Hopeless in Academe

Listening to many of my clients and friends in the academic world, I find myself wondering about the nature of the beast.  What is it about higher education that makes these institutions so incredibly difficult to work in?

I’m sure there is no one answer that will speak to it all. Rather, there must be many interlaced reasons, a discussion of which would fill volumes and entire websites with competing theories. Perhaps a simple list would serve… and I’m only going to list a few to make the point before I move on:

  • A highly competitive culture (some might say “cutthroat”)
  • Multiple competing expectations on faculty energy
  • Overarching fiscal pressures
  • Vagaries in granting tenure (i.e., factors independent of demonstrated capability)
  • Changes in student expectations and demands
  • Oh, that’s enough.

What I’ve observed is that there are identifiable faculty responses to these factors.  Taken in roughly the same order as the previous list, these might include:

  • Secretiveness, isolation, not revealing the truth about one's situation (“I'm just fine, thank you.” )
  • Cynicism, and a belief in the continuing and inevitable decline in this, the last bastion of ideas and critical thinking
  • Stress, hopelessness, pessimism, working to exhaustion
  • Diminished sense of purpose, excitement, and possibility in doing work.
  • Anger, loss of desire to go the extra mile to create interesting curricula or make needed revisions to coursework.

Not a pretty picture.  What to do?

From a coach’s perspective, the work that needs to be done starts with the individual. While there are many systemic changes that could be the focus of one’s attention (or rile), little positive change can be expected without starting at the locus of dissatisfaction, which resides in the affected individual.

Perhaps you are one of these people. Perhaps you know folks who are.  I ask you… 

What drew you to do this work?  Is there an ember of passion still glowing that can fanned into a blazing fire?  What did you love about your profession (teaching / research / leadership / your field)?  What do you still love about it?

If you step over the hopelessness, what dreams are yet to be fulfilled?  What possibilities can you see that would bring excitement to your day-to-day work life?

After the spark is discovered, my job is to fan the flames, to help you move forward until the inevitability of success is burning bright.

Then, of course, you can choose to change the system of not.

Alternatively, maybe it's just time to change careers. 

Resources: Check out The Center for Courage and Renewal for interesting articles about igniting that fire and also about a "movement approach" to educational reform. Click on "Related Articles."

I am always open to a conversation. Contribute a comment.  Or, if you would like to talk with me, just send me an email and we can set up a time.

-Steve Reiter
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