I’m a little over a semester in with studying for my exams; though in some ways, this is the first semester I’m really digging my heels in and getting this reading and studying done, as last semester was necessarily preoccupied with various “life things” as well as with TAing one course and auditing another. I did some reading, of course, but it was the filler to the other, more pressing, things—just a book here, another book there, etc…
This semester though, exam studying is the main fare. I’m not TAing anything, I’m not auditing anything. I’m not even working at the library (while many folks might see a library desk job as useful for, as opposed to as a distraction from, studying, this is not the case for me—my ADHD brain was just too distracted by the various stimuli of co-workers and library patrons and buzzfeed articles…). My job for the semester is simply: READ.
Going from constantly interacting with folks in coursework, where conversing with others about readings and ideas is a necessary part of the work, to doing my own thing, the same thing, mostly alone, pretty much every day has been….an adjustment. And for me, that adjustment has been pretty lonely. It’s not that I’ve become a total hermit or anything—I hang out with friends regularly, travel often, workout at the gym, etcetera, etcetera. I even do most of my reading and writing from various bars or coffee shops (ok, so, at one coffee shop, JJ’s, though I have also started going to another shop closer to home on occasion too!). Nevertheless, the fact that my job is quite a solitary task, despite the buffers I’ve put in place via extracurriculars and locales, results in me being pretty lonely at times.
This, it seems, is quite a common theme in the academy, pervasive even, especially when folks have recently transitioned from coursework to exam prep. A number of academic blogs and sites have noted this reality, offering different explanations, solutions, coping strategies, etc… Folks have even done studies on loneliness in grad school and coping with it!
While loneliness seems as inevitable in graduate school as being broke or being stressed does, it seems like the isolation happens in different ways, and different folks are more susceptible to it. This excellent blog offered a great typology on the various types of isolation experienced by graduate students. Here, I want to both build on her analysis, as well as, given the nature of this blog and of my field of study, briefly reflect theologically on it—or, at least, propose some theological lenses through which to examine loneliness. These are all merely “thoughts”—being in the midst of it at the moment, I certainly don’t have any answers, though I also suppose this is the type of things where answers aren’t exactly to be had. All of that to say, I most certainly welcome—encourage—feedback from anyone with similar experiences: what could thinking about this theologically offer? How could/has theological discourse contributed to the emotion itself? And practically speaking, what has worked for y’all? How did you not just survive, but perhaps even thrive, in the midst of a pretty isolating time in your academic career? In short, please humor me and don’t treat this blog post as something to just read, but instead, view it as an open thread of sorts, for brainstorming, wisdom-sharing, community, etc… I’ve also decided to split this up into two posts—the first reflecting on some factors contributing to loneliness, and the second blog offering some theological reflections.
With that out there, here are a few of my own inchoate thoughts—to hopefully just start the conversation….!
Some potential who’s and why’s of loneliness in the academy:
Ok, on the one hand, in thinking through the why of loneliness, or perhaps, the who of loneliness… Again, it seems like a common experience for many of us, but some factors seem to make the transition more difficult (I’m speaking here about the experience of grad school and specifically the transition from the more social time of coursework to the more solitary time of exams and dissertation writing, because that is my own experience/foray into this theme, but I think this conversation could of course extend to/be in conversation with other contexts…). This list is of course by no means exhaustive (more just a way, again, to start a conversation), but some things that stand out to me—either through my own experiences, through doing research on this, through conversation, etc… [i]
– Outsider status
- Minorities- This one is obvious, I think. I mean, if the majority of folks in your program or field are white and you are a person of color, that’s probably going to be pretty isolating (I say probably, of course, because, well, I’m white). If the majority of folks in your field are men and you’re a woman, that too can be isolating (this one, I have experienced). Same can likely be said about sexuality, ability, age, etc…
- Program outlier – This one seems more community specific, where one is simply at the mercy of the particularities of their program. Maybe the program has a great deal of young married folks, and you’re an older single person, or perhaps it’s the opposite, etc…
- Disciplinary outsider – Finally, one other way outsider status seems to manifest itself is within the broader field/discipline. While there is a lot of breadth here, and there are niches out there for even the most unique of interests, it seems like some folks have it harder in this respect—i..e if one of the big trends in theological studies is, say, Barth, and you’re doing work on Tillich; or if an emphasis on history of doctrine is the focus of the field and you’re far more into social history and context… Obviously, there are like minded people, but it is nevertheless likely isolating at times.
