Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The untenured body

I've been recommended for tenure. Sure, the decision still has to climb through some levels of administration, but it's basically over for me. The weight has lifted. It lifted a little when I began my tenure-track post, but now I feel almost ..... normal.

I sleep better, I eat better, and I want to exercise. I'm looking forward to the post-tenure body, a healthy body. However, in all my privilege and good fortune, I pause for a moment of bitterness about the damage my career has had on my health, both mental and physical, and what my case seems to indicate.

During my graduate career, I've had periods of good physical health, when I didn't have chronic headaches, backaches, yo-yo weight, and anxiety. I worked on them all and, as on everything, worked extremely hard. I looked forward to greater "balance" in my life when I started full-time. But this hope was short-lived as the spectre of tenure review came closer.

Why be optimistic now? Academic training is designed to make us workaholics; the system depends on it. However, my old friends from grad school have turned around their health post-tenure in ways they assure me were impossible before. So, I believe that with tenure I can be a higher functioning workaholic.

This raises the issue, however, of the accessibility (not just the desirability) of academic jobs. My health is generally pretty good, and I live in a country with (still mostly) socialized medicine. If my struggles are in any way representative, then anyone with health or ability challenges may have their professional potential undermined by the rigours, no tortures, of the educational and employment system. (And all this stands without even beginning to address how sessional or adjunct faculty are exploited.)

Philosophy and science careers may not be attractive to women or other marginalized people because of the various ways we are given the cold shoulder. Yet, perhaps more than that social discomfort, however, we need to consider people's health. More than concerning ourselves with individual people, we need to consider how to make academic life more healthy.


Noumena said...

In my six years of graduate school, I've gotten the impression that a huge percentage of young philosophers are serious insomniacs. I had a roommate who only slept on weekends. A junior faculty member slept sporadically -- and usually on a cot in his office -- for six months before his tenure review. And numerous complaints of acute insomnia. I'm not currently suffering, but only because I almost never stay up later than 12:30, don't work after 10, and don't drink caffeine after 5 in the afternoon.

My pet theory is that it's a combination of workaholism and uncertainty. Every philosophy grad student I know -- male or female -- has some degree or another of imposter syndrome. And, at most stages of a young academic's career, it's easy to suddenly get tossed out on the street: you can fail your oral exam or comps (or whatever tests your grad programme has), you can fail to sufficiently impress a hiring committee, you can fail to get an article accepted by a prestigious journal, you can fail to be recommended for tenure, and so on. Put these two together and you have a community of young philosophers who all constantly feel like they're six months away from moving back in with mom and dad, a 30(+/- 5)-year-old failure.

That seems to be a mental health aspect, and of course it interacts with the bodily health aspect you point out: you don't maintain your bodily health when you're depressed, for example, so then you feel worse, which makes the depression worse, and so on.

Evelyn Brister said...

Congratulations, Cate!

I agree with Noumena. I can be assured of sleeping well only if I make time for a run. It's nice that the mental benefits come alongside the good sleep and the physical benefits. But the irony is that I'm likely to skip it precisely when I need it the most-when deadlines loom or meetings crowd my schedule.

Khadimir said...


Same here, Noumena. As a doctoral student at a poor university in a marginal field, anxiety is the order of the day. The rate of alcoholism and psychotropic drug use (both medical and not) is very high here. One of our (former) students was also a coke dealer.... I've not had those problems in my own case, but have had anxiety-related health deterioration.

Rather than running, Dr. Brister, I've taken up competitive soccer. Running in straight lines gets too boring....

Noumena said...

Whoops! I forgot to include my congratulations in my earlier comment.

And, wow, Khadimir. I suspect that my colleagues drink a little too much (to the extent that that's a coherent idea), but the hardest illegal drug anyone regularly uses here is pot. I imagine most university administrators wouldn't care about unhealthy, insomniac grad students. But what if they knew there was a substance abuse epidemic? Has your graduate student union tried to approach the administration about the problem?