The Isolated Academic

Shari Wilson considers why professors create so many barriers to interacting with others -- and the personal costs of such divides.

March 24, 2006

At 15, I was captivated by Stephen King. I read all of his works. When I finished, I stumbled on to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. That lasted me another few weeks. While my teenage friends smoked pot out by the bleachers, I hunkered down in my mother’s living room with a library book in front of me and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Hard Promises blasting.

I realize I am not normal.

In college, I tried film as a major. After I got tired of the work involved in editing, I fell into business classes. I kept telling myself it was "reasonable." That I’d get a good job. When I found I had to take a general education course in the liberal arts, I cursed the university system.

The idea of a broad-based education frustrated me. Why learn something that I wasn’t even going to use in real life? I finally signed up for a course that seemed less painful -- something that didn’t involve 18th century writers. And I found James Joyce. My world unfolded like a tulip in mid-morning sun. I had found my love. Words. Literature. Ideas in books. I had come home. Years later I wrote prose to send to literary magazines and taught composition. Something inside of me had settled in, finally content.

But the loneliness. Ah, the loneliness. I realize I have set myself up. Like many colleagues, my world has gradually formed boundaries that often leave me without companionship. But I don’t believe it is just the industry that ropes us in; it’s often what we bring to the lifestyle that limits our ability to cultivate a community for support.

Yes, the job is a world apart from others. Unlike my electrician friend, I don’t work from nine to five. Not even close. While he is wiring a storefront in a strip mall, I may be taking a nap. When he finishes and is ready to shower and go to dinner, I may be grading English composition papers on my coffee table. And when my girlfriend in architecture calls me at my office, I may be teaching a class. When I call a few hours later, she is at lunch. Friends and family have never been able to remember my odd schedule -- which changes every three months without fail. It’s exhausting.

And it’s not just the hours. My discipline creates a division, too. Yes, I feel at home in my department meeting. I even feel at home in the liberal arts building. When I traverse the campus to the health professions building to teach my afternoon class, I feel a bit like an interloper.

Passing a man with an attaché in the hall, I nod a teacher’s hello and walk confidently to my classroom. As I write on the board the day’s lesson, I wonder if he teaches something in the medical field since we have pre-med classes here. Or maybe something scientific. I realize that unless I throw myself in his path with an awkward introduction, I will never find out what this man is doing on campus. At the big meetings, faculty members are very friendly. Disciplines seem more permeable; small talk abounds. We feel as if we are meeting extended family for the first time. Deans move about making introductions. Yet the next week, there is no contact.

Yes, our choice of career makes us special. While talking to a science instructor at my university cafeteria, I realize that students at adjoining tables must think we are crazy. "Pegagogy" and "curriculum" may mean something to education majors; but to most, it’s a secret teacher language. I realize that I subscribe to the adult/child split when on campus -- that staff, administrators and faculty are of one kind; students are another.

I’m sure it seems unfair to some. And it also lends to a feeling of separateness that engulfs some instructors. A professor friend who teaches upper-level literature claims it's not that bad. He then admits that his students are older and more accomplished; at times they seem more like colleagues than students. But over the course of years, I've noticed that those who teach must keep some distance from those we teach. Faculty handbooks caution against close friendships or love relationships between students and instructors. Many professors find it
better to cultivate peers or those outside of academia for friendships.

And those who relocate for a position have another hurdle to overcome. Here in the Midwest, many of my colleagues are married. Others are more established. We who relocate for positions often find ourselves trying
to horn our way into circles of friends who have lasted for 10, 20 or 30 years. An ex-colleague of mine in Northern California confessed that she is going to approach an office mate and his wife and ask point blank if they’d be interested in cultivating something more than an acquaintanceship.

Another friend of mine who relocated from California to the Mid-Atlantic for a position said that she and her husband have never been more lonely. This is their third semester -- and she is already talking about the possibility of going "back home" -- if only to reestablish old friendships that feel as if they are fading over the
phone. It's heartbreaking to think of the effort that they've put into this move. Her new tenure-track position is the envy of all of our friends; he finally found a good corporate job. Their children are in good schools. And he was contemplating bringing out his father from a neighboring state. I’m hoping that in time their mid-sized city will
open up to this valuable couple. Yet I know from experience that smaller towns are tough. Even here in the Midwest, friendliness only goes so far. And then we outsiders sometimes feel locked out as locals discuss long bloodlines and who went to high school with whom.

And what about what we bring to our situation? Is it possible that we lonely academics have a hand in our own fate? How many of us have secretly felt superior to those around us simply because of our specialized knowledge? Is it easy to cultivate friendships when we have high expectations that simply cannot be met? And when we do start to form acquaintanceships, how many of us realize we are too afraid to take the next step? When I think about it from an objective point of view, I have to admit that like many academics, I’m socially awkward.

After decades with my head in books, I sometimes trip over my tongue and stand around looking foolish when more socially accomplished adults make contact. A girlfriend of mine on the East coast confessed that she
and her husband often find themselves talking to each other at faculty gatherings. He is painfully shy; she is in a specialty field that makes her feel cast out. Making friends -- especially in smaller towns -- can be difficult at best and painful at worst for the most accomplished academic.

The solution? I’ve found that I have to be willing to let my guard down and squelch "better than" thinking. Reaching out in more than one area has helped. Other professors who have relocated seem more approachable -- if only because they are suffering from loneliness, too. Staff are a possibility -- which has the added advantage of diminishing the “us vs. them” gap. Social service organizations and volunteer work can provide contacts outside of academia.

After eight months in an isolated middle-sized town in the Midwest, I finally have a few friends. Two women whom I met through a local nonprofit organization are now my closest friends. Not only do we volunteer together -- but we also meet for dinner every week and find time to sit in a coffee house until closing time. A fellow patient at my chiropractor’s clinic has invited me to church with her family. I often chat with an electrician who did some work for a colleague. I’ve been asked to an ice cream social with another instructor who relocated here for a position, too. And I keep in touch with a systems gal who moved into the private sector after working for my department.

Believe me -- it’s not easy for this academic. I’ve wanted to wait for others to approach me. I have sometimes retreated, afraid that I’ve been talking about things that bore people. I check that feeling of "different than" and focus on the similarities. And I do what I can not to expect too much too soon. I know that friendships often take time -- especially in communities where others are already established. Keeping in touch with several ex-colleagues across the nation helps me to feel connected, too. The good news is that the loneliness has abated. Ultimately I’ve had to work on my own skills and self-esteem in this venture to reach out. It’s paying off. Slowly.

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Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


Shari Wilson

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