Skating perilously close to burnout

And the semester hasn’t even begun! I think it’s clear that I’m in a fragile mental state.

Here’s the deal: I’ve been building up some enthusiasm and momentum for my genetics course. The last couple of weeks, I’ve made significant progress, using the experience of the last few years to build it up more flexibly and better able to cope with the awkwardness of teaching during a pandemic, but also looking back long-term on what works and what doesn’t. The last couple of days, in particular, I was rather happily rewriting the first couple of weeks of lecture, tweaking lab exercises, building up a library of problem sets to assign, etc., and looking forward to trying new ideas in the classroom. I was streamlining all the stuff students have had no problem with in the past, and expanding bits where I’ve found conceptual roadblocks before. It was productive work.

And then, I get an email telling me that my syllabus must incorporate PSLOs and CSLOs, and I’m sent a handy-dandy link to guide me step-by-step through adding these statements, if you already know all the PSLO/CSLO jargon. These are statements used by assessors in evaluating what general skills students learn in my course, they’re important for accreditation and assessment, and some of my colleagues worked very hard on them in committees around campus. I understand why they’re important and appreciate all the work other faculty have put into formulating them.

I hate them. It’s bureaucratic noise. I know very specifically what my objectives are in genetics, but now I have to reformulate them in the broadest, most general context to satisfy administrators, in a way that isn’t going to be at all useful to my students, and package them up in boilerplate bloat to tack onto my syllabus, which is just yet more verbiage the students will find irrelevant and won’t read.

OK, though, it’s part of the job. It’s drudgery, but I’ll derail what I was doing and switch to this task today and get it done. I admit I spent a good twenty minutes yesterday tearing at my hair and cussing furiously at my computer screen, but I’m a big boy, I’ll buckle down and get it done.

This morning, I drag myself to the computer and calmly and unproductively stared at the screen for a few hours. I am unable to proceed. I get nothing done. I pulled up the university’s list of these biology PSLO/CSLO thingies and let them suck all the inspiration and enthusiasm out of my brain. I can’t even warm up to actual genetics, and there I even have a little to-do list of specifics to get done before classes start. I have all these back-up plans in case we go into lockdown, for the inevitable result of having to cope with students requiring prolonged absences, for doing labs online (the worst possible thing that could happen), but I was totally unprepared for the university to reach in and crush all the joy out of my heart with these chains of bureaucracy.

That’s partly me, I know. It’s why I say I’m so close to burnout — in a normal year, I’d just roll my eyes and get on with it. I just don’t feel like I can do it right now.

You know, this university has done as little as possible to adapt to the terrible circumstances the faculty find themselves in, I would have thought they could at least stop pestering us about our TPS reports.

I think what I need to do is just say fuck it, and go spend a few hours in the lab doing worthwhile things, like washing glassware and feeding animals and scrubbing spider poop off the floor of containers and setting up a few more bottles of flies, and then maybe go for a winter walk. Maybe by this evening my brain will manage to regenerate some of the enthusiasm that has been recently vaporized. It would probably be for the best if I just ignore all official university email for a while.


  1. inflection says

    We do that at my University too. Different name, of course, same general idea. In fact, I am “the guy” for my Department that gets to go around telling the lucky professors we’re assessing this semester. If you have any ideas on how to make the integration seamless I’d love to hear them, tangential as it might be to the rest of the blog.

    Ideally, I think, the broadly worded objectives are something your course naturally fits into in the first place as a specific instance of one or more. Ideally ideally, you’re aware of the objectives and designing your course knowing this is the general thrust the University wants out of biology courses, but most people just agree that “my course does X Y and Z from the list,” and our Administration is generally good with that.

    We don’t have to put the goals in the syllabus the students see, but we do have to gather some data and make a report. The usual route is to pick an assignment or exam question(s) that seem to reflect the goals well, and make a simple rubric for the assessment question; hopefully, they can get graded simultaneously with little extra effort.

