Early-Career Teachers and Chronic Boredom

Based on: Finkielsztein, M. (2021). From Passionate Engagement to Chronic Boredom in Polish Academia: An Overview of Early-Career Motivation and Systemic Contributory Factors. In: J. Crutchley, Z. Nahaboo & N. Rao (Eds.), Early Career Teachers: International Narratives of Transitions within Higher Education (pp. 121, 123-125). London: Bloomsbury.

Pedagogical Predicaments

Teachers often find themselves having to participate in ongoing development and innovation in order to adapt, survive and thrive within a shifting higher education context (Hamel & Valikangas, 2003). Pedagogic frailty exists amongst university teachers when there is a mismatch between the qualities of interaction within their teaching environment and the pressures that inhibit teaching practice (Kinchin & Winstone, 2017). For an early career teacher (ECT), it can be risky to attempt to innovate or implement teaching practices that align with their personal teaching identities. This approach can be rewarding if individual values and identities are in harmony with their teaching environment, but when teachers’ values are in conflict with institutional practices, pedagogic dissonance develops. If this disconnect occurs, an ECT either may be rendered pedagogically frail or may become more resilient, forging new identities as they adapt to change. A significant factor that determines how an ECT may react to this kind of situation is risk aversion. This is understood as ‘a general unwillingness to accept choices where the outcomes are uncertain’ (Winstone, 2017, p. 35). The institutional environment can also have an enabling or limiting effect on an individual’s desire to engage in pedagogic transformation. […] Their process of adaptation can involve ‘struggle, denial, acceptance, revitalisation and validation of self’ (Clark & Flores, 2014, p. 6) – and, I would add, chronic boredom.(p. 121)

From Passionate Engagement to Chronic Boredom

It is common for many Early Career Teachers (ECTs) in Higher Education (HE) to experience mixed feelings of enthusiasm, motivation and apprehension. The initial enthusiasm diminishes, only to be superseded by opportunity cost (the cost of the lost opportunities due to engagement in an activity), frustration, fatigue and/or boredom in teaching. The institutional context usually plays a considerable role in attitudinal change. The above situation constitutes an adequate explanatory model of my experience as an ECT in the Polish academic system. The chapter, of which this short post is only as short introduction to, provides a reconstruction of the transition between the enthusiastic approach towards teaching that I had at the beginning of my PhD studies and the dispiritedness that I experienced by the end. The chapter examines the systemic factors that have contributed to the shift in my attitude towards teaching over the course of my initial years in the role as a teacher.

I started my teaching activity in a big state university (with more than fifty thousand students) with well-established internal structures (more than twenty departments with many institutes, centres, etc.). My teaching history is to some extent characteristic of many Polish ECTs in social sciences working within state academic institutions. As a fresh PhD student, I occasionally taught classes to cover for a senior teacher (my PhD advisor or colleagues from my unit) in their absence. At the time, it was a totally new experience for me, characterized by substantial stress and a sense of both responsibility and mission. I wanted to teach in an interesting, engaging, less tedious and not-so-strictly-academic way that I had experienced from some of my own teachers. To some extent, it seemed to work quite nicely as long as it was a one-off teaching session. Then, in my third year of PhD studies, I started to co-teach my PhD advisor’s classes, which was the only real opportunity for me to gain a sustained teaching experience in the institution. I was lucky to have a liberal and open-minded mentor who gave me considerable freedom in running these sessions. I was even able to propose my own course that aligned with my PhD research. Sometimes I taught almost all classes during a semester-long course. In other cases, classes were split evenly, which meant that I taught classes (three or four courses) every two weeks. After two semesters of teaching collaboration, I was surprised to fi nd that my initial enthusiasm and excitement for teaching was slowly superseded by fatigue, general dispiritedness and ‘chronic boredom.’

To be clear, I was not bored in class. I was engaged in every single class-related activity, yet I felt a diminishing general engagement in and enthusiasm for teaching. Of course, this can be explained by the opponent-process theory of motivation (Solomon & Corbit, 1978), which claims that every affective experience that can be described in terms of pleasure/displeasure is followed by an ‘opponent process.’ Thus, with repeated exposure the primary process wanes while the opponent process is amplified. In the case of teaching, this meant that the initial positive affective experience of thrill, along with the prolonged exposure to the same set of circumstances, was followed by an opposing process of chronic boredom. My motivation towards actual teaching was significantly fading. This had been influenced by a plethora of reasons, including, among others:

(a) the fact that I was not additionally paid for teaching (I had a PhD scholarship that did not include teaching responsibilities);

(b) I was spending almost the entire week on preparing classes (the subject of the majority of classes was not in my area of doctoral research), which made it difficult to fulfil the rest of my obligations (especially PhD research, writing, publishing);

(c) as the end date for my PhD studies was approaching, it significantly increased the feeling of opportunity cost of teaching;

(d) I was familiarizing myself with the implicit rules of academia, which consist of the relatively low prestige of teaching, a precarious employment situation and dubious career prospects for young, early career academics.

Later, when I started teaching courses at various Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) on short-term contracts, I faced similar enthusiasm-related problems. Ultimately, I have found myself in the paradoxical situation where I am keen about teaching but not particularly eager to actually teach.

In the chapter published in the book Early Career Teachers: International Narratives of Transitions within Higher Education (Bloomsbury, 2021) I raised some of the systemic contributory factors that I have found to have contributed to my decreasing motivation for teaching, which were

(1) precarious conditions of work, job insecurity and lack of belonging to the institution;

(2) limited career prospects for academic teachers and teaching overload;

(3) undervaluing of teaching and the sense of opportunity cost caused by socialization towards a primarily researcher identity; and

(4) a highly hierarchical Polish academic system leading to a limited sense of
agency amongst ECTs.

*This post is based on the introduction to the chapter, pp. 123-125.

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