Creating Boundaries: Struggles of Being a Black Woman in Higher Education

Last spring I attended a conference and sat in on a session that featured a panel with both professors and students talking about student achievement. The one common thing I heard repeated was this idea of how professors, if they really cared, needed to be available at all times. In fact, one student asserted that she felt that professors who really cared should be able to be reached at any time she needed them. Any. Time.

Pause

Now, as someone that definitely tries to work with students and knows that the job does not end when I get home in this profession, I found this rhetoric to be a bit problematic to say the least. The funny part about it was that at the same conference, I attended a workshop conducted by a doctoral student whose dissertation was focused on research showing how Black women professors at community colleges frequently suffer more from stress, anxiety, and burnout than professors of other demographics. I know from experience that the expectations expressed by those students from the first panel have a direct connection to the latter subject matter.

Now, we could have a whole conversation here on boundaries, particularly when it comes to one’s work and personal life. But keeping it to academia, I’ll be blunt:  It is ridiculous for people to preach this [constant availability] to people. As is, the biggest part of teaching, that many don’t realize, is that the job doesn’t end when we get home.  In addition to teaching you’re also expected to do committee work and (at many colleges anyway) to keep up a research agenda. All of these things (research and writing especially) take up time. Now while being there for students is first and foremost, this idea of always being on call to me means that at some point, there is not a line drawn between the job and the one thing I have not mentioned here – a personal life. The irony of this rhetoric from that conference panel is that I recall clearly when I first got into teaching, one of the main things we were advised was to make sure that we had a personal life outside of the job. They emphasized that making this job your whole world can lead to burnout and that having boundaries were needed and necessary. Needless to say, it is frustrating to hear some people endorsing the exact opposite.

While I know that this conversation could be applied to anyone in academia, my experience and that of others I know, leads me to see that this comes down harder on Black professors and Black women professors in particular.  We’re expected to be more accessible, to be more flexible, to be workhorses, and to be more understanding and open.  The difference I’ve personally found is that there are those that handle or perceive it differently. I have friends that welcome the intermixing of their personal and professional lives. To be honest, when I first started, I used to be almost the same way. I would check my emails all the time and carry my late night grading and responding to student concerns into what would sometimes result in back-and forth email chains. I even thought it was cute to go to bed and have my laptop beside me because I was working on a presentation or something for a class before I fell asleep.

Bruh!

All “being available 24-7” did was lead to a growing sense of burnout. I now see that that led to me being disillusioned with my job and carrying that negative attitude into the classroom. Additionally, as someone who writes outside of the academy, and in particular talks and writes about Black women and Black culture a lot, I found that I was trying to balance two parts of my life (which honestly, is still an area I am trying to reconcile as I unfortunately don’t get to teach or talk about at my school). So, ultimately, I realized that if I was going to continue, boundaries were needed.  What that looked like for me was taking my work email off my phone and only checking it between 9-5 (with only a few exceptions). It meant creating set times to grade and plan, and scheduling times to do my writing. It also meant never taking anything work related, even if it’s just working on a PowerPoint on my laptop, into my bedroom. Ever. I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to take a mental health day every now and then. It’s sad that it took me getting migraines to learn, but I learned it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still try to be there for my students. In particular, I have a soft spot for students that I see who are going above and beyond and putting in the work. But I can’t be all things to everyone, and sometimes that means saying no.  As studies continue to show, self-care is a real need. As Black women in particular, we often have so many expectations and roles to play, both at work and in our personal lives. Creating boundaries, and enforcing them, is a key to preserving our mental health, and in fact, is a big part of self-care. Hopefully, you can learn from me. Don’t let it get to the point that you have migraines to realize you have to make some changes and put up those boundaries.

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