On Emotions and Overthinking in Academia

@angry_prof | 25/10/16


I distinctly remember having one particularly confusing week in grad school in 2001. I was funded, published, and on track to complete my dissertation by age 27. But for some reason, that was the week I chose to lie extensively to my university, advisor, and family about having meningitis and spent the entire week on my sofa bed watching Maury Povich. No, this wasn’t the gut-punch anxiety of intentionally emailing the wrong attachment because my comprehensive exam was not finished on time, or the total emotional collapse after my significant other moved away. This didn’t make sense.

As a professor and professional overthinker, I’ve grown accustomed to confused looks when I explain a train of thought or how I make decisions; disquieting looks of incredulity mixed with sadness and a regrettable inability to empathize. Faces both impressed by the sheer volume of overlaid cognition and clearly appreciative of not having to live inside of it. And I’m fully aware that I produce similarly conflicted microexpressions when I hear “I love what I do” reflecting both a distain for flowery emotional language and a deep-seated envy of being able to suspend disbelief about the academic system long enough to develop feelings for it.

So I suppose it’s really not that surprising that there exist remarkably few people with the intestinal fortitude to tolerate my apparent inability to bask in the projected Hunger Games glory of tenure, persistent use of exile as a metaphor for sabbatical, and rehearsed disillusionment of academia as a dystopian, publisher-owned, ego-fuelled Matrix. I get that I’m not the most optimistic person, and that I should presumably have already gotten used to the interpersonal disconnect and ambivalent isolation afforded by an academia-trained propensity for overthought.

But maybe it’s FOMOOE – fear of missing out on overthinking everything – that kills the idea of optimism before it infects. Or maybe it’s my life-long membership to the cult of the next, that ever-lengthening pursuit of the perfect title, institution, journal, award, or mention by one’s academic hero – that pinhole of guiding light that will one day transform into a glorious beacon announcing one’s prophetic insight, intellectual ferocity, or near-death pursuit of knowledge to the world. That imagined validating end point making all the nights, compromises, and forgone personal life experiences worthwhile.

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s that academics like me tend to self-select into this heady ego system, tolerating a culture of intellectual prize-fighting at the expense of overworking the eager in order for those occasional strokes of ego to feel that much more self-soothing. That heart flutter of excitement when opening a conference notification email. That profound swelling of pride when seeing your name and affiliation formatted in columns in your publication PDF. That feeling of royalty when stepping off a plane in a foreign land to address to an adoringly naive, intellectually starved audience satisfied only by the acute physical apperception of soul-quenching speculation leaving your lips one syllable at a time.

I don’t know. Sometimes I think my experience in academia would be easier if I could better ignore how the intellectual stimulation of discovery or pride of publication doesn’t quite mask the loneliness of being the only one who understands what you do at your institution, or drinking alone at a hotel bar because everyone else at the conference was meeting up with old colleagues. I sometimes wonder if imposter syndrome is specific enough a label to cover feeling out of place not because of skills or reputation, but by having too many feelings or thinking too much about them. I also often wonder if my colleagues are really my friends, or if we’re just the only ones consistently left behind as students continually move on to more interesting developmental milestones and career challenges.

But what tends to bug me the most is that I can’t decide whether I think too much, feel too much, or both; whether I’m overthinking my feelings, or getting too emotional about the way I think. And then there’s trying to figure out if all this thinking and feeling is typical, if I am alone in wondering why all of this seems so confusing. Whether spending a week in bed means I’ve developed a remarkably sophisticated premature disillusionment with the publishing oligarchy dominating academic politics, or if I might just be depressed because I’m alone as would a normal person. It’s a confusing process trying to decide if being a good academic means harnessing all emotions toward the good of science, or alternatively, if having feelings that get in the way of writing means I’ve chosen the wrong profession.

The hypothesis that this extent of deliberation over my emotions makes me special is not supported by immediate responses to sarcastic attention flares on Twitter. However, it is readily debunked by body language from colleagues that very clearly tells me to stop talking because you’re making everyone uncomfortable. It’s not easy bringing up feeling confused, disillusioned, sad, lonely, or depressed in academic circles without worrying about how it will impact departmental politics or your professional reputation. And I’m not saying I’m particularly adept at expressing these sentiments or admitting when I need help, but I have learned a few things since grad school.

