01/15/2013 04:50 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013

Whence Cometh Professors' Stress?


Well, the continuing cultural attack on higher education is still in full swing. Much has been made of a CareerCast study, as well as a Forbes magazine piece (for which the author has since apologized), explaining why being a tenured college professor is to enjoy the least stressful job in America. The evidence cited, as is typical with such claims, is based largely on arbitrary criteria plus a bit of anecdotal evidence. Another Forbes author wrote a rebuttal based on his experience in the academic natural sciences, and he and others discuss it on HuffPostLive here.

Over-generalizations about academia, often based on the lives of an elite few faculty members at elite institutions, are beyond ridiculous; a job like mine -- as a humanist in a small, private, relatively unknown Midwestern college, populated largely by working-class students -- can hardly be compared to the job of a celebrity professor of economics or politics at an Ivy League university, or that of a neurobiology professor at a giant, state-funded institution with a medical school. Academia, for all its continuities, is remarkably diverse. Any study that does not differentiate between varieties of institutions and disciplines (to say nothing of how gender, race, geography, and class intersect with such factors) is lazy, and is usually designed to please audiences who are already prone to hate on academia.

But in the spirit of self-awareness, I also take to heart the very basic observations that the study raises. As a tenured professor, I do indeed enjoy a great deal of unstructured -- if not entirely "free" -- time in the summers, and I can apply for a paid semester of sabbatical every seventh year. I do earn a living wage with good benefits (though CareerCast's understanding of what counts as a decent salary seems highly skewed; the second most stress-free job they listed was "seamstress," with an average salary of $25,850. In what universe is that enough to create a stress-free life in the U.S.?) Despite the erosion of gun restrictions in Michigan, I do usually feel secure in my bodily safety when on campus. And perhaps most importantly, I get to spend a good portion of my work days reading, writing, and talking to people about interesting ideas.

If I look closely, I see that the lion's share of my job stress has to do, not with the job per se, but with interpersonal relationships. Academe attracts a lot of wonderful but introverted folks who already internalize a lot of stress, and when animals like us are put under stress, we often take it out on each other. Sometimes this is acute (I have occasionally felt physically threatened in my own office), but mostly there is a low-grade, insidious, slow drip of hostility, anger, depression, pettiness, and insecurity that can erode our sense of well-being. There is also the ever-present nagging of economic pressure, from students, administrators, and politicians, who don't think they should have to pay much for the services we're selling. For a few faculty members, including at my institution, the compunded pressures (along with whatever is going on in their home lives) may finally be too much to bear.

But while academia does provide plenty of stress, I also believe it is my own responsibility to mitigate that stress wherever it is in my power to do so. It is important, for example, to cultivate less antagonistic relationships with students; I've discovered that classes go better if the students believe I like them and want the best for them. It is also important to foster a sense of collegiality and support among co-workers, stopping in a doorway to chat, going out for drinks, or hosting gatherings now and then; having friends at work helps a lot. Perhaps the biggest challenge for me personally is giving up negative office gossip, usually about other people not doing their jobs the way I think they should be done. This is entirely unhelpful, feeding my own negativity while also spreading a spirit of hopelessness and despair. My energy would be much better spent focusing on what I can actually accomplish in my given position to make things better for the institution and the individuals in it, including myself.

All life is stressful, and academic life is no exception. The wise professor is one who tries to relieve some of that stress, or at the very least, not to make it worse.