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.
2 months ago