First, I am not alone. I have learned to recognize a familiar pain in the eyes of students, post-docs, and fellow faculty when I talk about the struggle to maintain self-care or personal relationships in the face of teaching demands or the pressure to always be writing. I now notice the quiet nods from colleagues when intimating through a change in tone or well-timed silence how truly lonely it can be to live inside your head for a living. And just as I’ve tried to create a safe space for students to yell or cry over illness, disability, loss, discrimination, finances, family, or even a manuscript rejection, I’ve also seen full professors completely break down when things were too much.

Second, saying these things out loud takes practice. Yes it does feel exceptionally weird and like an explicit admission of weakness or collective betrayal to admit doubting yourself, regretting academic career decisions, or acknowledging that your love for what you do may not be strong enough to compensate for its emotional toll. But there are few things like hearing yourself say the words “I don’t enjoy this any more” or “I think I’m just really lonely” out loud to kickstart your academic propensity to problem solve or to stumble across someone you actually believe when they say “I hear you” or “it will be ok”.

Finally, I’ve learned that although I may as an academic be able to convince myself that my emotions are too complicated or specialized for colleagues, friends, family, or the general public to appreciate, this is complete bullshit. Arguably the most reliable consequence of assuming that my feelings were not understandable by others because they concerned impact factors, letters to editors, intradisciplinary norms, training doctoral students, or teaching/evaluating higher-order cognition was that I was left feeling even more alone than before.

In my experience, academics are not a special breed immune to basic emotions, but instead uniquely equipped to paint ourselves into a corner of isolation by convincing ourselves that our experiences are qualitatively unique as evidenced by others not understanding what we say or do. Feeling embarrassed of not being able to keep a promise to yourself is not unique. Feeling shame when facing unmistakable consequences of choosing your career over your family does not make you special. Wondering if you’ll ever achieve a level of success where you won’t feel like an imposter is so common they’ve had a label for it since like the 70’s.

If admitting you have these feelings is the first step to feeling less alone, the next step is probably swallowing your pride and putting it as simply as possible. Although perhaps not as metacognitively satisfying as “mitigating affective disengagement by way of linguistic transduction and affiliation”, being honest about how you feel might require the humbling realization that although your work might set you apart, your feelings don’t. Whether starting with sarcastic quips on Twitter or a trip to your friendly neighborhood psychologist, there are people who listen if you try to say something.

In an academic world where cognition is currency and publication is king, I understand the academic disinterest toward emotions not involving passion, inspiration, or perseverance that can distract from writing and contributing to science. I’m just saying that pursuing your academic dreams can lead to treating your emotions like an afterthought, and that as overthinkers, we can probably do better.

logo_square

 

 

 

Advertisements

On #PeerRevWk16: An Entirely Cynical Perspective

N. C. Hall  /  12/10/2016


#PeerRevWk16 is an annual effort by academic publishers to bolster flagging peer review participation, quality, and speed through explicit statements of thanks and recognition.

Although this initiative could be viewed as a face-valid effort by a public service industry charged by governments and post-secondary institutions with the sacred, inestimable responsibility of research dissemination, there are major ongoing issues underlying academics’ reluctance concerning peer reviews that this initiative does not discuss. From huge publisher profits afforded by gouging public institutions and not meaningfully compensating academics to unjustifiably high open access fees and peer review patents to stifle competition, there are serious systemic problems underlying the peer review process that this hashtag effort does little to address.

Basically, I started to feel uncomfortable seeing publishers attempt to dominate a hashtag ostensibly “for” academics with tweets containing marketing-department infographics on what academics want, promoting a new reviewer ratings system, or sharing “how-to” guides to cost-effectively improve the quality/speed of free academic labour. In response, it seemed important to balance this profitable status quo narrative by highlighting the uncomfortable realities of the peer review process for academics. I am by no means an expert on higher education policy/ethics/economics, I just wanted to share information and balance the discussion about how to promote research quality by better supporting those who do it.

