Saturday, January 19, 2013

Conversations in light of sudden loss

In the afternoon on Jan. 8, just days before the spring semester started (at A&M and here at Davidson), I got a dreadful phone call from a grad school friend to let me know that a beloved professor and mentor from our time at Texas A&M University, Dr. Jim Aune, had committed suicide on campus. Dr. Aune was the Head of the Department of Communication at Texas A&M University, the institution where I achieved my Ph.D. Needless to say, this sudden and horrific loss has many in the academic community --especially rhetoric folks who worked closely with Aune, grad students still in the dept. and those of us not too far removed from our time there, faculty colleagues of Aune's and the staff members who helped to run the department smoothly-- absolutely stunned.There is no way to possibly make sense of such a sudden and seemingly senseless loss, though we certainly have been trying to do so. The funny, quirky, and more serious moments of interaction we've all had with Dr. Aune quickly arose as a means to process the grief and attempt to focus more on the positive legacy he left behind... despite the gaping hole of loss that is so painfully apparent.

(For a beautifully honest, hilarious, comforting and personal post from one of Dr. Aune's former advisees, see Dr. Thorpe's blog.)

The symbolism of a suicide that takes place on campus deepens the mystery for so many of us and makes for a unique set of questions that may never be answered. It is difficult to comprehend what sort of perfect storm would drive someone so accomplished, well-respected, loved and admired in his field to feel no other option or outlet from whatever his troubles were except suicide.

Aune's death has sparked many conversations about social support among colleagues at various types of institutions and academics in various ranks of faculty positions. Many feel an added layer of devastation in light of the now-famous and widely criticized Forbes article saying that professors have the least stressful jobs. The comments following this article online perhaps echo the knee-jerk reactions many of us feel are warranted to something in such poor taste. The backlash to this article has been intense and, to many, not at all surprising. One blog response in particular has gone viral among my network of academic friends.

Perhaps we might see these articles/conversations as two opposite ends of a spectrum that includes plenty of in-between gray area.

Of course, we should not take for granted the many luxuries that a professor's academic lifestyle includes. I, for one, enjoy not having to physically be anywhere on some days of the week, giving myself the option of working from my home office in my slippers and with a hot pot of coffee close by to boost my creativity and productivity. I marvel everyday at the beautiful region of the country I now live in. I have supportive, kind, and diverse colleagues, motivated, hard-working students, and resources available around campus that enable me further in many ways.

All of that is not to discount the intense stresses that come with this fantastic territory. Publishing is a necessary condition for tenure, even at a small liberal arts college. Teaching excellence is a top priority. Innovative ideas and the willingness to commit to service around campus, in the community, and broader discipline are highly valued attributes professors are expected to demonstrate. Juggling many things at once is a requirement of the job, as we all know, and undoubtedly is a part of many other careers out there.

But the perception that professors have it easy --once they get through course work and comprehensive exams, successfully complete and defend the dissertation, enter the somewhat unpredictable academic job market, and finally achieve tenure-track employment in the hopes of eventually becoming tenured-- is a gross discounting of the world we inhabit, despite all of its privileges. As many online articles have noted before, securing tenure-track employment is not a given once the Ph.D. is acquired. The opportunity to even work towards tenure is tough to come by for many Ph.D.s out there on the market, and as someone who was on the market twice (once ABD, once with my Ph.D. in hand) before securing tenure-track employment, I realize that there exists a whole other set of stresses to face on the tenure track. Again, there are also many beauties of the job that I am careful not to take for granted.

Perhaps Dr. Aune's sudden suicide on campus is, in part, a testament to the stresses that many academics face. It is truly mind-boggling that someone so accomplished would be driven to this act. Especially for those interacting with him daily around the department, it is hard not to think about what could have possibly made things turn out differently. Could I have seen something that indicated this was about to happen? Could I have done something to stop this? Did I just not pay close enough attention to his demeanor that day (among any number of days prior)? As the article talking about suicide among professors in recent years states, and as Bernadette and Vincent have blogged about sudden loss, devastation, and mentorship recently, I think this simple statement sums up what is so difficult to accept:
"One needs time to accept that one could not have done anything, to accept that even people who you admire and who seem very together can do that.”
Though I've been keeping in close contact with my Aggie family as we all try to accept this loss, this blog has been therapeutic for me to write. It also serves as a prompt to reiterate what Robert blogged about in November.

May we continue to be here for one another as social support, near and far, via technology and in person (even if once a year at NCA). May we continue to make use of this blog space to facilitate our sense of solidarity as academics in various positions and at various stages in our careers, as Latino/as, and as human beings who may feel overwhelmed at times yet grateful to do what we love. 

I hope you've all had a restful holiday break. May our new semester be positive, productive, and peaceful. Let us remember that we are not alone in our chosen life path as academics and all that that process entails.

Rest in peace, Dr. Aune. 


  1. Amanda,

    Well said. May Dr. Aune's life remind us to be good to one another, and strive for the best in our lives and for those around us.


  2. Amanda, exceptionally and lovingly stated. Now, and even more, we will be here for one another.

    Vincent Chandler

  3. Thanks for your responses, friends. Onward and upward we go! :)