Guilt and Shame in Academia

So, I’m beginning this post by saying I took a day off today.  By taking a day off, I mean that I’m not officially grading or following my schedule.  I am, however, blogging (obviously), answering emails, and dealing with administrative issues.

At my Institution of Higher Education (IHE), I’m lucky to have a Supervisor and Dean who both respect that family comes first and work second. Neither of them batted an eye when I had to attend three funerals in the span of two weeks – in fact, they checked to make sure I was ok.  The majority of students are understanding when you tell them, and some even sent condolences when one of my parents died. 

But there was this one time…this was in the days before smartphones, in-flight internet, and wifi. I installed email on my Razr because I thought it was important to be available. Got on the plane to fly from the East Coast to the West Coast.  Once we landed, I checked my emails.  There were no less than 20 from a student, the last one simply saying, “I guess you just don’t care about your students.”

Inappropriate?  Yes.  Effective?  Oh yeah. 

Maybe it is conditioned when we get into grad school.  You should be writing.  Why aren’t you writing? What do you mean you’re at the beach? Are you writing there?  How many of us carried around a book because we were suppose to be writing, read a few pages here and there, then closed it?  Or was that just me? I felt like everyone else had more discipline in their right pinky than I would ever have. 

When I looked into the literature, the guilt piece seems to be studied most in women with children and people of color.  We are expected to get things done, and many of us work long hours to do it. In this article by Delello, et al., one of the pluses of academic life is flexibility; however, there is no one to tell you to turn off the light and go home.  Boundaries seem to be important to longevity. That said, “Presenteeism” is a chronic concern in academia. So what are some ways to make sure we are making time for both work and rest? I’m using rest deliberately here – I am very aware of the work that happens “after work” – caring for children and/or aging parents, property upkeep, paying bills and taxes, etc… and I’m going to insist that you put in at least a little rest while juggling all that.

Working from Home

Cartoon of sloppy women working from home. Sweatshirts, hairy legs, old clothing, no bra, and ponytails.
Can you relate? 

I am fully dressed as I write this blog, so no one needs to cringe inside, promise.  But I do have my signature hoodie on and yesterday’s jeans. 

The thing about not having a commute is that I start working as soon as my butt hits the couch.  The ability to work from home is great, and I’m very thankful I have the opportunity to do so.  But as with all situations, some uncomfortable issues can arise:

  • The lack of fashion represented by the cartoon above – no one will know if I brushed my teeth before I sent that email.
  • Even less movement than if I were sitting in the office.  My data say somewhere between 2000-3000 less steps. Yikes, that isn’t good at all.
  • The perception that I’m home, so I can: 1) get household chores done; 2) run errands; 3) be available in general for personal things

Can anyone else relate?  I don’t tend to have the TV on when I work (I’m more drawn to the siren’s call of Facebook), but clearly working from home is wreaking havoc on my health. 

I found this review by A.I. Tavares that examined how telework affects health.  Some of the advantages of telework that Tavares cites are:

  • Scheduling flexibility
  • Less office politics (I’m not so sure about this one in academia)
  • Increased job satisfaction and quality of life

Some of the disadvantages included:

  • Difficulties with boundaries between work and home (ya think?)
  • Social isolation
  • Working when it might be ill-advised to do so, such as when sick or hungry or under-caffeinated
  • Lack of presence affecting promotion and recognition for efforts (again, not so sure about this one in academia)

So how does telework affect health?  There are definite health advantages to working from home, such as less stressful evironments and less exposure to poor air quality.  That said, working from home may create issues with repetitive stress and other musculoskeletal injuries.  There is no social pressure to sit up straight or take a break, leading to injury.  The lack of structure may lead to overwork, stress, burnout, and depression due to social isolation. (Unless you are a social vegan who avoids meet.) While telework has the potential to improve work-life balance, the opposite may also be true. 

Other surprising issues that emerge from telework include increases in gastrointestinal issues, hypertension, and metabolic disorders.  It makes a lot of intuitive sense. 

In a future post, I’ll talk more about possible solutions to the work-from-home-inertia.  I’d love to hear your experiences and solutions in the meantime. 


BONUS:  Here is a blog by Erin Lusby-Donovan about healthy holiday living, ABA style!

