched my dad disconnect from research and teaching responsibilities. When he was home, he was home. Nowadays, we are always at work. The line separating our campus and home offices has been demolished by laptops, smartphones, email and Google Docs. During the pandemic, we literally never left work.
- Competition. If I could pick one aspect of higher ed that is little understood outside academia, it would be how competitive our world has become. There is intense competition for an ever-diminishing number of tenure-track roles. Getting tenure is hugely competitive. The fact that too many schools are chasing too few students with the ability to pay full tuition has increased competition between schools. This competition results in new programs (primarily online) and new efforts in marketing and communications. Staff -- working under conditions of endemic understaffing -- work harder due to this competition between institutions.
Is there a cure for the academic condition of negative bandwidth?