Making Time for Radical Rest

Written by
Lee Skallerup Bessette

Jun 1, 2021

Jun 1, 2021 • by Lee Skallerup Bessette

Summer is almost upon us, a time where we in higher education usually shift gears; faculty shift their attention to their research while staff take advantage of fewer students on campus to start planning and getting organized for the academic year ahead.

Although we are still working, it is at a somewhat slower pace because we get to set our own rhythm rather than the deadlines of the academic calendar setting them for us. Typically, summer is a time for us to find some time and space to rest.

Since last March, however, when the pandemic hit, we have not had much time or space for rest, but especially last summer, when we were frantically trying to plan for a fall semester during a pandemic. We, in all of higher education, have been going non-stop for almost a full 18 months. This summer, armed with our vaccines, we will, hopefully, find time to rest and replenish ourselves.

But will we actually find a way to really rest?

Pressure to be Productive In a recent piece, “Everyone is tired. We need to give ourselves a break,” Washington Post columnist Christine Emba writes:

The United States has never had a great understanding of leisure, let alone actual rest. From our Protestant work ethic to our bootstraps mythology, we have enshrined work as the highest good — quietude is, if not a sin, an indulgence we do not quite deserve. Our capitalist system privileges and rewards constant growth; we tend to feel worthless if we're not being “productive” or optimizing ourselves in some way.

This pressure to be productive is exacerbated in higher education. There are expectations on faculty to secure research dollars, publish, attain tenure, improve their teaching and so many others. Adjuncts, due to financial precarity, often can't afford to take summers “off” and are still on the never-ending teaching treadmill.

Staff—with pandemic hiring freezes, reduced state funding, and loss of tuition-paying students—are feeling the twin pressures of working to justify their existence while also doing the work of two or three times the number of staff. We are all dealing with a form of survivor's guilt. We are fortunate to even still have jobs in higher education at all, and thus, cannot indulge in the luxury of rest.

The Grind

The temptation here is for me to write a column about how to find space to rest and replenish this summer and to resist the pressure to maintain your current levels of productivity. But once summer is over and we have rested, the grind will begin once again. The culture of scarcity and hyperproductivity will still remain on our campuses. We have been doing “more with less” since even before the 2008 economic downturn, and our current path is unsustainable.

So even if we all collectively decide to take summer 2021 “off” to recover, the modern condition of higher education will be there waiting for us, ready to wring every ounce of work out of us during the 2021-2022 academic year.

Higher education needs to change, and unless it does, we will find ourselves once again running on fumes next April, desperately counting the days until the summer and wondering how we once again ended up in the same place.

Individual efforts to maintain work-life balance and set boundaries at work or institutional wellness efforts focused on individuals by offering free yoga or access to meditation apps don't solve the underlying, systemic issues we are experiencing in higher education. Our exhaustion is part of what keeps the system running the way it does; we're too tired, too stressed, afraid and overworked to do anything meaningful to change anything.

So, what do we do?

Re-Examining Expectations

First, well, rest, but in the way that Audre Lorde intended us to: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Take time to reflect on why you are resting and who you are resting for. And when you have the energy again, decide where you are going to expend that energy.

Second, collaboratively examine and discuss the expectations of work within your own unit and department, especially if you are tenured or in a leadership position. Those without the protection of tenure or seniority should not be expected to initiate these conversations. If you are in a less secure position, find a more senior colleague whom you trust who could initiate the conversation on your behalf during a team or department meeting. We need to name and confront the culture of overwork in our own immediate work environment.

Third, take the issue to governing bodies at your institution. If you are already on one of these governing bodies, whenever you are asked to discuss a new policy, plan, or initiative, ask questions around work and resources, bringing the issue to the forefront, even if you won't be directly impacted. We need to start seeing ourselves in higher education as a part of the same system, rather than individuals fighting over scraps (although it is understandable that we do in fact feel that way—it's how the system works!).

Finally, embrace the slogan that originated from the New Faculty Majority almost a decade ago: Our working conditions are student learning conditions. And not just faculty working conditions, all staff in higher education. We all have an important role in student success, and we are all burning, if not already burned, out.

If we all have the shared goal of improving student learning conditions, then we can all work towards changing our work conditions for the better.

So, by all means, rest this summer. Unplug, digital detox, sleep, make, create, connect, laugh, eat, hike, go to the beach, bike, swim, whatever. Most importantly, work to let go of the pressure to be productive and bring your full self back to campus in the fall. And be ready to improve the working conditions for everyone.