Quite Quitting in the Classroom
Authors: Skye Mendes, Madeline Bruce, Jackson Pelzner, William Ridgway
One topic of conversation that has been getting attention this year is quiet quitting. This work-related narrative refers to maintaining one’s duties without subscribing to the cultural notion that work is life. One of the primary reasons for which individuals are finding themselves engaged in the process of quiet quitting is that it emphasizes a healthier work-life balance while simultaneously safeguarding mental health. In fact, individuals across the board have experienced heightened rates of burnout while also reporting marked increases in cognitive weariness, emotional exhaustion, and physical fatigue since 2019 (Abramson, 2022). More recently, the conversation surrounding quiet quitting has also expanded to comprise actors in academia, with undergraduate and graduate students reporting increased levels of depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic (Wang et al., 2021). In addition, new survey results from 1,000 current students between the ages of 18 and 24 ranked mental health as most important when compared to good grades, physical health, relationships, and finances, respectively (Beard et al., 2022). Given that students have reported increased disengagement, and the need for more mental health support services, we focus on viewpoints surrounding quiet quitting and potential ways in which instructors can become more involved in addressing such issues from a multitude of vantage points.
Skye: “Quiet quitting” has been interesting to unpack: if people in the workplace perform the minimum job duties to acquire their paycheck, rather than going above and beyond and wrapping their identities in work, that seems to be reasonably described as “doing their job.” Going above and beyond in the workplace certainly has classroom parallels (i.e., working hard may help accelerate career growth, and going above and beyond in their undergraduate education is generally an essential ingredient for students who aspire to graduate school). In my previous work, I had the “new manager” realization that I would have to learn to manage the employees I had rather than the ones I wished I had. Though management is much more enjoyable when employees are all on their “A game” and teaching a class where one hundred percent of students are highly engaged is a joy, neither is typically a reality. When it comes to the idea that “quiet quitting” is creeping into academic spaces, I think our call remains the same: teach the students we have and meet them where they are at. This includes if their goals (e.g., simply passing the course) are not what we wish in our psychology-loving-nerd-heart-of-hearts for their goals to be (e.g., stellar enthusiasm for mastering all objectives from our carefully curated syllabus). Since we design courses and enter the classroom each day with plans for keeping students engaged, it can understandably be tough to see students seemingly “checking out,” and it may take the wind out of our sails to feel like the course experience is now more transactional than transformational. But in meeting students wherever they are at, we get not only to push the students who are highly engaged and enjoy their excitement and riveting questions, but we also get to check in on students who might otherwise start to fade into the background, which can itself be a transformational experience for them to be seen and heard at a time when they may be struggling. When I am privileged to have the more honest and vulnerable 1:1 conversations with students and tell them I do see them and I respect how tough their balancing act can be (e.g., our course, financial stress, mental health challenges, family problems, other courses, etc.) and I’m happy to help them project what they need to do to meet their goals for their course performance and calibrate accordingly, I tend to see engagement quickly go up. Perhaps in those moments of outreach, they see they have a teammate and not someone who will shame them, especially not if their available resources (mentally, fiscally, etc.) mean they’ve chosen to engage in “quiet quitting.”
Mads: I’ve mostly heard “quiet quitting” in the context of the corporate world, where people try to reclaim their work-life balance back from meaningless paperwork deadlines in jobs where they do not feel they will grow professionally or personally. So, to think about “quiet quitting” in the context of higher education, where the purpose has historically been to grow, to wonder, to discuss, even outside the class, leaves me a little discouraged. Are students quiet quitting out of a “C’s get degrees and that’s fine with me” mentality, or have recent events left students questioning the meaning of their education? Surely, the pandemic, recent social events, and the rising cost of a college degree, have likely left all of us questioning what really matters to us and what education should look like in the grand scheme. We have an opportunity now to shape our day-to-day toward what can be most meaningful. I’m not sure what the answer is, and I imagine that a student stepping away from timely assignments can be understood a multitude of ways. However, I do wonder if quiet quitting in the classroom is a signal that we need to reorient our daily grind back toward what education can be: empowering our next generation to grow.
Jackson: This is a difficult topic to drill down. Overall, I think it is important to find the right balance between work and life. There are times when I find myself more on the side of “life” than “work” to my own detriment. Personally though, I do not buy into the notion of “quiet quitting” in academia. For one, instructors or advisors at the undergraduate and graduate levels, respectively, are not forcing their students to be present. Unless you are on a full scholarship, you are paying a lot of money to acquire an education, one that you voluntarily signed up for. If you want to do the bare minimum to get a passing grade, that is perfectly within reason. Balancing multiple classes, work, experiments, and publishing is hard given the limited number of hours in the day and overcoming the mental fatigue that comes with it. I am very empathetic to that. However, I still come back to the idea that at this stage you are only hurting yourself by not making the sacrifices required to succeed. How do we deal with this growing issue as instructors? Personally, I do not take offense to students that “quietly quit.” It does, however, concern me to the extent that I want to have my students learn and take away the same enjoyment that I experienced as an undergraduate student. At the end of the day, you get what you put into it. If a student decides to “quietly quit,” I think there are many other pathways one can take in life that can motivate them to give their best and find enjoyment.
William: The concept of “quiet quitting” can be unique in the context of academia. When it comes to individuals quitting the notion of going above and beyond—primarily applied to industry settings—to achieve a healthier balance between work and life, academia and the pursuit of one’s degree often entails a specific framework. Students attempting to achieve the result of a degree comprises many layers and complexities. The balance of coursework, academic programs, and community service—just to name a few—typically place individuals in an environment where there is always something to be working on. Granted, the extent of day-to-day involvement can vary from student to student depending on what they choose or are required to take on throughout their university experience. Nevertheless, the act of consistently placing certain priorities over others is not a novel concept. Where the difficulty lies is where to focus efforts that will help combat quiet quitting, to further help students. On the one hand, one’s academic experience is what you make of it and depending on the extent to which one takes on an extensive amount of work, will influence the need at times to make certain sacrifices when it comes to a personal life. Thus, while there may exist a plethora of resources that can be of great assistance to students, there comes a point where it is ultimately up to the student in terms of how far they are willing to push that threshold of a healthy work-life balance to achieve a particular outcome. On the other hand, some may present the argument that quiet quitting is a feature of, or exacerbated, by poor management. As instructors, it is important that we both maintain and encourage transparency with our students. Maintaining clear expectations for the course, scheduled check ins, and the fostering of a supportive environment, will help to ensure that we consistently participate in such a way that allows students to know that we as instructors are one of many reliable resources for them.
Abramson, A. (2022). Burnout and stress are everywhere. Monitor on Psychology, 53(1). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress
Beard, J., Dinh, D., Jain, P., Leng, A., Marvin, D., Phan, N., … & Williams, B. (2022, September). One-third of college students quiet quitting to preserve mental health. Intelligent. https://www.intelligent.com/one-third-of-college-students-quiet-quitting-to-preserve-mental-health/
Wang, C., Wen, W., Zhang, H., Ni, J., Jiang, J., Cheng, Y., ... & Liu, W. (2021). Anxiety, depression, and stress prevalence among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of American College Health, 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2021.1960849