Life in school

In a recent column in the National Communication Association’s newsletter, NCA president Dr. Arthur Bochner writes about institutional depression – a systemic sadness, loneliness and hopelessness that affects many academics. He blames institutional depression on the lack of communication and community among academics in the humanities, whose work and rewards systems encourage individual performance. Academics don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group or community, and left to their own devices, like many other mammals, flirt with depression.

You’d think that the ivory tower is alive with sparkling, stimulating conversation. You’d hope. Well it is, but mostly in the classroom.

I then read Jane Tompkins’ riveting memoir, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. A personal account of her experiences as a student, scholar, and academic. A courageous, naked disclosure of her psychological journey from insecurity, depression, craving for acceptance to what seems like peace. A peace she couldn’t find in academia, so she retired early from a tenured professorship in English at Duke University.

I read the book in one sitting, and I think it should be mandatory reading for all academics and university administrators.

That’s because although we live a privileged life in academia (hey, we’re paid to sit, talk, read, and write), it can also be a miserable life. No one takes care of our souls. Tompkins claims no one takes care of our students’ souls, either. Within the university, we’re not people. We’re minds.

So what can be done to improve quality of life in academia? Tompkins’ solution was to create opportunities for building community. She tried. She failed.

She realized the main reason why community isn’t happening is because we’re too busy. We run all the time. We work all the time. We need to be accomplishing something all the time. There’s no time for leisurely conversation and relationship building. (Want to know more about how that can kill you? Read my favorite non-fiction book, American Mania.)

As some of you know, for personal family reasons but or maybe for no reason at all, I’ve been doing my own flirting with depression lately. The recent SNCR conference has given my spirits a huge boost, because it was alive and a-twittering with sparkling, stimulating conversation.

So I’ve decided to try for myself and others Tompkins’ idea of building community and have proposed starting a summer book club at Clemson. First reading on the list: Jane Tompkins’ A Life in School.

After a 3-day approval process, my call was forwarded to people in Clemson’s College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. A few people have responded. If you are in the area, are reading this, and would like to be part of the book club, please contact me.

I hope it will be a safe place for friendly and stimulating conversations, not a battle of egos. The next books on my reading list are:

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
The Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer

… but I’m open to suggestions.

If you’re not in the Clemson area, tell me:

How is/was your life in school?

Did school take care of both of your mind and soul? Did you feel treated like a whole person? Should school even do that?

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One response to “Life in school”

  1. Lauren Vargas says :

    I will pick up this book now!

    You are spot on in this post. The conversation is in the classroom and very rarely with peers. Lessons would be more dynamic if we communicated, but even a faculty meeting is ill attended. There does not seem to be any fire…this lack of passion causes my flame to waver.

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