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrated it yesterday.  I was able to get caught up enough Wednesday night to have a guilt-free, pajama-clad morning.  My original plan was a Turkey Trot, but registration was full by the time I got around to it.

There has been a lot of talk about gratitude in the popular press.  Authors such as Rick Hansen and Tara Brach say that gratitude is one of the gateways to happiness.  So, I thought I would do some research in what behavior analysis says about that.

I think the best way to start is looking at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (said as the word, not the acronym) posits that much of human suffering comes from rigid, rule-bound behavior. For those of you who are struggling to see the connection to behavior analysis, let me try to break it down for you.

So, there are basically two ways to get a new behavior into your repertoire – either by learning a rule about it or by experiencing reinforcement.  A rule can come in many forms – signs, instructions, songs, even past comments.  If someone told me,  “teal is your color,” I might wear more teal.  However, if I learned the rule that bikinis make me look fat, I might not wear them.

Think of all the things you probably learned through rules:

  • Dress codes
  • What you eat for breakfast versus what you eat for dinner (Lentil soup for breakfast is gross in the U.S. but standard in other cultures)
  • Traffic and other laws

Let me give you some proof – “Ma Na Ma Na.”  You’re welcome for what comes next. What are the things that come to mind?

For those of you saying “huh?” I will teach you.  Watch this video and come back to this post either tomorrow or later today.

Here is the strange thing about rule-governed behavior – even when the environmental events change, that behavior doesn’t.  At least not easily.  Let’s say someone has a history of abuse.  The rule might have been, “don’t speak up or make waves, or trouble will start.”  Later in their life, they have trouble asking for what they need or want because the rule is you don’t do that. 

Much like riding a bike, you never forget your rules, because they become part of a network called a relational frame.  Train a few rules up in the right way and a whole new set of networks emerge without much training. Sometimes this is good, like in cases where you use your filter before speaking or stop at red lights.  Sometimes they can get sticky and rigid and sometimes irrational.

Here are some awesome videos that describe the phenomenon of relational networks and how they affect mental health, by the Great Steve Hayes:

So my long-winded post – what does ACT have to do with Gratitude?

I can’t seem to find anything published, but my guess is that if we expose ourselves to grateful experiences on a regular basis (also called multiple exemplar training), we’ll form a network of them.  That way, when we see similar situations, we’re more likely to think, “ahh, this is something that fits into the gratitude network.”

Anyway, I’m grateful for all of you readers, as well as my colleagues and clients.  You make all my chains concurrent.  (TLDR; Lots of reinforcement available at the same time for lots of different behavior)

Results of my Baseline

I vacillated between reporting the data and vaguely telling you the results of my analysis.  I’ve decided on the latter because my journey needs to have some sort of anonymity to it.  Let’s see what interesting things I’m finding out about myself and my behavior: 

  • I spend too much time on the couch (everyone say “duh”)
  • Once on the couch, I stay on the couch
  • I’ve never crossed off more than 5 things on my to-do list during a day (over promising and under-delivering to myself)
  • My nutrition data explain a bit about how and why I’m not feeling as well as I could (especially in terms of low potassium levels – bring on the bananas and the potatoes)
  • I could be more hydrated
  • Most of my couch duty behavior is escape-maintained (which is surprising because I thought it would be more socially mediated) – in lay terms, I’m trying to escape the world as opposed to needing some external reinforcement. 

So what should my plan be?  I tell my students not to take on more behaviors than they can handle at one time, and never more than 3.  I’m going to take this slowly and do one thing at a time.  Starting tomorrow, I will try to increase my hydration and increase my intake of potassium-rich foods.  I’m hoping that combo will increase my energy levels, and we’ll see if the escape behavior is in the same response class.  If it is, I should see more increases in the couch potato area without intervention.  Somehow I doubt that, but the data never lie. 

I’m also wondering what role behavioral momentum has with regard to my couch potato lifestyle.  You might remember momentum from high school physics (I’m sorry if that evokes nightmares – we had phun in physics where we phailed, too).  Anyway, momentum refers to the tendency to stay in motion once motion is initiated. Same thing with behavior. The same behavior tends to persist unless it is disrupted in some way.  Let’s test this out:

Say roast 10 times as fast as you can.  I’ll wait.  What do you put in a toaster?

