Friday, April 13, 2007

Mass Depression

Here is a very nice passage from Vivian Gornick's "At the University: Little Murders of the Soul" posted by Amitava Kumar. It ties in nicely with some previous speculations I posted on academia as a culture of conflict. Concerning the professors inhabiting an English Department she visits, Gornick writes:

I soon discovered that each of them held the place they found themselves in at a discount. One and all thought they belonged somewhere better. The atmosphere reeked of brooding courtesies and subterranean tensions. I did not for a long time understand exactly what it was I was looking at. I had never before encountered mass depression.
I like the term "mass depression." It seems to capture the dispirited feeling one so often encounters at committee meetings, conferences and other venues where academics congregate. I think that cases of mass depression like the one described by Gornick are extremely common in academia. The solution to this malady that is usually imagined, though, is an individual one. It consists of moving on to a better department and a better institution where one's talents will be appreciated and where the mass depression of "brooding courtesies and subterranean tensions" do not hold sway. This grass-is-greener solution doesn't seem a likely one to me. Aside from the real difficulties in job mobility, the problems in the academy are structural, not just personal. There is little reason to think that as one moves into more and more competitive academic environments that the tensions will lessen -- this is something each of us should have learned simply from watching the various dysfunctional relationships between the faculty on our own dissertation committees play themselves out.

Changing the system from the current one of ever escalating competition and conflict over publications, teaching loads, and service obligations to one where our work loads are predictable and tenure, raises, and promotions are also predictable outcomes that can be looked forward to, rather than battles that have to be fought would help create the conditions for ending this mass depression. Collective bargaining could replace the multitude of individual labor disputes now taking place on a case by case basis in a predictable cycle that moves from open and bitter hostilities to "subterranean tensions" and back again in a boring and endless repetition of the same.


  1. Mass depression, that is a good insight. And having a more rational environment would definitely help.

    On the more competitive environments, though, I am not sure they aren't better. Why: because then the battles are fought about more concrete things. Perhaps there is some point I am missing here, though.

  2. "the battles are fought about more concrete things"... I think this is wishful thinking. Kumar's post certainly implies that his competitive academic home suffers from mass depression too. And my own experience hasn't shown any particular correlation between prestige and job satisfaction -- or even between prestige and civility. I think faculty battles everywhere are more likely to be waged over parking spaces than over matters of more substance. And this tendency is simply a symptom of the larger problem concerning the conflict-ridden conditions of our work.

  3. In my experience, things were the most surrealistic by far in the more out of the way places. (I could expand on that but I am only supposed to be on a short break. ;-)) This of course doesn't mean there isn't mass depression in the first tier, or that
    "conflict-ridden conditions" are not everywhere.

  4. I'll agree with you about out of the way places tending towards the surreal. With nothing else around to distract them, folks often seem to spend their spare time fabulating, pursuing and honing all kinds of strange and paranoid grudges.

  5. Related:

  6. I still think about this post off and on. It is true that having to constantly battle for what should be normal, such as regular raises and generally sane conditions, is very difficult.

    Also, being in a hierarchical and authoritarian structure where those in charge are insecure and attempt to assert power by destabilizing others is very difficult.

    I still find that the hardest part about it is doing all of this in places where one would not choose to live otherwise, without research
    and cultural resources, etc., and in weird weather.

    I think mass depression is a brilliant term.