The Managed Academic Self – Existential Dislocation and Academic Performance #mentalhealth #highered



The text below is part of the development of an autoethnographic paper that gives this blog it’s name.  It follows on the previous post where I shared an initial draft introduction (unfinished and too long).  This text constitutes the first main section of the paper where I draw on my recollections and diary entries related to the lead up to my ‘nervous breakdown’ in 2012.  Specifically, it deals with the relationship between personal experiences of stress (as existential dislocation) and ‘technologies of self’ aimed at producing visible and auditable performances of academic practice.

 The Managed (Academic) Self


The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. In a way it was planned. That might sound strange but I was already aware enough that something was seriously wrong with me, that ‘things’ – relationships, work, thoughts, could not go on as they were, that something had to change. I had already gone through that step, discussed by David Karp (Karp, 1995) in his excellent book ‘Speaking of Sadness’, of redefining myself as ‘depressed’. This new, powerful way of defining myself was to be the break with the past, the beginning of a new, frightening, me. It was unstoppable. Volition no longer appeared viable as an idea of how I was in the world. My last, so it felt, act of volition to delay the moment of singularity where one life transformed irrevocably into another could be labelled as ‘administration’, that bugbear of academic life. So, I woke on that fateful Monday morning, tired but not feeling too bad. I drank my coffee in a relaxed state looking forward to an afternoon of social distraction, some actual ‘time in lieu’ for teaching over the weekend. But first (and isn’t there always a ‘but first…’?) I wanted (needed?) to go into the office to deal with course administration following the study school. A few emails, a discussion with the course administrator, and then I could relax. The afternoon and evening would, however, escape any pretence at volition, of agency as a reflexive action in the world.

Karp notes that while there might be crisis moments where the reality that you are in need of help, depression creeps up on you. Thich Naht Hahn, the noted Zen Buddhist teacher, commenting on his own experience of ‘crisis’ said it approached him as if ‘wearing silk slippers’. I am not sure my crisis quite wore silk slippers for that wasn’t the experience faced by my family and friends. But slow, almost imperceptible change over a period of time, was how my depression emerged as ‘depression’, as a social category. In this section I want to recount some ‘beginnings’. Edward Said, whose academic work and personal story has had a profound impact on me, states that there is no one beginning, no originary point from which all else can be traced (Said, 2012). As I reconstruct my story of depression I can turn a light on particular moments that I see as pivotal in making sense of how things turned out for me. But in what sense can I say this is ‘where it started’, this ‘is what CAUSED it’? The world does not present itself to our consciousness in such in such neat packages. We experience a world already interpreted. So, in the spirit of ‘returning to the things themselves’, I will attempt to describe a cluster of ‘beginnings’ that explicitly impacted upon my mental health and the ensuing disintegration of ‘self’. Here, and elsewhere in this article, there will be a hermeneutic at play. As the story unfolds I will relate each part, in this immediate case some ‘beginnings’, to the whole story as it unfolds.

The Day Of Reckoning

Monday 13th February 2012

But, as with every day last week, and all through the conference and study school, I get up. I wash and dress. I have breakfast – well, a coffee and a piece of fruit – something resembling breakfast. I put on the mask and perform the competent academic and adult. Inside, though, I am dissolving. Each moment it is harder to maintain this fiction of calmness; of ‘togetherness’…I am finding it harder and harder to rise out of bed. I want to disappear. I don’t just want to hide from the world. I want to disappear.

Apparently, I was a statistic, a number on a graph enumerating the rise of stress among academics. The rise of stress and stress related illness amongst academics has been noted in the UK and Australia (Gillespie, Walsh, Winefield, Dua, & Stough, 2001; Kinman & Wray, 2013; Tytherleigh, Webb, Cooper, & Ricketts, 2005), with this phenomena paralleling the intensification of academic labour (Marginson, 2000). The research on academic stress identifies certain factors that appear to contribute to making academics unwell, including fiscal constraints, work overload, poor management practices, the rise of precarious employment, and insufficient recognition and reward. Given that academic identities can be experienced as complex and fragmented (Fanghanel & Trowler, 2008) it is, perhaps, no surprise that the emergence of the neoliberal university should bring with it the experience of carelessness (Lynch, 2010). I will go into more detail on the management of academic practice in the next part of this paper, but for now will simply state how caring responsibilities and ill health can convey a sense of unreliability and personal weakness in the masculinist performative culture of our universities.

