Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Putting My Brain In Mothballs

Friday December 16, more than a week ago now and then only after entering my final course grades into the student information system that morning, I began a program of R&R to try to restore my sense of humor and mild impishness.  For the previous month or two everything seemed so heavy and distressing.  I resolved that if the world wouldn't offer up opportunities for the common amusement, which it didn't seem to be doing, then I'd opt for seclusion and my own chosen forms of entertainment.  Knowing I would do this, a few days earlier I almost wrote a post called - I miss Hannibal Lecter.  He was the perfect fictitious monster, terrifying but totally unreal, a delightful form of pure escapism as a way to recharge one's own batteries.  It was just this type of page turner fiction that I needed.

As my chosen alternative I selected things le CarrĂ©, one or two steps up on the requirements the writer imposes on the reader and perhaps also a bit more of a male province in the way the story is told.  Both of those suit me now.  On my Kindle Fire I had the book The Night Manager.  Earlier in the fall I had seen the TV miniseries on Amazon Prime.  In recent years, I've found the movie/TV show sometimes for me serves as the gateway into the book.   The latter is usually much richer, with a substantial part of the story dropped in the video version to accommodate the shorter time in the telling.  (In this case, the story was also altered quite a bit.)  With le CarrĂ© in particular, there is also the joy from reading his prose - how he constructs sentences and paragraphs, and my increased appreciation of craft in the writing as its own object of attraction.  Nevertheless, I'm a lazy bum at heart so I often don't go for the book straight away.  This makes some sense during the fall when I'm teaching, as I'm kind of an all or nothing guy.  Reading a novel when there are other obligations that must be addressed in the present tense doesn't work well for me.  I need to have free time on my hands for that.

In addition, I found the original BBC miniseries of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with Alec Guiness playing George Smiley freely available on YouTube.  And though it originally aired in 1979 (the review here is a very good read), it is quite viewable now in the sense that the image quality is sufficient to not distract from the story.  I aimed to get into a routine where I do my reading in the daytime and after happy hour would switch to video viewing. As I soon discovered, I don't retain much after happy hour so I had to diverge from that pattern.

The reclamation project has been a partial success.  Perhaps anything would be with not having to prepare classes or write exams or the like.  Here I don't want to argue for this particular program of personal restoration, quite the contrary.  I want to describe the various impediments that made it difficult for the program to succeed.  Perhaps this will be useful to others, who may be experiencing similar impediments.  Before you can find the cure,you need to know what ails you.

* * * * *

I enjoy much of the time by myself, a sure sign of an introvert.  During those occasions I act most in accord with my own nature when I get totally lost in something, whatever that activity happens to be.  I used to be able to do that quite readily.  Writing, in particular, was a very good source of absorption for me and one real reason why I've stuck with the blogging for so long.  But it has been getting harder to achieve and indeed getting lost in thought more generally has gotten harder.   Here are some reasons why.

The nature of the work stress is different for me this time.

As long as the job itself makes sense, whether that is actually true or you merely accept that it is true because you don't know otherwise, then the stress at work come from the process of doing it, with the demand of the job sometimes beyond your individual grasp.  Once the job itself stops making sense, or you begin to express doubts about that, then a different question emerges - why exert substantial effort in something that doesn't make sense?  For me, making sense means that you can see the consequence of your efforts and that matters in some way. I will try to take that rather abstract notion and make it more concrete here.

I link my stress to three things in my teaching.  The first is poor attendance, which I've experienced this year and last, but which was not evident before that.  Another is poor class participation of those in attendance.  This too has been an issue the past two years where before that the class had a level of energy that was noticeable to both the students and me - there was a lot of back and forth between me and the students.    This time around there was a lot of me posing questions and then silence.  Once in a while awkward silence is a good thing, serving as a spur to students to get them to chime in.  On a recurring basis, however, it is very demoralizing for me and them.  The last thing is about student prior preparation, more what they should have learned in high school and from their gen ed courses than from earlier econ classes (in the major).  I can remedy the econ deficiencies to some extent.  I can't make up for the limited broader background.  In written expression, reasoning skills, and in the willingness to amplify their own understanding  (looking up the concept in Google, for example, instead of assuming it was well understood already) many students came up short.  Some also seemed to have a fixed prior mindset about course concepts and were unable or unwilling to challenge their own prior held views, even as I presented alternatives.

