Friday, October 23, 2009

Academic Melancholia?

Do academics have good reason to be depressed?

When I was in graduate school, I had two friends (also grad students) who cried (literally broke down in tears) just about every single week of their graduate school careers--and it might even have been more like every day. They seemed truly miserable much of the time, and it took them both a lot of soul-searching to find a way out of that existential morass.

For me, back then, their plight always seemed like a powerful lesson, a reminder that "the life of the mind" should be challenging without being debilitating. But it isn't necessarily easy to maintain some kind of discrete firewall between those two alternatives. And academics seem to have more and more reason to court such melancholia all the time.

For one thing, the nature of our conversations/debates are sometimes so unnecessarily cantankerous--if not downright petty. Very little is new under the sun, least of all of that rhetoric/stance of dismissive and hostile critique. But how useful is it? What's the point? And that stuff only gets worse with the Internet. Everyone's doing it. With ostensible impunity. Indeed, academics aren't the only ones who seem to have gone FOX News (even National Enquirer) in terms of over-the-top and ad hominem attacks on interlocutors. But we are supposed to offer up a different model of engagement, no? (Just reading the venomous comments posted to people's Brainstorm Blogs can make one depressed.)

And are academics friendship-deprived?

That could be another reason for academic melancholia. Of course, we have colleagues. If we're lucky, very generous and supportive ones, but are we under-friended? I have one colleague who claims that he hasn't made a new "friend" in the academy since 1997. Not just a cordial acquaintance, but a substantive and full-fledged friend. Given the nature of our sometimes-hostile exchanges (as mentioned above), it stands to reason that we wouldn't concomitantly cultivate the skills needed to successfully befriend folks. I just had a grad student return from an academic conference and complain about the fact that everyone she met in the lobby of the conference hotel seemed to only half-listen to her as they scanned the crowd for more prestigious scholars to talk to. Does getting disciplined into academic life mean unlearning some of the basic rules of social interaction? If so, that's reason enough to be discouraged.

For most of us, how happy is life within the Ivory Tower? I keep telling non-academics that academia is the best gig around. And it is. But why do so many faculty members across the country sometimes appear quite clearly unhappy and anxious about their lot? And it is a state that often lasts well after individuals have cleared the tenure hurdle.


Crystal said...

hi john,

found this interesting. i posted a while back on similar issues on my blog. always thinking about it, even though i'm mostly very happy most of the time!
what investment do intellectuals have in pain? why is melancholy so hip? how important is the trope of injury to making a real and solid connection to those things or people that we study? i just finished reading a biography of the anthropologist paul radin, which was interesting because it devoted a lot of text to characterizing radin as lonely, unable to cook for himself, and resistant to social interaction, but totally intellectually lovely and productive. he was figured as able to interact socially only along axes of academic interest. however, i really began to think about the image the biographer constructs of him when i read this:

"But I was aware, sometimes painfully, of the results of the narrow socialization and cultural deprivation to which he was subject, but which he managed to surmount in many astonishingly creative ways. if he hadn't had the kind of intellectual opportunities that were offered him, and if he hadn't used those opportunities to 'cure' himself, he could easily have become an extraordinarily deformed human being. in short, he was in many ways a victim."

i suppose i am thinking about "wounded" academics across many spheres of life: local talk of sleep deprivation, feeling out of place simultaneously in non-academic/"home" settings, feeling crippled by the looming specter of obsolescence or irrelevance, and constant feelings of anxiety; larger discourses of silenced perspectives, of non-captive audiences; and finally, the personal investment in a topic. i think i am most interested in the last one. what kind of narrative would you tell as to how you got to where you are- how you came to your dissertation topic, for instance? how did you shave away the eclectic objects clamoring for your attention and focus your attention on *one* thing? was it painful? what part of emotion is legitimated by knowing something more than most people about some topic? is some part of intellectual work a form of recurrent stunted emotion- disabled along the trajectory to some (valorized) form of action by second-thoughts, critical reflection or disengagement?

the only thing i can say conclusively is that intellectuals are the result of a dialectic between individual temperament and the historical and socio-economic circumstances in which they exist. and maybe, also, that taking a less "gestalt" and coherent view of our own life narratives might help us realize how "produced" and non-spontaneous the trope of the 'lonely intellectual' [among others] is.

(im)perfect_black ☥☥☥ said...

i wonder if AM is cross-racial? Were the grad students black? According to a psychologist friend of mine, there is data out there suggesting that African Americans are far better at handling social stress (doesn't surprise me). kzs

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