Moving the Goalposts on Faculty Workloads

By Tina Kelleher

Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching by Rebecca Pope-Ruark. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. Image courtesy of the University of Chicago Press.

Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal by Rebecca Pope-Ruark. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark has published within a five-year span two books that each capture the tensions associated with managing the escalating expectations of fac­ulty workloads. These difficulties accelerate despite how the global pandemic heightened awareness of long-standing, regressive forms of “cultural taxation” that systemati­cally disadvantage female-identified faculty members, first-generation scholars, and scholars of color. Recent hype about how generative AI tools may transform learn­ing and workplace productivity makes the pairing of Pope-Ruark’s books an especially rich opportu­nity to reflect upon the persistent contradictions and implicit biases surrounding faculty professional development.

Agile Faculty outlines some ways a project management framework first used in software engineering and the technology industry, as part of the “Agile” methodology, can be applied to faculty workload contexts to optimize productivity and to reinvigorate faculty members. The framework’s name, “Scrum,” derives from a rugby move in which opposing teams lock arms and attempt to use their feet to gain control of the ball. Players can get hurt whether they are working together or not; control depends on grinding effort and synergistic coordination among teammates. The book endeavors to adapt the esprit de corps of this methodology to the demands of academic work, offering in its eight chapters practical strate­gies to organize research, service, and teaching responsibilities. The opening author’s note and chapter 1, however, consider only cursorily how or why faculty burdens may be unevenly distributed; likewise, chapter 2, “Working the Agile Way Using Scrum,” largely takes at face value the loaded class, racial, and sexual connotations of some of Scrum’s lingo, which uses the terms master and servant to describe the management of team dynamics.

Pope-Ruark first turned to Agile hoping to enable “more authentic” collaborative group assignments—particularly for those done in partnership with community organizations, which involves balancing a range of needs in order to complete projects and to realize student-learning objectives in mutually beneficial ways. I found chapters 7 and 8, “Organizing Your Course as an Epic” and “Planning and Implementing Scrum-Based Group Projects,” particularly illuminat­ing for thinking not only about my own pedagogical practices but also about a cross-disciplinary curricular issue tied to a university committee that I chair. Portions of the AAUP’s Policy Documents and Reports (known as the Redbook) articulate shared governance policies, principles, and recom­mendations to uphold democratic tenets in American higher edu­cation but remain silent on the pragmatic details of managing committee dynamics. Chapter 5 of Agile Faculty, “Leading Effec­tive Agile Committees,” sidelines Robert’s Rules of Order and enu­merates a range of techniques to structure meetings (for example, a series of questions called “the 5 whys” to identify the root cause of problems). She describes chairs as akin to “servant leaders”—a term that the recently updated Scrum Guide, a publication explaining the methodology, rephrases as “true leaders who serve” by, in effect, managing up and down. However, shared governance can be more vexing than described— particularly if faculty members jockey for an active role when resources and time are scarce or if administrations disregard alto­gether their input, no matter their educational vision or informed expertise.

Published five years later, Unraveling Faculty Burnout reflects on the consequences of striving to fulfill wide-ranging but amorphous professional expectations. Pope-Ruark shares her midcareer burnout crisis to encourage others to acknowledge their own difficulties in balanc­ing professional demands with personal priorities in the academic workplace. Definitions of burnout by both the American Psycho­logical Association and the World Health Organization ground the phenomenon in occupational experiences rather than psycho­logical illness. Because burnout is a syndrome with conditions that contribute to its occurrence, those who suffer from it can heal by managing and overcoming it. Featuring a range of interviews, vignettes, and self-reflection exercises, Pope-Ruark’s follow-up to Agile Faculty considers how to acknowledge one’s limits as pri­orities shift and as goalposts keep moving, sometimes to the point of harming an individual’s personal and professional well-being. Chapters 3 through 6 explore the four personal values she identi­fies as key for self-care: purpose, compassion, connection, and balance. These can supplement Scrum’s five professional values— focus, commitment, openness, courage, and respect—that Agile Faculty attempts to map onto seven implicit values driving the professoriate to demonstrate the applicability of Scrum to the academic workforce: flexibility (for focus), autonomy (for com­mitment), academic freedom and collegiality (for openness), profes­sional growth (for courage), and respect and equity (for respect). In both books, equity for whom and for what nonetheless remain abiding questions.

