On 23 September, 2022, Teaching American Studies Network (TASN) met over Zoom. The subject under discussion was ‘Well-Being in the Learning and Teaching Space’. The meeting was led by Dr. Catherine Armstrong (Director of People & Culture and Reader in Modern History at Loughborough University and the current British Association of American Studies Treasurer).
Do you work during your official annual leave? Do you work over the weekend, or on weekdays beyond your hired hours? Are Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) being held to account for the well-being of their staff? Where does the responsibility end for lecturers and begin instead for an institution’s counselling services? And what do these institutions offer their staff to relieve their concerns, stresses and queries? The workload of tutorials/lecturing, administrative work, and classroom experience, as well as pastoral work with students, is rarely, if ever, fairly weighted.
These, and many more, are questions that are increasingly being brought to the foreground by university
staff in an effort to find a more reasonable balance, and in order to develop methods of well-being support.
In this reflection, there will be no straightforward solutions or answers offered, but rather a compilation of suggestions that were raised during the recent meeting of the TASN, in hope of encouraging further, vital and vigorous discussion and action to address this important issue.
At the meeting the attending members of TASN discussed some of these concerns. In preparation, participants were invited to read ‘“Look After the Staff and They Would Look After the Students”: Cultures of Wellbeing and Mental Health in the University Setting’, by Brewster et al.To begin, Dr. Armstrong set out the following main discussion points:
1) Creating a rewarding and challenging relationship between student and teacher
2) Institutional support for staff well-being
3) The fundamental but problematic process of staff training
4) The impact of broader workplace culture on staff well-being
5) The role of BAAS in supporting staff
To answer the first of these questions, we may ask: To what extent are we, as HEI teachers, expected to give of ourselves and to what extent to withhold? Spending time with a student who is struggling could have a toll on a teacher’s well-being and could, as a result, have a toll on the classroom experience for other students. Ensuring the well-being of a student can be rewarding, but poses a challenge if there is little support within the university setting for the staff. Pastoral situations can also be triggering in a way that the student would not be aware of and therefore could have a snowballing impact.
Dr. Armstrong introduced the relief efforts implemented by the Loughborough University, which includes eight one-hour therapy sessions provided free to staff. Considering the current cost and lengthy queues for therapy, this is no small measure. Dr. Lydia Plath (Associate
Professor of US History and current Chair of BAAS) shared that at the University of Warwick, you would be pushed through over telephone immediately to discuss with a counsellor. Dr. Gyorgy Toth (Lecturer of History at the University of Stirling) advised that, in Stirling, staff are entitled to six sessions of counselling through Occupational Health Services. This shows that at least some universities are heading in the right direction.
Nevertheless, there is still a noticeable disparity between the more established educational staff and the PhD candidates and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) who shoulder so much of the teaching in many departments despite their notably less secure contracts. For emerging scholars seeking to establish themselves, there is a constant pressure to provide support beyond that which they are paid for. Many are unsure how or where to set boundaries and establish clear expectations for their students. Some solutions suggested by TASN participants were to establish working hours only as per contract and make those clear to your students and colleagues; to re-direct students to the appropriate services with confidence they will be in better hands with trained professionals; and to stick to regular break times—annual leave, weekends, or after hours. It was also suggested that some of this can be established within one’s email signature by setting out clear commitments and expectations.
As Dr. Armstrong noted, email seems hardly to be distinguished from instant messaging today. This contributes to sky-high student expectations of promptness that are, if we’re honest, impossible to meet. All attendees agreed furthermore that most students have little to no idea what their teachers’ responsibilities are beyond the classroom —lesson planning, administrative duties at various levels, marking, their own research, book writing and other writing goals, peer reviewing, external examiner duties and more, to say nothing of a life beyond the institution.
Dr. Plath reminded attendees of the core importance of addressing ‘iron triangle’ of class, race and gender in HEI workplaces. It is essential to recognise not just what teachers are expected to deal with what and how they teach, but also to be constantly conscious of the potential triggering impact of certain topics on students. To quote Dr. Plath once more, those of us teaching American Studies ‘don’t usually have the luxury of distance from historical subjects which other fields might, [due to] the currentness of our topic’.
It was agreed that the best way to protect boundaries on both sides is to establish effective staff training on all levels. This kind of adaptive training would advise, re-direct and provide assistance when and where needed for staff and student body alike. Institutions need to be held to account for the disconnect between what students are advised and provided with, and what the staff is being advised and provided with. This is where associations such as TASN, BAAS, European Association for American Studies (EAAS), Scottish Association for the Study of America (SASA) and the Irish Association for American Studies (IAAS), alongside journals such as Journal for American Studies (JAS), U.S. Studies Online (USSO) and Journal of Further and Higher Education, can provide members and associates an effective support network that works to enact a positive change in staff well-being.
It should be a priority at every HEI to recognise that staff well-being must be at the heart of the conversation, alongside the well-being of students. Indeed, the two are deeply connected. Unhappy lecturers don’t make good teachers.