Friday, March 13, 2009

The Edge of Insanity

Professors as a group have a reputation for being a bit eccentric. This may be a stereotype or it may be a well deserved description of many professors. Whichever the case, this characterization doesn't help me with something I have been mulling over recently:

How do we know when one colleague's strange behavior is harmless eccentricity or a disturbing sign of a real problem?

As we age, we may get more forgetful, we may develop certain personality traits based on previous environmental conditions that no longer prevail (making us seem erratic or paranoid for no reason), or we may find ourselves ever more removed from the culture and mores of younger generations (and therefore we seem strange, even though we would have been seen as perfectly normal in a previous century).

All that is to be expected, but what if someone's behavior is outside the normal expected range of strangeness for a professor in late middle age or older?

I suppose one indication that someone's strangeness has reached a troubling level would be if the bizarre behavior impacted students. The problem might show up in teaching evaluations, or it might not be decipherable amidst the general vagueness of evaluations. Perhaps as long as a professor is able to do the basic requirements of the job, there is no need to do anything about a colleague's increasing strangeness, other than be concerned for their health.

It's not quite that simple, as possibly-insane colleagues may make disturbing decisions on important committees, may scare visiting faculty and students with strange and aggressive behavior, and may extend the length of faculty meetings owing to incoherent ranting.

Hence my recent mulling.

This is a generalization, and therefore inaccurate, but however fierce professors may be in reviews, exams, or seminars, many of us are reluctant to deal directly with personal issues, perhaps because so many of us are strange.

For example, it is difficult to imagine asking a colleague with whom one does not interact on a personal level or in a professional capacity beyond the daily requirements of being in the same department "Hey, I couldn't help but notice that your behavior in the last few faculty meetings was bizarre even by our quite generous standards for eccentricity. What's with that? Are you OK?"

For some professors, questions of a personal nature, however mild ("So, how are you?"), are very unwelcome and result in a monosyllabic answer.

I have an interest in the issue of increasing strangeness because some of my relatives have been quite strange. If I'm like my grandmother, serious weirdness won't happen until I am ancient and long retired. At the moment, when I am relatively sane (at least for me), my feeling is that I would want someone to tell me if I started to behave more strangely than is usual even for me, as long as this was done in a sensitive way and was motivated by real concern.

Maybe we should take a strangeness test to establish a baseline Strangeness Level against which our behavior can be subsequently compared. I know such things exist for cognitive ability and so on, but I would want a test that was specifically intended for the already-kind-of-eccentric professorial personality. It would have to be able to distinguish benign strangeness* from troubling strangeness in an academic context.

I know from experience with my mother that if someone either doesn't believe or doesn't want to admit they have a problem, it's extraordinarily difficult to get them to seek medical attention. Dealing with similar issues involving colleagues at work is also challenging, even without the emotional issues that accompany family situations. And, despite being Doctors of Philosophy, most of us are not real doctors, are to some extent eccentric relative to the non-academic world, and are clueless about dealing with odd behavior in others.


* Example: Recently I found a headline in The Onion extremely funny and laughed quite a lot while my husband just stared at me, unmoved to laugh himself. When I recovered, my husband said "You're weird". Of course I think he is the strange one for not finding this funny: Victims of cube scheme break even.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. It captures many ideas I've had about my colleagues, and, well, myself.

Anonymous said...

Do you increase your status/social statue when you get your Ph.D.?

What are some reasons to pursue a degree (going through hell?)...

Is it passion, research interest, money (some professors make a lot of money), or the title Dr.?

What are the sacrifices and rewards?

Anonymous said...

My father has paranoid schizophrenia, and until 2 years ago, worked as a science professor at a state university. He continued to teach until he had tactile hallucinations daily in class, and was hospitalized for two months before he agreed to retire in a brief moment of clarity. I have found accounts of his public breakdowns on RateMyProfessor. I feel it would have been appropriate for his colleagues to intervene, even if it only meant clueing my mother in on how bad things were.

Anonymous said...

FSP, I adore you, but you hit on a pet peeve of mine in this post. I know this is just semantics, but...PhD's are not real Doctors? PhD's are not medical Doctors, true, but they are (I think) "real" doctors. I know what you meant, but this has become a touchy subject for me and several colleagues of mine...

Anonymous said...

At one end of the spectrum, I had a professor as an undergraduate who over the course of my last two years became increasingly "strange" in class. His lectures became more and more disjointed, and toward the end he actually stopped in the middle of one lecture and started over from the beginning, verbatim. Some students loved this, as there was less material to cover. His grading also became increasingly randomized on multiple choice exams. Attempts to bring this to the attention of his colleagues and the Department Chair were initially met with hostility. Ultimately, however, the behavior became sufficiently problematic and he went on leave, to be replaced by a grad student from a nearby University who promptly made it into a much more "real' class than any I had had before, to the dismay of many of the other students. Our suspicions of drug or alcohol abuse turned out to be unfounded--sadly it was early onset Alzheimers. He never returned to teaching and retired the next year.

