Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Next? Thinking About The Implications of Will's Way Out

It has been about 24 hours since we learned that Will Moore killed himself (it feels strange and awful to type that out), and there are lots of reactions.  Mostly, people are offering and receiving support, and they are sharing their memories of Will.  But there are already people wondering about what this means for the profession--defined as conflict studies, as political science or as academia--especially as it is the second suicide in the past month of prominent scholars in this area of research.

Is it too soon?  Of course it is.  But this is what we as academics do--overthink stuff as much as we can.  I just had a conversation with someone about this, and it raised some concerns.

First, and, foremost, suicide can be contagious.  That when one person chooses to "punch out," it affects others via inspiration, imitation, or depression or whatever. The thing to think about right now is to offer help to those who need it, with, of course, the problem being that we do not know who needs it.

Second, efforts to try to tie this to Will's work--that he focused mostly on repression and dissent--are probably missing the point.  While Phil Schrodt points out that collecting data on this stuff can be awful, it is pretty clear from Will's note that this was a lifetime dynamic and not driven by what he studied.  It is tempting to say that conflict studies is more likely to have depressed, suicidal scholars, but all we have now are a data point (updated: previous version suggested other suicide was conflict scholar but that was wrong).  My guess is that conflict scholars, political scientists, and academics all do not have suicide rates higher than the national average.  It might depend on what one does, if one does field work, where one does field work, what conditions.  I'd think a conflict studies background might be more relevant under some conditions rather than others. Again, I am not an expert, but I am guessing that confirmation bias is playing a role here.  We notice the suicides in our field but not in others, and we certainly don't notice the people who don't kill themselves. Still, we need to look around and make sure that folks in this field have access to resources.

The profession is hard on people--the stress of getting through a graduate program, the stress of getting a job, the pressure to publish to get tenure, the lifelong repetition of rejection from journals, presses, grant-giving agencies, etc.  But Will has been very successful in the profession--tenured with a new job with colleagues that were very eager to have him there, lots of publications and citations, and all the rest.  It can be isolating, but Will's way of working, with multiple teams of co-authors and by creating all kinds of workshops, was far less isolating than the experiences of many.   So, sure, the profession can be hard, especially on those who are young, who are in isolated jobs (imagine the city or suburban dweller whose first job is at a school in the middle of nowhere in a department of three or four people who have no overlapping research interests).  We should probably find ways to improve people's sense of connection and not just worry about the folks in the higher publish or perish places.

Third, there will be those that will say that Will explained well his decision, and it was for him to make.  I get that to a degree, but it was a damned inconsiderate thing to do when he did it.  In the middle of the semester so his classes are affected, and, more importantly, his students have been impacted.  The idea that it was ok to kill himself now that his kids are adults, well, that just pisses me off since I have an adult child.  And, yes, now I have a project that may be difficult to complete since we lost the guy who was carrying much of the methods load.  But that last thing does not matter so much to me.  Anyhow, while everyone is quite sad about Will, there is probably some anger there as well, and that, too, is natural.

Of course, the primary emotion is going to be guilt--that we should have known, should have done something, should have reached out.  Again, for Will, this does not really apply, as he had an incredibly deep and wide network of friends who cared about him.  That he didn't feel that connectedness is a tragedy, but he was connected.  Sure, it is easier to observe in the aftermath, but Will was appreciated and loved while he was alive.  The notes I have seen online, the times I witnessed him being surrounded by herds of people, all provide some evidence that Will knew but could not feel the love that surrounded him.

So, we can and should think about the meaning of Will's life and of his death, but I am cautious about overreacting.  We definitely need to provide more support for each other, that there is need for more academic kindness, and we can do better in a variety of ways. But there are limits on what we can do, and our discipline and our profession are not so special.  Plus lots of the stressors are way out of our control.

What to do about all of this?  Damned if I know.  I will just let my friends, my students, and my family know that they just need to tell me how I can help them, and I will try.

1 comment:

Geraldine said...

Well said Steve. I'm saddened by the situation but heartened and impressed by your openness and willingness to be vulnerable to your friends, colleagues and students.