As well as a statistic I was also an example of the many academics who seek to present a self that is competent, coping, and productive whilst all the time privately in anguish. Art Bochner (Bochner, 1997) captures this well in his account of experiencing a divided self, of an opposition between the academic self who presents papers at conferences, has professional commitments, is a man of the mind (as noted by Lynch); and his private self who is caught up in deep sadness at hearing of his father’s death whilst attending a conference. He recounts how he struggled with these two senses of self in the moment of receiving the bad news, and how for a few moments he wasn’t sure which self would leave the room – the one who didn’t want to let down his academic colleagues or the son who needed to go home. Art is clear about the awfulness of this divided self. Ruth Behar (Behar, 1996) provides a similar account of being caught between different commitments, different investments in identify, her professional one and her deep love for her grandfather. She had hesitated to go away on fieldwork when faced with her grandfather’s ill health. On hearing of her grandfather’s death whilst Ruth was conducting she is struck by the awful irony involved in her enactment of an academic persona inquiring into the meaning of death in a Spanish village whilst her Cuban grandfather died in Miami.

The accounts provided by Art Bochner and Ruth Behar index a lived reality of academic stress that the numbers only hint at. As powerful as the statistics are they need to be accompanied by narratives that spell out the true costs of trying to deal with the divided self of academic life, of the personal impact of the careless academy. While this involves processes of trying to present oneself as competent, as an academic, I want to turn to the way my own struggle between the academic and personal ‘self’ produced altered existential feelings, an altered relation to the world.

Stress as existential dislocation

 Sunday 15th January 2012

I feel a bit overwhelmed by the maelstrom of emotions rushing through me. What are my priorities? What might this mean for work? What might this mean for life with the family? Not for the first time I feel myself welling up, tears and desperate feelings of despair filling me. I struggle to prevent myself from jerking into a darkness that threatens to engulf me. This feeling is debilitating.

As the weeks progressed I often felt at odds with the world around me. I would be in a room for a meeting or a seminar and struggle to feel connected to the people, objects, and events around me. The simple act of walking across the carpeted floor to sit in a chair became a feat of endurance. My limbs would feel leaden, resistant to my desire to move them, as if nerves no longer connected muscle or joint to brain. So as my feet made contact with the floor it appeared to struggle to take purchase, the floor’s surface trying to escape, shift, bend. I would feel my whole body jerk, and thrust its way toward the chair. I say ‘my body’ rather than ‘I’ because I did not feel I had any real control over it. My body commanded itself, not me. Similarly, the chair I was aiming to reach no longer possessed its object-like features. It appeared to me as something far less solid than I remembered. I feared that it would simply dissolve on touch. As I saw my arm reach out towards it I feared I would fall, pass through the spaces between atoms. Of course, my walk and gestures were not as awkward as I felt them to be. There were no stares from colleagues or students. This did not stop me though from feeling utterly exposed, a spectacle (as discussed by Ratcliffe, 2008: 121-130). This exposure enveloped me on the bus to and from work. As well as the exhaustion of struggling with a body that commanded itself, I had intense feelings of being gazed at. It was as if ‘madness’ was literally inscribed on my forehead for all to see. I would sweat; feel the temperature rise through the pores of my skin. Eyes and judgement bore down on me, my breathing became erratic. Sometimes the palpitations would be such that I often felt I would feint, and so I would depart the bus and stand in the street, not really knowing where I was, waiting for this fear to disperse with the breeze, till I was capable of moving again, till I felt the gaze lift.

These were not a disjuncture between me and the floor, or me and the chair, or me and other people, nor even me and my limbs. Rather, this was a disjuncture, a miss-attunement, between my sense of ‘me’ and my sense of the world. Things had shifted from being ‘to hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’, as if I was apprehending them anew. This was quite literally an existential disjuncture (Ratcliffe, 2008). I had shifted from having bodily feelings ‘in the world’ to feeling as if I no longer belonged in the world (Ratcliffe, 2008: 63). Normally, if I can use such a term, neither my body nor the floor or the chair would be objects of perception in any obvious way. They would simply be there, indistinguishable from the actions of walking or sitting. My limbs, the floor, the chair would be ‘to hand’ in the same way the keyboard I use to type these words is ‘to hand’, indistinguishable for the most part from the act of typing, captured along with my fingers, my arms, and my eyes as they flitter across the screen, the screen itself, and the algorithms that enact their magic. It is usually only when I misspell a word or the communication between keyboard and computer breakdown that the separateness of the various elements present themselves to me. But these are temporary disruptions to the flow of events that make up our living in the world. They do not disrupt our sense of belonging to the world. The trouble I had walking across the floor or sitting in the chair were not normal disruptions to the flow of events, or momentary disruptions that are easily corrected and so almost imperceptibly re-enter the flow. This was instead a radical sense of not being quite sure that the limbs were mine at all, that floors were no longer compliant surfaces, that chairs may be liquid.

