About the academic work/life balance: a discussion and resources

Posted on August 16, 2020 by Bryan Alexander

Last week the Future Trends Forum met with Rebecca Pope-Ruark, of Agile Faculty, to discuss how people in academia could best balance work and life. It was a powerful session with intense discussions, and you can see the whole thing here:

Many opinions and ideas flowed. A great deal of advice impressed us. We also shared a great deal of resources, so many that I wanted to make sure they were available beyond YouTube and Twitter.

In this post I’ll list as many as I could capture, with quick introductions for context. I try to follow chronological order, but also to knit together some themes that stretched across the whole hour.

Rebecca led off by recommending as a high priority that we establish stronger barriers in our daily lives, including physical distance and/or rituals for separating work from the rest of life. Following up, Raj Devasagayam asked us to consider how the emotions from work can echo or persist in non-work life:

David Drake offered two thoughts during a discussion of overwork:

There have been ample studies showing that if you actually try to do less, you end up producing more meaningful work. So rest! Take care of your physical and emotional state.


In academia, as professors, what we produce is most recognized, not that we work 80 hours a week. I tell my junior faculty that no one cares how hard you work; they care about what you produce.

Along those lines David also recommended Cal Newport‘s Deep Work.

On a related note, and also in terms of general stress, Roxann Riskin advised us:

To help with anxiety and stress for Mindfulness practices — like mindful breathing, meditation, Apps are fantastic resources often available at no cost.

Vanessa Vaile added to that theme advice for us to “catch a pulmonary rehab training video on breathing.”

The topic of academic capitalism came up as a way of explaining why so many faculty and staff were under stress even before COVID-19 struck. One brilliant editor recommended Academic Capitalism and the New Economy Markets, State, and Higher Education by Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades.

Our guest drew attention to the challenge facing faculty of the pressure to produce research during a pandemic. Some recommended ratcheting down research expectations. Greg Britton cited a quote by William Stafford: “Lower your standards and keep writing.”

How can faculty teach while helping students through this crisis? One way to reduce student stress is to change assessments and assignments. Sarah Sangregorio asked us to consider offering “more formative assessments and less-high stakes testing.” She also pointed to using assessments other than multiple choice, and assigning more project based learning. David Houle added that he uses “formative testing though presentations, group projects, and written assignments.”

Contract grading rose as an option. Others cited Dave Cormier as one authority on that topic. Several recommended following Laura Gibbs on Twitter as an expert on online learning.

This teaching and learning practice topic scaled up to larger changes in teaching and learning. Lisa Durff suggested we structure teaching in terms of mastery learning.

How can faculty help with students’ mental health when they aren’t trained as therapists? Roxann pointed us to an introduction, a Psychological First Aid class from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Learning Center. (Requires creating a free account if you don’t already have one.)

How can faculty and staff help students enduring trauma? Karen Costa recommended Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, Trauma Stewardship. However, several people warned us of the dangers of compassion fatigue, including Michael Arnzen on Twitter:

Discussing the stresses of how in-person education could transpire, I recommended a game by Cait S. Kirby, “October 1st, 2020.”

We touched on educational technology at several points. When it comes to videoconferencing overload, a/k/a Zoom Fatigue, Roxann shared this article. Lisa reminded us that this isn’t just a technological issue, asking us to “compare that to lecture hall fatigue.”

Throughout our discussion the theme of people having difficulties processing and expressing their emotions came up. Roxann suggested Marc Brackett‘s book Permission to Feel. Several suggested a strong gender divide along these lines, and discussed the desirability of men’s and women’ support groups. Rebecca tweeted this out as an open question, as did Karen Costa:

Consultant and coach Keith Edwards tweeted out a reflective response:

Overall, I and others approvingly noted our guest’s books.

My deepest thanks to our splendid guest Rebecca Pope-Ruark and to the awesome Forum community for a rich, meaningful, and very practical discussion.

(Mental health isn’t something I normally write about. Would readers like more of this?)

(cross-posted to my blog)

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.