Sunday, March 13, 2016

WPA Burnout

I was extremely interested in the Irene Ward essay about burnout and some of the things that she says make WPAs especially susceptible to this pitfall. She says, “What is important to note is that burnout is ‘a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal  stressors on the job’” (Maslach qtd. in Ward 51). The fact that WPAs have to deal so often with people — varying groups of constituents with different, often conflicting, demands — is an important aspect of burnout. She then goes on to discuss circumstances that are likely to lead to burnout as they relate to job responsibilities and conflicts, the organizational structure of the larger institution, and personal characteristics.
As I read through this essay and some of the other readings for this week, the concepts of conflict and work overload came up repeatedly and struck me as being very relevant to the composition field in general. I’ve had my own experiences with burnout, typically at the end of each school year when I’m tired of the repetitious, time-consuming cycle of receiving rough drafts, giving comments, conferencing with students, and then grading final drafts. I put a lot of effort into this process, and in some instances, there are students who put very little effort into it. There are lots of possible reasons for this, but I think many of them believe that the course expectations are either meaningless or too burdensome. I get worn out by students who ask questions about things I had just answered a few minutes before, and I begin to wonder if anyone is really listening -- or learning. Even worse, I’ve noticed that I sometimes have a very negative, cynical view of students who are absent and/or requesting extensions for assignment deadlines.
All of this seems to fall under Ward’s definition of burnout, which is actually kind of a relief. In those moments when I feel anxious, overwhelmed, or cynical, it doesn’t automatically mean that I’m an unqualified professor or a bad person. There are circumstances inherent in teaching composition to a large number of freshmen students that will naturally lead to occasional burnout, and after completing the reading for this week, it’s clear to me that this tendency is much more likely for WPAs, who attempt to meet the needs of lots of different people, often without adequate resources or administrative support. Their job is often undervalued and misunderstood by other faculty and administrators, and yet they are sometimes seen as “the bad guy” to the composition faculty and students they serve. This must be incredibly stressful and isolating, and because they are the director of the program, there aren’t many people to whom they can vent their problems or frustrations. Additionally, some of the other readings for this week mentioned how WPAs have to continually fight for budgeting and resources, inserting themselves into some sort of power struggle in the institution’s hierarchy. (See the military metaphors made repeatedly in White’s “Use it or Lose It: Power and the WPA.”)
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I connected many of the readings for this week back to this concept of burnout, and because it’s something that most WPAs and composition faculty probably experience at some point in their careers, I think it’s worth a lot more exploration. Specifically, I keep wondering if women in these roles are even more prone to burnout than men -- maybe because they have to work harder to gain power, and when they assert themselves, people are more likely to view them negatively. Women also still tend to take on larger domestic roles, and so it seems to me (in contradiction to what Ward says about family life) that a WPA who is also a mother would have even greater demands on her time, energy, and limited finances. These are aspects of situatedness that I’ve been pondering, and I think these types of stories are worth exploring and sharing to create even greater awareness of the challenges of the WPA.


  1. Yeah, Cara, Ward's researched claim that "young, single, and childless" people were more likely to experience job burnout (57) was surprising to me initially, too. I think to myself on occasion, when I feel super busy and stressed, that I don't know how people with families/young children are able to find the time to do this kind of work. So, in some ways, I feel situationally well-suited to a demanding job.

    Then again, I'm coming back from a really nice spring break right now, trying to catch up on a lot of work I've been putting off, and feeling the burn(out). I've been missing my family who aren't in Indiana, wondering when or if I'll ever start one of my own, and feeling generally unfulfilled in some personal areas of my life. I think it's negatively affecting how I'm viewing my work and career choices at this moment. Part of me wants to say my feelings of burnout are indulgent and I need to just push through them. Part of me acknowledges that they're real and shouldn't/can't be ignored.

    Sorry to get emotional here. I do so to share a piece of my own story in progress, as I think you rightfully call for more of in your post. Ward's suggested strategies for preventing or dealing with burnout as a WPA might be helpful to me at some point, if not now.

  2. Cara--I think your question about gender (if women are more prone to burn out) is an important question. I don't have anything smart to say about it, but I see that as an issue not only in WPA but in teaching Comp to FYC in general.

    How can we provide more support for WPAs? Is the answer internal dialogue amongst WPAs? Is sharing this stress with one another, and finding ways to cope, the answer OR is this a case of the WPA being unfairly overworked, and the answer lies in righting this wrong?

    Clearly, the WPA is overworked. But how can we right this wrong? I think that Ward's point that the "young, single, and childless" individuals are more likely to get burnt out points to the issue of dedication.

    WPA work is exhausting, and stressful, and, most importantly, never ending. Thus, it makes sense to me that those who have less external responsibilities experience burn out more often, because they likely put a lot more of their whole self into the job, rather than seeing clear cut lines between work and home. When one has no real responsibility at home, s/he is more likely to throw their whole selves into their WPA roles. I can see how the heavy workload, in combination with a lack of seeing real change take affect/realizing one's limited agency, could create burnout in those who have thrown their whole selves into their work.

    My one concern here is that I have created a binary in which those who are older, in relationships, and/or having children are not able to throw their whole selves into their work. I don't mean to do that--I just mean to say that having a life outside of academia can help individuals put their work into perspective. Importantly, the "young, single, and childless" are less able to see that perspective. Or at least, I'd imagine.

    1. To bring this back to my original question, I think that putting this work into a larger perspective can help WPAs who are suffering from this issue of burnout.