Saturday, February 14, 2015

Six Years Ago on RYS: Ophelia From Oxnard on Online Burnout.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I teach online, for a mainly online university. For the most part, I enjoy it -- I like getting to teach in my jammies, most of my students are older and more mature, and I have a lot of flexibility.

However, I recently came up against one of the big pitfalls of teaching online, and I am left feeling frustrated and burned out.

Two weeks ago, I received The Call. My mother, 1500 miles away, had been taken to the ER, and it didn't look good. This was a Sunday, so I contacted the school, knowing I wouldn't hear from them until the next day. In the meantime, I had no choice -- I had to grade.

The next day, I received my official answer: There's no way to get a sub. Either I give the class to someone else completely, or I just work through it. Given that I need my paycheck, and I do enjoy the work and would want to return to the class (it was half-way over), I decided to just keep working. But I felt quite frustrated at such a system -- surely there has to be a better way to help online instructors who are experiencing a family emergency?

In the meantime, I had to make arrangements to fly out to see Mom. I did let me students know something was up, though I didn't give them any details. And to their credit, quite a few offered good wishes, prayers, and vibes.

While my mother was dying at the hospice, I went into the family room to use their computers to get some work done. The day after she died, I spent hours (8 or 10) going through her apartment, then came back to the hotel to spend another 3 or 4 hours grading and answering student questions.

When I got home from her funeral (I read "Death Be Not Proud" of course), I was back online, taking care of class stuff.

Now I am home, and trying to get caught up with my work. But my students make it difficult. I find it hard to answer questions that seem to me quite trivial -- if I had less control or more alcohol, all of my answers would read, "Who cares, my mom just died?"

What takes the cake, what has burned me to a crisp is this: They had a huge assignment -- 10% of their grade -- due this weekend, a week after my mom's funeral. I reminded them about it several times, wrote some helpful hints (by hints, I mean answers), did everything I could to make it easy on them (and me). And yet I get the same excuses, the same late papers. One student hadn't turned it in because they hadn't time to answer questions because they'd been busy shoveling snow. And another didn't turn it in because they'd forgotten where the file was saved. And others just didn't turn it in at all.

And I think to myself, "I should care, why?" Why should I care about any of this? Why should I want to help students -- why did I go out of my way to help them -- if they in turn treat the class like this? I spent so much energy trying to get my work done, and students can't even bother to remember where they saved their files?

I don't know what to think. I need my job; I can't quit. I used to enjoy teaching, even though I've had my share of snowflakes. But now, nothing. Maybe it's just grief talking, but I don't even care if I care again.


  1. When stuff like this happens, I thank the FSM that I can't muster the initiative to go start the car and "forget" to open the garage door.

    Students treat the class like that because they just do. They may grow out of that, they may not. You can only control what you do and some of what you feel about it, and you do what you need to do because to do otherwise is not who you are.

  2. Ugh. I'm not sure an adjunct teaching a face-to-face class would have gotten a much-different answer (the basic rule in many places seems to be teach, quit, or arrange/pay for a substitute, regardless of what's going on in your or your loved ones' lives), but the online environment does make it easier to expect more than is humane, or, in some cases, humanly possible. I'm pretty sure any of my colleagues would sub for me (f2f or online) in such circumstances, and I would do the same for them, but actually see each other now and then, and therefore know each other as human beings. A mostly-online university makes that harder (especially if the school discourages even virtual contact among employees -- who might, horrors, use such opportunities to organize as well to share ideas and treat each other like human beings whether or not the institution does).