I wanted to write a post in response to Moontime Warrior's blog post (here) which begins with the following:
Last term, I confided in a professor that I was struggling with anxiety attacks and depression. She seemed understanding.
A few weeks after the class ended, I learned that she had brought the issue up at an informal departmental gathering, telling grad students and professors that anxiety is often an “excuse” used by students who want an easy ride.
If you read through the post, it becomes pretty crystal clear how out of touch Moontime Warrior's professor is. I also don't think the professor knows much about the lives of the people we teach.
Ever since high school I've loved reading biographies of philosophers. And they are a pretty weird bunch. Consider: Schopenhauer's and Kant's neurotic aversions, the latter's bizarre rituals, Russell's penchant for telling people how to structure their lives even as his kept falling apart, Goedel's fears and Einstein's dedication to him, Wittgenstein and Nietzsche's euphorias, despair, and further neuroses, etc. etc. etc.
This is not schadenfreude, nor is it the cult of genius which holds that suffering is somehow ennobling. Nietzsche was wrong about what doesn't kill you. Lots of things paralyze.
In high school I read about messed up intellectuals because doing so inspired me. If these people could achieve what they did in spite of their trials (and if you know what Nietzsche had to go through, you understand why he said the bit about not being killed), then there's real hope for the rest of us trying to spend our time on earth meaningfully.
Certainly part of the reason I decided to pursue academic philosophy is because I assumed that any field that could produce Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein and Walter Kaufmann's of Nietzsche would be a field with a lot of grace. Such miserable (and in many ways horrible) people, yet Kaufmann and Monk clearly adored them.
In the Presbyterian Church we're supposed to respond to depravity with grace. Everybody is messed up and struggling, so cut people some slack and try to help out when you can.
Sometimes you really do see this grace in professional philosophy. Consider Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins' response to Moontime Warrior's post here. Jenkis begins:
First I want to say that lots of successful philosophers have anxiety attacks. I’m one of them. And anyone who says anxiety is made up, or an excuse for an easy time, doesn’t know what they are talking about; you can tell them I said so.
The link is to Jenkins' description of her own anxiety disorder. Jenkins has grace and guts.
I initially wanted to add to Jenkins comments just how supportive I've found professionals to be vis a vis my own panic attacks (something I've always dealt with). Jenkins talks about not being able to give a paper the same day as flying because the Xanax has to wear off before her philosophy mind is in top gear. Not only do I do the same thing, but nobody bats an eye when I tell them that's why I need an extra night booked in the hotel. It's never been a deal breaker, and no one's treated me like the boogie man as a result.
I meant to go on at length about this, but I'm not entirely comfortable with this line of comfort.
While thinking about what to write in this post I realized that my experience as a male with sometimes clinical levels of anxiety and an odd assortment of neuroses just has to be radically different from a female undergraduate, graduate student, or professor.
Consider something independent of mental health issues, dress expectations.
I know that as a male philosophy professor I can be considerably more slovenly than most female professors. I didn't use to think about this much until I started reading feminist philosophers and what it's like to be a woman in philosophy. Then I realized (a) just how much time and mental energy I save by wearing the same (type identical, that is) frumpy clothes every day of the week and only going to a barber every year or so, and (b) that a female professor who did the same thing would catch hell from students and probably be thought of by colleagues as at the very least overwhelmingly eccentric. I have three male colleagues in my own department (and lots of friends elsewhere) who are almost as slovenly as me, and I don't think I know any female academics who are.
The research on student evaluations show that there are double standards for behavior as well. See Koblitz' research, summarized here. It includes this:
Taken as a whole, [our] results suggest that if female instructors want to obtain high student ratings, they must be not only highly competent with regard to factors directly related to teaching but also careful to act in accordance with traditional sex role expectations. In particular, … male and female instructors will earn equal student ratings for equal professional work only if the women also display stereotypically feminine behavior.
So now I have to wonder about the sometimes odd behavior that can result from having to deal with one's own mental health issues. Is there a double standard there as well?
My impression is that if you are a genius* you can be really, really weird whether you are male or female (I'm not going to name names). If you are male and not a genius but can still publish, teach, and do your fair share of service you can be significantly more weird than people in the general population. People don't define you in terms of your mental health issues any more than you define yourself in terms of them. I mean, go to an APA. People like me don't form a majority, but we're a solid enough plurality that it's a pretty comfortable place. But if you are female and not a genius? I'm not sure that we are nearly so accepting.
