Pedagogy of the Depressed

“At a certain point, it seemed like all my students were depressed… This was depressing.”

When I thought of the title for my book—Pedagogy of the Depressed, published yesterday by Bloomsbury—I figured that it must have been done already. It was too obvious: a pun on Paulo Freire’s revolutionary treatise Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but for now—when so many are so depressed. So I Googled it and was surprised to find that no one else had used this title for a book. (There were some articles that bore the name, but they were somewhat buried away in academic journals.) I had been writing essays about various challenges in the twenty-first-century English classroom, and I figured I could bundle a bunch of them together under this title and make it a timely and maybe even useful book. My editor Haaris Naqvi liked the idea, so I dove in.

I was writing about the insinuation of new technologies in the classroom, from personal smartphones to institutionally adopted learning management systems. I was writing about trigger warnings, increasingly pervasive and layered mental health issues on campus, and how intellectual inquiry was turning into mere data collection. This was all under the darkening shadow of the Trump presidency and on the eroding landscape of higher education across the United States.

But this was before the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything would change so rapidly and all these facets would take on new wrinkles and contortions. So I scrapped the manuscript I had been working with and decided to write the book from scratch, in real time as I taught through the pandemic year of 2020 and as I attempted to find my bearings in this new world. In truth, a lot of things that were nascent before the pandemic just found their way out in the open, as our new normal set in.

I asked a student assistant, Bella Rodriguez-Ramos, to read the early draft of this book—the version I threw away—and after she read it I was relieved to find out that she ‘got’ the book. Bella understood what I was wrestling with, what I was working through. But she said something that shook me up: she said, “I sort of want you to scream in my face more often.” She rightly detected that I was holding something back. So the rewrite of the book—what became the book that finally published yesterday—is my attempt to speak more directly about what I’m calling pedagogy of the depressed. I wrote it in more of a sprint, to maintain tone and pacing and to track things as they happened.

At a certain point, it seemed like all my students were depressed.

Or, rather, it wasn’t a certain point at all: it happened “gradually and then suddenly,” to borrow a line from Hemingway.

This was depressing. It changed the feel of the classroom, it altered the possibilities of how we could learn together. Students became riddled with depression, anxiety, stress, and other widely diagnosed (or even just felt) maladies. And teachers were depressed by this situation, in turn. We were all slogging through the hours, the days, the weeks, the terms, and the years with this crushing sense of … something having gone wrong. We were supposed to be at the zenith of higher learning, in a new century with urgent issues to confront and solve. Instead, it felt like each one of us was a little Sisyphus, pushing eternally at our phone screens. And this was all before the novel coronavirus arrived.

What I wrote isn’t a book from the standpoint of psychology or sociology, although I respect these disciplines and draw from some of their vocabulary and perspectives. The book I ultimately wrote, instead, comes at the general topic of depression from the vantage point of the English classroom. I brush against this heavy topic through various encounters with literature, writing, and editing—through practices of working with language, lingering on words, and thinking carefully about written expression. But it’s also English with a twist: my own writing and teaching often revolves around air travel, so there’s a recurrent theme of flight.

My interest in depression here is at least twofold. It’s a shared (while also deeply personal) experience among my students, and it’s a feeling that I increasingly have when I’m teaching, advising, and mentoring my students. The space of the classroom is also depressed: tired, ramshackle, dirty, desks broken, 1.0, passé … it’s not the space it was just a decade ago. I mean this in a physical sense and also in a medial and cultural sense. The college classroom has become an incredibly vulnerable space, even as we’ve struggled to try to make it a safe space. After COVID-19, it’s really not the same.

The book I ultimately wrote comes at the general topic of depression from the vantage point of the English classroom.

This book is mostly about higher education, but I hope that it might be useful to teachers in a range of educational settings—and even to people at large who find themselves thinking about what lessons to take away from the early decades of the twenty-first century. I wanted to write down some observations, as well as strategies and tactics that I’ve employed to cope with this general depressed atmosphere of teaching and learning, living and surviving in these times. This is, in short, what I’m calling the pedagogy of the depressed.

But if I’m honest, I’m ambivalent about giving advice or offering models. I don’t know that effective teaching (much less living) can really be, well, taught. I’m not even sure that I’ve been an effective teacher in these times; oftentimes, at best, I’ve merely survived. But I have learned some things about coping with the changing landscape of higher education, and I still manage to meet my students each week and we still manage to learn and grow, together.

Then again, I had role models and mentors as I was bumbling into my own teaching career. Of course I learned how to be a teacher. (A decent enough one, anyway.) I still sometimes feel as though I am channeling my most inspiring college professors—I can conjure their energy, their commitment, their performances. Yet my pedagogical instincts seem to be failing me, of late. It seems like the classroom has a permanent cloud of sadness—a heaviness—hanging over it. I want to say that this coincided with the election of Donald Trump, but it was no doubt assembling for a while before that gruesome arrival. Still, the toxic name-calling, hellscape news cycle, and frantic media ecosystem ever swirling around Trump did not help things. And the vortex continued each day, as I wrote the book, even into and through a pandemic that shuttered classrooms everywhere.

