Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Heavy Books, Compulsory Positivity, and Post-Dissertation Depression

A friend who is a comedy writer once asked me what my book was about. I explained that it was about people getting hurt at their jobs and what I see as the limits of legal responses to those injuries. He replied “that’s really dark. It’s probably not good for you to spend so much time in that headspace.” I said “oh it’s fine, it’s based on my dissertation, I’ve been thinking about this stuff for about a decade.” He responded, “you realize that’s not reassuring, right?” I didn’t at first.

I finished the heavy lifting thinking-wise on my book some time in the spring or summer of 2019, if memory serves. I did a lot of line-edits and other hard work afterward but the ideas didn’t change. I finished that work some time in the fall of 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic really took off, I felt like I had been living with mass death for a very long time already and was emotionally exhausted. I’m sure I can’t be the only person feeling this way right now and I don’t mean to claim that the pandemic is extra hard for me. I’m just saying that I wonder if I was already depleted somewhat when the pandemic started. I’ve seen other scholars talking about this on social media but I haven’t kept notes on that; I now wish I had.

Of course, my feeling tired in the face of the pandemic ranks very low on the harms of COVID-19 and powerful people’s responses to it, but that feeling of tiredness has made me wonder if writing my book did something to me in the way that my friend worried about. Having written a book on occupational injury, I want to stress, I am not at all suggesting I have been injured by writing this book. Still, I have begun to think that in writing certain kinds of books we may be carrying around a kind of emotional weight as a result of the work of doing the writing and that this carrying may have effects on us. I have calluses on my hands from jobs I did twenty years ago. I’ve spent far more time on academic work, and it’s not clear that other aspects of my self should be less shaped by my activity than my hands have been.

I think of the emotional weight of the work as somewhat analogous to all the sitting I do for my job: I get back aches from sitting too long. In order to offset the backaches, I try to move more, to both stretch and strengthen the parts of my body that get too rigid and weak from all the sitting. I’ve tried to do something analogous in response to the sadness and anger that I experienced because of what I wrote about in my book. (As the poet Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Hatred, even of meanness / Contorts the features. / Anger, even against injustice / Makes the voice hoarse.”)

I don’t know that I have any illuminating thoughts on this so much as it is a thing I’ve begun to wonder about recently. I think part of why it didn’t occur to me to think about it before is that I was focused practically on getting the writing done - I’ve written in my prior posts in some detail about logistical specifics of how I tried to get the writing done. I was busy doing the writing of the book, I didn’t have the time and energy to reflect on what it was like to be me doing that writing. I also found that some of the most enjoyable parts of the writing happened when I got into a flow state, where I was concentrating on the work in a way that I was sort of dissolved into the doing, the meta-level of my self-reflexive awareness sort of shut off. That mental state, at least as I experienced it, didn’t leave room for this kind of self-reflection, and had I tried to introduce it that would have been a distraction. There’s some quote from the philosopher Hegel about owls flying at night, the point as I (mis?)remember it is that reflection on activity follows after the activity rather than occurring in the middle.

In any case, I’ve just begun to wonder about this aspect of writing. I would be very interested in hearing from colleagues who write on topics that, like mine, induce sadness and/or outrage. What was it like to work on that? In what ways does doing this kind of work shape us, in what ways can we draw on that shaping or mitigate it, or both? Were you, like me, unaware that this work was shaping you while you were doing the work, or did you notice it sooner than I did within the life of your projects? Was the work a weight you carried, did it take you to dark places (and if so, when did you notice? I’m unsure if my work took a toll on me or not – if it did, I didn’t notice it at the time, I’ve just begun to wonder about this).

Having again written my way into a bit of a negative place I want to note that there was a lot of the process of writing my book I enjoyed a great deal. Through this work I deepened intellectual friendships that mean a great deal to me. I also wonder why I feel this need to rush to backpedal - I find myself saying, in Midwestern voice, “ope! It wasn’t all bad!” I wonder why I have this impulse to make sure I’m not being overly negative. Some of it is no doubt a matter of my upbringing and my personality; I want to be pleasant to be around, I want people to like me; I also want people to want to read my book and if I speak of it as an ordeal that might put them off. But I think there are also some institutional factors related to my impulse to not be overly negative or express the wrong kind of negativities.

