Graffitti collage of a woman with a tiger emerging from her skull; both are weeping neon tears.

We Get Knocked Down, But We Get Up Again: Discourses of Resilience, Realities of Burnout

Gen Z readers might need to refresh their understanding of this critical 90s touchstone. For the record, I just played it for my four-year-old and he pronounced it “bad.” Evidently, the kids are expressly not alright.

I have been in and around universities my whole life, in varying levels of awareness about governance and disruption. I am no stranger to discord. I am no stranger to protest. And I usually kind of know what’s up. In general, I make it my business to take the temperature of things and re/act accordingly; I love a hard question, a difficult chat. People like to tell me things; it used to make me uncomfortable, but the older I get the more I see it as a superpower, to be entrusted with hard stories. As a frontline educational technologist, I have spent the last two years collecting the stories of the pandemic from colleagues at every spot on the continuum of readiness and preparedness, and I feel like I have kept tabs on the temperature of my community.

To me, it has never felt like it feels right now.

As I said to a colleague the other day, at least in March of 2020 we had mania and panic.

I don’t know what it’s like in your circles, but in mine — which, thanks to Twitter, span a broad range of English-language academics, and sometimes a little beyond — everyone is done. Everyone is burnt out and tired and feeling pulled beyond what they can do. And in many ways, things feel bleaker than they did at the beginning of the pandemic, because we’re now all too aware that everything we hoped was temporary, from critical staffing shortages to the demands of working in multiple modalities, is probably not, in fact, temporary. And the background anxiety of living through a global pandemic, different for each one of us for a million different reasons, seems unlikely to ebb anytime soon. The truth of capitalism rings in my ears: when an institution finds it can run with less, it rarely goes back to more. Even if the cost is human; maybe especially when the cost is human. Humans are infinitely replaceable. Capital projects are forever.

Thank you for your resilience.

It’s very frustrating, as we roll into year three of these increasingly untenable working conditions, to be thanked for resilience as though it’s not a finite resource, as though the unceasing calls to draw on it aren’t increasingly symbolic of the failures of those sending the thank you emails. And this discourse of resiliency is a problem sector-wide and beyond. Resiliency is celebrated especially by those who are invested in the status quo; if we are resilient, we keep on keeping on, and we keep our heads down. The more powerful the person thanking you for your resilience, the less of a compliment it is, I reckon.

Am I resilient, or am I silently enduring? Resilience itself isn’t necessarily bad, but like everything else about this moment it is misunderstood if we insist on thinking about it only on the level of the individual. I don’t want individual resilience anymore; I want community, collective resilience, where none of us are left behind.

Increasingly, sector-wide approaches to things like the Return to Campus have been framed by a kind of toxic positivity, where questions and conversation are sidelined in favour of boosting and cheerleading. Leadership, whether constrained by budgets or public health orders or government interference, is just not open to have a conversation about any of it. And that makes it dangerous times for those who speak. Sara Ahmed writes about this dynamic in Complaint!*, noting that it is easier for an institution to deal with a complainer than a complaint.

So what happens when the calls for resilience and positivity meet a moment where everyone is losing the plot? Burnout, basically. But burnout isn’t just about workload, and it isn’t just about what you can endure. It’s about seeing the possibility of recharging, of healing. When you’re confronted by crisis after crisis after crisis and the messaging is that everything is okay, actually, it becomes harder to conceive of how things will get better. And that’s a bad place to be in.

The solutions to burnout are imperfect; I think individuals can probably recover, with rest and care, but I’m not sure the systems that rely on these practices can, at least not without systemic change. Refusal is a critical tool in our toolboxes, for sure, and the advice is often to start by saying no, but refusal is only radical if it is available to all of us. Like many political strategies borrowed from Black feminism, refusal is easily weaponized by people with structural power, which is especially egregious when we know that marginalized faculty, and especially Black faculty, carry a heavier service load in the first place. What a privilege it can be to have the space to refuse! I have talked before about the imperfection of refusal as a strategy. I also think “just say no” individualizes what is ultimately a systemic problem: you are overworked not because of unreasonable demands, but because you fail to set boundaries. There’s nothing to fix except you, kiddo. But who has the job security, status, and positionality to refuse, and when we refuse, where does that work go? If one person’s refusal directly leads to another person’s overwork, the only winner is the system itself.

