Mental Health in Academia and the Kobayashi Maru

A blog post on the Guardian Higher Education Network seems to have hit a nerve in the academic community. The post, about how widespread mental health issues are in academia, has been widely shared and as I first read it, it felt very familiar. The Guardian followed up on the blog post by reporting on research done by the University College Union on just how endemic mental health problems are in academia.

I am not surprised that the research is showing that there is a very high rate of mental illness in academia. I can see how it would happen.

For example, there is a seminar for PhD students, where, in theory, we are supposed to present our work-in-progress and get, again, in theory, constructive feedback from academics. For years, I have seen how badly this seminar affects  PhD students. I myself was badly affected by my experiences there, feeling depressed and discouraged for a long time afterwards. And I know I am not alone in feeling this way.

It took me a long time to figure out that this seminar was very much like the Kobayashi Maru. To you non-star trek fans, the Kobayashi Maru is a simulation test given to students of Starfleet Academy where they need to decide whether or not to rescue the civilian vessel Kobayashi Maru in a simulated battle with the Klingons. If students choose to attempt rescue, the simulation is designed to guarantee that the ship is destroyed with the loss of all crew members.

The Kobayashi Maru is a test that no students can pass. It is deliberately designed to make students fail. Its real goal is not teaching students about rescue missions, but about dealing with failure.

This seminar is also designed to make students fail. Students are supposed to present unfinished, often uncertain work, to an audience that more often than not consists of people who are not really there out of choice. That in itself is not bad, as training to deal with a bad presentation and an indifferent/hostile audience can be invaluable.

But where the seminar differs from the Kobayashi Maru, is that it does not directly teach students to deal with failure. The goal of the seminar is supposedly constructive criticism, but on the very first day, students were told by an academic that “we’re not here to be nice”, and to be as critical as possible. But criticism for criticism’s sake is hardly ever useful. There is a key difference between receiving constructive criticism, and just being critical for the sake of it.  Crucially, constructive criticism is not supposed to be mean-spirited.

As a result, many students have a horrible time in this seminar. Just yesterday, a friend was recalling her recent experience in this class and said:

“How can it be constructive criticism if it makes me want to kill myself?”

Not all students have a hard time, not all audience members are mean. Not all seminars are the same. This is at best just an anecdote in the wider debate about mental health in academia. Universities must have a duty of care for their staff and their students. If sessions that are supposed to help student progress are instead causing so much distress, then something must change.

Academica has a lot to learn from the Kobayashi Maru.

I don’t have to present in this class anymore, and can’t begin to tell you the relief I feel.

I feel free.

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One Response to Mental Health in Academia and the Kobayashi Maru

  1. weavergrace says:

    Thank you for explaining this. I have heard about this from my PhD friends, but, like someone experiencing PTSD, they talk about it in brief generalizations or with dismissiveness. Thank you for helping me understand the system. You present a useful perspective.

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