I’ve seen people use the term ‘toxic positivity’ to describe some university administrators expressed optimism in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. That unremitting optimism can lead to unwise policies, like fostering gatherings of people when it is still ill-advised to do so. It also sits strangely with the fear and anger and sadness many of us feel in the face of the pandemic (as I type this today, about 100,000 people have died in the US from the pandemic; there is good reason to believe that’s a massive undercount and that many more will die). The positivity invalidates those emotional responses.

I have begun to wonder if there might be some kind of social force operating that pressures people regarding how positive and negative we are. I’ve started to call it compulsory positivity. My thoughts on this have been enriched by an essay I want to recommend to you, called “She Works Too Hard for the Money” by the literary scholar and editor Rebecca Colesworthy. Dr. Colesworthy discusses the relentless framing of scholarly work as a gift we give, and of our jobs as gifts we have been given. This framing denies that our work is, well, work, and that this work, like other work, has costs for us and shapes us.

I am sure that compulsory positivity asserts itself differently according to status as non-tenure-track, tenure track, and tenured - and according to differences of race, gender, and ability. I think, for instance, about colleagues who have been written off sometimes as “angry feminists.” I would be very interested in hearing from others about their experiences related to pressure to be positive. I suspect as well that compulsory positivity and the treatment of our work and our jobs as gifts are not simply habits of mind that many academics just so happen to have. Rather, these phenomena are institutionally reproduced, a reproduction many of us play out in our words insofar as we are actors following (because we are required to follow) institutional scripts.

Part of what makes positivity compulsory, I think, is that there are interpersonal consequences of being too negative. People (myself included!) draw back, look away, change the subject. In a time of massive economic and employment insecurity it is hard to believe there can be no professional consequences. Hence compulsory positivity. I will add that I am very aware that within the academic labor market I am tremendously fortunate to have a tenure track job. I suspect that adjunctification intensifies the institutional patterns and scripts - the ideology - that I’m discussing here.
Continuing in the minor key of being real about the weight of the work but with a warmer counterpoint of intellectual community: just before I defended my dissertation my friend Alison Lefkovitz told me “just so you know, some people get depression after they defend. Not everyone does. I did. I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening or why and that made it harder, so I try to tell friends who are about to defend that this can happen.” This was a kind thing to do, and an example of breaking from compulsory positivity - she noted that, saying something like “it’s a huge accomplishment to finish up and I don’t want to be negative about it, but…” (By the way, Professor Lefkovitz is the author of a great book - Strange Bedfellows: Marriage in the Age of Women's Liberation.)

It turns out I did get some post-dissertation depression. It was exacerbated by years of being really broke, the manifold threats built into the real chance of not finding a job, and the emotional brutality of doing what the job market required. (Rebecca Schuman says it better than I can in her excellent memoir Schadenfreude, A Love Story. She writes that somewhere along the way "my academic self had snuck up on my personal self and eaten her whole," making the job market all the more bruising. "I'd bared the fruits of the hardest intellectual work I'd ever done before these search committees, essentially shown them my soul, and they'd been unmoved.") While those factors worsened how I felt, they weren’t the sole source of it. From talking with colleagues, it’s possible to have everything go great on the job market and so on and still end up in post-dissertation depression.

At the time, my feelings were very localized to academic work. I was generally fine. I felt happy, enjoyed my kids and music and exercise and so on. I enjoyed colleagues and reading their work too, and reading ideas for the sake of reading them. But making contact with my own scholarly work, which was obviously required for my job and for job-hunting, felt abysmal. As a result, doing tasks related to my scholarship took a lot longer, which meant that I spent more time in that headspace, and I procrastinated sometimes, which meant I was not working but still living under the heavy shadow of the work. Amid all of that, knowing that a friend who I admired had something similar happen, and knowing what was happening, made all this much easier to bear. It lasted a few months, slowly tapering off. I now try to tell this to any friends of mine who are about to defend, to repeat the kindness Alison showed me. I wanted to say this in case anyone else could use hearing the same.

There you have it. Another post concluded while July rushes to an end. I've got three more posts planned then will conclude my time as guest blogger here. In my next post I’m going to talk about impostor syndrome and class. As ever, thanks for reading.

- Nate Holdren