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.

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What I Learned About Writing by Not

Author: Rebecca A. Adelman
Original: www.rebeccaaadelman.com


All is not lost.  What I have lacked in tangible productivity over my long season of writer’s block (which seems finally to be limping its way to a close), I have gained in new understandings of the intricacies of my writing process and the fussy mechanics of getting words on the page.

When you aren’t getting words on the page, it’s crazy annoying (at best) to hear about people that are.  And it’s similarly unpleasant to receive unsolicited suggestions about how to get yourself unstuck.  As if it was simply a matter of will or ergonomics or mental hygiene.  But if it was that easy, anyone could do it.  Producing good work, and doing it well, takes more than that.  So here are a few things I figured out about being productive when I was struggling to produce anything at all.  It’s an open letter, of sorts, to my writerly self – the “I” is me, and so is the “you.”  But the “you” can also be, you know, you, if you are reading this and wanting to reconsider your writing praxis.

Become attuned to your limits.
It’s hard to tune out the constant drone of academic meta-commentary about how much (or, from the occasional maverick, how little) we work.  And it helps to know that most of those aggrandizing self-reports are bullshit.  But even still, focusing too much on what other people are doing, or not, just leaves me insecure, or anxious, or envious.  So spend less time worrying about what other people are doing and focus on your own patterns. Then figure out how you work, and be honest about whether all the hours you spend “working” are actually that.  For example, I’ve figured out that I’m neither efficient nor terribly lucid after dinner, and that even when I go back to work late in the evening, I’m not getting much done besides maybe assuaging my guilt about not working enough.

Diminishing returns are a thing.  So consider whether you might be better served by reinvesting those mediocre or largely symbolic work hours elsewhere.

Figure out how you want the experience of writing to feel.  
Turns out, there are no extra points for suffering.  Or if they are, they circulate in an economy that is wildly unrewarding.  Like the counters where you redeem your tickets at arcades: a small fortune in tokens and hours spent playing Skeeball leave you with an armload of little cardboard rectangles and the teenager in charge of the whole operation barely acknowledges you when you come to select your prize and it ends up that all you can afford is a pencil case.  Anyway.

Few of us have the luxury, presumably, to only write when it feels good.  Deadlines, tenure, promotion, &c.  But unless you produce your best work in the throes of abject misery, experiment with the novel practice of setting your writing aside when writing feels terrible.  We all have different thresholds for ‘terrible,’ and that terrible feeling might be mental or physical, but when you encounter that threshold, I think it’s smart to heed it. Admittedly, I am still relatively new to the routine of being a peer-reviewer, but I have not yet encountered a reviewer questionnaire instructing me to give special consideration to a project if I think the author cried a lot (A LOT) while they composed it.  And if there are people who will give you extra credit for your anguish, think carefully about whether you want to play by that set of rules.

Spend some time thinking about how it feels when you are doing your best work.  Maybe you feel focused, or excited, or peaceful, or maybe you’re so in it that you don’t feel anything at all.  Take advantage of those times, figure out how to increase their frequency if possible, develop strategies for doing good-enough work in circumstances that only approximate them.  And otherwise: leave it alone.

Work at a pace that’s sustainable.
Pretty much every academic I know, including me, is overcommitted.  There are lots of reasons for this, both individual and structural.  Obviously, everybody will define “overcommitted” in their own ways, and experience being overcommitted idiosyncratically.  I’ll need to figure out, eventually, why I have a tendency to hoard projects, but here’s what I know for now: I tend to overestimate the amount of time that I have before a deadline, while underestimating how much work I will want to put into a given project.  Part of me also imagines that the asteroid will surely hit between now and whatever deadline so it won’t actually matter.

I can manage the consequences of my over- and underestimating (as well as the general paucity of asteroids) fairly well under normal circumstances.  But when shit, inevitably happens, that mismatch becomes acutely untenable.

