James Aune’s apparent suicide this week at Texas A&M University stunned the campus and the college community at large – especially rhetoricians, among whom he was a prominent scholar.
Since Tuesday, when Aune, 59, died after jumping out of a campus parking lot, students and colleagues have remembered him on social media pages and in press articles as a dedicated teacher and mentor with both a dynamic personality and a mastery of writing and speaking. language, not someone who has manifested mental health problems outwardly.
“My favorite among many great teachers in [communications department] At TAMU, Jim has always been an inspiration with his wit, frankness, curiosity and generosity, ”reads an article on a memorial website. “As a graduate student, I knew I wanted to think and teach like him; he taught me so much. At the bottom of a piece of paper I returned he wrote, “Thank you. I learned a lot.’ I have never seen such a nice comment on an essay, and I will never forget it. Nor Jim. “
Additionally, Aune was a full faculty member and chair of the communications department – i.e. someone clearly accomplished and removed from many of the stressors associated with a young professor’s career trajectory. .
“Academics are trying to figure this out, but we come up against something that ultimately escapes explanation,” said Frederick Antczak, a longtime friend of Aune who is the executive director of the Rhetoric Society of America. The two worked together decades ago at the University of Virginia and more recently through The Rhetorical Society, which Aune blogged for. Antczak is now Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “Rhetoricians in particular seek to understand people, and it is troubling to come to the point where even someone we think we know and love must remain inherently a mystery in their passing.”
Aune’s deaths and those of professors this year at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Texas at Arlington and California State University at Fullerton raise important questions about faculty suicide.
Suicide remains a conundrum among behavioral health researchers, and data on professors’ suicides does not appear to exist. Faculty groups do not follow these deaths. But the suicides of professors receive significant local media coverage, unlike the deaths of others.
Researchers say it is difficult for various reasons to determine the statistical significance of teacher suicides. The little research that exists on occupation-related suicides does not suggest that academics commit suicide at higher rates than the general population, said John L. McIntosh, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and professor. of psychology at Indiana University at South Bend and past president of the American Association of Suicidology. “I have never seen anything on the faculty of the university [in any study] that would involve a high risk, ”he said. “On the contrary, there is a set of protective factors associated with it,” such as high levels of education, which have been indirectly shown to reduce the risk of suicide. But whether other factors typically associated with lower psychological distress – low-key lives and flexibility to spend time in enjoyable activities – apply to academia, it depends on “whether one is to look at almost romantic ideas. [of it] or realities.
Because suicidology is work mostly done in retrospect, after someone has committed suicide, it is almost impossible to isolate the causes of suicide. But correlations can be made between lifestyle and suicide, and the changing nature of academia, such as decreased funding available for research, fewer tenure-track positions, and increased pressure to publish, may cause psychological distress, said Mark Kaplan, professor of community health. at Portland State University who has studied suicide extensively, particularly among military personnel. (Of course, many people face these and many other stressful situations without committing suicide.)
“I think college life is overlooked as a major stressor,” especially among younger faculty members, Kaplan said. Standardizing mentorship programs for new faculty – and finding money to fund them – should be a priority for colleges and universities, he said.
And as the military has attempted to do, institutions should also work to reduce the stigma attached to seeking mental health services, even for senior faculty such as department heads, Kaplan added; although suicide rates are not high among professors, it is important to note that one suicide represents about 25 suicide attempts, or “the tip of the iceberg.”
Texas A&M is not yet back in session, but Aune’s death is sure to be marked by formal and informal memories of her life and work, said Margaret Soltan, professor of English at George Washington University. who has blogged extensively on the issue of suicide (and for whom blog Inside higher education). In the case of relatively young teachers in particular, she said, “there is a terrible feeling of wasted talent, an oppressive feeling of what they could have done,” she said (Antczak a estimated that Aune would have continued to work for at least 10 years.).
Students can be affected the most, Soltan said, and formal counselors typically invited to campuses following such events “can’t do much. It takes time to accept that nothing could have been done, to accept that even people you admire and who seem very together can do it.