TEACHING AT PITT: Faculty self-care as community care


In March, Jessica Lutz, a member of Staff Council and an academic advisor with TRIO Student Support Services, published a University Times article on the dangers of job creep to staff. Lutz pointed out that the phenomenon of normalizing overwork is not sustainable or healthy and requires changes to better support staff.

Faculty are also feeling the effects of job creep. The demands of teaching in new ways using new technology tools, supporting students through their own traumas, and juggling career and family obligations during a pandemic has contributed to the epidemic of faculty stress and burnout. In a forthcoming survey of more than 1,100 faculty conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education in October 2020, two-thirds of respondents reported feeling “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued within the last month.

Faculty who are members of marginalized groups face additional challenges because the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities. For instance, barriers to female faculty career advancement have grown, according to an article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Women, particularly Black women, have taken over a disproportionate quantity of caregiving tasks like homeschooling children and supporting loved ones through illness and economic loss, a 2020 article from the Economic Policy Institute said, which affects research output, a key performance criterion for job advancement at most universities.

Although the return to more familiar modes of teaching promises some relief, many instructors still struggle to balance competing priorities and, ultimately, many deprioritize their own needs. Higher education publications have responded by publishing a flurry of articles on faculty self-care but, as faculty know, designating limited time and energy for self-care is easier said than done.

Richard P. Keeling, a higher ed consultant and former professor, proposed in an article in the Journal of College and Character that higher education institutions need to adopt an “ethic of care.” Our students’ academic and overall well-being is, he argued, the institution’s shared responsibility. In this piece, we argue that the ethic of care should extend to all members of a university community.

Individual faculty members, particularly those who are members of minoritized groups, need support beyond self-care as they contend with challenges that have arisen or worsened during the pandemic. Furthermore, faculty self-care efforts must be embedded in a broader framework of community care.

Earlier this spring, in a faculty panel discussion about supporting students’ well-being, Robert Gallen, an associate professor of Psychology at Pitt, shared how feeling supported, nurtured and cared for had a positive impact on his capacity to extend support and care to his students. He explained how the responsibility of looking after immunocompromised family members had increased his levels of stress since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he found that the flexibility to safely carry out his teaching and research duties from home had eased these concerns. When leaders extend empathy and flexibility to cultivate community care, all members of a community can benefit.

Leaders: leverage communication

Faculty members in positions of leadership can contribute to creating a cycle of care by instilling a sense of safety through their decisions and actions. One way to do this is by effectively managing communication frequency, style and purpose.

While it is important to keep communication channels open and actively invite instructors to be part of an ongoing conversation about the effects of the pandemic, it is also key to consider the impact of overcommunication. For example, what effect might receiving emails from a direct supervisor over the weekend or late at night have on the recipient? Encouraging faculty to set healthy professional boundaries that allow them to disconnect from work as needed should be part of our updated netiquette.

Leaders may consider creating a communication plan that balances communicating transparently and in a timely manner with modeling healthy work/life boundaries. This may include, for example, taking advantage of technology tools that allow us to delay or schedule email submissions. Through demonstrating empathy to themselves and to others, leaders can acknowledge the differential impacts the pandemic has had for faculty.

Mid- to advanced-career scholars, likely to hold these leadership positions, may be familiar with warnings against talking about their personal life before they have earned tenure. Our positionality, informed by factors such as age, race, class, national origin, gender expression, etc., has an impact on how willing we are to uphold or dismantle this unwritten standard.

Yet, regardless of the value any individual may place on demonstrating vulnerability in this way, we are still confronted with the many challenges the pandemic has brought upon us and our students, and we must acknowledge the increased levels of emotional labor instructors have been expected to exercise since spring of 2020. Leadership can sincerely reassure faculty that their experiences matter, and then use what they learned from listening to faculty experiences to tailor resources to fit faculty needs.

Finally, in the context of the current public health crisis, it is important to invite faculty to formally articulate their academic experiences by submitting COVID impact statements. In considering faculty performance through the pandemic, academic standards should be tempered by a mutual extension of grace. Individual accomplishments and regular measures of productivity commonly used in annual reviews must be evaluated through a lens that takes into account several factors:

  • Longitudinal: Were they on track with necessary milestones before the pandemic hit?

  • Holistic: Do shifts in professional workloads reflect the differential expectations?

  • Contextualized: Did this individual face challenges related to their own or health or care-giving responsibilities?

The value of knowing that our leaders have our backs and that they see and understand our fears about returning to the so-called “normal” is immeasurable. Faculty in leadership positions have garnered a level of professional success and experience that may allow for a sense of confidence and security that could feel out of reach to early career scholars and part-time faculty. Upholding a vision of a brighter future while remaining attentive to individual challenges is a foundational aspect of equitable learning spaces, for all involved.

Faculty: cultivate community

Our approach to self-care is not one rooted solely in individual, isolated efforts to look after ourselves, but one that is firmly entrenched in the need for building connections and cultivating a community to sustain us. In seeking out these connections, we encourage faculty members to consider that a range of challenges like experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout and vicarious trauma will continue to be issues in the wake of the pandemic. Pitt has resources that can provide faculty with much-needed support and opportunities to connect with colleagues, and share the ways in which we have dealt, successfully or not, with our physical and social isolation.

Resources and how they can help

Human Resources’ Work-Life Balances Information and Resources: This page contains links for Life Solutions, the employee assistance program; resources for mental and physical health and wellness; information about childcare; information for how to get involved in community service; and links for PittPerks, the employee discount program.

The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity: Pitt has an institutional membership to this organization, which allows faculty to access online programs and resources on academic writing, teaching and curriculum development, and project and time management.

Pitt Communities (formerly known as affinity groups): Faculty can join Pitt Community groups to form connections with other Pitt employees with common interests, all working towards building inclusion at Pitt.

The Center for Creativity (C4C): The C4C provides physical and virtual spaces and resources for all Pitt creators. Faculty who need inspiration or a creative outlet can sign up for a workshop or event, listen to the C4C podcast, or collaborate with staff to plan how to embed creative projects in their courses.

The Center for Teaching and Learning (Teaching Center): The Teaching Center provides resources and consultations to support teaching and can help with planning or troubleshooting courses and teaching strategies, borrowing and using educational technology tools, and creating media for courses. Whether it is a question about Canvas or how to flip a course, the Teaching Center can help.

As Jessica Lutz reminded us last month, providing support to members of our University community is an urgent issue and “we cannot lunch and learn or self-care day our way out of this.” Establishing and maintaining community care requires continuous critical examination of the university system to determine how it affects the collective well-being of our various community members. When the system fails to adequately support some segment of our community, it is our shared responsibility to call attention to that and to change it.

Lizette Muñoz Rojas is a teaching consultant and Lindsay Onufer is program manager and teaching consultant at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.