When I wrote my post on crying in science, I never imagined that it would receive such an overwhelming and positive response. It apparently struck a nerve, in a way that I did not anticipate. The response to that post has made me think about how rare it is for scientists in particular and academics in general to admit to having human emotions and problems. In many ways, this is not surprising: these are hard topics that we often wish to keep private. But, of course, part of the reason for wanting to keep them private is that these things are stigmatized. Crying through one’s defense is a pretty minor thing to admit to, but even that felt big (for me, at least).
Someone who recently discussed something much bigger is Peter Railton, who is the Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor and a Thurnau Professor at the University Michigan. (His first title indicates research excellence, while the Thurnau Professorship indicates teaching excellence. This is clearly a remarkable person!) In February, Railton gave a talk at the American Philosophical Association, where he discussed his personal battles with depression. The overall reaction seems to have been enormously positive. Many students and faculty suffer from things like depression and anxiety, but openly discussing it requires a rare act of courage.
Why? Railton himself said:
Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tiptoeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility?
And, in that same Inside Higher Ed piece, philosopher Janice Dowell is quotes as saying:
Many of the questions we hope to answer are highly abstract; a good deal of our research is done just through thinking carefully. It is no accident that rationality and clearheadedness are lionized in our discipline. To admit that one suffers from a mental illness, like depression, is to admit that one is prone to bouts of irrationality. If one’s audience is uninformed about mental illness or unempathetic, that admission is tantamount to an invitation to be taken as a less than full participant in our shared project of answering those questions. More bluntly, to admit to mental illness is to risk admitting that you don’t have what it takes to be good at our job. This is why [Railton’s] uttering the words he did, even given his standing in our profession, was an extraordinary act of courage.
I’m not surprised by the reactions to Railton’s talk – both that it would speak to so many people and that it would seem remarkably brave for him to discuss it publicly. But he is right – by no one talking about the human aspects of science and academia, we are contributing to the stigma people feel for being human and having human emotions and problems, we are contributing to their loneliness, and we are sending the message that science and academia are only for people who are hyper-rational. That is wrong. There are so many ways in which emotional thinking and intelligence can be important in this job. Of course, we need to ultimately be guided by rational thinking in our science! But, along the way, the process of science requires following intuition and being creative. And, most definitely, in my role as a professor, I call on emotional intelligence regularly.
Students (both undergraduate and graduate) face all sorts of hurdles along their way in school. Some of these relate directly to science or their coursework. But others have nothing to do with those. The American College Health Association says that 1/3 of students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function, while half of students reported feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. Think about those numbers. In my class of 600 students, approximately 300 had felt overwhelming anxiety in the past year. (Given that I teach many first-semester freshman, it’s entirely possible the actual number is higher.) I often feel that the thing I could do that would most help my Intro Bio students is connect them with resources that would help them recognize and deal with anxiety. I feel like my time as an undergrad would have been easier if I’d recognized my own anxiety. I’d like to think that now, as a professor, I am a more sympathetic ear to my students who struggle with anxiety.
So I very much agree with Railton and others that we need to be more open in these discussions. Being able to be a positive voice on these topics is a very important reason why I blog. When I write about crying through my defense, or suffering from imposter syndrome, or being anxious, I definitely feel vulnerable. I cringe a little bit when people say a post was “brave”, because it makes me wonder if they mean that it was something I shouldn’t have admitted to. Sometimes, I am so anxious about a post I’ve written that I go back and forth on whether to pull it from the queue. That is why this post on imposter syndrome appeared on a Saturday night; I felt that, if I didn’t hit “post” right away, I would lose the courage to post it. Because, even as an established scientist, it feels vulnerable to talk about these things. But I think it’s important to, because it is only by established folks being open about this that we can reduce the stigmas, and avoid turning away people who would have great contributions to make to science and academia, simply because they think those aren’t places for people with human emotions and problems.
Pre-emptive postscript: I’m not trying to say that everyone in science should be emotional (or that they should all be non-emotional)! Just that we need to be more accepting of diversity in science, including that people with different personalities and different attributes can contribute to science and academia.
Additional postscript: After writing this post, I saw this one, which deals with “the precarious balance between subjectivity and objectivity in science”. It’s a really interesting read.