do work that matters

Why I Care

As a 2014 CATL faculty consultant I have spent a number of hours concerned with facilitating the development of our colleagues during their early years on campus. Those of us who have been at it for a while recognize the importance of mentoring our nouveau faculty. But in addition, I value the importance of faculty revitalization, as we all recognize that the intense 24/7 demands and politics of academic life have the potential for burnout.

This is not an anecdotal observation—a search of the scholarship on faculty burnout yields pages of titles, from “Academic burnout: Faculty responsibility and institutional climate, “to “Emotional labor in American professors.” This burnout issue does not only exist on U.S. soil. There are studies from Turkey, China, the Netherlands, and Columbia. And then there was the opinion in the New York Times Sunday Review of May 30, 2014, entitled, “Why You Hate Work.” Authors Schwartz and Porath speak to many of us academics: they claim that our disenfranchisement with works stems from not feeling appreciated, finding it difficult to get anything done, and feeling as if our efforts do not make a difference anyway. Yet, we all know of faculty who have been on our campus for many years, whocontinue to remain enthusiastic and passionate about the teachinglearning process. What motivates them, especially when the tangible rewards are so meager? Why do they continue to care?

For this blog at the end of the 2014 spring semester, I reflect on my own journey from burnout to recommitment to my teaching. Why do I continue to care? For the most part, this journey juxtaposes the professional with the personal:

I actually have three major sources of inspiration for my teaching.

One source is my daughter Laura. Laura received her Master’s Degree in Student Affairs and Leadership from the University of St. Thomas on May 24th. So I actually had a second graduation to attend the week following UW-Green Bay’s. This time, I was the ridiculously proud parent in the audience. When the processional began, and that all-too-familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” accompanied the sea of caps, gowns, and hoods, I cried like a baby. The rituals were very familiar, the commencement address themes I have heard before. But I was there to honor my daughter as I was there to honor the graduating students of UW-Green Bay.

illene cupit

Laura and Illene

My teaching insight from Laura stems from her high school days. I remember once coming home from a full day of teaching, drained, and running on fumes. I also was fuming because my classes were not going well, students were not participating, and clearly were not connecting with me or the material. And so I whined to my child about “those students,” clearly placing the blame for the poor classroom chemistry on their shoulders. To which my daughter replied: “Mom—when you look at those rows of kids, they are me sitting there. And the reason why there are so many of them not responding to you is because, like me, they have a history of burnt out teachers who stopped caring about their students and their learning process. So if you feel that way, go and do something else and open the door for another teacher who does care. And if you do still care, picture me sitting in the back row.” Wow—it was an epiphanous moment—changing me forever as a teacher.

My second source of inspiration is my son, who currently holds the position of Director of Jazz Studies at Boise State University (sorry—I am a proud mother). Early on in Alex’s graduate studies, he made a shift from concentrating on being a performer on trumpet to being a teacher. It was a deliberate decision. Alex found that he loved teaching—must be something genetic. He was excited about helping students become the best musicians they possibly could, looking for solutions to technical problems, instilling musical maturity, and fostering a love for the art of making music. Alex and I have had many conversations about teaching, what students need, and what makes effective pedagogy. Although his teaching experiences are very different than mine, his enthusiasm, innovative ideas, and genuine concern that his students learn have influenced my own pedagogical techniques in countless ways. I cannot teach my students to play the trumpet, but I have had them journal about their learning process (an Alex idea), look for patterns in their learning (also an Alex idea), and keep on demanding excellence from my students (not unique to Alex, but we frequently talk about this). Most importantly, Alex reminds me that our careers are a gift because we get to do work that is meaningful to us.

Finally, it is my students at UW-Green Bay who have inspired me. Truly I hate it when I hear complaints about the current generation and their bored culture of self-indulgence and indolent materialism. All I see are students with lives complicated by demanding jobs and family, and a passion to create a meaningful existence. And for as long as I am able, I want to guide them through the process of discovery and help them to develop a thirst for life-long learning. If I can teach them that their education is more than just the degree, and that there are committed faculty who want to guide them along the way, then I will consider my days of teaching to be of value. It is why I continue to care.


In the New York Times article mentioned earlier, Schwartz and Porath specify that when four core needs are met people are happiest in their jobs. I am not certain I fulfill all four, which involve opportunities to renew and recharge (alas the summer is too short), feeling valued and appreciated (although I often get wonderful letters of gratitude from my students), opportunities for mental focus (too often I feel like a scatterbrain here in my office) and feeling connected to a higher purpose at work. Ah—the last one is what keeps me going. I hope that I am not totally delusional, but I do believe that I have made a difference through my work with my students. And I certainly feel that is true of my incredible colleagues.

Happy Summer!

Illene CupitIllene Cupit,
Professor, Human Development
Faculty Consultant

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