– Broader communities/social support
- In addition to outsider status as it might manifest itself within the academy itself, it seems like having good social support on the “outside” is a huge factor in resisting isolation. This too can of course be influenced by a number of factors, but some that stand out to me are class and ‘family.’ If you come from a lower class/socio-economic status, where you’re perhaps a first-generation college graduate, let alone the first in your family to go to graduate school, this could make it hard to feel understood or supported at times. Also, family more broadly seems to be a factor here. Are you close with your family of origin? Are they supportive? Do you have your own family to come home to, to support you? Or are you single?[ii]
– The Individual/Inner life
- Personality- This seems to me to be one of the most overlooked contributors to loneliness… Which isn’t to say it matters more or as much as some of the other possible reasons for loneliness in the academy, simply that these factors aren’t as frequently considered. In terms of personality, one of the big factors that stands out to me is extroversion. If one is more extroverted and has somehow embarked on a career in the academy, it may be more difficult or isolating for them. I’ve definitely discovered that this is the case for me. I think there are a lot of people in the academy who are introverts, who get their energy from being alone, and who have no problem going days without hanging out with people. I used to think I was one of those people, and took pride in my introversion. I think in hindsight, I am far more extroverted than I let myself believe. I mean, I’m not crazy extroverted—I would far rather hang out with a small handful of good friends than with a cadre of acquaintances, and I do crave alone time occasionally (like after AAR!), but who doesn’t? I think I tried to be/believed myself to be introverted for so long in large part because 1) I’ve enjoyed school, and books, and that just seemed like it meant introvert. 2) While I’ve gotten a little better at this, I can be kinda shy and awkward (I’ve gotten better at the shy part, not necessarily the awkward part, ha), and while I know that how outgoing or shy one is isn’t the same as where one gets their energy, it nevertheless can seem that way sometime—largely because dealing with social anxiety can be exhausting! And finally, 3) full disclosure here… for many reasons, perhaps because so many people in the academy are introverted, I’ve often associated introversion with being “cool” and with being intelligent. I may be wrong, but I’d be surprised if I was alone in this. I think part of this is a broader personal as well as cultural thing—it’s way easier, and even less scary, to not really “need” people for our own success and thriving, and it at times seem like the people who are comfortable and content with lots of alone time are just more adjusted people, more comfortable in their own skin. I think there can be something to this (which I talk about in the next sub-category), but I also think that in the academy, we privilege introversion, sometimes understandably so, but often to the detriment of those of us who might be more extroverted. (Interestingly, I think this is the exact opposite of some other professions and communities—for example, pastors are expected to be extroverted, and those who aren’t may actually experience more loneliness. Much has also been written about introverts in society in general, which is also understandable, though I also find it hilarious that the people who share said posts, at least in my facebook world, tend to be academics.)
- Mental “Health” – I’ve grouped personality and mental “health” together under the “individual” because I think that these overlap in some ways, which isn’t to say ones personality is dictated or delimited by mental health, etc… I put health in scare quotes for precisely this reason, as I am just trying to speak to ways that our inner lives play a role in our experiences of loneliness, and mean health in quite broad terms here. I think I am connecting mental health (I’m going to stop with the scare quotes now, I think y’all get the idea) with personality in part because of the extroversion/introversion thing. While there are assuredly times where people not wanting to be around other people can mean and signal mental health matters (most notably depression), it seems like there is a weird line (ok, multiple lines, really) between one needing to be around others (or conversely, alone) because of their personality, or one needing company because of a need for validation or because of a fear of reflection or dealing with some stuff in their lives, etc.. I also think self-esteem is a factor in experiencing loneliness as well—whether those self-esteem issues are determined by various contextual factors (being a minority or a disciplinary outsider, etc…), by one’s own history/experiences, or by something like depression or anxiety, etc.. All to say, I think feeling lonely might be at least somewhat concomitant with feeling inadequate—I’m thinking about the oft-mentioned “imposter syndrome” here. Finally, I think things like ADHD or other learning disabilities might also factor in here. Being someone who has ADHD, I’ve discovered that I actually need external stimuli at times to be able to focus, or else my brain decides to wander off in its own directions (this is a pretty common phenomenon for many with ADHD). All that to say, for me, when I don’t have the “distractions” or “noise” of company or of impending deadlines and juggling different tasks, but am tasked with the solitary task of focusing simply on reading a lot of books, many of which can be a bit… boring… it can feel isolating.
As I note in an endnote at the beginning of this inchoate attempt at typologizing causes of loneliness in the academy, this is just a heuristic, and of course does not span everything or even begin to capture experiences. Not only are there likely many other “causes” of loneliness that I’m missing, some of these experiences may not be sources of loneliness for some. Rather, this is just an attempt to try to think through somewhat categorically about the phenomenon that myself and many others experience, in different ways and to different degrees.
Relatedly, this post is not exactly theological, which, considering this is a theology blog, may prove irksome or superfluous to some. In “part 2,” I’ll raise some theological questions and throw out some reflections. Many of us who do theology tend to get into the work because of particular communities we care about or situations we find ourselves in. Considering that the theological academy is one of the main communities I am a part of at this point, and that this was something I’ve been experiencing, and that apparently at least some other folks experience, it struck me as something worthy of some theological reflection. And as one of my theological presuppositions is that context matters, I wanted to take some time to think contextually and descriptively about said phenomenon.
What do others think? Have others experienced loneliness in the academy? Are there any categories/factors I haven’t thought about? Ways in which my heuristic is problematic?
[i] While I had a bit of fun with this attempt at categorizing factors that contribute to loneliness in the academy, this list is of course in no way exhaustive, nor is it even optimally organized, as many of these factors intersect and overlap in various ways.
[ii] It seems like this also connects with minority status stuff, and dealing with the pressures of graduate school more broadly. For instance, while there has been some research that has shown that having a spouse makes it easier to get through graduate school, this research has also suggested that it makes it far more easier for men than it does for women, especially if children are a part of the picture….