Closer to the middle of the spectrum is a colleague I knew who is on a hair trigger, and has engaged in outbursts of the sort you noted in seminars and in faculty meetings (once to the Dean). We all cringe, but no one as found it sufficient to go farther. His teaching is also somewhat erratic, though this is a fine line. Needless to say, I do NOT recommend his classes. It's sad because he was once a great scientist and a challenging teacher.

It's a tough one. Each of us has our own idiosyncrasies, and what crosses the line?

Mark P

volcanista said...

This is tough. I think this kind of thing needs to ultimately be left to the department chair. Maybe concerned department members can talk to the chair, and if the behavior is eccentric and harmful/disruptive the chair has enough authority to say something to the person in question (including possibly expressing concern). Of course, this assumes the chair is NOT the person in question. In that case I think your hands are tied.

Madoo said...

FSP,
I am an Assistant FSP and for a long time have been thankful for the generosity towards strangeness in academia...
But that's an aside. What I really want is to read the Cube Scheme article...and I can't find it -- can you post a link?!!

Anonymous said...

I've known a couple of grad students and one junior faculty who had some pretty serious psychological problems, at least some of which was stress-related and temporary, some of which probably not. In all three cases, concerned fellow students and/or colleagues brought it to the attention of the chair. The grad students were tossed from the program and the junior faculty fired.

I've also encountered my share of overly-strange senior faculty - they seem to be buffered from losing their jobs. I honestly don't know if that is good or bad. I suspect a lot of it might be related to substance abuse.

Anonymous said...

The Onion headline made me laugh until my eyes teared up.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: If (when) an MD next tells you that academics aren't "doctors", just explain that we had the title first, and *they* borrowed it in search of more legitimacy.

The word to specify a medical doctor is "Physician".

It's a perfectly good word, and they can learn to use it and love it.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the onion headline ... why is it funny?

Dr Spouse said...

The "baseline" issue is huge in cultural studies of mental health, for example - if you are European and say that you have been bewitched, send round the white van - but if you are from sub-Saharan Africa your mother and granny probably agree with you that it is the cause of your recent bad luck.

However there are good assessments that can be relatively culturally neutral - it is NOT normal whatever your baseline eccentricity to believe you are so evil you should kill yourself, to have auditory hallucinations, or to be confused about what objects are used for (severe depression, schizophrenia, and dementia). But it may be that things are harder to spot. A radical sociology professor may have believed for years that the government is out to get us all, but only in his 40s does he become convinced they are spying on him through the walls in his apartment.

(In the UK medical doctors don't have doctorates - only MBChB - bachelors of medicine and surgery. We, the PhDs, are the REAL doctors).

aceon said...

My favorite on the "real doctor" thread was when my mother in law told everyone that her son was a doctor, but "not the kind that helps people". This is, of course, not true. He is very helpful, but I found it about as amusing as the cube scheme (very).

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I knew a case where such changes were caused by a brain tumor. You could ask about health, in general, maybe.

old professor said...

FSP, I adore you, but you hit on a pet peeve of mine in this post. I know this is just semantics, but...PhD's are not real Doctors? PhD's are not medical Doctors, true, but they are (I think) "real" doctors. I know what you meant, but this has become a touchy subject for me and several colleagues of mine...

Why is it touchy?? A "real doctor" is someone who is licensed to practice medicine. A PhD is not this. It is a completely different job description so I fail to see why it is touchy?

Anonymous said...

Being eccentric is one thing, but when someone becomes a liability to their co-workers or their employer then that's something very different. Interfacing with the public and with co-workers is a big part of a professor's job. Your colleague's behavior of being aggressive to visitors and students, impairing faculty meetings and so on seriously calls into question his ability to carry out the primary functions in his job adequately and furthermore he may be a liability to the department and his colleagues. This cannot go on as if nothing is out of place. Either he needs to alter his behavior (if he is perfectly able to do so and is simply choosing to behave inappropriately) or seek medical treatment if his behavior is out of his control, or else he needs to be removed from his position (or have his duties scaled back) so he can't do more damage.

Ms.PhD said...

YES. I like the baseline idea!

I think most people are afraid to intervene, even when they see a professor who is clearly not well. What scares me most is what will happen to the trainees, especially since they (we) often have no one to turn to.

This is actually a really horrifying problem for academia, because it is much more permissive for all kinds of weirdness than any 'real' job would be. I suspect that our flexible schedules and independence leads to a higher concentration of weirdness, although I have no data whatsoever to back that up. I just think most people would be fired from 'real' jobs for doing some of the things I've seen.

