Exploding Head Syndrome

September 24, 1999

Question: My neighbor just left a tiny kitten on my porch and fled. I'm grading three sets of papers, writing five grant and conference proposals, trying to finish my dissertation, and waiting for the job listings, so I can send out half a hundred personally crafted applications. I still teach, but I never cook, rarely eat, and have no social life. On the good days I comb my hair, drive on the right side of the road, and remember my name. How do academics survive October? And what do I do about the kitten?

Answer: October is indeed the cruelest month, and Ms. Mentor estimates that it starts, for academics, on or about September 17.

In August through mid-September, there's a fresh aroma of possibility, while by November and December there are holidays (sleep days) ahead. After a bleak start, second semester gets cheery, with Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's Day and Easter eggies. The sun shines. Life is good.

But October means dark days, dark clothes, and the year's longest chilly stretch without a break. Too many grant and paper proposals are due. Too many conferences are scheduled. Weary midterm graders jostle each other in O'Hare, DFW, and LaGuardia, where they're at the mercy of uncertain weather, overworked air-traffic controllers, and enraged fellow passengers.

(Have any recent airplane-cabin vandals, pelters, and defecators been academics? Ms. Mentor does not want to know.)

Meanwhile, ambitious new academics -- unless they're properly mentored -- may make their own Octobers more onerous:

  • Gilda somehow committed herself to two conferences in one weekend, in Albuquerque and Minneapolis. Instead of networking and sharing ideas, she found herself racing through airports, cramming her baggage into overhead bins, and starving.
  • Terence, in his first tenure-track job, wisely stayed home. But he wasted his October applying for fellowships and grants that go only to famous, well-published people. (He suspected as much, but was afraid to ask.)
  • Imogene, a dedicated teacher, gave her students imaginative but very complex assignments throughout October: field trips, daily journal entries, large lectures, weekly quizzes, and individual meetings. Imogene went to work in the dark and came home in the dark -- chilled, hoarse, and shaking with exhaustion.
  • Milburn, in mid-October, was found marching back and forth outside the department office, muttering to himself, trying to remember where he was supposed to be. Students scrambled away -- a loony? someone going postal? -- until his mentor gently called the health center for sleep medication, canceled Milburn's afternoon class, drove him home, and tucked him into bed with his teddy bear.

October, in short, is the most dangerous month for Exploding Head Syndrome.

Maybe you're so conditioned by school deadlines that you think you must do everything perfectly, NOW, or you'll flunk. Probably, like most academics, you're a diligent, loyal person who becomes a responsibility magnet. If you're African American, you may find yourself put on a dozen different "diversity" committees. (If so, you or your mentor must squawk and get you a reduced teaching load.)

By October, everyone's on psychic overload, crammed with caffeine, roaring from computer to class to conference to committee. Your tummy aches, your nose runs, and your head feels like an engorged pumpkin.

DESIST! Ms. Mentor barks.

If you live alone, keep the kitten. It'll be good company when you take a sick day, unplug the phone and computer, and just sleep. You cannot neglect children or elders, but your partner must do at least half the housework, while you study ways to cut corners:

  • Alice, a superb cook, wanted to entertain her new colleagues, but desperately needed to finish a conference paper. She invited a herd of people to a simple, exquisite buffet, but hid most of her chairs -- so no one would stay too long.

  • Aaron got rid of his cell phone, so he couldn't be reached.

  • Sandra got a low-maintenance haircut.

  • Dudley put in a standing order for pizza delivery every night.

  • Tillie gave up ironing.

All of them did their routine errands in four hours, once a week, in the same shopping center where they bought groceries. They lowered their standards, and when the unvacuumed dust bunnies got too big, everyone ate by candlelight. ("Can't see the corners," Chris bragged.)

But "Okay, Ms. Mentor," you're growling. "I can live with a filthy house. What about my teaching and research?"

To get those articles and books finished, Ms. Mentor recommends writing groups and daily, hourly or page quotas. You have no time to wait for the muse, who's often on sabbatical in October. If need be, install your kitten in that role.

Simplify your teaching by making students active learners, not passive note-takers. Assign them to discussion or research groups; have them share writing drafts and field notes and make joint in-class presentations. You'll learn from them, while you decide whether this is the October to start the dreaded job search.

Last year, Robert was only halfway through his dissertation when he dove into the Modern Language Association's October Job Lists. Fighting a head cold, he still managed to send out 50 applications. Many of them required dossiers, costing him hundreds of dollars.

Then he waited by the phone and checked his U.S. mail twice a day and his e-mail every hour. Nary a nibble. Everything grew colder and darker.

In December, he got one call from a hiring committee chair: Will you have your Ph.D. in hand for the M.L.A. convention? Robert said No. The caller snarled, "Don't waste my time" -- and hung up.

Meanwhile Robert's concentrated writing time was dribbling away, forever. He was competing, intensely and unnecessarily, with his classmates, and his parents were nagging: "Heard anything yet?"

Had she been asked, Ms. Mentor could have told Robert that tenure-track jobs hardly ever go to the unfinished. He had misused his last October as a student.

Ms. Mentor would also have pushed Robert -- and you, and everyone -- to do something for the one upbeat rite of October: Halloween, which marks the official end of Exploding Head Syndrome Month.

Ms. Mentor recommends getting, or even making, a mask and a costume. Impersonating a witch or a devil can be thrilling to staid academic souls, and she encourages lab, library, and computer rats to throw on their Halloween attire and run wild in the streets (at least in their imaginations). Flap your wings and be batty. Find out what it's like to be a Real World Person, not an academic.

But Ms. Mentor also offers one caution. Do not emulate the stressed-out Johns Hopkins grad student who took a quick shower one Halloween night, donned his big black executioner's hood, and hopped onto a Baltimore city bus -- only to discover he'd forgotten his pants.

Sometimes in October, you're better off just staying home and whining a lot.

Sage Readers: Lately Ms. Mentor has been receiving fewer rude critiques, more richly deserved praise, and some requests for (is there a better word?) "validation." A faculty wife who ignored a sexual innuendo wonders if she did right. A new assistant prof wants to tell the world about his evil dissertation director -- but doesn't.

Ms. Mentor praises both correspondents for picking their battles, and waiting. Those who spring too soon risk humiliation, firing, or endless feuding. There will always be chances for justice and revenge, some of which Ms. Mentor describes in her tome (listed below).

She also directs fledgling faculty members to Kathy Newman's thoughtful discussion of her first year ("Nice Work If We Can Keep It: Confessions of a Junior Professor" -- in Academe.) Ms. Mentor counsels everyone who wants a full life to read Constance Coiner and Diana Hume George's excellent The Family Track: Keeping Your Faculties While You Mentor, Nurture, Teach, and Serve (University of Illinois Press).

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is "Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia," by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press.