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Author Taps into NDSU Professor’s Expertise

NDSU communication professor Ann Burnett is serving as an expert source for a Washington Post reporter who is writing a book on the fast pace of life.

Writer Brigid Schulte recently visited Fargo to talk to Burnett about her research on how people talk about their lives in holiday letters and how women think about time. Schulte’s working title is “Overwhelmed. Frenetic families in a chaotic time in search of an elusive moment of peace.” The book will be published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar Straus Giroux. It is slated to come out fall 2013.

The genesis of Schulte’s book was a 2010 Washington Post magazine story about her own chaotic life as a working mother and a sociologist’s claims that she and other women like her have 30 hours of leisure time a week. What Schulte thought was a very personal story about feeling too busy to do anything well resonated with people from all walks of life, from all over the world.

“They got sucked into a workaholic-worshipping culture and once they found a few hours open on their calendars, they were seized with anxiety because they didn’t know what to ‘do’ with it, they didn’t know how to be ‘productive’ and therefore worthy and valuable,” Schulte wrote in an email. “If so many feel this way and it isn’t mass hysteria, there must be something structural going on; it must be more than just an individual problem with an individual solution.”

To explore why things are this way and how they can be better, Schulte looked at time-use research and the work of sociologists, anthropologists and economists. Then she found Burnett’s communication research through the Work and Family Research Network, a new consortium of academics and researchers who explore how to balance work and family life.

“I was struck by Ann’s use of language, the way we communicate with each other to pass on cultural and social mores,” Schulte wrote in an email. “I was especially fascinated with her analyzing the annual Christmas letter as a window into our modern souls, so to speak, and how they speak volumes for how our busyness has become, almost unconsciously, the new way to Keep Up with the Joneses – a new status symbol for an overloaded, overworked and overwhelmed age.”

Schulte contacted Burnett about her research in spring 2012. When Schulte commented she thought the fast pace of life was an East Coast phenomenon, Burnett offered to set up a Fargo focus group for her. In July, Schulte visited Fargo to follow up on earlier interviews with Burnett and to review the holiday letters Burnett used in her research. She also interviewed a graduate student and former graduate student about their involvement in Burnett’s research. 

As promised, Burnett pulled together a focus group of busy Fargo professionals. She planned for eight participants. Five showed up. “Three got too busy to come,” she said with a smile. This isn’t the first time Burnett’s research has garnered national attention. Her holiday letter research was the subject of a front-page Wall Street Journal story. She has been interviewed by other reporters from across the country.

Burnett is thrilled to share her research for Schulte’s book. “It’s nice to be called by the Washington Post,” Burnett said. “It makes it seem like what I’m doing matters.”

Burnett also is associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and director of Women and Gender Studies.

NDSU is recognized as one of the nation's top 108 public and private universities through the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.

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