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by Annie Soisson

Tufts lawn with students sitting on grass

Have you ever been in a workshop where the facilitator asks for a volunteer to come to the front of the room for a demonstration of how increased responsibilities can take a toll over time, and disproportionately depending on your identity? It goes something like this. “Let me hand you a hard cover, 300 page book that represents the service committee work you are doing. Now let me add a dictionary to represent your advising load in your big department, now teaching, now research. Now, add the weight of being a faculty with a marginalized identity who likely advises more students, is asked to sit on more committees, and feels more pressure to perform at the highest level than many of their peers,” and so on. At Tufts, we often take pride in how lean we are, how hard we work. But I see cracks this year, fatigue, checking out, anxiety. Below I have attempted to capture what many of you might be experiencing – not to focus on the negative, but to validate that there are reasons to be tired and anxious.

The expectations of faculty, staff, and administrators in higher education, and therefore at Tufts, have changed in recent years in some significant ways. The new landscape is complex, requiring us to learn and adapt to changes as they impact our roles. Responsibilities of teaching, service and research have accrued many additional layers now that seem important to acknowledge, respond to, and manage where we can.

Perhaps the summer is a good time for each of us to reflect on our own roles, values, and the number of books / the weight we are carrying. What is urgent, what is important, what is optional? What fulfills you and what depletes you? What will you let go? What might you do to be more in community with your colleagues and students?

What has changed?

Students are different, and bring new challenges. Our students are increasingly diverse in myriad ways, requiring us to learn how to teach inclusively and equitably, and to examine how we grade, assess, and manage our classrooms. They are experiencing more chronic anxiety, trauma and mental health concerns, necessitating us to be vigilant in observing cues for when a student(s) might be struggling, and be proactive. Students are (often) less likely to do things “because we said so,” and are more likely to question our policies and practices in the classroom. They challenge us in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways, yet our openness to learn from them, to approach the work with curiosity and compassion, we will remain in the heart of what brought us to the profession – to help young humans facing a challenging world to embrace their own journey to change what needs changing.

The external world continues to change and has impacted us significantly. Social and political environments have become more tense, more divided, more stressful, often affecting friendships and family systems – we are hypervigilant much of the time. COVID radically changed our lives and required a lot of energy to respond and continue to provide a high quality education. We are still tired from that. Artificial Intelligence has emerged as a force that will create both interesting opportunities for and challenges to education, and we will need to respond and adapt. We are at a crossroads in higher education, working to stay at the forefront of all of the changes coming at us and trying to redefine ourselves in an evolving context. We may be less fatigued if we can look through the lens of opportunity, and appreciation for the positive characteristics that remain constant in our community.

The Tufts environment is changing. The student population and therefore class sizes are increasing in many schools, making teaching more complex and requiring more time. Some departments or programs have grown substantially, making the role of chairs more taxing, increasing advising loads, and making it more challenging to build relationships among and between faculty and students. We have been and are going through substantial leadership changes, and uncertainty always creates unease. With all of this growth and change, systems also change, and our assumptions about what and how we have always done things will need to shift, which can be uncomfortable and takes energy. The Tufts environment is changing, but we have the capacity to change with it where needed, or to question those changes when important.

We miss community, we miss connection, and we need both. Successfully managing remote work during COVID lured us into thinking that the convenience and time saved by not commuting every day outweighs the resulting disconnection from one another. What used to be resolved or communicated in small ways before or after a meeting now can require an appointment or multiple emails, jamming up our already full inboxes. More email communication can also leave a lot more opportunities for misunderstanding or misinterpretation. In many cases, when we come to campus, we might be the only person in the department – or we might be anxious to see people for a variety of reasons, depending on our relationships. Fewer in person connections means more missed opportunities for mentorship, growth and development, and leadership, which happen more organically in person and when we see each other. We miss community, we miss connection, and we are able to restore that with intentionality.

Time is one thing that remains constant – we each only have 24 hours in a day. How can we as a university become more efficient, more intentional, and work toward future needs without continuously adding more work and support for staff and faculty wellbeing? What can we let go of as individuals and still feel proud of Tufts and our work, and how can we find the support to do that without negative impact? How can we support our colleagues with identities that make these kinds of choices more challenging, who are already highly taxed with extra work and isolation in predominantly white departments? How can we manage our time and energy so that we feel healthy and satisfied in our roles?  How will we find inspiring opportunities for growth that renew our energy while addressing new demands? How can we create more opportunities to connect, to rekindle community, and sustain our spirit? Time is the one thing that remains constant, but we can control some of that by setting boundaries, prioritizing the important over the urgent, and supporting each other.

Summer can be a time to renew. We encourage you to take a little time this summer to reflect on even one of the questions in this article, or other significant questions you are grappling with. Summer in academia can offer a time to reset, to rejuvenate, to plan. We hope you are able to find the time to position yourselves to enter the new academic year with intentionality, with balance, with ideas for changes in how you work, or disposition that will sustain you, our students, and our community. As Mary Oliver penned, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (The Summer Day, Mary Oliver)

We understand that some of our struggles may require more significant support. Should you be in need of mental health support, please remember you can get help from the Tufts EAP, 24/7.

Here’s hoping you have a restorative summer. We look forward to seeing you soon.