Is burnout a big force, like depression or exhaustion? Or is it an “incremental perturbation,” as John Barth calls drama, the accumulation of minor irritations and petty indignities until one day the thermostat clicks and the furnace of grievance fires up?
Maybe burnout is something more mysterious and ineffable. Maybe jobs have hidden life-cycles based on natural laws, and human animals can sense their impending deaths, even when our conscious minds insist everything’s great: “Dave’s got a birthday, and we’re all going out to that Mexican place!” “Ooh! Margaritas!”
I haven’t felt burned-out here, in part because I’m terrified of the public performance that is teaching. More than three people in one place is a mob, as far as I’m concerned (which explains our living-room weekends in deepest winter), and I like the challenge of getting us learning together instead of running down the street with torches and pitchforks.
Still, I note my changing moods. If you teach mostly beginning and intermediate undergraduate classes, you begin to believe that all students will be perpetual sophomores. Donald Hall, asked why he gave up teaching at the University of Michigan and moved away with Jane Kenyon to “live on their wits,” said he was tired of “reading the writing of babies.” Ouch.
It had been a damp, drizzly semester in my soul. The young men were in love with violence. (One said in class that he was getting aroused just thinking about actress Jennifer Garner punching him in the face.) A young woman lectured us that no one had ever given birth alone; she knew this because her mom was an OB/Gyn. My impressions of students had begun their slide, even as I rationalized that they had their own competencies, were athletes and future chemical engineers and captains of finance.
Then, attitude adjustment. There were half-a-dozen TAs, instructors and lecturers in my group office, and maybe 15 students. I had just finished conferencing with a student when I heard the disorganized noises that indicate some violence, and a girl screamed, “Oh my god!”
As I jumped off my chair and rounded a tall bookcase, I expected to see two guys scuffling on the floor. Instead a young woman was thrown backward in grand mal seizure on an empty desk. Her fellow students quickly lifted her feet off the floor and lay her flat on it, then formed a wall so she couldn’t fall off. Even as I called 911 on my cell, another student a few feet away was speaking calmly to a dispatcher, and the police told me to hang up.
The girl was rigid, silent, and perfectly white. She thrashed and thrashed, fighting the thing that had her, and tears ran into her hair. Then she turned blue, and blood trickled down her chin. It was like looking at death, but the students didn’t back away. Two spoke loudly but reassuringly to her as others held her on the desk, and one young man—classmate, not boyfriend—stroked her hair. I asked them to turn her on her side, and she gasped loudly for breath. Someone shouted, “She’s back!”
Her face turned cherry-red then from the buildup of carbon dioxide, and when her eyes opened we saw all their capillaries had blown. From a distance of more than a couple of feet, her eyes were totally pink. She struggled to speak and rise but made no sense. I found myself saying, “Stay down, sweetheart,” not even knowing where that came from; a second later I realized I’d been speaking as if to one of my little boys and had to walk away. The paramedics were there by then, and in half an hour she was able to walk out with them. Her peers stayed with her the entire time.
How did students know to react so competently, fearlessly, and humanely? From watching TV medical melodramas? If so, god bless ER. More likely, I think, my impressions of them had grown too narrow. They’re often silly, vain, self-centered, and ignorant, which is to say they’re people. But that group, that day, was a mob I could accomplish things with.