I had resolved last year to give it another try.  Maybe it was simply an aberration and things would return to how they had been previously.  I've done that repetition now and it forces a decision on me.  Either I need to give up teaching altogether, and I've been carrying that thought through much of the semester, or I need to redesign the class in a way that both addresses what I've been observing and also is consistent with what I've been trying to achieve with the teaching - opening the students eyes some to possibilities and coming to a different sense of things both about the economics and about their own learning.  The first admits defeat.   I do feel defeated here.  The second appears much more than I can muster and might very well be infeasible even if my energy level was boundless, which at present it is isn't.

So this sort of stress is different.  It is hard to let go of it, though it is necessary for me to do that for a while.  Take a month or two off from thinking about it entirely and then come at it anew.   I know that is the right thing to do.  Knowing that and executing the plan are two different things.   I have a long history of second guessing myself, a form of self-indulgence as punishment.  It's hard to abandon that habit.

The work stress seems tied to the stress about our national politics.

I am not going to write directly about the stress our national politics is causing people as there has been much written about it already.  This piece from the LA Times does a reasonably good job of describing it, in my opinion.  Undoubtedly it is an important factor to consider in its own right.

However, what seems missing in it is any sense that we have ourselves to blame.  If, instead, one views the election as a consequence of trends that could be reasonably well understood for some time, then our own culpability becomes more readily apparent.   These trends include rising income inequality (and wealth inequality too), an elite that seems entirely self-possessed and devoid of concern for those who are far less well off, and predatory financial practices, particularly with regard to housing but elsewhere in the economy as well, that have shifted resources to those working in the financial sector and have left poor and working class people much worse off.  Taken together these factors have lead to our own ruin while preventing sensible counter measures that might have been put in place but weren't.

I have been writing for some time about the decline on institutions and the failure of individuals to take responsibility, some of it in general, but much of it specifically about higher education.  I certainly haven't been alone doing this.  (For example consider the books Declining by Degrees, Academically Adrift, and Excellent Sheep.)    I have viewed my teaching since retirement as one person's attempt to combat these tendencies and to get the students I teach to be aware of the issues and to get them to understand work and life choices through other than an I'll-get-mine vantage.  At a large public institution like Illinois, it is quite easy for students to come to the conclusion that nobody in authority cares about them so, in return, they are free to game the system rather than to honor the trust.  I wanted my teaching as a countering force.

Structurally, I understand this decline better within higher education specifically than I do for society at large.  At a public university like Illinois, the elite are the tenured and tenure track faculty.  Perhaps in some departments this is not the case, but in economics and many other departments these faculty are largely divorced from undergraduate education.  Instructors and clinical faculty (neither of whom are on the tenure track) do much of the undergraduate teaching.  Further, large lecture classes are the norm, given the high number of majors.  So there is a tendency in such classes to rely heavily on the textbook, take a teach to the test approach, and for the students to respond by taking a rote learning approach to course content.  I wrote a piece some years ago, before my recent experience with teaching and right around when I retired, called Excise The Textbook.  It is but one example that the trends were readily apparent then and that something sensible to reverse them was equally apparent.  Of course, the alternative didn't happen. At least, it hasn't happened yet.

The system suffers from hysteresis in that the research faculty not caring about undergraduate education was the norm when I started back in 1980, at which time it was part of a system that, in spite of this deficiency, did make sense then.  While that faculty attitude remains, the revenue sources are entirely different now.  Tuition wasn't a big deal back in 1980.  It is a big deal now.    If you look at the data, and although overall numbers of students enrolled in undergraduate degree programs for the entire nation has been drifting down the last few years, numbers at the U of I have gone up (mainly because of an increased number of transfer students).  The two big questions here are (1) is that sustainable overall if the students aren't in fact learning very much and (2) might specific majors witness decline in enrollments for these same reasons?  As I've said, these questions emerge out of issues that are evident.  Ignoring the problem till it is too late to do anything about it seems likely.  That is very disconcerting to me. 

Beginning the day by reading the news starts each day off with negativity.

I can't remember whether I read the newspaper regularly in high school, but I'm quite sure that by graduate school my routine was to buy the NY Times at Norris Center (the student union at Northwestern) and then go have breakfast, reading the front page stories, the op-ed, and the sports section before starting the school day.  I had the habit pretty much the same since, though in recent years I've subscribed to the Times online.

