Passion and Paranoia by Charlotte Bloch

Oversensitivity is bad news for the debate, argues Joanna Williams

February 21, 2013

In Passion and Paranoia, Charlotte Bloch sets out to explore the socio- emotional world of the university, primarily through interviews with Danish academics at various stages of their careers. Academia is rarely viewed through the prism of emotion and this book offers insights into facets of the everyday lives of scholars that, although familiar, are seldom openly discussed.

Bloch begins by correctly identifying a particular paradox of academia. In order to produce groundbreaking work, which often requires long hours in isolation, academics must feel passionate about their research and perhaps even come to identify closely with it. Yet at the same time, “the university world is generally associated with rationality, methodological principles, objectivity and logical argument”. It is expected that academic work driven by emotion will be presented entirely dispassionately; an individual bringing new knowledge into existence must then be distant from the knowledge as it stands to be judged by others.

Many scholars are likely to agree with Bloch’s call for acknowledgement of the passion underpinning research. Here, one interviewee observes: “There’s not much difference between the feeling you have when you’re in love and the feeling you have when your research is going really well.” This is a far cry from the modern academy’s dispiriting preoccupation with citation counts and journal rankings.

Unfortunately, as Bloch admits, this book does not dwell on the excitement and pleasure to be gained from research, but quickly turns to “the darker side of academic life”, with the academy characterised as a “somewhat unpleasant and acrimonious workplace”. A subject of particular focus is the negative emotions associated with being on the receiving end of academic judgement. The chapter titled “A Huge Emotional Challenge” explores the relationship between PhD students and their supervisors. Such associations are portrayed here as unrelentingly negative and to be endured rather than enjoyed: “experiences of this kind give rise to fear and anxiety, as well as hopelessness and depression”. Similarly, peer- review mechanisms and academic debates are described as war-like, aggressive, confrontational and offensive.

Yet robust debate and criticism are essential components of a healthy academic culture. Without the ability to rigorously challenge ideas and question assumptions, it becomes difficult to further the pursuit of knowledge. Too much concern with feelings and emotions can prevent the challenging of beliefs and allow dogma to pass for fact. Bloch acknowledges, in reporting interviewees’ emotions, that lack of objectivity is a problem. The nature of individual feelings is such that they cannot be held up to scrutiny. When Bloch’s interviewees testify to having felt angry, sad or anxious in a particular situation, we cannot objectively examine such statements in relation to external evidence. The individual’s emotional response becomes incontestable and elevated above other facts.

In privileging the emotions, human fragility is emphasised: a preoccupation with the self-esteem and emotional well-being of others can make passing judgement more difficult. In the UK, perhaps unlike Denmark where Bloch’s research was conducted, there appears to be a growing sensitivity to students’ perceived emotional vulnerability. Lecturers can be wary of setting work that may be considered too difficult, or of appearing too negative in assessment feedback. Similarly, academic conference speeches are often followed by polite questions on the technicalities of the chosen methodology rather than impassioned debate about content. There are trends in social science towards biographical and autobiographical research that may incorporate the feelings of the researcher into the research. While this may make for nicer workplaces, it does not necessarily make for a more enlightened academic culture. Ultimately, how an academic feels will always be less interesting to everyone else than what they actually do, write or discover.

Passion and Paranoia: Emotions and the Culture of Emotion in Academia

By Charlotte Bloch

Ashgate, 164pp, £50.00

ISBN 9781409442547 and 9781409483878 (e-book)

Published 1 October 2012

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