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Response to "Performance Enhanced Academics"

A couple of things struck me as I was reading Zoe’s post and the NYTimes article she discusses. I absolutely agree with her that many of these pieces seem to push this urgency of: “have *you* tried them? Everyone *else* is using them to get ahead.â€? After all, it can be incredibly persuasive for overworked, tired, veiled-thinking graduate students to consider enhancement drugs to grade those last papers, read a few more articles, and write all night. I think our ever-competitive academic culture can also promote self diagnosis of things like adult ADHD, as well as the medicalization of stress (which is a comment, not a judgment).


It reminds me of two things we read in Carl Elliott’s Medical Consumerism class (about which you are all used to hearing me gush). In 2005, Joshua Foer wrote an article for Slate called “The Adderall Me: My Romance with ADHD Meds.� In it, Foer does a bit of journalistic-participation research, and takes Adderall

for a week. Citing brilliants who used stimulants with legendary results (W.H. Auden, Sartre, Kerouac, Philip K. Dick), he wonders what the drug will do for him. It’s Slate, so it’s not helpful when Foer doesn’t cite his suggestion that, “According to one recent study, as many as one in five college students have taken Adderall or its chemical cousin Ritalin as study buddies.� Nevertheless, the article is amusing, and while he tries to suggest that Adderall isn’t for him, he admits that he did save one pill to write the article itself.

The other piece is Elliott’s book _Better than Well_, which is a commentary on Americans’ use of enhancement technologies. His discussion of Adderall and stimulants focuses on what Peter Conrad calls the “Medicalization of Underperformace� (255).

“With a diagnosis of ADHD, adults can reinterpret past failures as the consequences of illness. “I used to beat myself up,� says former Nasdaq vice-president who has been divorced twice, recently quit his job, and came to understand that he had ADHD only when his children were diagnosed with the disorder. With the diagnosis of ADHD, he says, “I know this is not a personality flaw, I am not screwed up.� This is a typical narrative for adult ADHD sufferers. It allows them to shift responsibility for their underperformance for themselves to the illness. “I had 38 years of thinking I was a bad person,� says one adult ADHD sufferer. “Now I’m rewriting the tapes of who I thought I was to who I really am� (255).

Elliott openly discusses his own family background, growing up with an M.D. father, and within a seemingly supportive, laid-back southern culture. He argues that enhancements may stifle the abstractedness of creativity.

“…My point is that the very changes that some people might think of as unqualified enhancements (i.e., becoming more attentive and mindful) are not quite as unqualified as they may initially think; and that, moreover, these enhancements may well be changes critical to a person’s identity, a person’s sense of who he or she is. This need not be individual identity. It can also be family identity (Elliott abstractedness) or even cultural identity (southern amiability). The trait in question might even affect identity in ways that we do not appreciate, like, say, professional identity. I sometimes wonder whether it is an accident that of the three abstracted Elliott brothers, two have graduate degrees in philosophy and the other is a psychiatrist (258).

You also commented that your students were aware of the consequences of enhancement drugs. I am interested to know where this shared understanding originates. It does give support (even if also anecdotal) to increased enhancement drug use in students. I wonder if some of the “don’t share your pharmaceuticals� governmental discourse is involved.

Other thoughts?


Funny that while the NYT article focused on stimulants, the CHE thread quickly shifted to a discussion of beta blockers and antidepressants. The gulf between theory/practice, academic/corporate high flyers or faculty/students perhaps?

My guess is (and my slim anecdotal evidence supports this guess!) that drug use varies by discipline and department, i.e., by local and also by intellectual culture. Also, it probably only takes one user to quickly convert a non-using group into a using one...