  2. R. L. Foster says

    My advice is to do nothing for the next 72 hours. Absolutely nothing work related. When I worked for the state and had a pile of coal mining permit applications in my in-box there were times when I simply couldn’t crack the top folder open. I’d glance at who it was from and groan. Not those mofos again. I was rarely sick and had weeks worth of sick and unused personal days. When I reached burnout territory like you have I’d take two or three days off and simply not come in (mental health days we called them.) Maybe I’d go hiking in one of Ohio’s wonderful state parks. Or just stay in and watch movies and sip bourbon (sometimes more than sip.) Or I’d take my wife out on the town and splurge. When I returned from my mini-vacation I’d be ready to do battle with the Murray Energy or Peabody again.

  3. Bruce says

    After you wait a bit, when you write things such as Student Learning Outcomes or whatever any school calls them, try to keep in mind when they matter. They matter the most when one of your students is trying to transfer, or trying to get into a graduate school. The other school’s registrar office may have to download these from UMM without consulting you, and then decide, again without consulting anyone at UMM, whether or not your course has enough good stuff to let your student get credit for taking it.
    That is, a SLO is a strangely formatted and coded letter to tell an out of state registrar staffer that your course includes what their school’s course includes. If you need inspiration, find similar SLOs from other universities with good genetics etc courses. The syllabus might get forwarded to the other school’s science chair, if the SLO is ambiguous. Give them some content to justify letting your student get their credit.
    Also, what you write this week will influence what future UMM genetics faculty will write in this part for 20 years. Have fun.

  4. says

    They don’t want actual feedback; they just want compliant bullshit. They aren’t going to read what you write any more than you can read what they wrote. So just sit down and free-associate. Copy and paste word salad from a woo-woo site. Then go take a long, hot shower.

  5. Bruce Fuentes says

    When I worked at UnitedHealthcare in the early 2000’s as a business systems analyst we had to do their version of TPS reports. To do them the way they wanted would take 30-45 mins a day. It was a bullshit info they wanted, that we knew no one actually looked at. The guy I shared a cube with and I basically automated it. We had 5 different versions for each data field and randomized the output. At the time they fired me(great story. It includes a stuffed animal, claims of assault, and a one-legged security guard) I never heard a thing about the reports. To this day I am sure all those reports sit on a server somewhere.

  6. says

    At my school the administration scolded me for putting the SLO on the back of the syllabus that I handed to the students, but not on the electronic form that I sent back to them. And rightly so; the SLO is meant to slo down the administration, but not the students.

  7. James Fehlinger says

    So just sit down and free-associate. Copy and paste word salad
    from a woo-woo site. Then go take a long, hot shower.

    Hey, isn’t this exactly why Dog gave us AI?
    A Robot Wrote This Book Review
    By Kevin Roose
    Nov. 21, 2021

    [review of
    And Our Human Future
    By Henry A. Kissinger [!], Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher]

    . . .

    Actually, you know what? It’s sunny outside, my dogs need a walk,
    and I don’t really feel like finishing this review. Take it away, GPT-3.

    . . .It makes me wish that someone out there would crank out a comprehensive
    survey text on AI, one that’s laser-focused on the technical issues,
    written by industry mavens who are actually doing this stuff day in and
    day out, and is written in an engaging, clear, plain-spoken style.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  8. says

    I know why I’m told to do this crap; I can even appreciate some of the utility. I JUST HATE IT.

    Also, this dogdamn diet I’m on expects everything I eat to be weighed and scanned, making me even more tired of bean-counting (literally) and fussbudgeting around.

  9. says

    I’m still waiting to get into trouble for editing my school’s course SLOs into something more literate instead of just copy-and-pasting the mind-numbing bullets into my syllabi. My next adventure is likely to be my self-study for faculty peer review, which now requires an entire section on my staff-development activities on “equity” and my implementation of same in my classes. No doubt I’ll be leaning heavily on my English-as-a-second-language childhood and first-college-graduate-in-the-family status to establish my credibility. What fun we’ll have!