The solution, of course, is not individual refusal, but collective. Maybe, for those with power to ask more questions, refusal needs to look less like “No,” and more like, “Why does this work need to be done, and if it is so important, why is it happening off the sides of our desks?” or “How are the students on this committee being compensated?” or “Where will this document be in five years?” Refusing that labour, and refusing it on behalf of everyone? Now we’re getting to something radical. And shared governance could offer us the mechanism to get there. If we don’t blink. If we don’t refuse that labour. And I highlight this because shared governance is very much under attack in this moment, and no matter how much you loathe the committees you serve on, it would be worse to lose them.**

Brenna, what the hell does all of this have to do with educational technologies and the idea of a digital detox, anyway?

This month, we’re going to talk a lot about the critical importance of both collective action and refusal. The problems in ed tech — and indeed, in our relationships to technologies across the board — can’t and won’t be fixed by the individual but instead by collective refusal to engage with bad actors or to accept that our data is the cost of doing business. I want to try to sell you on the importance of staying engaged, of fighting through the burnout, not so that you can file yet another stack of pointless paperwork but so that you can fight for what matters. We will have to collectively refuse much more that overwork to take back our universities from surveillance and for-profit ed tech and ableist practice, but it’s a place to start.

We’ve been knocked down. We’ve gotten up again. Most of us, for our troubles, just got knocked down again. (Have you listened to that song in a while? It is repetitive AF, my pals.) It’s my job this month to convince you to get up one more time — this time for all the marbles.

Next week, I have some salient reminders of why our engagement really matters. If the report above on shared governance made you sweat, get ready.

So until then, friends — I’ll see you in the comments, or on the Twitters (#TRUDetox), or maybe this post has got you thinking about a long-form response: new to the Detox this year, a space to submit your own post for consideration. It’s all about the collective, after all.

* If you’re a TRU-type, we have the ebook in the library. Login required.
** (Okay, most of them. Everyone has one that just sucks. If you’re reading this, and you’re wondering which one mine is that sucks out loud? Whatever you’re thinking of, it’s not that one. Especially if you’re on it with me. It’s a totally different one that you definitely aren’t on.)

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  1. This post resonated quite a bit with me in a public sector role, not at all because of the catchy earworm you’ve firmly planted in my brain for the day. The point I will take from this to ponder today in the moments between simple yet horribly mind bendingingly tough tasks is what is my *personal line* between being resilient and simply enduring? Thanks, Brenna.

  2. It’s sad, but I’ve come from a place of, 8 1/2 years ago, incredible excitement and hope in what I thought was my dream job, to 8 1/2 years of feeling like I have been beaten down – the song truly does resonate with me – over and over and over. Especially over the past 6 months when, after the amazing job we all did bringing our institutions, our students, through a pandemic, we seem to have been tossed back in the garbage bin … know your place ed tech worker! I honestly don’t know if I have it in me to get back up any more or to even care that I don’t (I am more aware than ever that I could easily retire in 3 years), but your post does make me take a breath and consider where the overwhelming apathy I feel about my job is coming from now, and knowing others feel similarly even in different institutions – well, there is that collective resilience coming out.

  3. Although easy to say on the downhill side of retirement, in the day (say 1990-2005) I would have been quite excited to experiment with the new modalities of eduction. I would not appreciate have a need to do so thrust upon me by disease or government or administrative maldirection. And I think that that concept may be one cause of fatigue and burnout. We are forced to inhabit constantly shifting ground as government wallowing constantly changes the ‘rules of engagement’, often in direct opposition to the advice of our academic brethren who study such matters and have some expertise.

  4. This post resonated with me deeply. From the feeling of collective resolve to help in a crisis situation two years ago, and the deep dedication that resulted in incredibly effective support by many staff, students, and faculty to make things work in the first year or so of the pandemic, to significant burnout at the workload that rose during that time and is still continuing with no end in sight. We take some days off, we take more extended vacations, and when we come back we are refreshed for a short period and then it all comes back again. As a leader, I have felt acutely the responsibility to *do something about this*, but it is incredibly challenging within a system where overwork is the norm.

    I am inspired by the idea of collective, rather than individual refusal. Yesterday I was inspired by a small number of bicyclists and pedestrians stopping a large number of loud, aggressive, large vehicles from proceeding in a “convoy” in Vancouver by trapping them in a space with no clear exits. It was a small diversion and downtown got hit with all of that later, but it was a stark reminder that under the right conditions even a small collective refusal can change the course of things, especially with effective strategic planning for the next moves.

    Thank you for the reminder that there are still important reasons for getting back up again, especially together.

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