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing a book on these themes, a follower replied, “I’m not sure you’re qualified for this, tbh.” Twitter being what it is, it was impossible to tell the tone or intent of this reply, but it is something I’ve wondered myself as I’ve taken notes, written into, and thought about this topic. Was this person serious or just joking? Am I qualified to write about depression? Well, depression in what sense?

The “depression” I am interested in tracking in my book is not so much an individual experience, not located (at least not solely) in the depressed subject. It’s a state of things. It’s a depressed atmosphere, a dispersed feeling of dread and weariness that has as much to do with cultural forces and planetary circumstances as it has to do with the intense feeling of solitary helplessness. This definition in the Oxford English Dictionary feels accurate to me in its very general sense, its variousness:

depression, n.


The action of depressing, or condition of being depressed; a depressed formation; that which is depressed: in various senses (Opposed to elevation).

I teach at a small university in New Orleans. It is a diverse and inclusive campus, with many first-generation students and elaborate support systems for students who may need help navigating challenging times and difficult courses throughout their college years. I’ve taught or guest lectured at a range of other institutions, too, since I started graduate school in 2001. My college-level teaching—for nearly twenty years now—informs this study, the shifts that I’m seeing as well as the hope I still have for a mode of higher education that carries on certain traditions while adapting to the current times of acceleration and exhaustion. What are the signs of these times, specifically? Here are a few snapshots:

A colleague in my department tells me that her students talk about depression almost as an obligatory phase to go through in college. Something they’ll just drop, when they graduate. But in the meantime, it becomes something we professors have to reckon with, adjust to. And can it just be “dropped,” does it work like that? Depression is sneaky.

Another colleague kills himself, and a shadow of inexplicability hangs over our faculty for years. How was our campus implicated in his suicide, if at all? This was a philosophy professor, very involved in faculty governance and student life. It’s hard to believe that conditions around campus were completely apart from whatever pushed him over the edge. But we’ll never know.

I am working with a librarian whose job it is to coordinate technology in classrooms, to set up a big display screen in a new seminar room, so instructors can present material for students to interact with. The library tells me “this is an exciting project!”—but this is depressing to me because it (perhaps unconsciously) evinces how pedagogy has become reduced to slick technological potential for projection and display, rather than appreciated for the actual slow, low-tech work that learning together takes. Don’t get me wrong: I initiated this, and the librarian was extremely helpful—later that year we awarded her a service award for her incredible work helping the campus adopt new technologies as the pandemic set in. At that point, before COVID, I wanted the ability to show stuff to the class, and so we could collaborate on writing in a live format. But in the moment of planning, it seemed like what was exciting was the technology itself, not what might happen because of it—a less glamorous project indeed.

One friend, a department chair at an R1 university, admits to me over email that he’s “spent way more time this fall as chair speaking with faculty who just seem totally beaten down than in previous years.” I echoed this sentiment in my reply; I’ve heard this from countless colleagues at different colleges and universities across the country. And this sense of exhaustion would only expand outward and everywhere, in 2020.

COVID-19 renders classrooms and office hours obsolete, at least for some time—and opens up a floodgate of questions and criticisms about what we’ve been doing with all this space and time all along. Does higher education really need to take four years? Does it really require traveling somewhere else, living there and being with others (in person) and learning together? If we thought higher education was a depressed zone before, what is it in the land of Zoom meetings and the bloom of learning management systems?

Pedagogy of the Depressed is an attempt to gather together and clarify my experiences of the changing humanities classroom over the past decade—the humanities classroom and certain cultural vectors that have affected it. My experiences are limited, obviously: to my campus, to my classes, to my region, to my students. But within these constraints, a lot of variation and difference comes through. My intended audience is threefold: college teachers, especially literature and writing instructors; graduate students in the humanities who are facing a rapidly changing cultural landscape; and general readers interested in pedagogy and higher education.

Some parts of the book offer practical, concrete ways that I have coped: in the English classroom, especially, but also in the shifting academic profession at large. I hope these pieces are not didactic or self-congratulatory, but rather may serve as useful prompts for rethinking what it is we do when we teach, when we mentor, and when we learn and create, together—the things that arguably make higher education more important than ever, now. Other parts of the book are more reflective of general tensions or stressors in higher education. Together, I hope they offer a vivid if impressionistic picture of the pedagogy of the depressed.

I offer Pedagogy of the Depressed as a matter of commiseration, solidarity. Out of a sense of desperation, too—unsure, each day, whether I’m doing something that matters or something that is futile in the face of distressing, horrid trends of our species sucking itself into oblivion.


Excerpted from Pedagogy of the Depressed (Bloomsbury Academic, 2021), which was released on January 13, 2022 icon

Featured image: Empty Seats. Photograph by Benson Kua / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)