Hindsight Really Is 20/20: Teaching While Anxious And Narrating My Recovery-in-Progress

More than a year and a half ago and during my first-year of teaching full-time at Tennessee Tech, I developed a number of goals that I wished to pursue for 2018. Among these goals were “move slowly”; “re-prioritize your life,” which included “family/my husband, friends, puppy and kitties,” and “days with nothing planned.” These items were listed in January 2018, a month after my sister-in-law gifted me for Christmas my first (very nicely bound) journal. This first journal entry took a while to pen because of my perfectionist tendencies to worry about and attach myself to the ‘final product.’ What would happen if I made a mistake in my new journal? Clearly, my perfectionism and over-achieving sensibilities were manifesting, even in an informal writing assignment such as a journal entry that no one would see.

Several months later in May 2018, and well before my job offer from MTSU, I authored two more entries. The first entry was a brief question: “what might make the job easier/less overwhelming?” The things that appeared on this list were “having more institutional support”; “much shorter commute”; “higher salary”; “fewer students”; and “better institutional culture.” The second entry was an extensive list of things I learned during my first year of teaching at Tennessee Tech. Among these included, “stick to your policies outlined in the syllabus”; “less is more”; “please only yourself and no one else at work”; “practice unattachment”; “rubrics are your friend”; “simplicity is key”; “don’t perform beyond your pay grade”; “be excellent at what you do, not perfect,” which included “lowering your expectations for yourself and your students,” “giving yourself permission to fail at things,” and “decenter your teaching to maintain your whole self.” (Ironically enough, “go to therapy” did not appear on these lists.)

Given these goals and intentions set early in the first half of 2018, my primary motivations to joining the Faculty Fellows Program this year stemmed from a number of sources. First, I wanted to meet other faculty members outside of my department. In my previous position at Tennessee Tech, I was not able to do this due to an extensive commute (three hours round-trip), which did not allow me to really get to know other people at the university, in general, and in my department, in particular. Additionally, my previous position was incredibly isolating. As a one-year faculty member, I was not even invited to attend faculty meetings because we were not voting members. This coupled with my office location 10 minutes away from the English Department made me feel both physically and psychologically isolated. This experience at Tech combined with my time spent as an undergraduate here at MTSU propelled me to reconnect with former professors in my new capacity as a Lecturer, and, also, to establish new connections with other faculty members both within and outside my department, some of whom I would certainly consider friends.

Second, I wanted to become part of the Faculty Fellows Program because I was having a difficult time navigating my identity and career path as a full-time faculty member. In graduate school, we rarely discuss the challenges of teaching as a full-time faculty member and balancing our home lives with our professional ones; in fact, my graduate school training was exclusively tailored to teaching a 2/2 course load (at most) while balancing extensive research commitments, including book-length publications. These unrealistic expectations did not consider the demands of most teaching positions (which carry a 4/4 or 5/5 course load). This blind spot in my graduate training consequently did not prepare me for the day-to-day demands of becoming a full-time faculty member at a teaching institution where a majority of faculty teach a 4/4 or 5/5 course load.

My graduate school experience and its lack of preparation for a 4/4 or 5/5 teaching position caused me to take the short-view of my career path and resulted in me questioning my endurance as a teacher. This sparked tremendous amounts of anxiety and panic attacks, including a panic attack in the middle of a conference presentation the week following my dissertation defense in June 2017. These experiences also exacerbated my feelings of anxiety, shame, and feeling like an imposter in academia because, after all, real academics don’t have panic attacks in the middle of conference presentations, right? With incredible amounts of therapy and equipping myself with tools for analyzing my current and former experiences, I now understand that these panic attacks were symptoms of anticipatory anxiety. To be quite honest, I never felt like I belonged in graduate school as a first-generation student, and these feelings became much more widespread leading up to my dissertation defense and beginning my first full-time teaching position.

In this regard, joining the Faculty Fellows Program was like beginning group therapy for me because I was able to get to know other faculty members both within and outside of my department. Our academic training seems to have taught us that we should never discuss stress and stress-management techniques and strategies as faculty members; in fact, most discussions on university campuses, if not all of them, are in regard to students’ mental well-being and enabling them with coping mechanisms for dealing with their stress. This line of thinking is detrimental to faculty members who also deal with stress and anxiety because it falsely assumes that we do not experience these issues and/or we already know how to deal with them. This begs the question: what about our stress and anxiety? If we cannot help ourselves, we certainly will not be able to help our students. Speaking with many of my colleagues, especially those who are in similar positions as I am as a full-time temporary faculty member, I know first-hand that many of us experience a great deal of stress and anxiety, and I would venture to guess that most (if not all) faculty deal with tremendous amounts of stress and anxiety related to our jobs as helping professionals.

