by Charles Howard, University Chaplain, University of Pennsylvania
In 2009 our Baccalaureate speaker—Dr. Kirk Byron Jones, author of the popular book Rest in the Storm—spoke to our graduating class on the subject “Daring to rest.”1 His remarks were geared towards young women and men preparing to enter into a myriad of professional fields and graduate study, daring them to balance their hard work with “hard rest.”
And yet, his words should not only be heeded by students and young professionals. Those who have taught and teach these students may also benefit from a gentle reminder to pause, rest, and take care of themselves.
The life of a professor, while bringing much honor and a great many joys, can also be very stressful and challenging. Teaching and doing research places high demands on professors in ways that many may not realize. The hours of course preparation, writing lesson plans, long days and nights in the lab doing one’s own research on top of supervising research assistants, grading papers, meeting with advisees, writing articles and book projects, lecturing, committee meetings, and off campus projects and collaborations can all contribute to some very challenging days. For many academics, the day-to-day is in addition to the stress of being up for tenure or waiting for grant applications—not to mention the realities of navigating our personal lives including relationships with partners, raising children, care for aging parents, health concerns, and more.
Admittedly, I am hesitant in asking professors to take time for rest and self care. One might argue that the reason you are serving as a professor at a place like Penn is because of all of the hard work that you have done over the course of your career. Further, the work that you are doing is important. Your long hours are leading to breakthroughs in research, lives saved, academic fields furthered, beautiful literature and art produced, better prepared professionals, and another generation of brilliant scholars. We expect and count on you to work hard.
Yet along with working hard, here is a challenge to also take care of yourselves. At Penn we have some of the brightest minds in the world, but you are also human. So please take care of yourselves.
Firstly, I want you to be here—for a long time. I love shaking the hands of recently retired professors who worked at the University for 30 or 40 years. None of these great citizens of the University have ever told me that they wished they had worked more hours in the day. Rather they described how they balanced hard work with rich conversation over lunch at the University Club, trips around the world for both research and pleasure, enjoyable time with colleagues who became good friends, regular appointments swimming at the gym or playing tennis. Take care of yourself so that you can be here!
In addition, another reason to pay attention to self care is to model a work-life balance for your students. Professors whom students look up to hold a great deal of influence in their lives. Perhaps many of you have drawn from the examples of your past advisers, mentors, and professors as you pursue your own academic career. Your students are watching you as well. Let’s strive to provide for them positive examples of healthy living and balance as they prepare for their future careers.
Finally, self care will only improve your work. The connections between a “good night’s sleep” and productivity at work are much documented. Yet, self care is more than sleep. Self care looks different for each of us. For some it is exercising (we have amazing facilities and classes here through PennRec). For others, it is the pursuit of hobbies and interests like reading, dancing, music, dining out, theater, or spending time in nature. Still for others this is cultivating their inner life through religion and spirituality, meditating, or just finding quiet time with loved ones.
Self care is also seeking help when we’re feeling stressed, anxious, or down. Our University’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available 24 hours a day to talk confidentially about both professional and personal challenges that anyone on our faculty or staff may have. Certainly our office as well as the campus cultural centers and hubs on campus are available (The Women’s Center, Makuu Black Cultural Center, The LGBT Center, La Casa Latina, The Greenfield Intercultural Center, and The Pan-Asian American Cultural House). Maybe it’s a trusted colleague who is the best person to talk to. Whoever it is, during those moments of overwhelming frustration, or anxiety, you don’t have to endure them alone.
There is much about Penn that is amazing and at the very top of that list is our world-class faculty. There is no Penn without you. You all take care of Penn so well, make sure that you also take care of yourselves.