Importantly, Scrum assumes a focus different from the flexibility required from faculty, who often toggle between concurrent duties and responsibilities across their workload triumvirate of teach­ing, research, and service; it presumes that teams focus on one thing at a time and stay together over the long haul. The academic workplace, by contrast, tiers and unbundles faculty labor accord­ing to hierarchies and in ways that often isolate and segregate colleagues based on areas of specialization—which thwarts inclusion across ranks, differ­ing disciplinary cultures, and social identities. Furthermore, true freedom to conduct research requires access to funding, leaves, and sabbaticals that are not options for the majority of faculty; many tenured midcareer faculty who have risen through the ranks may face a discourag­ing landscape on this front, too. Some faculty, like Pope-Ruark, may shift focus whether they are experiencing burnout or not, hoping to leverage their experi­ences into other opportunities in academic-adjacent fields or related positions. In the author’s case, scholarship on teaching and learning led from a faculty position at Elon University to an administrative role as the first director of the Office of Faculty Development at a highly competi­tive, research-intensive institution, the Georgia Institute of Technol­ogy, where the work environment likely offers varied challenges and supports that tenure at smaller and less stable institutions does not guarantee. Indeed, Unravel­ing Faculty Burnout launched alongside a podcast series, The Agile Academic: A Podcast for Women in Higher Education, for those (presumptively designated as women) interested in supplemen­tary conversations and topics or for those who have to multitask amid competing demands on their time.

Both books share some fea­tures commonly found in faculty professional development projects, leaving their relation to diversity, equity, and inclusion and human resource initiatives at best aspira­tional and at worst disingenuous. For instance, Agile Faculty posits mainly hypothetical situations for the use of Scrum, bracketing inequities shaped by rank or by institutional type, while acknowl­edging in the opening pages that faculty members of color confront “subtle discrimination across all areas of work causing negative environments that affect pro­ductivity.” Pope-Ruark does not meaningfully address or contex­tualize the disparate incentives and conditions for engaging in Scrum team-planning activities. Instead, Agile Faculty showcases options for implementing Scrum in an iterative feedback loop of potential “continuous improve­ment,” defying the gravitational pulls of labor and other human realities—to the point that tips are given to ward off “social loafers” in committee and student group-project situations. Similarly, while Unraveling Faculty Burnout sets out to redress some of her first book’s blind spots, its individual­istic case studies make it harder to grasp how lessons learned can be aggregated into options for col­lective action to challenge broader systemic inequalities perpetu­ated by neoliberalism and white supremacist mindsets.

Transforming academic workplace cultures in lasting ways requires outreach to all those implicated in the existing dysfunctions, but encouraging participation in professional development remains an ongo­ing challenge. Pope-Ruark, for instance, solicited varied narratives for Unraveling Faculty Burnout but provides a disclaimer: “I wish more men had connected with me to tell their stories. And I deeply wish I could have con­nected with more women from marginalized populations.” Such mea culpas are the bane of the endeavor, as the challenge becomes how to help those who lack culturally responsive sup­ports and how to protect faculty from other forms of institutional betrayal (a concept associated with the work of psycholo­gist Jennifer Freyd). Chapter 1, “Culture,” dwells on a range of questions surrounding who participates in workshops and why—particularly insofar as only those sponsored by compliance-driven HR initiatives tend to be mandatory. As Pope-Ruark conducted burnout-resilience workshops during the pandemic, for instance, some attendees noticed skewed demographics of female-identified faculty members and contemplated why others might not attend. One speculative response to that question is that those with a problem find it hard­est to recognize as much, but the flip side could be that the status quo disproportionately benefits some and harms others—in ways that professional development workshops cannot holistically address, even if they can be impor­tant preliminary interventions.