While I sometimes still question my ability and endurance as a teacher and a scholar, I can honestly say that my involvement with the Faculty Fellows Program this year coupled with my personal journey in discovering therapeutic tools (i.e., Brené Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability) as well as getting to know more experienced faculty members within and outside of my home department has been a tremendous resource in navigating my own anxieties and fears about being in this profession and how to better cope with everyday stressors. My faculty mentor, Janet McCormick, played a vital part in helping me do this, and I cannot emphasize enough how important she was in this process. I would also add that my experience in the Faculty Book Group with The Slow Professor had an equal impact on my understanding of my place in this profession. After all, it was the conclusion of The Slow Professor that alerted me to Brown’s research, as it references her work The Gifts of Imperfection

In addition to my involvement with the Faculty Book Group and working with my faculty mentor, the workshop reflections motivated me to begin blogging as a way of processing my challenges as an academic and developing strategies for navigating those difficulties. My blog, titled “Teaching Mindfully, Mindfully Teaching,” aims to process my current preoccupations while also developing strategies for navigating anxiety related to shame and vulnerability. Most recently, I even made the connection that a major shame-trigger for me is, in fact, my teaching, especially when receiving feedback from my students (e.g., course evaluations). It only takes one negative comment from a student for the shame gremlins to make an appearance. Much of this I think has to do with my trauma as a first-year teacher during Fall Quarter of 2011 at the University of Washington. After that quarter, I met with the director of composition who informed me of my teaching evaluations and gently explained that I “wouldn’t get a job” due to my teaching evaluations. I experienced this as tremendous shame even though I performed much better after that review. This is perhaps why my teaching evaluations are always anxiety-inducing and a major shame-trigger for me. But Brené Brown’s feedback mantra, “take what works, leave the rest,” now plays repeatedly in my head as I am reviewing student feedback, especially course evaluations. Another piece of helpful advice that I received from my involvement in the Faculty Book Group with The Slow Professor is the importance of emotionally detaching ourselves from our work (this point is also echoed in much of Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability; rather than calling it emotional detachment, Brown conceptualizes it as “shame resilience”). This is much easier said than done, and perhaps a journey that I am constantly navigating in various aspects of my job (e.g., receiving feedback from my students, receiving feedback from my colleagues, etc).

If I were to complete this program again, the only thing I would do differently is I would have began the Faculty Development Plan sooner. In fact, I would recommend conducting the Faculty Development Plan workshop early in the year (perhaps September or October). I think that developing the FDP much sooner would allow program participants to tailor their experience to the goals and intentions outlined in the FDP. For instance, if one wishes to acquire skills in establishing more transparent expectations for student work, s/he might wish to attend a workshop on establishing expectations for student assignment (such as the problem-based learning workshop where we discussed evaluating student work). Another example might be if one desires to spend more time on their research, s/he might then join a faculty writing group during the academic year. As I mentioned in my introduction, had I not established those goals and intentions during my last semester at Tennessee Tech, I do not know if I would have derived as much from the program as I did. I believe that establishing those goals and intentions early helped me navigate what I wished to get out of the program, most notably, taking the long-view of my career and cultivating connections with other faculty.

I would also recommend that the program perhaps include a “social engagement” component as a bonus challenge; this “social engagement” aspect of the program would require participants to meet at least once or twice during the academic year in an informal setting. The “social engagement” challenge might also include interviewing a current administrator and/or another faculty member in another department; these activities would serve as a way to move beyond one’s departmental silo. I took on a similar challenge this year as a personal development goal (what I dubbed a “vulnerability challenge”), and it has pushed me to spark new connections with other faculty members and to see people without their titles (per Brown’s advice in Dare to Lead).  

Altogether, my experiences with my faculty mentor; my involvement in various workshops for the Faculty Fellows Program; and my newly discovered blogging habit have all contributed to the slow recovery of rebuilding my confidence and cultivating shame resilience in academia. Because of these strides, I am confident in my abilities as both a teacher and a scholar to navigate difficult and stressful situations in the future. I am also more at ease (okay, maybe slightly at ease is perhaps more accurate) with the challenges that I face as a faculty member because I now know and understand through my connections with other faculty and therapy that my experiences are not unique; in fact, most (if not all) faculty members struggle with some aspect of their professional experiences whether they wish to speak those struggles or not. I would argue that only through cultivating connections with our colleagues do we gain valuable insight into both our everyday stresses and the day-to-day experiences of our co-workers, and I am forever grateful for having had this experience.