So: try to plan out your projects and commitments, as best as you are able, so that they align with how busy you want to be, and when, while also maintaining an overall mode of existence that is tolerable.  (Parenthetically, I think academics ought to aspire to existences that are more than tolerable, and break the habit of postponing tolerability until the summer.)  Not all of this is in your control, of course, so another part of writing and working well is, I think, accepting that those plans won’t always pan out.  And leave a margin for catastrophes, great and small.  If your whole writing scheme is contingent on you never getting a flat tire / your kid never getting sick / you never getting called for jury duty / no one you love ever needing you or dying, it probably isn’t going to work for you long-term.

Consider what it’s worth to you.
Because we are all, alas, constrained by the laws of time and space, doing one thing generally means not doing another (or half-doing two things at once).  Try to be cognizant of the trade-offs your writing affords and requires of you.  Be honest about whether the potential rewards actually appeal to you, and your values.  And then consider the costs, and whether they’re acceptable.  With a few exceptions, I am generally fine to sacrifice binge-watching for writing.  And sometimes I feel very okay opting out of being social so I can stay in and work.  But on the other hand, it’s almost never worth it to me – though it used to be – to trade work for sleep, or healthy food, or exercise.  Maybe your non-negotiable stuff is different.  The point is to figure out what that non-negotiable stuff is, and protect it … otherwise work will eat it all.

Detach from the outcome.
Beyond doing your best to make your ideas intelligible and your style engaging, you can’t control how people will respond to your writing.  Consider your audience, but don’t obsess about them, and learn the difference between wanting to connect with your readers and needing to charm and trap them into your ways of seeing and thinking.  Efforts to engineer reader reactions almost never generate better writing, and are much more likely to result in arguments that overreach or result to pedantry, while the fixation with impressing your audiences will ultimately leave you stultified and unable to say much of anything at all.  Good ideas are much easier to come by than magic words.

Look, and move, forward. 
You will have seasons when you are more productive, seasons when you are less productive, and seasons when you are scarcely functional.  Hopefully, over the course of your writing life, these will balance out into an overall sense of accomplishment, with a body of work that bears it out.  When you are more productive, spend some time figuring out what enables you to work at that level, but don’t make yourself crazy trying to recreate it every time you encounter a slump.  Chances are, it’s mostly a matter of circumstance: a legitimate manifestation of your brilliance, sure, but maybe also just good luck. Conversely, the seasons when you are less productive are also likely to be those in which your luck is worse than usual, and not a  final revelation of your incompetence.

Capitalism tells us that time is modular, that any hour has potentially the same value as any other hour, and hence that missed hours can be replaced.  Nope.  If there is something big that keeps you from your work for a season, you won’t (sorry) be able to get those hours back.  And especially if that something big is also something massively unpleasant, you probably won’t be able to stop feeling lousy about those lost hours, anxious or mournful about the work you could be doing, and resentful of the people around you who happen to be enjoying one of those good-luck seasons of magical writing.  In those moments, all you can do is muddle through: do what you can with your radically reduced resources, plead for deadline clemency if you need it, and accept – your overwhelming fatigue may help lubricate this process – that you probably won’t be producing your very best work at this particular godawful juncture.  And don’t compound the insult by blaming yourself for those lost hours, those words left unwritten.  For my part, now that I’m halfway (give or take) back in the saddle after a pretty unrelentingly miserably eighteen months, it’s a daily struggle not to take the losses of that period out on myself.  It takes a lot of mental discipline to focus on what you can do, not on what you didn’t because you couldn’t.

*    *    *    *    *

So that’s a little bit of what I know now that I didn’t know before.  It strikes me as odd that academics, generally so good at questioning why things are the way they are, rarely bring their skeptical sensibilities to the task of questioning their own work habits or the expectations they have internalized.  And for those who are satisfied with their circumstances, there may be no need for this kind of querying.  But I get the impression (or maybe I just run with an exceptionally grumpy crowd) that lots of us are less than satisfied.  Of course, many of the reasons for that are structural, and so insuperable by these tiny little hacks.  But despite this, or maybe because of it, minor adjustments made in the service of your own comfort are meaningful, worth it, and necessary.

