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Not Untenured. Untethered.

UD‘s friend and editor, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, alludes to UD‘s most recent IHE column – which includes criticism of an article in the Christian Science Monitor – in a piece this morning in USA Today:

… Almost as soon as word of the Alabama murders spread came the news that [Amy] Bishop, who has been charged in the killings, had been denied tenure and that an appeal of the denial had been rejected. This news prompted some media speculation that tenure stress may have led to the killings. The Christian Science Monitor ran with this theme, prompting criticism from academic bloggers (including one on Inside Higher Ed) who have noted that people are rejected for tenure all the time and don’t kill anyone.

Scott quotes psychology and security experts “dismiss[ing] the idea that the shootings could be blamed on a recent tenure denial.”

Likewise, in Psychology Today, the president of the American Psychoanalytical Association, Prudence Gourguechon, writes:

Stress, disappointment, PTSD, frustration, burnout, loss, shame and humiliation DO NOT LEAD A HUMAN BEING TO PICK UP A GUN AND START KILLING HIS OR HER FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS. Not having examined them, I can not know what is wrong, psychiatrically, with these killers, but I know that something is. And it’s not these human difficulties I just listed that are constantly referenced in the media stories.

It is important to distinguish between triggers–what might light the fuse–and the explosives that lead to the catastrophe.

Getting it wrong in the media does us all a disservice. If true but irrelevant facts are continually referenced, we start to think these things (eg stress) are relevant and truly causal, as opposed to possible triggers. And the media rarely or never mention the factors that are more important to consider: Delusions. Paranoia. Major Mental Illness. Schizophrenia. Psychosis. The vast majority of human beings who suffer from these symptoms or disorders are not violent or dangerous and can do very well with appropriate treatment. But these might be the things that lead a few human beings [to] pick up a gun and shoot their colleagues. That, plus easy availability of firearms.

Why have we substituted “stress” for psychosis as a causal concept? Why have we confused triggers for causes? What is the consequence for our society? One consequence I fear is that there will be a continually diminished tendency to consider and diagnose and treat psychosis and major mental illness, and therefore there will continue to be undiagnosed and untreated disordered minds picking up guns and going to a meeting to kill.

Society needs to know and be reminded that people can– in rare but significant instances– lose touch with external reality, and substitute a dangerous irrational inner world where, for example, they feel persecuted and terrorized.

With her long history of violence, paranoia, and cold-bloodedness (After the massacre, Bishop’s husband told a reporter, she phoned him, and in a perfectly calm voice said to come to the building and pick her up for their dinner date.), Amy Bishop is a poster child not for tenure unattained, but for psychosis misperceived.

Margaret Soltan, February 15, 2010 8:55AM
Posted in: amy bishop, the university

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9 Responses to “Not Untenured. Untethered.”

  1. MattF Says:

    Dr. Gourguechon is so right. A somewhat less horrific example of this is the notion that good old Bernie Madoff was motivated by ‘greed’. Well… yeah, I’ll agree that he was greedy. But it takes more than greed to try to betray every single person you come in contact with.

  2. Science And Religion Dispatch: Round 1, Plus Amy Bishop « imagining the real world Says:

    […] I’ve been reading, and she quotes the president of the American Psychoanalytical Association as the following (I’m quoting the entire thing because I agree that it is really that important:): Stress, […]

  3. stan rogers Says:

    can the town of braintree, MA, be held liable by the survivors of the huntsville dead for failing to curb this public menace when it had the chance?

  4. francofou Says:

    Why the eagerness to say that tenure denial was not the cause? I sense a little word play here: I don’t see a clear distinction between “trigger” and “cause.” If you insult me three times in a row, I may be patient and try to engage in dialogue. The fourth time, I give up and walk away. The fourth time both triggers and causes my departure. That the four insults together constitute the cause does not mean that the fourth is not a causal factor.
    Pulling a trigger causes the gun to fire after all.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    francofou: I think the point being made is that for the psychotic anything might set off a murderous outbreak — and indeed if Bishop’s violent past includes non-accidentally killing her brother and sending a bomb in the mail, a number of things, none of them tenure-related, have already set off murderous outbreaks.

    The problem here is that some analysts are isolating tenure in itself as having been trigger AND cause. This has the bad effect of stigmatizing the tenure process, whereas the process, though it can sometimes be rough, seems to me to work pretty well. (The often rigorous process of getting tenure, and the intellectual freedom tenure gives you, are two reasons the US has, by all standards, the most impressive university system in the world.)

    And it’s particularly wrong to isolate tenure as the reason she did it in this case, since as a successful, marketable scientist, she didn’t need a tenured university position.

    To use a psychotic’s freak-out when – as seems to be her pattern – one more thing happens to annoy her … To use this event in order to pummel the tenure system in American universities is really irresponsible.

  6. francofou Says:

    I don’t think the tenure process needs much stigmatizing and one doesn’t need an instance like this to pummel it: it is a gut-wrenching, sometimes cruel and vicious business, enough to drive normally balanced individuals into fits of deep depression, frustration and anger. I’m not saying that denial of tenure is the *only* cause, but to dismiss it as a mere “trigger” is to close ones eyes to its often destructive impact.
    Nor would I agree that the process works “pretty well”: it works well for those who have it, but not for those to whom it is denied and, more important, not for the generations of students faced with terrible teachers who have cranked out mediocre “research” and/or spent six years paying court to the senior faculty.
    I am of course not trying to justify or rationalize the murders. The lady sounds as if she is seriously disturbed but, to rework your argument, not all seriously disturbed people send pipe bombs through the mail.

  7. Timothy Burke Says:

    Francofou: the point is that grabbing at this to say, “reform tenure, because here’s what it leads to”, is narcissism. It’s not that the critique of the process’ destructive impact on people is wrong, but to insist, “AH! here we have the proof” is to ignore the genuinely best evidence for the case (all the people hurt or bothered on a regular basis by the process) in favor of cheap, low-hanging fruit which defines the aberrant exception. If you’re really bothered by tenure as a process, spend the time talking about what it does to people ordinarily, not grabbing at the one person who in all the years of the process shot people–not for the least because it appears that Amy Bishop was a person who not infrequently had the impulse to hurt or kill people who thwarted her. Amy Bishop explains Amy Bishop. Hijacking her story to make a case for something else hurts your case and disrespects the people caught up in this actual story. This is not an unusual pattern when unusual stories appear, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating when people do it.

  8. francofou Says:

    I am not grabbing at anything. I am saying that to dismiss the trauma of the tenure process as a cause of aberrant or even violent behavior strikes me as indefensible. A denial of tenure is possibly the ruin of a person’s career and even identity, and to claim that it is just “trigger,” as if any troublesome incident would have the same impact, demeans the trauma.
    In this case, the claim that the denial is not a significant cause is something I have trouble accepting.
    It is possible, of course, that she would have found other pretexts for killing three people, but as of now the tenure case seems to offer a reasonable explanation. Calling it a trigger, and not a cause, is what bothers me.

  9. Dubious Says:

    Clearly this was a person with problems that would have manifested themselves eventually even if she had received tenure. She has a history of responding irrationally when things don’t go her way and I’m sure there would have been other unpleasant events in her life that could have motivated an unjustified response. The tenure process is hard…so what? There are many situations in life that are harder and less fair. The point is, only an insane person kills because of inconvenience! That’s the cause: Insanity. Not tenure! Jeeeze!

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