It's always been - no news is good news, hence all news is bad news.  Yet it is somewhat different now.  I want to describe some of that difference before getting to the Trump phenomenon.

First, nowadays the sources of information are quite varied and many bits I gather from Facebook friends posting something with a link and possibly their own annotation before I see it in the Times.  So there is a fair amount of repetition and I have the the sense quite frequently that when reading I'm not learning anything that I didn't already know.

Second, in the James Reston, Tom Wicker, Abe Rosenthal, Anthony Lewis days there was a sense that these people were adults and I was still only aspiring to be one.  So I could respect their opinions and not concern myself about whether their arguments were weak.  Nowadays, I feel that many of the columnists I read could make a better argument than they are making and not infrequently are actually spewing pablum.  There is also the tone in which they make it, which sometimes gets very preachy.  Gail Collins is a counter example - she has wit.  But even she seems to have succumbed to the tenor of the times.  Thomas Edsall produces a better column much of the time, but he too seems to have been beaten down by current circumstances.

Third, and this I've written about recently in a post called Invasive Species and Tabloidism, the economics of journalism is undermining the integrity of journalism.  What is newsworthy is not the same as what will attract eyeballs.  Note that if eyeballs aren't finding the news the newspaper dies.

The upshot of this is that a politician being totally outrageous (The Trump effect) actually becomes a winning strategy, while being prim and proper behavior loses because it doesn't generate the eyeballs.  This is a kind of Gresham's Law at work.

I have guilt feelings from breaking my old habit of starting the day by reading the news.  So I read a piece or two and then get bent out of shape from it.  This is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken, for my own well being. Rationally, I know this to be true.  But I have yet to put into place an alternative that works for me.

I have become a hopeless multiprocessor, against my own better judgment.

There are a few different things going on here for me that may not be the same as with others, and then I'm quite sure there are other things that are exactly the same.  Thirty years ago when I would be doing economics research and "living in my model," which required a rather intense form of concentration, I learned the benefit of having fallow periods, either after a project was completed or when I was in the middle of something but temporarily stuck.  At the end of a project, this was to recharge my batteries before starting on something new, so when taking on that new thing I would be fresh and I could bring a lot of energy to it.  When I was stuck this was to let the subconscious have a crack at it and see whether the mountain was then turned into a molehill.  With some frequency, that seemed to work. That pattern of allowing for a fallow period has been with me for a long time.

With blogging I first became aware of a narcissism entailed with online writing that I never had with the economics research.  This was fueled by comments I'd get on blog posts, but even more so by tracking hits on the blog as a whole and on particular posts as well.  Those things can be potentially useful from a writing point of view to help understand the audience.  But the narcissism I'm talking about here goes well beyond understanding the audience.  Facebook, which is in the business of presenting eyeballs to advertisers, knows this fully.  The red Notifications icon alerting you to some activity on one of your posts, feeds the narcissism.

Then there is the issue of speed-up-of-cycles.  In the 1980s when I'd send in an economics paper for review, it would take several months before I'd get a referee's report.  Lags are much shorter now with pieces distributed online and with the shorter lags a sense of impatience is fueled.  That sense of impatience is at work not just when I post something, but when I'm reading something as well.  If I'm at all challenged by what I read, or a little bored with it, or it simply doesn't seem to be my cup of tea, I can move to a different tab in the browser and resume my game of Sudoku.  When the game itself gets challenging I can go to still a different tab or return to where I was.  Tabbed browsing, which really was a brilliant innovation when it first appeared, now appears to be a way toward instant gratification all the time.

I have found a partial cure for this, which is to get away from the computer and read on my Kindle Fire instead.  Further, mainly I read in the Kindle application itself rather than in the browser (so books rather than magazines). This is cure in the sense that if you can't resist ice cream when it is in the house, then don't have it in the house.  Sitting away from the computer and reading on a different device (one that is technologically inferior to my iMac) makes little sense if my behavior were rational rather than addictive. (If I were on the road, this would be a different story, but I'm at home in either case.) Whether I can ultimately cure the addiction itself, I don't know, probably not.  But if I can, staying away from Facebook and not monitoring email all the time would be a good way to start.