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Giving Up On Academic Stardom

Author: Eric Grollman
Original: Conditionally Accepted


I have bought into the ego-driven status game in academia. Hard. I find myself sometimes wondering more about opportunities to advance my reputation, status, name, and scholarship than about creating new knowledge and empowering disadvantaged communities. Decision-making in my research often entails asking what will yield the most publications, in the highest status journals with the quickest turnaround in peer-review. I often compare my CV to others’, wondering how to achieve what they have that I have not, and feeling smug about achieving things that haven’t. Rarely do I ask how to become a better researcher, but often ask how to become a more popular researcher.

I have drunk the Kool-Aid, and it is making me sick. Literally. The obsession with becoming an academic rockstar fuels my anxiety. I fixate on what is next, ignore the present, and do a horrible job of celebrating past achievements and victories. I struggle to accept “acceptable.” I feel compelled to exceed expectations; I take pride when I do. “Wow, only six years in grad school?” “Two publications in your first year on the tenure track?! And, you’re at a liberal arts college?”

When did I become this way? Sure, academia is not totally to blame. My parents expected me to surpass them in education (they have master’s degrees!). I also suffer, as many gay men do, with the desire to excel to gain family approval, which is partially lost upon coming out. Excelling in college, rather than becoming an HIV-positive drug addict, helped my parents to accept my queer identity. In general, I compensate professionally and socially for my publicly known sexual orientation. It is hard to unlearn the fear one will not be loved or accepted, especially when homophobes remind you that fear is a matter of survival.

Oh, but academia. You turned this achievement-oriented boy into an anxious wreck of a man. It is not simply a bonus to be an academic rockstar of sorts. My job security actually depends on it. And, it was necessary to be exceptional to even get this job. And, it matters in other ways that indirectly affect my job security, and my status in general. You can forget being elected into leadership positions in your discipline if no one knows you. “Who?” eyes say as they read your name tag at conferences before averting their gaze to avoid interacting. I have learned from my critics that one must be an established scholar before you can advocate for change in academia.

The Consequences Of Striving For Academic Stardom

I am giving up on my dream to become the Lady Gaga of sociology. I have to do so for my health. I have to stop comparing myself to other scholars because so many things vary, making it nearly impossible to find a truly fair comparison. Of course, I will never become the publication powerhouse of an Ivy League man professor whose wife is a homemaker. Even with that example, I simply do not know enough about another person’s life, goals, and values to make a comparison. I do not want others to compare themselves to me because my level of productivity also entails Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I am not a good model, either!

Dreams of academic stardom prevent me from appreciating my present circumstances, which were not handed to me. Sadly, voices, which sound awfully similar to my dissertation committees’, have repeatedly asked, “are you surrreeee you don’t want to be at an R1?” I have zero interest in leaving, and negative interest (if that is possible) in enduring the job market again. But, I fear that, as I was warned, I will become professionally irrelevant; and, this has made it difficult to fully appreciate where I am. I have acknowledged the reality that no place will be perfect for an outspoken gay Black intellectual activist. But, I have found a great place that holds promise for even better.

Beyond my health, the lure of academic stardom detracts from what is most important to me: making a difference in the world. Impact factors, citation rates, and the number of publications that I amass distract from impact in the world and accessibility. It is incredibly selfish, or at least self-serving, to focus more energy on advancing my own career rather than advancing my own communities.

Obsession with academic rockstardom forced me to view colleagues in my field as competition. My goal is to demonstrate what I do is better than them in my research. In doing so, I fail to see how we can collaborate directly on projects, or at least as a chorus of voices on a particular social problem. Yet, in reality, no individual’s work can make a difference alone. I also fail to appreciate the great things my colleagues accomplish when I view it only through jealous eyes.

When I die, I do not want one of my regrets to be that I worked too hard, or did not live authentically, or did not prioritize my health and happiness as much as I did my job.  Ok, end of rant.

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