Excerpted from The End of Burnout: Why Works Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. Copyright © 2022 by Jonathan Malesic. Published and Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press.

I dreamed of being a college professor almost as soon as I met my own professors. I wanted to be like them, reading strange books by Nietzsche and Annie Dillard and asking challenging questions in class. One of my favorites taught theology and lived on campus as a faculty advisor. On Friday afternoons he opened his small, cinderblock apartment to students. I was a regular. I sat on the burgundy upholstered institutional furniture and, over coffee, chatted with him about heady topics like the theological implications of the universe’s expansion. He also showed movies in the residence hall’s TV lounge, mostly foreign and art films from when he was our age: My Dinner with Andre, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Au Revoirles Enfants. We all had lengthy discussions afterward. To my eyes, this man lived the good life. He lived for knowledge and art and wisdom and got paid to pursue them and hand them on to a young generation eager for them. Well, I was eager for them, anyway. He had turned late-night dorm-room conversations into a profession. I did all I could to follow his lead.

Over the next decade, I did the things you need to do to live that life. I went to graduate school, finished my dissertation, and went on the always-difficult academic job market. After a few tries, I succeeded: I landed a full-time, tenure-track position teaching theology at a small Catholic college. This was my shot at my dream. My girlfriend and I packed up my dozens of boxes of books and my tweed jackets and moved me from Virginia, where I had gone to grad school, to northeast Pennsylvania. Then we moved her to Berkeley, California so she could go to grad school, in pursuit of her own dream of being a college professor.

With a long-distance relationship, I threw myself into the work. I assigned Nietzsche and Annie Dillard and asked challenging questions in class. I published, I served on faculty committees, I worked late at the office. I was determined to be inspiring, like my professors were, and not like the dinosaurs who lectured from the same yellowed notes year after year. The biggest problem I faced was students’ indifference to my subject matter. They all had to take theology, but hardly any wanted to take it. So I came up with some techniques—tricks, really—to get students to put in a little more effort to learn than they would otherwise. It sort of worked. I even tricked a few students into becoming theology majors. I showed movies in class—The Apostle, Higher Ground, Crimes and Misdemeanors—and had a few rangy conversations about them with students. I was living my dream.

After six years, I earned tenure. By this time, my girlfriend had become my wife and moved back east. She finished her PhD and got a job in rural western Massachusetts. I had a sabbatical, so I fol- lowed her there for a year. Day after day, I wrote and exercised in the morning, and in the afternoon I either read in a café or went for a bike ride past hillside pastures and disused water mills. I couldn’t have been more content.

But then I had to return to my job, and my wife and I went back to long-distance. To see each other, we drove four and a half hours, two or three weekends a month. Once again, I threw myself into the work. But it was much harder this time. For one thing, I was no longer new to the job. I didn’t have to impress anyone for my tenure application. More important, though, the college faced two crises: one pertaining to its finances, the other to its accreditation. People got laid off. Salaries and budgets were frozen. There were concerns about enrollment. Would tuition payments be enough to keep the college out of the red? And there was much more work to do, to satisfy the accrediting agency. Everyone seemed to walk around the campus in a constant state of worry.

The stress got to me, too, despite my job security. I was working harder than ever—not just teaching and doing research, but heading up committees and leading the college’s center for teaching excellence—but I felt I was not getting much recognition from the college’s leaders. I wasn’t getting affirmation of my work from the students, either. It seemed like they were learning nothing from me. Peers, including my department chair, continued to compliment my teaching. I didn’t believe it; I saw my daily failure in the classroom firsthand, in every blank face of every student who wanted to be anywhere but at a desk listening to me. It feels like an admission of shameful weakness, a pseudo-problem of privilege, to say that the thing I most needed was acknowledgment that my work meant something to someone. Don’t people put up with far worse than a lack of recognition? I made decent money. I got to do interesting work. I didn’t have a boss looking over my shoulder. Why couldn’t I just shut up and do my job like everyone else? What was wrong with me? My temper grew shorter. I started returning students’ papers later and later. Class preparation became increasingly difficult. I faced a mental block every night as I tried to remember my pedagogical tricks. I had forgotten everything I knew about good teaching. And I watched “Don’t Give Up” over and over.

