It was Welcome Week at the university where I teach. Students were arriving, excited, nervous, some imagining a new life in which they could redefine themselves, others perhaps anxious or sad at what they’d left behind or brought with them. For me, it had been a busy summer with little chance to relax, various troubles, and no opportunity to work on my own research, following two years of overwork when I was seconded to a university strategic role (a full-time job in itself) with little or no buyout of my normal professorial workload. I was tired and frustrated as I sat watching my inbox spasm with new messages.
Suddenly my office started to pale, the fringes of my vision were trembling and blurred. I didn’t feel exactly like I was a body, like I was in a place. I was desperately thirsty, and my throat felt constricted, as if I was being choked. I couldn’t speak. What on earth was happening to me?
After an hour, unable to shake it off, it occurred to me that I was having a panic attack. And if it could come over me so unexpectedly, in the privacy and safety of my office, it could easily happen next Friday, when I stood up in front of colleagues and 200 students to give my first lecture of the term. Maybe I would open my mouth, and no sound would come out. The inner elastic had snapped. After two years of particularly severe overwork, following on 15 years of manic overproductivity (including the production of three children), I had run out of road.
This is an essay about the mental distress which now typifies academic life. It considers how the university as ‘anxiety machine’ produces intolerable working conditions that drain academic workers of their health, creativity and will power. It is not yet an essay on recovery, exactly; but my experience of panic and anxiety over the past year has also been a kind of acute physical pedagogy, which forced me to radically re-examine the conditions under which I was reproducing myself, my family, and my students.
In writing so personally and confessionally here, I am going against all my professional instincts. This is new to me, but it also feels emancipatory, and has led me to a different way of doing my job – including the job of criticism, two instances of which I describe later as ‘distressed reading’. So this essay is intended as a polemic about the costs of the way things are, and a demand for new models of what teaching and learning in the university could be: generous, open, and survivable.
Panic involves a feeling of overflowing boundaries. No resistance is sufficient to hold back the extremity of internal feeling, and what is happening inside manifests itself as a physical, material display outside. It was only recently that I recognised that this feeling that I was an insufficient container of my panic is a mimesis of my working conditions. Kate Bowles writes,
‘This is the story academics tell ourselves as we flip open the laptop on Sunday mornings: we tell ourselves that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom. Over and over I have heard academics say that they couldn’t bear to punch the electronic time clock as our professional colleagues do. But the alternative is the culture of deemed time: by flattering us with what looks like trust in the disposal of our modest obligations, the university displaces all responsibility onto us for the decisions we make about how much to give. There is the problem of imposing limits on ourselves.”
Even if it is actually futile to try to impose those limits on an infinitely expandable workload, this futility is registered as a personal and moral failure. I should learn better habits for managing my email. I should download software that keeps me off the phone / the internet / social media. Working conditions become an aspect of personal hygiene.
It has been widely acknowledged that mental illness has become endemic throughout capitalist societies, a result not only of new diagnostic categories, the normalisation of illness or increased awareness among populations but as a specific consequence of the way we work and live now. J. D. Taylor argues that ‘Anxiety and fear are psychological marks of domination in all social structures, but a specific anxiety and fear emerges in financial capitalism through the accelerating demands and pressures of working and living in the neoliberal era.’
The academic worker has been taken as a model of what neoliberal employers want their workers to become: international, networked, flexible, vocational. Many academic contracts oblige us to work as much as is required to perform all the duties that might be ‘reasonably expected’. Colleagues report that they work 60 hour weeks in order to keep up with the myriad demands of the job, from the latest research to performing ‘impactful’ public engagement to finishing the elaborate clerical work required to administer modules, from commercialising research or keeping up to date on the HE policy context and participating in professional development opportunities, attending and presenting at conferences, negotiating the institution’s byzantine management structure and providing competent pastoral support to students who are in deep distress. If there is no split between who I am and what I do, then I can be working all the time.
