Managing Isolation in Academe

The nature of our work can prevent us from building meaningful connections with other people, writes Stephen J. Aguilar, who provides strategies for dealing with the issue.

May 29, 2019
 
 
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Despite the fact that I have amazing colleagues and work at a vibrant institution, my first year in the academy as an assistant professor has been somewhat of an isolating experience. The nature of the work that many of us do requires us to be in our heads often, which can prevent us from interacting with other people in ways that build meaningful connections.

I enjoy what I do: living the life of the mind, as it were. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that one can become trapped in one’s mind. Sometimes, my mind is filled with life; other times it is a labyrinth of ideas and feelings that can lead to feeling cut off from others.

That didn’t seem to be the case when I was in graduate school. In those days, I was a part of a cohort of other students who were all on the same journey. We took classes together, found excuses to meet for coffee and often ran into each other in the common work area. Many of our milestones were predictable and shared. I didn’t necessarily get along with all of my fellow students, but it was nice knowing that I was a part of a community that celebrated and suffered together.

Nowadays my community is spread across the country. Our journeys, while similar in form, are distinct, as we are all navigating different institutional expectations and politics. Our work has also come into its own such that we all have various research priorities and projects that do not overlap. In short, the nature of my relationship with many of my peers has shifted to be more collegial in response to our new positions. This is a change from the shared vulnerability and friendship that can develop among students in the same program.

All that said, I do not find that I am unhappy in my situation. I am isolated, but I manage it in a way that does not leave me feeling alone. So if you are feeling somewhat isolated, here are a few strategies that might help you manage that feeling -- regardless of where you are in your career.

Find a hobby to grow into. Hobbies are important. They allow us to express ourselves along dimensions that are not tied to work. I build, paint and play with war-game miniatures. I chose the hobby for very specific reasons. First, I am a nerd, and mini painting is a nerdy hobby with rich narrative elements that I can explore. More important, however, it was a hobby I knew I could grow into. When I started the hobby, I didn’t know the first thing about building small models, let alone painting them so they looked good on the table. That is why the hobby was ideal for me: I could grow into it.

As academics, many of us are always aspiring to learn and become better than we are at whatever we happen to be working on. Our training pushes us to find the boundaries of our disciplines and extend them. Rather than curb that tendency in my life outside of work, I’ve tried to channel it into my hobby. What can I build or paint today that is just a little bit better than it was yesterday or last week?

When I need a break from work, I learn more about my hobby, such as different painting techniques, how to modify models to look different and so on. That enables me to connect with the creative dimension of myself.

My hobby has especially helped with feelings of isolation because I have found a community -- both online and in person -- to work with. Having such a community has at least two benefits. First, I get to build relationships with those outside my campus, which I would argue is important -- being stuck in the campus bubble can create problems. Second, interacting with others who are interested in the same eclectic things I am is fun and interesting, and it lets me flex social muscles that would otherwise atrophy.

Schedule time with others. Just as parents often schedule playdates for their children, you need to schedule coffees and lunches with other people for yourself. Interacting with others is important and gives you a much-needed distraction from work.

With that in mind, I recommend that you identify a few colleagues in and out of your field to have lunch or coffee with on occasion. Find people who do not constantly talk shop, since having lunch to talk about work is essentially having a meeting proximal to food. Avoid that if you can, as lunches and coffees should be about getting to know the side of folks that are not written on their CVs or syllabi. (Of course, talking about work a little bit is fine, but you don’t want the entire interaction to be about work.)

This approach requires a bit of effort and some planning. Most people have schedules that limit how often they can meet socially with others, so you’ll probably need patience when trying to schedule such events. Recognize that some people either do not want to have lunch of coffee with you or, alternatively, are simply too disorganized to schedule such meetings. I find the former rare and the latter more common, but both have the same result of increasing rather than decreasing isolation. So be persistent, as appropriate -- you’ll find it worth the effort.

Use social media (wisely). Social media often gets a bad rap, and for good reasons. Sometimes it can actually increase feelings of isolation, especially if you are a passive user (or lurker) and do not engage with the communities or people you’ve chosen to follow.

The solution is simple: don’t be a passive user -- engage with others. If you are on Reddit and have subscribed to a subreddit focused on your new hobby, post to it on occasion and respond to questions. If you are on Twitter, reply to tweets or find other ways to engage with people. Don’t just tweet and assume that someone will care.

In fact, Twitter has been a great place for me to read and celebrate with others who are at my career stage, and often very real and rewarding conversations can occur via direct messages. Many of these relationships can also grow over time and in person. During your conference season, for example, you will also probably run into a few of your Twitter acquaintances, which is generally a rewarding experience.

Being isolated seems common in academe, and it can also lead to feeling lonely. Since our work requires a lot of thinking, it behooves us to do what we can to preserve our inner self yet at the same time reach out to others, so the life of the mind is an enjoyable one.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.

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