Higher education is a culture deeply rooted in the values of knowledge, lifelong learning, discovery, social and technological contribution, and excellence. But it can also be a culture of overwork, competition, toxic productivity and exploitation, especially in the case of wage labour.
Values matter even if we don’t think about them consciously. For me, prior to burnout, I was fully committed to the less attractive higher values—competition, performance, raising expectations—and they ruled my life, not just my work. The work I did to get rid of burnout helped me realign my priorities and begin to rebuild my life and work around the values of purpose, compassion, connection, and balance.
I regularly talk about values with my guests on my podcast, nimble academic. Something about articulating your values brings clarity to whether your actions and goals align with those values – or are the values you want to aspire to. Kathy Linder told me that her work as a values coach helps people not only identify their values, but also connect different intentions and practices to live those values.
Here’s what two of my most recent guests had to say about finding your values and adapting them to your life and work:
Kate’s denial: Kindness, compassion in all its forms is really important to me. Compassion is important to me for many reasons; it’s important because it got me through some really tough years of my life, learning to be kind to myself and give myself space, grace and forgiveness. Then I realized that my class was missing. Not surprising, right? If I couldn’t be kind to myself, then my awareness of being kind to other people was also limited. I don’t think I was intentionally unkind to anyone, but I didn’t make it a priority. But now kindness is my default position. And I don’t mean that somehow I’ve achieved some amazing enlightenment. I mean, for me, it’s a discipline, and I always ask myself, what am I going to do here? What’s a good thing to do here before I send an email, make a decision, or think about how expensive the book I want to assign is, or go to a meeting with my colleagues?
I often start by identifying what is wrong, and that is not attraction. These two things are often confused, especially in the Midwest, but kindness is not kindness. Kindness has no problem with lying. Kindness is honest. Kindness will close the cracks in our social relationships. It will veil such problems in our institutions as fragility or “rigor” and tradition, which are often a cover for completely different concerns. So kindness to me is justice. And it’s about faith.
Lindsey Masland: (talking about articulating her values) I’ve found that the hardest part of the self-reflection process is figuring out what am I doing? What is it for? there was an option to break them down into individual words that you might find in a list of values or something similar. And really, only when I asked other people in my life, like my husband or friends, what are my values? I had things I hoped were my values, but I needed someone to tell me they were true. I’m actually a little emotional because it’s very powerful when someone you love tells you that you’re doing what you want to do. So I would say, based on what people have said, what made me feel like I could claim for myself, the first one probably has to do with liberation as a value and liberation from structures and beliefs and behaviors that don’t serve you. And so you can move in any direction with that.
(Higher edit refers to a values-driven rule breaker) Don’t break the rules just because you want to break the rules. For some people that might be a guiding value and maybe the simple joy of doing something you don’t have to do can support someone, but I’m not that kind of person because I’m really embarrassed to break the rules when everything else in the world is telling me to follow rules. And so I think you have to get a lot of clarity about your own values, meaning, purpose, and having that be a driving force. And then, sometimes you’ll realize that in order for me to fully realize those values, I’m going to have to break some rules. So when I focus on liberation, sometimes I can get people to do liberating things and it doesn’t break any rules. It doesn’t matter. That’s what I would recommend – to really understand the values clearly.
What are your values? Are you living according to your desired values? How can you better align your life and work with these values?
Rebecca Pope-Ruark is the Director of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She is the host nimble academic podcast for Women in Higher Education and her forthcoming book, Addressing faculty burnout: Pathways to payback and renewalwill be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in September 2022.