Academic Melancholia?

Do academics have good reasons 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 nonacademics 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. 

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