Teaching and quiet quitting

Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay

I’ve been reading a lot of headlines lately about “quiet quitting.” Most of those headlines are about how stupid/inaccurate/misleading “quiet quitting” is as a term, which I don’t necessarily disagree with. And yet I’ve found myself thinking a lot about it lately, especially with regard to my teaching.

Quiet quitting, if you’re not familiar, does not actually have anything to do with quitting, which is part of why it’s such a dumb term. But my understanding is that it’s basically doing the bare minimum you need to in order to still be considered doing your job and not taking on anything extra in order to avoid burnout or as a general “screw you” to the constant pressure to always be maximally productive. Most of the people who criticize the term (though not the idea) say that what this is actually called is “setting healthy boundaries between work and other parts of your life.”

Personally, I’ve never had much of a problem with setting boundaries between my work life and other parts of my life. Even during the part of the pandemic where those of us at my institution were mostly working at home, I had no problem with ending my work day at a given time. Did I still sometimes think about work even during my “personal time”? Sure, but who doesn’t? But I wasn’t actively checking work e-mail or actually doing anything work-related. Lucky for me, no one ever seemed to expect me to.

The reason I’m thinking about quiet quitting now is because I find myself doing what feels to me like the bare minimum in a specific area of my work: teaching. Specifically, the credit course that I teach every semester.

(As a note: while I have, on occasion, used this space to acknowledge the ways in which teaching can be a bummer, I don’t generally post negative things about teaching on this blog, mostly because I don’t ever want one of my students to Google me and come across something like that. So on the very slim chance that that ever happens and an actual or prospective student of mine finds this post: please know that this is not about you. Not really.)

In the past, I’ve always spent a significant amount of my work time in the fall on teaching activities related specifically to my online course. I would spend at least some time every day responding to students’ posts in assigned discussion areas. I would send a lot of e-mails checking in and updating students on things like assignment deadlines. I would write a lot of comments to students while I graded their work. It wasn’t onerous but it was a lot.

I did all of this perfectly aware that most students were not reading a single thing that I wrote—not the discussion posts, not the e-mails, not the grading feedback. But because my course was fully online, I wanted students to be able to feel that I was an active presence in the class, similar to how I would be in an in-person classroom. I wanted them to know I was paying attention even if they weren’t.

This semester, I’m not doing that. I haven’t responded to a single discussion post. I created a grading rubric with some general comments that frees me from giving specific feedback (unless a student asks for it to help them understand why they got a certain grade). And though I always respond as quickly as possible to any messages students send me, I’ve been sending fewer e-mails to the class as a whole. The e-mails I’ve been sending are basically just templates in which I change the relevant information (e.g. an assignment due date) as needed.

By my estimate, I am spending about a quarter of the time on teaching activities this semester as I normally do.

On the one hand, this is a good thing. Giving all of that feedback and being so active in the course, at least at the level that I was doing, was clearly a waste of energy and more about me than about the students. Maybe a few have appreciated the engagement over the years but not enough to make it worth doing that all the time.

Having this time back is especially important because of my new role as a first-time manager and some of the challenges that I’ve had to deal with related to that, especially as my library undergoes a reorganization process that is having a direct effect on my own department.

Unfortunately, though, I think this decision is having a bit of a negative effect on the students. There is a noticeable lack of engagement on their part that has gotten worse as the course goes along. I can tell many of them are just completing the course activities without actually reading or attempting to absorb any of the materials. That’s not so unusual—you have at least some of that in an online course no matter what—but it does seem worse than it’s been in past courses. I can’t help but feel that if I was more active and showing more interest, the students might too.

But I just…can’t. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I care that the students aren’t engaged. I’m finding it difficult to care about any of it.

Don’t worry: this isn’t depression or anything like that. The cause of this lack of motivation doesn’t have anything to do with mental health issue so much as it does the fact that right now everything about my job and my work is in a state of transition, one that I will likely be stuck in for at least another year. It’s hard to feel motivated about anything when the people above you are making changes and you have no idea which of the changes will stick and which won’t.

One change that is likely to stick, unfortunately, is an effort to discontinue the credit-bearing information literacy course that I and the librarians in my department teach–the very course I’m writing about here. The spring 2023 semester will likely be the last semester that we offer these courses.

The reasons for the change are complicated. Some of them I frankly don’t disagree with, at least not entirely. But these courses have been an important part of my professional identity for almost twelve years (I even wrote a book about it!) and I’ve had to spend some time lately thinking not only about who I will be but also what my department (which is centered on these courses) will be without them. It is a big change that will affect not just my day-to-day job but also my research and other activities.

So amidst all of this I’m not doing as much for students as I usually would not because I’m feeling burned out but because my morale is a bit low. Which is not great, I admit. But at the end of the day, you have to do what you can with what you have and where you are. I’m sorry that my current students may not be having the best experience in my course or seeing the best of me as a teacher but unfortunately this is all I can give right now. I hope they would understand that if they knew.

2 thoughts on “Teaching and quiet quitting

  1. Allison, thank you for writing this. Good luck with the rest of the semester of your class (as well as with the long reorganization process, yikes). Your class is asynchronous, right? I haven’t taught an asynchronous class before as instructor of record but have been embedded in them. It is hard as a teacher when you don’t have a chance to get to know the students as persons/individuals. Discussion boards and posting videos doesn’t go very far toward this, assuming those tasks are even relevant to the course. Hard for the students, too, to build a community and get to know each other.


    • Thanks for reading! You’re right, my class is asynchronous. It’s definitely much harder to connect with students (or for students to connect with each other) in that environment, which can definitely also lead to issues with engagement.


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