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  • Debbie Dougherty

Professor Trauma is Real

Updated: May 2, 2023

Green and pink lips, a dramatic blue eye, and the sideprofile of a human character with red eyes.
Nightmare. Picture is a collaboration between sisters Fionna and Freya Clark

Last night I had a nightmare. I dreamed that I did not have time to read Francie Smith’s (who graduated at least 10 years ago) dissertation, so I sent it to her committee without my review. Right before the committee meeting, Michael Kramer (who is now retired and living the good life) asked me if the methods were right. I began flipping through Francie’s dissertation and discovered that it was hand written with figures drawn in crayon. Trying to look knowledgeable, I said “yes, this seems right.” So we sat down at the table to have our meeting. Michael starts a Yiddish prayer (he is not Jewish) with the expectation that we would all pray with him. Francie, who in my dream has now morphed into an interesting combination of Kathy Denker and Megan Schraedley (both of whom completed their dissertations years ago), refused to pray because although, in my dream, the Denker/Schraedley character was Jewish, their partner (who, for whatever reason was sitting at the table for the dissertation defense) was not Jewish, so they thought it would be rude to pray.

That is when I woke up, heart racing because I have Marcus Ferguson’s dissertation to finish editing and the deadline for completion is looming.

What is Professor Trauma?

Anyone else experiencing professor trauma? I am going to define this as the trauma professors experience because of the various expectations of the role that have intensifying expectations as the semester rolls to an end.

Committee meetings, awards, letters of support, dissertations, exams, sick students, study guides, grading, editing, students with mental health issues, lectures, research, reviews, etc. We are expected to do it all without complaint, while appearing positive and upbeat.

The Time Tax

Professor trauma is accelerated for those people who experience the time tax. This tax is the extra time commitment expected for people in academia who are expected to crack open a system that has been historically oppressive.

According to Professor Tina M. Harris trauma comes in more profound ways for Black women professors who bear the brunt of "flying solo" in primarily White institutions. The need to create and sustain generational mentoring and support for other Black women adds a joy and a burden to Dr. Harris's experience, creating an additional time tax for the more vulnerable among us. My dear friend Dr. Angela Gist-Mackey also describes the time tax she incurred as the only Black woman faculty member when a racist event occurred in her organization. She was expected to address the problem, even though she was a brand new assistant professor at the time. She spent a large part of her first three years of her tenure clock working with her department to address racism. Given this time tax, I am impressed with her productivity over the years. You can read about her experience in this publicly available article.

The time tax also hits those people who's research and teaching deals with vulnerable people. Jennifer Guthrie provides a gripping story of the time tax and emotional burden that comes with being a feminist scholar working with vulnerable populations.

One day, my office hours started with a “Can I close the door?”from a current student. My heart pounded the entire hour that we talked as it eventually became apparent the student was experiencing suicidal ideation. I was relieved they were willing to fill out the form because I did not want to have to report it––even though I knew I had to as a mandated

reporter––without the student’s consent. Within minutes, someone was at my door to take the student to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). My heart broke. My hands were shaking. I was so worried about this student but also about how I handled the situation. As I was trying to collect myself, another knock. Repeat scene, but this time a past student

disclosed that they had been sexually assaulted, blamed themselves, and had not told anyone. We filled out the form. I went through the scripts from all my training/research. My phone rang. The student preferred that I walk them to CAPS, and I glanced at the clock. I had to start my graduate seminar in 15 minutes. I apologized that I needed to send a text (giving my students a task) and that I could be a bit late, but I needed to start class. They said they understood, but I felt horrible rushing us on our way. At CAPS I asked, “Are you a hugger?” Tears streamed down their face as they nodded and reached out their arms. We hugged, and they walked inside.

The amount of time Dr. Guthrie spent on supporting multiple students in crisis in a single afternoon is a clear example of the time tax. Yet, there is also clearly an emotional tax in her story that can be linked to the emotion rules we are all asked to follow.

Emotion Rules

Some years ago, Michael Kramer (yes, the one in my nightmare) and John Hess conducted a fascinating study exploring emotion rules of professionalism. Here are some of the standard rules:

  • Act professionally, which means maintain control over emotions at all times.

  • Mask negative emotions at work.

  • Avoid emotions that are role inappropriate.

  • Experience and express emotions to support others (not for selfish purposes).

  • Mask self-serving positive emotions.

So how do these emotion rules work to enhance professor trauma? I am glad you asked.

Emotion Rules, the Time Tax, and Trauma

These emotion rules can produce trauma when abuse of power is the flavor of the day. Take sexual harassment, which is one of my area's of expertise, for example. When people are targeted, they are not allowed to act upset because acting upset violates most organizations’ emotion rules. If the target does not act upset, then managers are unlikely to believe that the reported event was real. In contrast, if the target does act upset, then managers are likely to believe that the target is hysterical and therefore misunderstood/over exaggerated the experience. In other words, emotion rules create a reporting paradox. There is no right way to use emotions to report a highly emotional experience. This is one reason (of many) why so many people do not report when they are targeted.

Let's get back to Dr. Guthrie's story.

I put on sunglasses to hide my immediate tears. I stopped in a parking lot and hid behind a dumpster while I took deep breaths between sobs, checked my makeup, and tried to flip a “mental switch.” After a few beats, I put on a fake smile and breezed into the seminar room. I said, “Thanks for your patience! Let’s dive in.”

This, my friends, is the emotion tax that comes with being a critical/feminist scholar in academia. We all have end of the year challenges, but I think we can agree that given the emotional tax and time tax experienced by some professors, their trauma is profound.

Managing Professor Trauma

Look, I am not a therapist, so I am not the best resource for managing trauma. Further, given my nightmare, I may REALLY not be the best resource. With that said, I do have some suggestions that have helped me through the end of the semester over the past 20 some-odd years.

My most important advice is to segment your work in reasonable time frames. By this I mean only think as far ahead as you can emotionally handle. This morning when I woke up, I only allowed myself to think about the work I would accomplish in the next hour. Thinking beyond that made me anxious. Now that the hour is finished, I am only focused on writing this blog post. When I finish this, then I will think about the next project.

My second piece of advice is to set rewards for accomplishing goals. Small rewards (a second cup of coffee? A short walk? Check Facebook?) for small accomplishments. Big rewards for larger accomplishments. When I complete dissertation editing, write an exam and study guide, create my lectures, and grade undergraduate papers, then I get to prepare my garden for planting. For me, gardening is my happy place (click here for a nifty video), so having it as a reward is very motivating.

What about for the rest of you? What advice can you offer to address the Professor Trauma that we all tend to experience at this time of year?

Dissertation Update

And guess what! I finished editing Marcus's dissertation. He is sending it to his committee and will have his defense next week. I just hope that during his defense that there are no crayon drawings that suddenly appear in his project.

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May 03, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I had a very similar dream about a thesis defense I’m chairing, where their analysis was gone and in its place were a few pages of crayon scribbles. I woke up completely freaked out. It’s good to know I’m not alone in this.

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
May 03, 2023
Replying to

The funny thing is, Francie Smith is so precise, I can’t even visualize her with a crayon!


May 02, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you, Dr. D.! I love your blog! Your writing is so insightful and gripping.

Debbie Dougherty
Debbie Dougherty
May 03, 2023
Replying to

Thank you!

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