Ironically, Pope-Ruark explains midway through Agile Faculty that the Scrum framework first arose to address burnout in the software industry; previous processes followed rigidly linear, protracted timelines, which often meant that requirements shifted midstream in ways that no longer met actual needs. Because in a software-as-a-service environment the product must be responsive to user feedback, Scrum incorporates daily “sprints” consisting of fifteen-minute meetings in which the team debriefs and asks for clarification or help as needed. The “Scrum master” oversees team members and interfaces with the “product owner,” the person coordinating a range of resource concerns integral to the how, when, and why of rollouts and upgrades.

In the academic workplace, it is sometimes unclear how the Scrum roles transfer; this becomes especially evident in chapter 3, “Organizing and Prioritizing Your Personal Research Agenda,” when the author states, “I act as my own Scrum Master in addition to Product Owner (and team).” Agile has been adapted and modified across a range of sectors outside of IT, but updates consistently recommend that the product owner and the Scrum master (no less, the team) should not be the same person for quality control and “velocity” reasons. Chap­ter 4, “Running a Collaborative Research Project or Program,” provides tips for collaboration in a lab or across disciplines and institutions, and those scenarios seem to correspond better to the approach’s possibilities. Nonethe­less, anyone considering Scrum in academic contexts would likely benefit from reading, not speed-reading, Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s 2016 The Slow Profes­sor to keep perspective on the myriad political and corporatist pressures in the mix.

Formulaic statements for establishing end goals with Scrum strikingly resemble generative AI prompt-engineering role-playing strategies relevant to the implicit biases in both books: for example, “As a <type of user> I want to be able to do <something specific> so that I can <accomplish some goal or enjoy some kind of benefit>.” Many have recently performed thought experiments using AI to model social role-playing in professional settings without questioning the outputs’ large language model processing and sourcing methods, particularly with respect to gender roles and other assumptions about social identities that may discount how someone’s time is valued or not and why. Jeff Sutherland, a Scrum cofounder and one of the seven­teen white male software engineers who signed the 2001 Agile Manifesto, has recently noted that the Scrum framework was used by developers in the creation of generative AI. He indicated that AI can act as a teammate who conducts diagnostics, helping to improve overall performance by identifying work that still needs doing and by suggesting addi­tional functionalities or research to pursue. In Scrum reflection situations, for example, AI can advise human teammates on why cross-functionality matters for achieving optimal velocities. His son J. J. Sutherland, a former NPR reporter whose coverage included the Pentagon and war zones, has taken his father’s approach into other contexts, coauthoring with him the 2014 Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, also coincidentally known by the shorthand “Red Book.” Scrum’s ostensible aim is to make work gratifying and less stressful, so that individuals feel as if the sum of their contributions were greater than the parts, and to acknowledge mental health needs as integral to sustaining team dynamics—to avoid burnout and to broaden impact, despite fear of change or failure.

Pope-Ruark’s 2022 book about burnout perhaps misses an opportunity to reconsider whether there is such a thing as culturally responsive Agile, particularly given that Sutherland and others updated the Scrum Guide in the first year of the pandemic to make it less prescriptive and more open to adaptive uses. Can the frame­work be reverse engineered to organize teams dedicated to trans­forming academic workplaces, even if the “product owners” of academia (whoever they may be) have shifted priorities away from the pursuit of the common good through higher education? What kind of Scrum master would block such transformative possibilities or not recognize how terms such as servant leadership might alien­ate those labeled “less productive” for discriminatory and unwelcom­ing reasons, particularly without meaningful access to “account­abilities” that manage up and not only down? The Scrum skill set (especially skills tied to team building) arguably could be trans­ferable for organizing colleagues in academia as well as in the IT industry. Many workers in both sectors share a hope not only for more humane working conditions but also for more inclusive oppor­tunities so that diverse individuals within teams can realize their full potential and achieve outcomes of enduring value that avoid ampli­fying implicit biases. Too often, social inequities become politi­cally weaponized in viral attacks on academic freedom, on funding for K–16 education, and on Black women leaders and underrepre­sented scholars, who find their well-being threatened by those fearful of losing their own existing privileges, no matter how healing or how productive such changes could be for our democracy or for the planet as a whole.

Tina M. Kelleher is senior lecturer at Towson University, where she has taught courses in computer and information scienc­es; English; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and the Honors College. Her email address is [email protected]