  10. Kevin Karplus says

    Don’t try to make your Course Student Learning Outcomes generic—that is the opposite of a desirable outcome! If you know what you want students to learn, put that down on the syllabus! (Program outcomes, on the other hand, are deliberately vague, and you should be able to just wave your hands at the ones you address in your course.) Here is an example of course outcomes from one of my courses:

    Students will be able to
    • draw useful block diagrams for amplifier design.
    • use simple hand tools (screwdriver, flush cutters, wire strippers, multimeter, micrometer, … ).
    • hand solder through-hole parts and SOT-23 surface-mount parts.
    • use USB-controlled oscilloscope, function generator, and power supply.
    • use python, gnuplot, PteroDAQ data-acquisition system, and WaveForms 3 on own computer.
    • do computations involving impedance using complex numbers.
    • design single-stage high-pass, band-pass, and low-pass RC filters.
    • measure impedance as function of frequency.
    • find and read data sheets for components.
    • design, build, and debug simple op-amp-based amplifiers.
    • draw schematics using computer-aided design tools.
    • write design reports using LaTeX and biblatex.
    • plot data and theoretical models using gnuplot.
    • fit models to data using gnuplot.

  11. beyondhope says

    This sort of crap is emblematic of the broader problem though, isn’t it? One advances not by teaching well, or writing clearly, but by this bureaucratic busywork being sold as “leadership”. Hope you’re ok PZ. – I also find this stuff infuriating.

  12. birgerjohansson says

    OT more bad news.
    Film director Peter Bogdanovich 1939-2022. He made films like ‘What’s Up Doc’ with Streisand and ‘Mask’ with Cher.

  13. John Morales says

    Mmmm. So very close, it’s arguable whether some tiny teensy line separates things.

    I understand it’s a difficult position; there’s a sort of chunky thing where either one works full-time or one does not work at all — can’t really afford to not work at all, but working full-time under the prevailing conditions is stressful and onerous. And of course, one does not get any younger.

    If only there were a viable option between all and nothing… some sort of decrease in workload and responsibility and stress, with concomitant decrease in income. An easing-up.

    (And yes, I’m aware of the USA health cover circumstances)

  14. PaulBC says

    While I’m not completely dismissing the value, it sounds like the kind of thing that would drive me to early retirement. It’s bad enough having to go through perf cycle (or similar) as a software developer.

  15. chrislawson says

    Sympathies and best wishes.

    I did a quick review of the evidence on burnout. Not much has changed in recent years — the evidence is generally weak, but the best supported interventions are relaxation and CBT. The choice of relaxation activity probably doesn’t matter much. CBT can be expensive and time-consuming, but there are free online services that don’t use a therapist (e.g. ). Essentially you’re creating your own CBT program through guided questioning.

    Unfortunately the evidence we have is overwhelmingly geared towards treating workers with burnout rather than creating better workplaces.

  16. calgor says

    Coming from a training environment rather than an education POV, SLOs are a mandatory legal safeguard. We are going to train the student to successfully do exactly that is stated on the SLO (including accuracy and reliability). This means that they often require as much (if not more in the safety critical courses) effort in crafting as the actual course itself.

    They also have utility when arguing for course financing – you want the trainee to be able to safely shut down the nuclear reactor?! Well $25.00 ain’t going to do nothing to help that training.

  17. ajbjasus says

    One of the many reasons I gave up teaching – the output of job creation schemes for generalists.

    The last straw for me was a mandate to analyse my chemistry and biology courses and produce a catalogue of “transferable skills”, which then had to be “evidenced” for each student, you know, measuring temperature, planning etc etc.

    There’s a kind of Heisenberg effect to it, too.

  18. weylguy says

    I can already hear the conservatives saying: Poor little snowflake librel, instead of “science” you shoulda gotten a real job to pervide fer yer fambly, like drivin’ a truck or loggin’ trees.

  19. birgerjohansson says

    If you just want to unwind and reduce the stress, I recommend ‘Scathing Atheist 464’. There is a nice song at the 56 minute mark.
    There is a recently discovered soft-tissue fossil that provides a good look at a dinosaur cloaca. Nothing to do with embryology courses, but , goddammit, a dinosaur cloaca!

  20. pwdm says

    I copied your post to a friend who works at a different university. HIs response to required management speak: “My syllabus for January is an act of protest in that regard: The stated goal of my course is ‘to learn stuff’ and the course requirement is ‘to do something’ and the reason is ‘so you’ll get smarter.’ It’s a graduate course for God’s sake. What do they want?” Skating on thin ice perhaps but past retirement age so…