My body had moved from being inconspicuous to being a ‘conspicuous body’ that represented a “change in the sense of belonging” (Ratcliffe, 2008: 112). I was caught up in a hyper-reflexivity where my body became an object in the world whereby,

“the object-like consciousness of bodily feelings, thoughts and the like” was a change in my “existential orientation as a whole” (Ratcliffe, 2008: 192).

I became, in a sense, detached from my own existence, observing myself as if from outside. Over time, in pursuit of recognition as an academic, I had moved from being oblivious to how I was attuned to the world to a hyper-awareness of the novelty and sometimes awkwardness of my presence in the world. Obliviousness was gradually and fundamentally replaced by distance, a chasm between me and the world. I was left with a constant feeling of being lost-to-the-world. This propelled me into an insistent attempt to consciously attune myself to the world, and to academia specifically, to orchestrate my conduct, to manage my ‘self’. And so it is now to matters of accounting for oneself and of managing conduct that I turn.

Conducting Myself as an Academic

To introduce these personal stories is actually to deal with how I conducted myself in relation to both the inner turmoil and the public face, between private troubles and public problems as Mills would phrase it (Mills, 2000). So, this is a concern with the conduct of the self. Looking back over this period of time leading up to my moment of crisis I can see two ways in which I was moulding my conduct, two particular kinds of ‘technologies of the self’ (Foucault, Martin, Gutman, & Hutton, 1988). One was of longer duration and concerned my attempt to work upon myself in order to be recognisably an academic. The second focused on how I sought to manage my conduct in order to delay the moment of crisis, the moment of singularity. The first will be dealt with in more detail in the next section of the paper. The second type is the focus of this current section.

The ‘crisis’ came after a busy doctoral study school. This is how the moment when I could not any longer deny what was happening to me began. In fact the whole week had been busy, busier than usual. It was a week that saw me in performative mode, of enacting a competent academic. Earlier in the week I had welcomed a colleague from a continental European university as part of an academic exchange programme. I was beginning teaching on another doctoral programme as well as preparing for a doctoral study school and a student conference preceding that. This final week of work captures all the elements of the contrast between the inner turmoil as described above and the performance of a self that sought recognition as recognisably an ‘academic’.

Monday 6 February 2012

Bad day.

Functioned – had to. (Doctoral training) started today so had to do that…of course have the student conference to organise – whole new programme (again) but it looks sorted now…My anxiety levels are sky high and not just because of all on this week. I know the weekend is fine. I know the conference will be fine – especially once final arrangements complete tomorrow. Would be better if didn’t have [doctoral training] – stupid planning. But once away from people my heart is palpitating. On way home nearly couldn’t keep tears back. Feeling shit. But have promised myself to get these next few weeks done.

I promised myself to control the overwhelming existential crisis in order to ‘get these next few weeks done’, that is to perform as a competent academic. That is, I sought to manage my conduct so that it did not convey crisis or vulnerability or pain. The academic exchange, forthcoming study school and student conference required me to display myself as ‘organised’, busying myself with lists of presenters, coordinating the production of conference packs and delegates badges, sending out reminder emails, liaising with the study school and conference venue about rooms and equipment, meeting with my European colleague and ensuring her visit was productive. While mundane, this is the stuff of performativity. This is the enactment of responsibility and efficiency. I turned up on time each morning despite the growing sense of existential disruption. This required propelling myself out of bed even though every atom resisted; going through the morning routine as if it was an act of validation – washing, dressing, a cup of coffee but food left untouched as my stomach cramped at the prospect of facing the continuous evaluative gaze that constituted my sense of each day. This was my agency. I would arrive at work with that sense of a body out of synch with my volition, of the liquid nature of once familiar objects. This was effort; intense, exhausting effort. I would present a smiling confident face to my colleagues, aiming to ensure they saw me as competent, as organised, as productive, as responsible. I smiled, I chatted, I conveyed (I hoped) authority. And then I would close my office door, curl up in the corner, and cry silently, only to get up again and present a competent self. Day after day this would happen.

