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Academic life

Institutional problems/individual sacrifices

Raise your hand if any of the following statements sound familiar:

  • “I can’t take a course release because there won’t be anyone to teach that topic.”
  • “We have to raise the enrolment cap on classes otherwise students who need the credits won’t get in.”
  • “I can’t take a break over the summer because there’s no one else to deal with these important tasks.”
  • “I have to be available to students on the weekends because there aren’t any other campus services open.”

A lot of people reach out to coaches because they’re feeling burnt out and know they’re being exploited and overworked. And yet, statements like those above are common responses to any solutions we (the client and I) come up with. I’ve come to call this “trying to solve institutional problems through individual sacrifice.”

In the examples above, the second half of each statement may well be true. There might not be anyone to teach a particular subject, students may be turned away from a full course, there may be no administrative or backup support to deal with a set of work duties, and student services may be lacking on weekends. What all of these scenarios have in common is that they are institutional failures.

In each case, the institution has failed to provide the resources, support, or services necessary to properly run academic programs or campus services. Aware of these shortfalls, individuals step in to “solve” the problem by sacrificing their time and energy, as well as other important parts of their jobs (usually research and writing).

This is an understandable response from people who care deeply about their students, colleagues, programs, and communities. The fact of this care means that many people don’t even feel they have a choice in the matter. Over time, stepping in to bridge these gaps becomes normalized and even expected.

More with less

You don’t need to be a labour expert to know who wins in this scenario: the institution, every time. Even the folks who benefit in the short term (students, for example) are let down in the long term because the institution will keep clawing back resources every time someone races to fix the problem with their own sacrifice.

Having laid out this dilemma, I’m aware that there’s no easy fix. People make these sacrifices for good reasons: protecting a junior colleague, supporting students’ mental health, etc. However, it’s important to recognize that it’s impossible to address systemic problems with individual actions. Moreover, bailing out the institution is likely to make things worse over the long term, as the system adjusts to people doing more with less.

The best solution lies in collective strength. Those of us lucky enough to have unions can often rely on their support and the potential for labour action if conditions worsen. Without a formal union, rallying the department or other colleagues to say a collective no to overwork is critical.

In the meantime, perhaps you can use the realization that individual sacrifice is largely futile, and in fact, just what the institution wants, to shore up your own boundaries and let go of some guilt around saying no. The institution won’t act until it actually feels some pain. Protecting it through our own sacrifices will not solve the institutional problems we face.