The term cognitive dissonance has been around for a while. I first ran across it as the throw-away name for a bar (“Cog Diss”) in All Tomorrow’s Parties, the last book in William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy.
Wikipedia has a good entry on this, but I’d like to sum it up here. Basically, it refers to the discomfort one experiences when one attempts to hold conflicting ideas, emotions, or beliefs simultaneously. If you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, you’re feeling upset, angry, guilty, or shamed. Or all of those. If you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance, the urge to reduce that dissonance is very strong. Dissonance can be reduced in one of three ways: “lowering the importance of one of the discordant factors, adding consonant elements, or changing one of the dissonant factors” (Carlson, Neil R.; Heth, C. Donald. Psychology: The Science of Behaviour).
What does this have to do with me, the humble Clockwork Professor, besides the obvious cog-play?
I realized this week that I am a living, breathing example of what happens when cognitive dissonance goes unresolved:
I am a hopeful pessimist.
I am a glass-half-empty-but-hoping-the-waitress-is-coming-by-for-a-refill type.
I go back to the well, day after day, hoping that the level has risen, though I know that it hasn’t.
That’s cognitive dissonance in action.
As a professional educator, I take it as a given that I am supposed to be optimistic about my students: that they are there to learn something from me, that the skills that I’m working so hard to impart will have a positive impact on them, on their ability to think and read and reason. I am optimistic about making a positive difference. After all, I sure as hell didn’t get into this career to get rich.
When I have days like I did this past Monday, that optimism takes a serious hit. And because I struggle with depression, I have very little in the way of reserves. The pessimist takes over for a while.
The downward slide starts to look even more precipitous. Despite trying to remind myself that I cannot use my own experiences as a student to measure where my students are (after all, would I be a professor if I didn’t love reading and learning?), I still look around and see that my students are even less engaged with the process of learning than they were when I started as a TA with my own section of composition in 1995. My students are coming to me with fewer (and less-developed) skills in reading and writing. This is not news, I know.
The changes that are happening, and those that are coming (the drive to 1:1 computing, Web 2.0, the future of the university, budget pressures, etc.) are presenting us with additional challenges. Not to mention the discordant factors I’m dealing with: conflicting ideas about value (of education), love (of career), and balance (family and career).
The gears are moving again, but slowly. I still love my job, and my students. But like many of my colleagues (and this one in particular), I’m in triage mode: What can I sacrifice to save my soul?