Conversation and the Art of Depressed Academia

I’m sat in a coffee shop, reading for a book review I’m writing, and earlier this afternoon I overheard someone in a group at the next table. I hadn’t been trying to listen to their conversation. If anything, I’d been trying not to be grumpy about their loudly discussing poverty and gender politics while I was trying to read about GDH Cole’s views on guild socialism. Still, I was aware that I hadn’t heard this person speak until they quietly said they’d be leaving because they were an embarrassment to themselves and everyone else.

Of course, his friends fell over themselves to say he was wrong and warmly encouraged him to have coffee with them again. But I couldn’t help understanding, as someone who knows depression, why he’d found it difficult to be in the company of this group of confident and assertive people.

There are different modes of conversation. We might think of one being based on an exchange of assertions, another on asking questions.  (For those who know about these things, this is an observation rooted in a simplistic dumbing-down of Deborah Tannen’s work on different styles of conversation: where a typically-female high-involvement style, with its collaborative floors for sharing conversation, is contrasted with a typically-male and less-collaborative high-considerateness style. I should really think about how this all fits with the fuller socio-linguistic scholarship on conversations but, hey, this is an off-the-cuff blog post.)

I’ve spent most of my life thinking of obvious questions just after the conversation has moved on. I’m not sure that’s something that got worse when my brain slowed down during my period of depression, but I can easily retrofit that explanation.

What I do know is that my natural mode of conversation also became a challenge when I was depressed. Formulating ideas, opinions and observations felt a herculean task, let alone having the confidence to share them.

I know I alternated between wanting to be around people who characteristically adopted each mode at the time. It can be easy to be in the company of confident people who aren’t going to ask your opinion and who will happily make the conversation happen on their own. But it can also be overwhelming if you unconsciously start comparing their confidence and certainty to your own mental flailing.

I started thinking about how this relates to my chosen line of work, as an academic. Essentially, what I do for a living is a series of extended conversations. Sometimes these are mediated by print, as my writing responds to what others have written years or decades earlier. Sometimes they are more immediate, in exchanges with colleagues and students. But exchanging observations, ideas and opinions and asking questions are at the heart of all of it.

Valparaiso 34
Photograph taken by GC Gosling in Valparaiso de Chile in 2015

So how, as someone who has mental programme running in the background to plan how I’d handle another period of depression in the future, does all this relate to how I approach my academic work?

There are times, of course, when things just need to get done. Classes need to be taught. Essays need to be marked. A box of archive materials need to be looked at before the staff want to close. Proofs need to be checked and edits made so an article or a book can go to the printers. But there are also plenty of times when there is some freedom and flexibility around what jobs to do when. So it makes some sense to be aware of what types of jobs fit with what states of mind – which are good exchange of assertion tasks and which are good asking questions ones.

I’ll get my head around how this relates to teaching another time, but for now I’ll focus on research and writing.

In Category A, I’d put:

  1. Reading new texts and taking notes to inform my own work
  2. Working through research materials
  3. Planning research activities and projects
  4. Planning and drafting or substantively re-writing

In Category B, I’d put:

  1. Editing my work (when it can actually be quite comforting to see what I’ve already done, that I have done something even if it’s not perfect)
  2. Working through questions or concerns about my work but not trying to answer or solve them, just getting them straight in my head or on the page, that becomes a planning activity
  3. Reading something tangential, where I don’t expect myself to know what to do with it – I’m only expecting it to be hopefully interesting, and if I have ideas reading it then that’s a bonus

I’m not sure I can entirely dislodge the idea of myself as less capable during a period of depression. But perhaps I can think differently about what my capabilities are at any time, based on what my frame of mind is. When I’m feeling at my strongest, I feel capable of any of these tasks, even though I’m sure there are days, hours and even minutes when I’m more up for one or other of them. When I’m not, maybe it would be helpful to think about these all as being valid ways to work.

If I want the comfort of an exchange of ideas, then A1 and A2 are suitably passive options. A3 and A4 will probably have to wait for a stronger day. But if I need to pull myself back to a less combative, more tentative mode of work, then B1 or B2 might be better options. And if that feels too demanding of my intellectual input, then B3 is the only realistic option.

Tomorrow is a ‘research day’. So perhaps I’ll start the day not by asking what I need to get done, as I usually do, but by what type of work I’m mentally up for.

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