Sunday, May 11, 2014

academic despair

A study of "academics" in the UK revealed what should come as no surprise to my friends in academia: lots of "academics" have mental health problems. The story tells us that "academics" have heavy workloads, pressures to publish, and are isolated; many face tenuousness as an everyday condition of employment. The story also tells us that, in the UK, 0.2% of people working as college faculty disclosed mental health problems to their employers. Now, why do you suppose that is?

I've written rather dismissively about faculty mental health in this space before. Today, I happen to be prepping for my last Intro to Philosophy classes for the semester, reading Sartre's essay "Existentialism is a Humanism." Under Sartre's influence, I am thinking that, although the mental health issues of faculty are not surprising, they should be understood also in terms of the way academic life is structured, not organizationally by management hell-bent on exploitation, but situationally by faculty themselves/ourselves.

From this perspective, a key factor is isolation. Marxist and quasi-Marxist criticism of industrialized labor aside, that is, without the presupposition of class division and alienation of labor, the isolation in which most faculty work is a situation created by the workers themselves.

In an ordinary workday, I come across maybe 10 other faculty on campus -- a campus of more than 400 faculty. "Come across" is the right description for these encounters, since they generally amount to passing by one another, on our way to our own offices, our own classes, our own "work," and, as the UK report would have it, our own mental illnesses. Of course, institution and discipline of academia promotes or generates this normalized sense of ownership, and that sense of ownership makes faculty good targets for exploitation. I don't mean to deny that. But inasmuch as this situation is experienced as isolation, I think an existentialist would want to ask some critical questions.

Let's say, following Sartre, that because there is no a priori law dictating how we should act, how we should work, or what meaning this situation should have, we choose what to do, how to work, and what it means. When we retreat to our offices (those of us who have offices), what choice are we making in regard to work and the intersubjective world of work? What values are expressed in this choice?

Isolation is a denial of the intersubjectivity of the world. It expresses excessive consideration of oneself, inflation of subjectivity to royal status, and denial of the situatedness of freedom -- as though only in isolation, only in my own research and my own classes do I have freedom. It is as if, in isolation from others, mental illness will set us free.

An existentialist interpretation of academic freedom, which I haven't come across yet, would center on the concept that freedom implies and requires the freedom of others, and is fundamentally intersubjective. It would remind us that freedom cannot be one's own at the expense of others or without regard to others. It would focus not on one's own research, etc., but on jointly shared responsibility for and determination of the situation of work.

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