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Higher education is a culture laden with deeply rooted values—knowledge, lifelong learning, discovery, social and technological contribution, and excellence. But it can also be a culture of overwork, competition, toxic productivity and exploitation, especially in the case of contingent labor.

Values matter, even though we might not think about them consciously very much. For me before burnout, I had fully bought into the less attractive higher ed values—the competition, productivity, expectation escalation—and they ran my life, not just my work. The work I did to come out of burnout helped me realign my priorities and begin to rebuild my life and work around the values of purpose, compassion, connection and balance.

I regularly talk about values with my guests on my podcast, the agile academic. Something about the act of voicing your values brings a sense of clarity to whether or not your actions and goals align with those values—or if those are even the values you want to aspire to. Katie Linder told me that her work as a values coach helps people not only define their values but also associate different intentions and practices to live those values.

Here’s what two of my most recent guests had to say about finding their values and aligning with their life and work with them:

Cate Denial: Kindness is really important to me, compassion in all its forms. Compassion is important to me for so many reasons; it’s important because it gave me a path through some really difficult years of my life, learning how to be kind to myself and give myself space and grace and forgiveness. It then became something that I realized my classroom was lacking. Not surprisingly, right? If I couldn’t be kind to myself, then my awareness of being kind to other people was also limited. I don’t think I was deliberately unkind to anybody, but I didn’t prioritize it. But now kindness is my default position. And I don’t mean by that, that somehow I’ve reached some kind of weird enlightenment. I mean that, it’s a discipline for me that I always ask myself, what is the kind thing to do here? What is the kind thing to do here before I send an email or make a decision or think about how expensive a book is that I want to assign or going to a meeting with my colleagues?

I often start by defining what kind is not, and it is not niceness. Those two things often get conflated, especially in the Midwest, but kindness is not niceness. Niceness has no problem with lying. Kindness is honest. Niceness will paper over cracks in our social relationships. It will paper over issues in our institutions like precarity or “rigor” and tradition that often are cover for very other kinds of concerns. So kindness is for me about justice. And it’s about belief.

Lindsay Masland: (speaking about articulating her values) I found the hardest part of the self-reflective process of figuring out, what am I doing? What is this for? was being able to distill them into those like single words that you can find on like a values list or something like that. And in fact, it wasn’t until I asked other people in my life like my husband or friends, what are my values? I had things that I was hoping were my values, but I needed somebody to tell me that that was true. I’m actually kind of getting a little emotional about it because it’s so powerful to have somebody you love tell you that you’re doing what you want to do. So I’d say based on what people have said, that made me feel I could claim for myself, the first one’s probably related to liberation as a value and liberation from structures, beliefs, behaviors that do not serve you. And so you can go any direction with that.

(Talking about being a values-driven rule breaker in higher ed) Don’t go into rule breaking just because you want to break rules. Some people might have that as a guiding value and, and maybe just the sheer joy of doing what you’re not supposed to could sustain someone, but I’m not that person because it does feel really uncomfortable to break rules when everything else in the world is telling me to follow the rules. And so I think you have to get a lot of clarity about your own values, meaning, purpose and have that be the driver. And then, sometimes you will realize, in order for me to live the fullest realization of these values, I’m going to have to break some rules. So if my focus is on liberation, sometimes I can have people do liberatory things, and it breaks no rules at all. It doesn’t matter. And so that’s what I would recommend—to get really clear on values.

What values are guiding you? Are you living according to your aspirational values? How can you better align your life and work with those values?

Rebecca Pope-Ruark is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She is the host of the agile academic podcast for women in higher ed, and her forthcoming book, Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal, will be released by the Johns Hopkins University Press in September 2022.

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