Sunday, March 13, 2016
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.