It no longer felt like I was living a dream. It wasn’t the life I’d imagined two decades before. After two years of progressive misery, I took a semester of unpaid leave and returned to the bucolic site of my sabbatical to live under the same roof as my wife again. I hoped some rest would help. I came back to Pennsylvania for the spring semester, but nothing had changed. The job was the same. I was the same. In fact, things were about to get even worse.

The classroom is silent as the projector’s light shines straight into my eyes. My department chair sits at a desk in one corner, taking notes. It’s the day of my annual teaching observation, and none of the twenty students in my social ethics class makes a move in response to the harrowing video to Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright.” There’s the scene of the white cops, wearing mustaches and shades, shuffling down the street, the car on their shoulders

like a coffin, as Kendrick rocks in the driver’s seat and someone empties a bottle out of a rear window. There are scenes of black men, including Kendrick himself, being gunned down by police in the street. Maybe no one says anything because the video is too new, too weird, too confrontational for the students. Every second of silence is emotional torture.

Eventually, a brave, sincere girl in the front row raises her hand. She mentions how disturbed she was by the video’s language and images. We talk, her voice cracking. But the conversation doesn’t go far. I ask the class more questions: “Did anything you saw in the video connect to anything we’ve talked about in the class so far? What about the scene where Kendrick stands on the telephone wires like Jesus on the parapet of the temple? If he’s Jesus, then who is ‘Lucy,’ tempting him with money and cars?”

Nothing. No one says a word. I feel the adrenaline rise up my back.

Fine. Onto the next thing on the lesson plan, an 1891 document by Pope Leo XIII on labor in the industrial economy. Who can say what Leo thinks about private property? Who caught a biblical ref- erence in there? The students don’t budge. Who has a question? Anyone?

I do, but I don’t voice it: Who has a single thought in their head? Not one goddamned person? The adrenaline surges to the back of my skull, telling me it’s time for fight or flight.

Do I lash out at the students for ignoring the reading? For being lazy, for not even trying? Do I shame them, maybe remind them, like a pedantic prick, that it’s their education at stake, not mine? Do I tell them that everyone who didn’t read has to leave? Then wait, repeat the words to show I’m serious, and stare them down while they put away their notebooks and pull on their coats?

Or do I pack up and walk out? That’s a gambit even my extremely sympathetic department chair could not ignore in her observation report. It would, however, get me out. I would live.

My jaw clamps shut. My face reddens. I don’t fight. I don’t run. I breathe deep and force myself into a professional composure. I stand at the podium and deliver a condescending lecture on the homework reading assignment. I don’t bother asking the students to participate.

I have never felt so stupid in my entire life, never so humiliated in my eleven-year teaching career. I can’t even get twenty-year-olds to have an opinion about a music video.

Mercifully, the class period’s time runs out. The students zip their backpacks and leave. As my department chair walks past me to the door, she says things didn’t go as badly as I thought they did. But I know it’s over.

I have arrived at the antithesis of the good life I had glimpsed when I was a student. The professor whose life I envied was never pedantic. In class, he sat with us in a circle and nodded his head as we spoke, inviting us to “say more” when we haltingly tested our new ideas. He was affably erudite. I am angrily dogmatic. My dream of being a college professor, which had sustained me through grad school, the job market, and the slow climb to tenure, has fallen apart.

A week later, I decide to quit.

Excerpted from The End of Burnout: Why Works Drains Us and How to Build Better Lives. Copyright © 2022 by Jonathan Malesic. Published and Reprinted by permission of the University of California Press.

Jonathan Malesic is a Dallas-based writer and a former academic, sushi chef, and parking lot attendant who holds a PhD from the University of Virginia. His work has appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, Chronicle of Higher Education, America, Commonweal, and elsewhere.