But yeah, what ARE you supposed to do if you suspect that your professor(s) are going downhill (rapidly)? Especially if this person is senior and/or the chair of the department, and the behavior is erratic in the sense that it is extreme but only inconsistently so? Do you just have to wait and hope you'll eventually have more witnesses? What if you don't have time for that? What if they're having a crazy moment when they're supposed to be writing your rec letters?? What if you seem to be a magnet for crazy professors?

Anonymous said...

Ms.PhD. One suggestion would be to talk to the other members of your committee. They may be able to help.

In one horror story that floated around my doctoral institution it was the committee who came to the candidates rescue when her adviser flaked out.

Anonymous said...

old professor said...
"Why is it touchy?? A "real doctor" is someone who is licensed to practice medicine. A PhD is not this. It is a completely different job description so I fail to see why it is touchy?"

A PhD, strictly speaking, is a Doctor of Philosophy (that's why you have the "Dr." in front of your name...). However, I think I know what you are saying: PhD's aren't physicians or medical doctors, so in the way that your average-person-in-society thinks of the term "doctor," they are not "doctor's." I totally get that, and would never explain my job to a stranger by saying that I was a "Doctor."

However - in the world of the sciences, where PhD's and MD's mix in order to do research (at least they do in my field...), I take issue with the idea that my degree (PhD) is not "real," and find it a bit insulting if an MD says that I'm not an "actual" Doctor. I'm not a Physician, true (and thank goodness), but I am a Doctor.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic. I'm in computer science (am a Dr., but not the kind who helps people :).
At first I was thinking that this problem was not particularly endemic to academia, as there are sure plenty of weird CS people in industry also.
But, they usually do not last as long unless they are also extremely smart and productive. This is the dark side of tenure -- outside academia these people will just get booted when they get too eccentric. Tenured weirdos will be retained until they retire (to everyone's relief).

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see what you think about the other end of the seniority spectrum. There have been a couple cases of grad students and post-docs in my department whose mental illness was ignored as "eccentricity" until their behavior became physically dangerous (suicide, violence to others). What do you think would be appropriate in this sort of situation?

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of 'eccentricity' and inappropriate behaviors being tolerated in academia among students and postdocs: as a postdoc I've supervised students who, despite my requests to display more professional behavior, just would/could never (1) be less than a half hour late to ANY meeting whether private or group (2) repeatedly fail to deliver status reports needed for grant monitoring on time even though deadline was made known to them many weeks in advance, (3) fail to respond to e-mails at all, (4) yet be demanding that I drop everything to attend to something they want immediately.

Since these are grad students, they are not children anymore, these are people who are in their mid to late twenties. This kind of behavior would get them fired in the "real" working world if they had not gone to grad school. It pisses the PI off too, and it pisses me off because I work more closely with the students. Yet despite constant requests to be on time, respond to e-mails, they just don't....I often wonder how they will fare in the 'real world' if/when they graduate.

Doctor Pion said...

Since those of us with a PhD have been known to be able to handle a polysyllabic vocabulary in the past, why not say "I'm a Doctor, not a physician!"

Hey, I'm a doctor who does physics, not the doctor who GIVES a physic.

Look it up and have a cathartic experience.

Anonymous said...

We had a postdoc who cried every day in the lab (as well as acting in very eccentric ways) for nearly a year before her mentor acted, despite it being repeatedly brought to the mentor's attention that this person was really distressed and needed assistance. As the postdoc was from Europe and had no family in the country whatsoever, the whole situation was terrible for all those in contact with the postdoc to experience.

Anonymous said...

I'm a PhD (physicist) and I really don't care if people want to say I'm not a real doctor (and yes I have been the butt of those jokes), because it's just not important to my sense of identity for other people to consider me a 'doctor' or not. if someone were to say 'you're not a real scientist' then that would be highly offensive because the term 'scientist' is a job description. To say I'm not a real scientist is saying blatantly that I'm incompetent and unqualified at my job. But the term 'doctor' is not a job description except when it applies to the medical practitioners. (if people ask you what you do for a living do you say 'I'm a scientist' or do you say 'I'm a doctor'??) So saying you are not a real doctor should only be an insult if said to physicians, not to PhDs. That's my opinion anyway

So when someone says to me 'you're not a real doctor' ...doesn't bother me. However it seems that quite a few PhDs here feel differently about it and do see it as an insult on their qualifications. as much as I think it's unprofessional for people to belittle their colleagues' qualifications (as some here have feel that the MDs are doing), at the same time I think it's ineffective for the PhDs to react with a foot-stomping "but I AM a doctor!!!" ... that just reinforces the prevailing condescending attitudes of your MD colleagues. (if they are in fact being condescending and you're not just being over-sensitive). if that's the case then much better to make some equally condescending remark back at them to level the playing field a bit.. for example when they say 'you are not a real doctor' you can respond with 'just as you are not a real scientist'

(I don't know, would the MDs just be like "yeah you're right we're not scientists we're DOCTORS"...??)

see this is why I think it's pointless to get hung up about it.

nivi said...