It all started a few weeks ago when I first noticed tweets from academic publishers pop up in my timeline underscoring the importance and novelty of thanking peer reviewers as well as quantifying/ranking peer review efforts:

In typical fashion, I responded with flippant sarcastic commentary, thinking it to be an obviously transparent (and hopefully temporary) publisher effort to pacify volunteer reviewers with a pat on the back and self-relevant data:

But this weird gratitude parade only seemed to ramping up and it got me thinking more seriously about the motivation behind these reviewer appreciation efforts:

As a good academic, I supplemented these devastating hot takes with references to external sources outlining the growing dissent concerning the publication process:

With such an eviscerating response to this uncomfortable wave of public publisher affection, I thought my job was done. However, I soon realized there was an actual hashtag for this initiative – #PeerRevWk16 – and an entire week to come of publisher efforts to spam Twitter with pre-scheduled, strategic gratitude PR aimed at thanking academics by educating them as to their peer review value and responsibilities.

Some #PeerRevWk16 publisher tweets hoped to inform researchers of the importance of peer reviews as the cornerstone of scientific inquiry, as if they were somehow not addressing individuals who by definition should be not only intimately familiar with the scientific process but have based their research careers largely on this premise:

Other tweets expressed heartfelt thanks to reviewers for their time and effort through mass cut-and-paste “publishers are people too” gestures garnering remarkably few RTs or replies:

Publisher spam also included regularly scheduled marketing-office infographic blasts educating academics about why they do (read “should do”) peer reviews, with most results ironically showing academics to have already decided on better ways to spend their time:

And then there were the tweets consistently promoting the new reviewer recognition system “Publons”; a publisher-owned effort to bolster peer reviewer commitment by tracking, quantifying, and ranking peer reviewers:

But perhaps the most condescending #PeerRevWk16 tweets were those gently informing academics as to how they could better perform their free publisher labour:

So I admittedly got a bit snarky:

And being on sabbatical, words were soon diverted from manuscript revisions to countering this increasingly awkward, oblivious, and patronizing publisher narrative implying that problematic peer review disengagement could be remedied not by meaningful compensation or real talk about peer review costs, but by a Twitter campaign aimed at educating, flattering, and shaming academics. Again, I’m not an expert on the academic publishing industry, but it seemed important to share some thoughts on issues that were clearly being avoided such as:

1.  The peer review burden on vulnerable academics:

2.  The ethics of peer review compensation:

3.  In-store credit as review compensation:

4.  Financial compensation for peer reviews:

5.  The exclusion of industry expertise:

6.  Peer review sampling bias:

7.  The “gamification” of peer review:

8.  My personal review perspective:

9.  Public perception of publisher appreciation efforts:

So while the #PeerRevWk16 initiative does on the surface present as an effort to simply thank and support peer reviewers, a quick consideration of the academic publishing landscape suggests that it may also represent an effort to whitewash growing public discontent over a massively profitable industry that does shamefully little to show respect for the free academic labour on which it relies:

So for good measure, I doubled down with @AcademicsSay to better punctuate the #PeerRevWk16 publisher noise:

Even Nature got in on the fun:

And despite publisher-provided highlight reels of #PeerRevWk16 in which most of the above is effectively excluded, the narrative that resonated most with academics was obvious:

As to where to go from here, there were a few thoughts:

Maybe it’s just me, but this hashtag effort at best seems intended to distract from publisher problems or promote new publisher products. At worst, it seems a fundamentally misguided attempt to sustain profits by increasing peer review engagement among (a) inexperienced, less expert academics not yet familiar with the scientific process, (b) early career researchers trying any way they can to demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their time and energy to potential employers, or (c) already overburdened academics disillusioned with the publication process who need and will take the self-esteem boost despite its patronizing tone.

Is a thank you from publishers for peer reviewing appreciated? Perhaps, but that’s not why we do it. And as a transparent attempt to placate a base increasingly dissatisfied with publishers profiting from their good will, institutional/disciplinary pressure, and passion for science, the #PeerRevWk16 effort kinda looks like using the “tip” section of a bill to provide actual tips on how to serve publishers better:

Of course, I might be entirely off-base in interpreting #PeerRevWk16 as anything other than a face-valid attempt to show some much-needed appreciation to hardworking volunteers. But as a leading authority on pandering to academics on Twitter, I can safely say that academic publisher trolling could use some work.

logo_square