It is therefore unsurprising that there is an acute crisis of mental health in academia. Some studies indicate that nearly half of academics show signs of psychological distress. 47% of Ph.D. at the University of Berkeley reported depression in a survey conducted in 2014. Research in Australia found that “the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population.” Recent research by the Royal Society confirmed that ‘academics have been found to be among the occupational groups with the highest levels of common mental disorders with prevalence around 37 per cent’, though only around 6% disclose this to their employers. Colleagues across the UK were horrified by the shocking death of Malcolm Anderson, a lecturer in accounting at Cardiff University who took his own life in June 2018 citing unbearable workloads and an unresponsive management.
The competitive, micromanaged culture of modern higher education is often brutal. The contemporary university is a corporate institution which subjects its employees to constant surveillance and forms of slow violence: beginning with the PhD, we have competitive interviews for funding, critical tutorials, scrutiny at conference presentations, upgrades, vivas, more interviews; years of precarity, poverty, being fired and rehired for the same job, exclusion from the social life of the department and the status that goes with permanency; then (for those who are lucky enough to find permanent positions) probation, promotion applications, referee reports, grant application feedback, student evaluations, NSS, REF dry runs, and so on. Melanie Klein argues that anxiety is rooted in a primary sadism; the aggression against internal objects provokes a fear of retaliation and the destruction of good objects beyond repair. These primitive experiences are reflected back in the numerous sadistic aspects of the contemporary university, with its constant surveillance and persecutory attacks masquerading as critical scrutiny. Every day involves the possibility of encountering what Rosalind Gill called ‘the hidden injuries’ of neoliberal academia.
Universities have not responded to the crisis in student and staff mental health with anything like adequate resources or manageable expectations. Instead, we are given a ‘wellbeing week’ with yoga and trips to the city farm (‘animals can be very calming’). Recently, an academic at Kings College London shared a notification from the compulsory online ‘resilience’ e-learning course that it must be completed – thus adding to workload and stress. As Liz Morrish notes,
When newspapers report a crisis in mental health, and universities declare a review of ‘welfare’ and ‘support’, this only serves to position the locus of responsibility on the individual and their lack of ‘resilience’. There are even online courses to help academics rehabilitate to the culture of punishing overwork, at the same time as indemnifying universities against legal redress.
As Sara Ahmed argues, ‘resilience is a technology of will, or even functions as command: be willing to bear more; be stronger so you can bear more… Resilience is the requirement to take more pressure, such that pressure can be gradually increased. Or as Robin James describes, resilience “recycles damages into more resources.”’ Too many senior academics feel entitled to subject more junior colleagues to the kinds of evolutionary violence they believe themselves to have survived; thus the system selects for those who can withstand damage and who therefore may be more likely to reproduce it.
You can read part 2 here.
…and part 3 here.
 JD Taylor, ‘Spent? Capitalism’s growing problem with anxiety’, ROAR (14 March 2014): https://roarmag.org/essays/neoliberal-capitalism-anxiety-depression-insecurity/
 Christie Wilcox, ‘Lighting dark: Fixing academia’s mental health problem’, New Scientist (10 October 2014) https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn26365-lighting-dark-fixing-academias-mental-health-problem/
 Susan Guthrie, Catherine Lichten, Janna van Belle, Sarah Ball, Anna Knack, and Joanna Hofman, ‘Understanding mental health in the research environment: A Rapid Evidence Assessment’, Rand Europe (June 2017): https://royalsociety.org/~/media/policy/topics/diversity-in-science/understanding-mental-health-in-the-research-environment.pdf
 Rachael Pells, ‘Cardiff plans review after suicide of ‘overworked’ lecturer’, Times Higher Education 8 June 2018: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/cardiff-plans-review-after-suicide-overworked-lecturer
 Anna Fazackerley, ‘Universities’ league table obsession triggers mental health crisis fears’ The Guardian 12 June 2018: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jun/12/university-mental-health-league-table-obsession
 Liz Morrish, ‘Can Critical University Studies Survive the Toxic University?’, Academic Irregularities blog: https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/2018/06/08/can-critical-university-studies-survive-the-toxic-university/
 Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 189.
 Richard Hall, ‘Notes on the University as anxiety machine’, 10 July 2014