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Driscoll et al. Self-Care in Doctoral Education. CCC, Feb. 2020. Posted 04/29/2020.

Driscoll, Dana Lynn, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin. “Self-Care as Professionalization: A Case for Ethical Doctoral Education in Composition Studies.” College Composition and Communication 71.3 (2020): 453-80. Print.

Dana Lynn Driscoll, S. Rebecca Leigh, and Nadia Francine Zamin seek to open a conversation about self-care as a needed component of professional practice in composition, English studies, and related fields. They argue that despite widespread discussions about the life/work balance challenges in areas of the humanities, composition scholarship has paid scant attention to this issue (457). They focus on doctoral programs but recognize the need for better self-care in most forms of academic life (476).

The authors document an ongoing conversation as well as data about faculty and student burnout leading to attrition in humanities programs. They report, for example, a U. C. Berkeley study from 2014 showing that “almost 64% of doctoral students in the arts and humanities were clinically depressed” and a statistic from American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing a degree-completion rate in humanities doctoral programs of 42% (454). They cite concern dating back to Wendy Bishop’s 2000 CCCC Chair’s address and a 1986 article by Maxine Hairston that burnout is “just part of the job” (455).

A further literature review reveals attention to labor conditions for graduate students and, often, women and minorities that the authors see as linked to the need for self-care. Yet, they claim, this work seldom suggests solutions or directly posits how self-care can help address labor exploitation and what Beth Goodbee calls “epistemic injustice” that often casts women and minorities as less capable and thus triggers anxiety about living up to academic demands (qtd. in Driscoll et al. 459). Advice on self-care, the authors write, more often shows up in “self-help” books directed to academics rather than in the academic press (457).

Driscoll et al. developed and piloted a survey that they then distributed widely through listservs and doctoral programs across fields in the post-secondary language arts (460). Their study analyzed responses from 348 students in different stages of their doctoral work and in different specializations; 213 were female, 79 male, 3 gender-nonconforming, and 6 who preferred to not to answer. The 85 faculty respondents, all actively teaching in doctoral programs, included 54 females, 17 males, and 1 gender-nonconforming person (462). Of selected, diverse subsets approached by the authors, 9 students and 8 faculty participated in follow-up interviews (461). The authors note the gender skew and performed a one-way analysis of variance on Likert-scale questions (461).

Faculty reported more self-care practices than students; overall, the authors report that such practices fell into “physiological” actions, such as “getting enough sleep” or “seeing the doctor or dentist”; a wide range of “personal life” efforts such as spending time with friends or working on hobbies; and “professional life” choices focused on improving the work/life balance, such as working off campus or saying “no” (463).

According to the authors, the survey and comments reveal three widespread “barriers” to self-care. Sixty percent of faculty and nearly 90% of students indicated suffering from “academic guilt,” feeling that all their time should be invested in their academic life (464). One student writes that failing to work hard enough implies not “car[ing] enough” about the profession, and that wanting “a more balanced life” affected the decision of whether to apply for a research-institution job (464).

“Burnout,” resulting from what one tenured faculty member called “extreme demands” and leading to a lack of time for self-care, affected 54.3% of faculty and 68.5% of student respondents (464). One student reported concern over “mentors [who] make themselves physically ill over the amount of work they pile on themselves.” These attitudes, the tenured faculty member writes, are “normalized” (qtd. in Driscoll et al. 465).

Feeling that they are failing to work hard enough results in a third barrier to self-care, “imposter syndrome.” Although the study did not ask explicitly about this response, more than 40% addressed concerns that they did not belong in their programs in their interviews (465-66).

The authors report that although majorities of both faculty and students do practice some form of self-care, large majorities of those who do “feel the need to hide it from their academic community” (466). This problem, the authors’ data suggests, is more acute for women and minority students, who both want more opportunities for self-care and more discussion about it in their programs but reveal more guilt in expressing their needs (467). Among faculty, while the authors report “less pronounced” gender differences, data from female faculty still revealed that they experienced more guilt and more tendency to work harder rather than seeking self-care (467).

Driscoll et al. point to psychology as one of the fields in which adequate self-care is a professional “ethical obligation” because it results in practitioners who are better able to address the needs of their students and clients (456-57, 469-70). Self-care as part of professionalism in humanities doctoral programs, the authors write, includes “faculty modeling and mentorship, accessible tools and strategies, and opportunities for self-reflection and discussion” (470). Faculty who have dealt with their own burnout and health crises, the authors recommend, should openly share their experiences and solutions, for example, modeling writing practices and demonstrating to students that it is okay to make a mistake (472). Students can be given tools for choosing commitments and for monotasking, learning when “to politely decline” (472).

In the authors’ view, reflection and discussion can especially help faculty and students recognize how the larger culture of labor shifts in higher education systemically pressures academics to yield to corporatization by working harder even though doing so leads to diminishing results (474). Driscoll et al. call for consideration of this larger culture alongside individual strategies. Student respondents to the study noted “the contradiction of faculty demanding too much while suggesting self-care at the same time” (475). Citing Beth Blum, the authors warn that “calls for ‘self-help’” can be “masks for the cruelty [that is] present” (475) when the focus is on “efficiency, performance, and competitive achievement” (Blum, qtd. in Driscoll et al. 475).

The authors report study limitations, including the exclusive focus on doctoral programs and the need to rely on self-report. Moreover, they note the preponderance of female respondents, positing that women may be more likely to respond to the topic. Finally, they recognize that they did not include race (461-62).

A closing quote from a “full professor faculty participant” reiterates the need for “a disciplinary norm” in which composition becomes a profession capable of “attending to entire whole humans” (qtd. in Driscoll et al. 476). The authors hope that this change will lead away from guilt and burnout and instead toward “the best labor that we are capable of doing” (476).