Friday, January 11, 2013

After a Professor's Suicide. From InsideHigherEd.

James Aune’s apparent suicide this week at Texas A&M University stunned the campus and the broader academic community – especially rhetoricians, among whom he was a leading scholar.

Since Tuesday, when 59-year-old Aune died after jumping from a campus parking garage, students and colleagues have remembered him on social networking pages and in news accounts as a dedicated teacher and mentor possessing both a vibrant personality and mastery of written and oral language, not someone who outwardly demonstrated mental health issues.

"My favorite of many great professors in the [communications department] at TAMU, Jim was always an inspiration through his wit, candor, curiosity, and generosity," reads one post on a memorial website. "As a grad student, I knew I wanted to think and teach like him; he taught me so much. At the bottom of one paper I turned in, he wrote: 'Thanks. I learned a lot.' I've never seen such a kind comment on an essay, and I'll never forget it. Nor Jim."

Moreover, Aune was a tenured faculty member and chair of the department of communications – that is, someone obviously accomplished and removed from many of the stressors associated with a younger professor’s career trajectory.

Full article.


  1. "Researchers say it’s hard for a variety of reasons to determine the statistical significance of professor suicides." Your death was not statistically significant at a .05 level. Really?!

    Mental health in the university is a major problem at all levels. Throughout grad school my friend and I joked the reason the windows didn't open on the higher floors was as suicide prevention. Plus, you'd probably just end up with broken legs instead of dead which would just be sad. (Ours was not a happy experience to understate it extremely).
    Even in my most frustrated state, I try to be as kind as possible to students, colleagues and staff. You never know what sort of personal hell they are going through.

  2. My condolences to his family and friends.

  3. As far as I know, suicide (except perhaps in some cases at the end stage of a terminal illness) is a pretty clear indicator of depression, and, because depression by definition distorts thinking, looking to the person's surroundings, personal and/or professional, is not a particularly productive endeavor, and may even amount to an (unintentional) using of the dead person's medical situation to make a point that would better be made in other ways. The toll that war takes on soldiers (mentioned in the article) might be an exception, but even there, it seems that trying to increase awareness of symptoms and reduce the stigma of reaching out for help is what actually works to reduce suicide (ending wars probably helps, too, but at least some of the people who would have become depressed as soldiers will probably become depressed as civilians as well).

    In short, there's misery in higher ed., but there's also misery (some of it much, much worse) in other places, and some people maintain an even keel despite all kinds of stress, while others succumb to depression even in what might seem to others relatively fortunate circumstances. As with many diseases, there seems to be some combination of innate susceptibility, environmental triggers, and perhaps, as time goes on, acquired sensitivity and/or resilience operating. As the article points out, the whole picture is complicated enough that it's hard to identify clear reasons.

    Mind you, I'm all for creating a world with less war, and better safety nets, and anything else that might reduce the number of susceptible people who experience triggers that send them into depression, and increase the number of people who get help when they do experience depression. I just don't think there's an easy-to-identify reason for academic suicides, or an obvious fix.

  4. At the risk of raising a point that some may find offensive, but why doesn't anyone worry about "a terrible sense of wasted talent, an oppressive sense of what they might have done" until after a suicide? I;ve always wondered this about the response to a suicide, whether on campus or off. I made the mistake of reading this article during a few spare minutes before class, and somehow that comment in this context really bothered me.

    1. I'm not sure I quite understand your question. I assume that such comments refer to the good work the person who committed suicide might have done during the rest of his/her life, continuing a trend that was already apparent in the years (s)he did live (perhaps with some interruptions due to depression, but usually when such remarks are made the people making them weren't aware that the person was depressed, and in fact saw the person as highly functional, which they may well have been in most areas of life; people have various ways of coping with depression, and throwing oneself into work is one).

      Of course there are other situations in which talent can be wasted (other kinds of early death and/or mental illness, underemployment, substance abuse, etc.), but suicide is certainly one. I'm not sure it's the first comment I'd make, but it makes sense to me, and I don't think it precludes recognizing that talent can also be wasted while someone is alive.


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