We are anxious and depressed as a profession. Recent studies report that those who work in higher education tend to internalize values of production and increased workloads. Not meeting these expectations often leads to feelings of despair and inadequacy. Meeting them generally comes at the cost of a satisfying work-life balance and mental wellbeing. This is on top of an already stressful career path. As Elaine Showalter recently wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education, from the dissertation to the job search to promotion and tenure, “the key stages of the professorial life are fraught with anxiety.”
This essay takes a look at the toll paradigms of high productivity and rapidity have on the health of the profession. New research suggests anxiety and depression have always been around. These “low mood” states of cognition helped us survive as early humans: when threats loomed, fight-or-flight instinct jettisoned unhelpful elements of creativity and openness to new ideas in favor of cynicism and suspicion. But while cynicism and suspicion can be good qualities in a scholar, they’re best experienced in the organic waxing and waning rhythm maintained by our ancestors. When experienced in a constant state they threaten to foreclose on possibilities of thought marked by difference or newness. In other words, locking into a life of relentless proliferation can throw up blind spots that a right-sized research agenda and pace would otherwise catch.
Depression and anxiety are less stigmatized than ever, and treatments are available (and nowadays covered by benefits). But the answer to the profession’s mental health is not in fixing patients to better adapt to the speed-obsessed world of academia. We need to downshift in the rate of production to ensure not just scholarly rigor we value, but the mental health, and indeed survival, of our selves and our colleagues.
Ann Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.
Elaine Showalter, Elaine. “Our Age of Anxiety.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 April 2013.
Jonathan Rottenberg, Jonathan. “An Evolved View of Depression,” Chronicle of Higher Education. 27 January 2014.