I was recently talking with a colleague from another campus of my university about older male professors, those who have retired but who still hang around for various reasons. I said (mostly tongue in cheek), that we have two kinds of male emeriti on our campus: curmudgeonly (whom I adore) and creepy (not so much). At the same time, despite their, um, quirkly personalities, these men seem to still have many connections and friends. It made me think about the career trajectories of women faculty--and then I stumbled across a series of blog posts about women's lives as faculty members, and I realized once again how different our experience is from that of male faculty.
I wrote a couple years back about how some faculty, and especially women faculty, struggle with depression. (Fun fact: my blog ranks number one in Google for the phrase "depression in academia," and it's one of my blog's top keyword phrases.) Academia and depression are a nasty feedback loop, a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Are people drawn to graduate school and faculty work likely to be depressive, or do grad school, adjuncting, and the tenure track make us depressed? I sense it's a bit of both.
Making things worse is a deep-felt sense of loneliness. I did my first two stints in grad school alone, sans really close friends. And it was rough. (On the positive side, it made for some good poetry for my creative writing degree--solitude lends itself to self-reflection and lots of time for writing.) I was fortunate to have a partner to support me through my final, successful stab at the Ph.D.--but many people aren't so lucky. And even those who do have partners may still feel isolated from friends and family.
Recently New Kid on the Hallway threw herself a self-described"pity party" because she realized it had been too long since she'd had any summer fun:
But if I'm completely honest with myself, one of the problems is not so much summer, but missing having a group of friends with which to do any of these summery things. I recently read a blogger talking about having friends over to her new house, grilling in the backyard and just hanging out on the deck in the warmth of an evening. And I was so envious that I could hardly stand it. I have all sorts of wonderful friends. But none of them are HERE.
Meanwhile, Hilaire of clashing hats recently had a scary medical situation--she thought she was having a stroke--and came to the realization that she lacks a local support structure:
I feel better now - still some pain and sensitivity, but it's pretty minor.
What I didn't like (well, who am I kidding, I didn't like any of it) was the feeling that the people I wanted to talk to and have there with me were so very, very far away. The one friend here that I really would have liked to call was away. My downstairs neighbour, with whom I've been becoming friendly, wasn't answering her door. It just sucked to be so scared and to feel alone. Yeah, I should have thought of migraine, but I didn't. So I was scared.
The work environment in academia rewards time spent alone on research and writing, which can contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation. The remedy? Try to be collegial. But be careful. If you think all universities are places where bright, mature people engage in vigorous, open-minded intellectual discussions and treat one another equitably and with respect, you have another think coming. Historiann writes about workplace bullying at her former university, how it escalated, and how it cascaded through her department:
People were filled with ressentiment about the way they were treated, and most of them either became bullies or apologists, explaining that “don’t worry, you’ll still be tenured. That’s just the way we do things. Everyone goes through it, so you’ll just have to suck it up.” There were a few good people who tried to make changes–but they have been easily defeated by the others. Those who were my friends and allies were valiant in their optimism and their commitment to change, but in the meantime, what a life: stomping out flaming bags of poop that someone else is leaving on yet someone else’s doorstep.
Go read the post for some insights on women and the tenure process and how academic bullying might be stopped.
But there is hope for the patient, long-suffering, and slightly extroverted. After reading Hilaire's post, Bardiac reflected that after many years of feeling isolated, she has finally established a circle of acquaintances and friends in her town:
I was thinking about that and Hilaire, and realized that if something happened to me here, now, I actually do have a community to call on. And I'm glad to have realized that. Even if what I need is only a gardening consult, I have friends to call on. It's a really comfortable thing to realize, after feeling sort of alienated in this community.
I, too, have been fortunate to establish a small network of good friends who I can call on in an emergency--and I hope they feel they can call on me, though I suspect (OK, know) they're far better ensconced in the community than I am (having school-age children gives them an advantage). But this network is transient in many ways--my friends who are grad students are on their way to graduation and (I hope!) good jobs far from here, while early- to mid-career faculty members feel the need to stretch their wings and move on. Of course, people in many professions have this experience of losing friends and comrades to bigger and better things, but there's something about the cycles of academic life that can make it feel especially keen--particularly if you feel you're being left behind.
Do you feel lonely? If so, how do you cope with loneliness?