Does teaching a math class dressed in different costumes for each lecture count as eccentricity? I guess this was the harmless kind and kind of entertaining for us who had to suffer through a particularly difficult course.

I see of the Anon posts a about the grad students with psychological problems who were tossed from the program. While I dont know the circumstances of this case - we had a similar situation in our lab with the guy eventually leaving. Most of the time I find that these problems are stress related and there doesn't seem to be much counseling efforts focused to the grad students unlike those offered to the undergrads. And throwing someone out just seems to me to be compounding the problem or just passing it on to someone else.

Pagan Topologist said...

As to the "real Doctor" discussion, the word "doctor" after all comes from the Latin word for "teacher" (actually from the verb "to teach" come to think of it.) It is thus ridiculously inappropriate for anyone who is not a teacher to use it. Doing so is as big an offense as using "impact" as a verb (it is not a verb) or saying "I could care less" when one means "I could not care less." any of these brands the speaker or writer as someone whose use of language is unsavory, at the very least.

Ms.PhD said...

Anon,

1. I'm not a grad student, so I don't have a committee anymore.
2. When it happened to me as a grad student, MY COMMITTEE DIDN'T BELIEVE ME.

thanks anyway. I'm sure in the majority of situations, a thesis committee is a good safety net. But NOT ALWAYS...

Global Girl said...

"This is actually a really horrifying problem for academia, because it is much more permissive for all kinds of weirdness than any 'real' job would be. I suspect that our flexible schedules and independence leads to a higher concentration of weirdness, although I have no data whatsoever to back that up. I just think most people would be fired from 'real' jobs for doing some of the things I've seen."

I agree completely. I'm not sure you can ever come up with a practical solution to this problem of baseline and eccentricity without demanding some normal behavior, and perhaps crucially, some order-taking on the part of PIs from deans. This problem would be easy to solve if academia required normal professional behavior. If you can't deal with that, then you have a problem, and the university and/or you need to get on solving it. No exceptions, much fewer problems. I don't see why professors have such problems accepting that they are people too, and as such have personal issues they need to work on.

quasarpulse said...

I'm not sure, Global Girl. I don't know exactly what level of normal behavior you would demand - dress codes/grooming standards might be feasible, sexual harassment regulations are of course de rigeur, but I don't think you'd get very far demanding neatly-kept offices or "normal" eating/sleeping habits, and I don't know how you'd even begin to regulate the verbal scatteredness, hyperactivity, and general conversational oddities that tend to afflict so many math/physical science faculty.

I think one of the strengths of academia - and one of its functions in the world - is that it sort of serves as a safe haven for people who are intrinsically weird yet still valuable, intelligent, and generally productive. I think such people ought to be employable (and in fact it would be awfully nice if more areas of the private sector were similarly welcoming).

It's only when eccentricity crosses the line into dangerous or out-of-touch with the aspects of reality they're supposed to be experts in that there ought to be a problem. And I'm not sure how one would tell exactly when that takes place, except perhaps by something like FSP's "baseline weirdness" system.

Kevin said...

Different institutions have different levels of support. Many of our grad students are on antidepressants, and it is routine for PIs to check up on students or postdocs if they miss a couple of lab meetings. The Health Services on campus provide counseling and stress reduction for grads as well as undergrads.

Of course, the fact that the top campus officer a few years ago committed suicide does tend to raise institutional awareness of the problems of ignoring depression.

Global Girl said...

"It's only when eccentricity crosses the line into dangerous or out-of-touch with the aspects of reality they're supposed to be experts in that there ought to be a problem."

I disagree. Situations can be serious in a negative way without being dangerous, and being out of touch with aspects of reality even in areas that they are not supposed to be experts in can have serious and negative consequences for others.

For example, unconsicous bias has significant, negative consequences which are even measurable. If you use the criteria of 'dangerous' and 'out of touch in their field', there is absolutely nothing wrong with unconsciously discriminating against women, minorities, and the LGBT community. There is also nothing wrong with yelling at students to emotionally unload, failing to send promised recommendation letters, or with habitually forgetting about meetings with students to discuss research.

The very basic failures of some professors in the physical sciences in the general areas of human interactions, self-insight, and management can create an extremely stressful workplace - unless, of course, you are that way yourself so that you can accept that as a price to pay for the upside of being relieved of the responsibility yourself.

I think the line should simply be drawn in terms of that if your weirdness impacts people around you negatively, it's too weird. Wearing fuschia to work every day probably wouldn't. Refusing to take responsibility for your own failings would. And does.