This is just my subjective experience, so I may be wrong, but the female non-geniuses at APAs seem on the whole much less weird (in both dysfunctional and non-dysfunctional ways) than the male non-geniuses. To the extent that there is any validity to this observation, one might think that this is just because men are more likely to be socially awkward. But this would be analogous to thinking men are just more likely to be slovenly, ignoring the pressure female academics face to embody heteronormative gender roles in behavior and dress (again, note that all of the people on the Professor or Hobo website are male).
I also wonder if something similar is going on in the blogosphere. I don't think anyone has ever responded to some stupid or intemperate thing I've blogged (and of course I've had my share) by insulting me in a way that essentializes me in terms of mental health categories.** Moreover, consider the couple of people out there in internet land who for various reasons at this point are never going to cut me any slack even when I'm saying reasonable things. This doesn't bother me because, as Iggy Pop says, any time you try to do something beautiful someone's going to call you a punk. But it is interesting that as far as I know, nobody's ever insulted me in the blogosphere in a way that would essentialize me in terms of my mental health categories. Do cis-gender male philosophers have an easier time here? I think we do.
I really don't want to make any big sweeping indictments of our profession. I have no idea of the extent of the double standard nor of how distinctive philosophy is in terms of it. But I do hope that Moontime Warrior read Jenkins' post and link. And I hope that the rest of us are at least aware that sexist double standards might be contributing to making philosophy an inhospitable place for women like Moontime Warrior but not for men like her.****
*I recognize that this division into geniuses and non-geniuses is problematic in all sorts of ways. I'm not endorsing it. If it bugs you, please realize that I'm talking about people who are likely to be perceived as having a hint of whatever ineffable quality we attribute to Saul Kripke that (analogously to dormitive virtue) is responsible for him being able to achieve all he did. The cult of genius is so pervasive in philosophy that most of us unreflectively do think this way.
**That this is more likely now made me not want to post this, and I don't think I would have if Jenkins wasn't such a strong role model here.
I can't say this clearly enough. Having any kind of mental health issue doesn't define who somebody is. At its very worst, it can be just like having an extra part time job or something. To the extent that it does make you stronger, it's just in the same way that having kids can make you a stronger philosopher. (1) Being good at juggling things around it (panic attacks, kids) makes you better generally at organizing time and effort. Many philosophers with kids find they have much less time to do philosophy, but that they paradoxically get much more philosophy done. (2) Depending on how you deal with it, you might end up more empathic as a result. Empathy can actually lead to much better philosophy, because you really take the time to try to figure out with maximal charity how your students and colleagues are thinking about things. Good parents sometimes get a similar boost. (3) Again, as with having kids you might notice some different things about the world. Nearly all of my academic friends with clinical levels of mental health issues (and academics are a motley crue, there are a lot of us) have similar experiences.***
Part of my worry is that sexist norms makes us more likely to essentialize female academics in terms of mental health categories, and that female professors so categorized are more likely to suffer professionally as a result. Again, I don't know if this is true, but the research on student evaluations makes it seem not implausible to me.
***Not trying to put down non-parents or the well adjusted!
Though as a Presbyterian I don't really think that anyone is well-adjusted. I do realize that this belief is in various ways convenient (pronounced in the manner of Dana Carvey's church lady). Ha!
But life really is indescribably (novelists, filmmakers, and musicians come close) tough. Everyone gets humiliated and tormented in unbearable ways at various points. The characteristically American pretense that it could be otherwise just makes everybody involved that much more miserable.
If you listen to one song in this post, please make it the one at right. It's a beautiful sentiment that survives transition outside of its religious context. Again, I saw some of that grace in Jenkins' response to Moontime Warrior. The rest of us can try to follow suit.
****I realize there is something off about me only linking to songs by men in this post. Anyone commenting that could provide some links to great songs by women relevant to this stuff would be much appreciated. I've been listening to the punk band Red Aunts and indie folk-rock sensation Alina Simone a lot recently and certainly could have found some of their songs for this post, but I'm kind of hoarding them for future posts.]