Professorial melancholia


I came across the most fascinating paper yesterday by David Machell ‘A professor realises the potential poison of ivy’ Innovative HE, 16 (2), 1991.  Although it doesn’t relate directly to writing, indirectly it provides a lot of insight on some of the reasons why academics stop writing in their careers.  It’s a psychology paper based on 300 interviews in the US.  It’s about ‘professorial melancholia’ (PM) which is ‘defined as a progressive emotional process’ (p.174). The process is one of increasing negativity, decreasing motivation, negative attitudes and diminishing self-esteem.  Machell identifies 3 stages.  The onset is due to two irrational beliefs about the self (p.174):


a)    “We must be thoroughly competent, adequate, intelligent, and achieving in all possible respects.


b)   We must be loved by everyone and everyone must approve of everything we do.”


Stage one begins when the academic is a student.  Good students are often perfectionists who see the self as perfect in order to feel satisfied.  Straight A’s reinforce this and result in ‘adulation, praise, attention and success’ (p.174).  This behaviour and adulation is the vehicle to belief b) that it is necessary to be loved by all: “The person is truly a ‘star’ and becomes dependent on being a ‘star’ to gain his/her sense of worth” (p. 174).  The ultimate academic star is the PhD.  When students becomes academics they are dependent on the academic environment that fed them as a student.  When students enter academia, they have had years of conditioning and reinforcement of seeing themselves in this way.

Once an academic, the situation changes because it is more difficult to achieve A’s and to receive the adulation of star status.  Even if one does, it is hard to sustain.  Consequences of this change are behaviours like looking at colleagues as competition and with suspicion; ‘unresponsive’ students are seen as weak and as ‘desecrating the discipline’; pressures to publish ‘ignite ‘fear of imperfection’’ and internal anxiety intensifies; and ultimately feelings of inadequacy increase, self-esteem diminishes and imposter/fraudulent emotions increase.   Anger, from hurt and lack of approval increases as well as bitterness towards all aspects of the profession (money, time, status, rewards).  Games of one-up-man-ship towards colleagues, students and administrators become part of the academic’s coping mechanism.  The academic often then groups together with other sufferers where they feed off each other and increase in dysfunction.

 In the middle stage the factors worsen, delusion increases and the academic cannot see the self without distortion.  As time goes on, the person becomes more disillusioned and often isolates him/herself, depression and resentment increases, so does self-disgust.  Scholarly work decreases.  In the late stage, students and colleagues are seen as enemies.  Disrespect, anger and rage characterise the academics interactions with others.  Withdrawal manifests in elitism and arrogance.  Paranoia (they’re talking about me; they want to get rid of me) and unrealistic generalised thinking persists.  Academics become ‘spent’ where they can see nothing of value in their careers which is often seen as burn-out but is actually a more long-term insidious process.  Low self-esteem and fear keep academics from leaving the profession even when they are extremely unhappy.  In the last stage, the person may become prone to alcohol and other abuses, relationship abuses, rage reactions and suicidal behaviour.


 How does one come through this? Machell has several suggestions:


·      Accurate labelling and expression of feelings (vs analysing)


·      Self awareness (surfacing irrational thinking)


·      Sharing with empathetic others


·      Involvement rather than isolation (volunteering)


·      Developing other qualities such as creativity


·      Learning from positive human contacts


·      Fostering a sense of belonging.


 Machell also notes that the academic environment is a breeding ground for this condition.  The university is based on a perfectionist, individualised and competitive ideal.  For example, academics are often seen as not in need of holidays or that time off is really research time. There is also the idea that academics should work alone and if they can’t succeed alone then that is considered failure. 


 I thought the article so interesting, not least, because I could see evidence of PM all around me.  It explained some of the actions of older colleagues particularly. I often work with academics who are stuck in their writing because they are disillusioned.  But I could also see it in myself.  Especially now that I’m on the tenure track which is part of the approval process.  It’s where you get told that you are worthy enough or not.  I’ve experienced a growing obsessiveness around publishing that I have never had before.  I push myself so hard and in the back of my mind, I’m saying ‘for what?’  Now I understand.  I will now be asking myself:  Am I doing this for approval or because I want to do it?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s