If you said “toast,” that was behavioral momentum at work. Once we are positioned, working, and the reinforcers flow (in my case, getting that work graded and those papers written), it keeps going, and going, and going… You get the idea. 

Now, most of the applied research is about how to get a response going – for example, getting a child with developmental disabilities to respond to commands.  The most famous of this is the Hi-P sequence.  Similar to the “Roast” example,  you do a bunch of high-probability responses and then throw in a non-preferred one quickly.  See Lee, 2010 for more information (this article is behind a paywall).

In the next post, I’m going to see how we can use behavioral momentum to (maybe) get me off the couch and into the world.

Goal Setting and Baseline Tracking

I’m currently sitting on my couch reading about how sitting on your couch takes years off your life.  This is enough to motivate me to start this project.  de Rezende, Lopes, Lopez, Matsudo, and Luiz (2014) found that sitting and watching TV increases risk of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancers, and Type 2 diabetes. Not as comforting as the down blanket I’m under.

I’m not an active person by nature.  My friends would probably be surprised to know that physical activity does not come naturally to me.  In high school, I smoked a pack a day, listened to tapes, and played my Fender Telecaster knock-off.  Later in College, I found Step aerobics which I did pretty religiously for about a year.  After some serious surgery in 2000, I put on weight and got very into Spinning.  Then around 2010 I started martial arts.  My bursts look very much like Fixed Interval Scallops, where bursts of responding surround some sort of achievement/reinforcer, then drop off.  All animals do this, and it is a natural part of life.

So, I’m back in a rut. What, exactly do I want to accomplish this time around?

  • Eat better and drink more fluids (I have Positional Hypotension so I pass out when I’m dehydrated or stand up too fast)
  • Increase the amount of exercise I do in a week
  • Get back into a consistent martial arts schedule
  • Eat better with a 30/30/30 distribution of macros (fat, carbs, protein)
  • Not look like an idiot at the Soldier Field 10-miler I’m doing with other behavior analysts in May

In order to make a change, though, I need a baseline of where I am now.  So, I’m in the process of taking data on my current habits. The app I’m using is Countee, and I’m taking Antecedent-Behavior Consequence data on my own behavior.  Amanda Kelly, a/k/a Behaviorbabe, has created this tutorial on ABC Data collection. 

Stay tuned for the data!

What I’m Doing

You might be wondering what prompted a site/blog like this one.  Of course, as I said before, I have some bad habits that have affected my productivity and effectiveness as a teacher. But honestly, the motivation runs deeper than that. 

The Academy does awful things to us.  The quest for productivity means that being overworked and overtired is a badge of courage.  There is a fair amount of competitiveness in higher education. The Lake Woebegone Effect is alive and well in academia – everyone is expected to be above average in teaching, research, and service. 

A few years ago, someone close to me passed away suddenly.  His boss came by with a plate of break-and-bake cookies and said, “I’m sorry for your loss.  I need his computer back.”  This was one of those turning point moments. Another one was when my mother got sick with heart disease and cancer.  Before her illness, she was a fastidious homemaker.  One of my friends once remarked that she thought we were wealthy because our home was so clean.  When my Mom remarked she wouldn’t be able to clean her house anymore, one of her physical therapists remarked, “that is what you want your legacy to be?”

So what do these stories have to do with Fitness and Wellness in the Academy?  Well, I’ve come to realize that caring for yourself is critical if you want to stick around – and do the things you want to do.  Academia is unique in that we work A LOT, and we spend the rest of the time feeling guilty that we aren’t working.  To paraphrase a friend of mine, you have the flexibility to choose which 70 hours a week you want to work. There is also a hidden curriculum – how do you get it all done?  When is it ok to say no and when is it in your best interest to say yes? 

As a low (low-low) level supervisor, too, I’m hearing more about repetitive stress injuries,  increasing mental health issues,  and general anxiety of having to do more with less.  Yet when I look for resources on wellness and fitness for the unique needs of academics, I came up with nothing.  So, I decided to design this site. 

It is my hope that the resources I provide and the documentation of my journey is helpful and inspiring to you. My goal is to talk about the things no one is talking about with regard to healthy living in the academy.  I want to give practical advice – while there will be some links to meditation and yoga, I’ll try to keep those at a minimum.  Rather,  I’ll stick to evidence-based practices that will increase productivity and healthy living.  Leave a comment and let me know how I’m doing!