Disturbing the Comfortable

This morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education included a piece called “Dark Thoughts,” which discussed the reasons why mental illness is on the rise in academia – in response to a Guardian blog post about a culture of acceptance of mental health issues in the profession. The original post talked openly about mental health issues PhD students suffer, and the unique, isolating situation of (increasingly competitive) PhD programs and junior faculty positions. It used examples of suicides among academics struggling with those issues. The response suggested that there are a number of pressures on not only graduate students but academics generally that are increasing in recent years. Amanda Murdie’s recent (very thoughtful) piece at the Duck of Minerva served as an excellent reminder of the importance of mental health for academics, both generally and as it is linked to productivity.

As I read this very important discussion, I still saw something missing. I kept remembering the feminist understanding that the personal is political and its inverse that the political is personal. I think that it is important to relate that observation to the discussion of mental health in academia. There are a lot of ways in this field that the personal is academic and the academic is personal.

There are three ways that the academic and personal intertwine that I think are important to think about though they have not been mentioned in many of the media discussions on these issues (I won’t rehash discussed issues) – the emotional experience of doing our research, the emotional investment we have in judgments of that research, and the social aspects of judgment of scholarship.

The emotional experience of doing research was discussed in some detail in an International Studies Review forum that Christine Sylvester edited a couple of years ago. This forum addressed a number of emotional struggles that people have with their research, from real fears for their personal safety doing field research to personal exposure when they take research risks. For me, at least, having just finished a book manuscript on women who commit wartime rape, there are as many days that the substance of my research gets to me as days when it doesn’t. That itself feels like a false dichotomy as I write it – I do my research because I have an emotional investment in the subject matter; that emotional investment makes the gruesome nature of some of the things that I research feel heavy sometimes, and feel redemptive other times – but it always feels something as I do the work. Though it would be silly to suggest that we “relate” to our research like we “relate” to our spouses, parents, children, and friends, it would be equally silly to ignore the emotive relationships we have with our research generally and our research subjects specifically. Pretending like spending all day everyday reading and writing about tough subjects – whether it is genocidal rape or nuclear armageddon – is mentally and emotionally – feels both disingenuous and dangerous. To me, it is important to think about how researchers feel the research.

That is related to another focus I think is important: how researchers feel success and failure at research. We interpret success in a number of different ways – publication outlet, citation count, reviews of the work, etc. Those are all indicators that we have ‘produced knowledge’ – which seems to be the agreed-on goal of the research that we do. When we get positive signifiers of knowledge production, then the emotional hell that we went through producing that knowledge seems to have an end payoff. When signifiers of success in knowledge production are slower in coming or do not come at all, however, it is not only one’s psyche the moment of failure that is at risk – it is the days, weeks, months, and even years that we invested in the (aforementioned emotionally difficult) research project that is at risk of being deemed worthless, as well as the decision to stake one’s career on success at something at which one is struggling. While those paths of self-doubt may exist in other professions, many if not most professions have a metric of success less cloudy and unclear than ‘signifiers of knowledge production’ and less drawn-out than the process of multiple reviews from multiple publication outlets. There is, then, liminality to the judgment time and space of our work that interweaves difficultly with the emotional investment both in the research and in its success.

That liminality is compounded by a third factor that I think is worth thinking about: the labeling of work as ‘knowledge production’ (and therefore successful) in the field itself has a social dynamic which can compound the emotional struggle (or the emotional victory) of the researching and research-judging processes. In the field, ‘networking’ has real payoffs in terms of the publication outlet of work, the people willing to read work pre-publication, nominations for awards, professional promotion, and even job opportunities. From the outside, the ‘networks’ at the halls of power in the discipline look mysterious and impenetrable often. Those ‘networks’ pile on to disciplinary standards that are often inflexible about a commitment to (attempting to achieve if not actually achieving) objectivity in work that we know (or should know) that emotional investment influences at every turn. This paradox might be impressive to struggle with, especially for those not indoctrinated in the ways the discipline(s) work.

Of course, I know many of these are over generalizations – not everyone works with difficult subject-matter; not everyone ties their emotions to indicators of professional success more than is healthy to do. Still, I think that these are important dynamics that many people experience that might be good to talk about. It seems to me like disturbing the comfortable assumptions of the discipline might be a good way to start comforting its disturbed members.