This conduct, this management of my public ‘self’ can be viewed as a way of me giving an account of myself as an academic. But as Judith Butler remarks “ An account of oneself is always given to another” (Butler, 2005 21). Who is this ‘other’? My family, my colleagues, my institution as represented in its structures, processes and management? The ‘other’ to whom I was giving an account can be defined as academic normativity. I will give a fuller description of this in the next section of the paper. For the moment we can understand it to be comprised of the network of inter and intrapersonal relations to individual colleagues, epistemic communities, students, and norms of academic practice that include both locally negotiated practices and the performative demands of auditing and metrics that characterise the neo-liberal university. This means, according to Butler, that accounting for myself places me in a relation of responsibility (88). This sense of responsibility to my colleagues and students featured in my diary entries,

Tuesday 7th February 2012

I do need time off. I don’t think I can function anymore. I am just about keeping up with the most immediate things but other stuff is suffering. I know that this (going off) will cause my colleagues some hassle, but I need to get well. I worry about my students.

Despite the self-realisation that I was approaching a moment of crisis my concern was directed at maintaining an external confidence in my capacity to perform competently, to not let people down, to live up to my responsibilities. Academic normativity, in this sense, makes an ethical demand on me to conduct myself in particular ways (Butler, 2005: 90). Faced by the impending moment of singularity my conduct of self takes on a new urgency in order to avoid being (ir)responsible. Responsibility entails an ontological risk for the possibility of being recognised as a legitimate academic. The management of my conduct, and the performance of myself as a recognisable academic works, Stephen Ball notes (Ball, 2010: 216), as a display of quality. But as Ball goes on to state, these struggles to perform our ‘selves’ as worthwhile are individualised in the context of neoliberal reforms. My management of my conduct not only sought to make me visible but to be visibly auditable, a ‘self, whose performance could be measured (225).

Even as the moment of singularity arrived, my concern was still to perform adequately as a measurably competent academic. In the following extract we see me struggle between knowledge that I cannot go on and a residual desire to sustain visibility as an academic,

Monday 13th February 2012

I am gripped by anxiety but (obviously) cognisant enough to know what is happening to me. I cooked my dinner. I wrote this diary entry. But in between I rock back and forth as the flood of energy rushes though my body. I pace up and down the living room unable to sit. As I eat my dinner I rocked back and forth. Yet. I plan to read in preparation for my [conference] paper. I probably will [read]. I don’t want to give in completely to this depression…I am caught between anxiety and normality. Normality is increasingly unreal. Anxiety is increasingly normal. The idea of facing all of my colleagues tomorrow…God, I don’t know. I MUST. I MUST. Just get through this week.

I didn’t get through the week. I didn’t get through the evening. No amount of management of conduct could allay the final moment of existential dislocation.

While I sought to manage my conduct of self as a recognisable, and recognisably measurable academic as a form of personal or private worry, this was always in relation to an ‘other’, that is academic normativity. The gap between the values of academic normativity and those that animated me subjectively contributed powerfully to a growing sense of existential dislocation, and eventually dissolution. To individualise stress or existential disruption is to locate the ‘problem’ in the pathological brain of the individual. Instead, I propose a socialised view of (dis)stress and will argue in the next section that it arises from pathogenic experience – we are literally made mad.


Ball, S. J. (2010). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215–228.

Behar, R. (1996). The Vulnerable observer: Anthropology that breaks your heart. Boston: Beacon.

Bochner, A. P. (1997). It’s About Time: Narrative and the Divided Self. Qualitative Inquiry, 3(4), 418–438.

Butler, J. (2005). Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham Univ Press.

Fanghanel, J., & Trowler, P. (2008). Exploring Academic Identities and Practices in a Competitive Enhancement Context: a UK‐based case study. European Journal of Education, 43(3), 301–313.

Foucault, M., Martin, L. H., Gutman, H., & Hutton, P. H. (1988). Technologies of the Self. Univ of Massachusetts Press.

Gillespie, N. A., Walsh, M., Winefield, A. H., Dua, J., & Stough, C. (2001). Occupational stress in universities: staff perceptions of the causes, consequences and moderators of stress. Work & Stress, 15(1), 53–72.

Karp, D. A. (1995). Speaking of Sadness : Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness. Oxford University Press.

Kinman, G., & Wray, S. (2013). Higher Stress: A Survey of Stress and Well-Being Among Staff in Higher Education (pp. 1–52). London: University and College Union.

Lynch, K. (2010). Carelessness: A hidden doxa of higher education. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 9(1), 54–67.

Marginson, S. (2000). Rethinking academic work in the global era. Journal of Higher Education Policy and ….

Mills, C. W. (2000). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ratcliffe, M. (2008). Feelings of being. Oxford University Press, USA.

Said, E. W. (2012). Beginnings. Granta.

Tytherleigh, M. Y., Webb, C., Cooper, C. L., & Ricketts, C. (2005). Occupational stress in UK higher education institutions: a comparative study of all staff categories. Higher Education Research & Development, 24(1), 41–61.


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