Is it thesis envy, or a worse problem?

May 4, 2007

With academic mental health at an all-time low, Adrian Furnham sets out a rough diagnostic guide to common campus ailments

Academic life is still portrayed as civilised, gentle and privileged in much of the media. Yet, within academe all is not well. There are research assessments, teaching assessments and endless required reports. Nosy outsiders come in to do quality audits, while students evaluate research-trained dons more rigorously than they ever evaluated themselves.

There are three times as many universities as there were immediately after the war, and they seem to come and go, rebranded and relabelled with great aplomb. Everyone is being forced to embrace change.

It is no wonder there is talk of widespread stress and breakdown among lecturers. Read some reports and it appears that academics are falling like flies. It seems we need psychiatric help. So a good diagnostic system of common academic ailments and their manifestations is required. Here's a first attempt:

* Sociopathic Admissions Complex : a persistent worry that one's admissions policies and procedures are failing, leading all those bright, hard-working, well-heeled students to go to one's competitors

* Defensive Assignment Syndrome : the dread of marking assignments where if you don't give every demanding and litigious student a starred first they will cause mayhem

* Bi-Polar Ethics Committee Obsession : rapid swings from loving to loathing of ethics committees depending on whether they are blocking you or your rivals' activities

* Defensive Examination Dysfunction : the terrible worry that one really is "dumbing down" exam questions or being far too lenient with marking, brought on by the inexorable rise in firsts, year on year

* External Examiner Impulse : the Asperger's-like inclination to admit publicly that the external examiner is an ex-lover of the head of department and a mere token

* Degenerative Grant Income Neurosis : the persistent, consistent and insistent knowledge that grant size is the only thing the vice-chancellor really thinks about... and that one's own is too meagre

* Adolescent Lecture Inhibition : the overwhelming desire to offload as many lectures as possible onto naive new colleagues. May be accompanied by trying to develop very complex and obscure courses that get cancelled because no students are interested

* Bygone-Era Nostalgia Syndrome : that terrible and frequent yearning for chalk and overhead projectors in a lecture theatre where the felt-tipped pens have all run out and the PowerPoint presentation set-up is beyond one's understanding

* Hysterical Promotion Symptoms : a chronic complaint that hits the 50-year-old senior lecturer who worries incessantly about moving up to that magical professorial status and the marginally improved pension it brings with it

* Post-Traumatic Publication Fetish : this is a low self-esteem disorder about size and quality. It is manifested in various ways: cynical attacks on the unscholarliness of the "publish-or-perish" brigade; clever ways to make conference posters look like publications on one's CV; having many references to profound-sounding books and papers as "in preparation"

* Suicidal Research Deficit : a personality disorder related to paranoia that leads one to believe one's research output is too modest, too feeble or, more obviously, too little to avoid being offered early retirement

* Unconscious Peer-Review Withdrawal : the knowledge that peer review means little more than bitchy, petty anonymous remarks on years of work. The only way to stop the nastiness is to stop writing, which leads to the previous syndrome

* Borderline Restructuring Psychosis : a disassociative state induced by pension-related desire to embrace management-driven change to effective practices, combined with the unspeakable suspicion that tried-and-tested methods have some merit

* Psychosexual Sabbatical Fixation : the dream-like state of fantasising about a year swanning about on a rich, sunny American campus interacting with young minds and producing your magnum opus

* Undifferentiated Seminar Disturbance : the illusion that most seminars are Quaker meetings but where "the spirit" appears to move no one to speak at all

* Substance-Fuelled Student Assessment Breakdown : claret or chardonnay-induced outbursts in essay-marking where the anxiety and boredom lead to periodic shrieking, weeping or hysterical laughter

* Abnormal Supervision Reaction : the sudden realisation that supervising rich, full-fee-paying foreign students is a terrifying, locked-in process somewhere between counselling and full psychoanalysis, where you are trapped for years and years and will ultimately have to write the whole damn thesis yourself

* Chronic (Moral) Tutor Malady : the real worry that you are not sure exactly what a moral tutor is or should be doing; and whether it has anything to do with morals at all

* Lecturer's Malignant Progressive Somnambulismphobia : the ever more frequent recurrence of a nightmare where you are trying to give a lecture without notes, on a topic you know little about, only to find on waking that you are indeed doing that in your pyjamas

* Deluded Psychiatrists' Narcissistic Obsession : the curious belief that listing all the above syndromes is furthering science, your career or indeed the welfare of your colleagues.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London.

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