I can't fully do this because there are work things that come up, even after I got grades in I did interact with some students.  And I do some volunteer work that relies on Facebook and email as a communication tool.  So complete cold turkey is probably not in the cards.   But restricting access to certain times of the day rather than take an always on approach probably makes sense for me.  I wonder if I can follow my own good advice in this regard.

Procrastination now seems my norm rather than an aberration.

When I first started to blog, back in 2005, I had so many ideas in my head that needed expression in some form or other that writing a post was like opening a vein and letting it flow.  I could generate 1500 words of tolerable prose in somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes.  I would do that first thing in the morning before going to work, when I was quite fresh and up to the task.  It was a good way to start the day for me, as it gave a sense of accomplishment.  And at least when I was the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies, I could make some claim that the blogging was related to the work at the office, so I had some sense that I was making a contribution there.  Indeed, not infrequently Mike, who had the office next to mine, would want to discuss one of my recent posts.  Even my boss would do that now and then.

It is harder now to come up with a topic where I satisfy my own standards - not a complete rehash of something I've already said, articulating a well formed argument that I've worked through entirely, having a sense that it advances what other people have said elsewhere on the same issue.  This is not just with the blogging.  It is with the teaching too and with some other online interactions as well.  There is a kind of performance anxiety at root here.  I am not quite sure whether I can get over the bar I have set for myself.

I am aware that everybody procrastinates to some degree.  (If you haven't read this piece by James Surowiecki called Later, you definitely should.)  If I could keep procrastination to those tasks I've never taken a shining to, for example, cleaning up my office, I'd be quite okay with that.  I've always been kind of a sloppy guy with my physical environs.  That is not about to change.   However, when procrastination impinges on activities that used to bring me much joy, something else is going on.

For example, writing this post has taken nearly a week in its composition.  I've set it aside at least a few times, unsure what to say and unsure about whether I wanted to struggle through that or not.   Ultimately, I decided to do get it out, because I thought what I'm feeling might be like what many others are feeling as well.

Wrap Up

In case this isn't obvious from reading the above,  what I am describing is the onset of depression.  I've been through depression before.  The first time was in 10th grade.  I experienced it again in my second year of college at MIT before I transferred to Cornell.  The earlier experience was an aid to me in navigating the terrain the next time around.  After Robin Williams committed suicide, I wrote a post called Depression in Performing Artists as a Reflection on Ourselves that gave some insights I had gleaned from my past, that I thought my help other comes to grips with the situation.

Here I want to point out the basic elements.  First, there are external causes that makes the environment unwelcoming, if not totally hostile.  Second, there is a lack of a sense of agency in addressing these external issues squarely.  Other people might say they are fighting it rather than say they are addressing it.  My dad, who was a brittle diabetic, would say "I'm fighting it" once in a while during an insulin reaction, a feeble response doomed for failure.   I mention that because I am not much of a fighter.  Never have been.  I will try to work through an argument to find a sensible solution if I can find one.  My lacking agency reflects uncertainty about whether such a sensible solution exists.   My struggle has always been internal with myself, not against some adversary.  Can I find the appropriate line of thought or not?

Those are the primary causes.  But then there are a bunch of secondary causes as well.  The multiprocessing and the procrastination are, on the one hand, consequences of the primary causes.  But, on the other hand, they serve to abet the primary causes by weakening my resolve and doubting my capacity to overcome them.   In other words, depression is not a linear path.  Rather, it is a vicious cycle.  If you can break some of the self-enforcing aspects of the cycle, you may be able to snap out of it.   People with a lot of self-confidence are not depressed.  Those with self-confidence some of the time will lose that well before depression fully sets in.  My own self-confidence is on the downs.

I am able to intellectualize that much because I've been here before.  Yet I am not a mental health professional and don't want to claim to be one.  For the reader, I don't know what's right for you, even if you are struggling in a similar way.   If this posts resonates with you, maybe it is an indicator that you should talk with a professional.

For me, I know I need more down time.   Reading fiction is therapy.  I need to do more of that.  Writing the nonsense rhymes I compose many mornings is also therapy.  Now is time to take care of myself.

"Don't let it bring you down
It's only castles burning,
Find someone who's turning
And you will come around."
Neil Young

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