Tuesday, September 23, 2008

All The Sophies.

  • Arnost from Amsterdam deserves a virtual smack upside the head. His concern for his student Sophie is admirable, but his admonition that she "pull herself together" demonstrates a lack of awareness of the high degree of depression that afflicts academics, women in particular. Before Viagra came on the market, the highest drain on university health plans was anti-depressant medication. Studies (both official and ad-hoc) show that academics - especially female academics - deal with high levels of anxiety, stress and a feeling of disconnection, a situation often exacerbated by systemic discrimination and an inadequate support system. Sophie is clearly intelligent and capable of performing at high levels, but her obvious self-sabotage (handing in papers late despite a reduction in grade)demonstrates that she fears success. Arnost might want to suggest an academic coach or counselor so that Sophie can address some of these issue snow as a grad student before they hamper her academic career.

  • As a veteran of many years in the classroom, and a mentor to hundreds of students, I've seen so many Sophies. All the Sophies brought unrivaled joy to my seminars and my research, but also so much pain and anxiety. I never knew when to reach out to help, or when to stand back and let them fail. So many Sophies still haunt me, the one who dropped out of school and never contacted anyone from the college again, the one who disappeared mid-semester and returned hard and callous and uncaring. One Sophie whose clinical depression forced her to be hospitalized. What are we to do? Are we not mere professors? Advisers, yes. But clinical psychologists, likely not. I now err on the side of asking others for help rather than doing nothing, but I still don't know if I'm doing the right thing.

  • I can answer this one, because I just finished my undergraduate degree as a "Sophie," and I now wish to become a professor. I too, refused to compromise my standards, perfectionism hounding me like an angry Scrooge telling Bob he should have to work on holidays. What finally worked for me was tough love and the realization that I would never attend graduate school with mediocre grades. I know your student is already in graduate school, but let her know she'll never be able to organize her thoughts unless she submits the best she can produce on time and learns to function within deadlines. Tell her she's lucky--I'll have to spend the rest of my academic life atoning for being a "Sophie" as long as I was. As my adviser said to me: I can't help you unless you turn it in.

  • This student doesn't need academic motivation. She very likely needs drug counseling or possibly help with an eating disorder. Directing her to the nearest health center or counselor would be worth a shot.

  • It sounds like she is showing several signs of clinical depression. (Late papers, inability to concentrate, painfully thin, lacking energy.) The kindest thing to do is not ignore it. It's not going to go away on its own. I would recommend that you go on the web and print out a depression screening test. (Try depressionscreening.org). Convey your concerns about her missed deadlines and inability to concentrate, and sit with her while she fills out the test. Then walk together to the student counseling center so that she see the place, and can make an appointment if she wishes. Too many times, faculty think that students problems will go away with a pep talk or with some "tough love." If the student is suffering from clinical depression, she needs medical help. Sophie is probably dealing with an organic, biological issue. Not a will power issue. Unless she gets medical help, chances are great that she won't be able to make the most of her tremendous potential, and she'll continue to feel guilty about not being able to pull herself up from her bootstraps.

  • You note the student seems to have some very serious personal problems. An eating disorder is a pretty obvious candidate. Unless you’re in the psychology department, this is probably beyond your ability to help, as much as you want to. Send her to your university’s counseling office. She needs help from those best trained to give it. It’s great that you care and want to help. We walk a fine line in that we don’t want to ask questions that are too personal. Pointing her in the right direction is a good start. Maybe she’ll get help, take an incomplete and then get herself straight. I wish her (and you) the best.