Academic work is lonely work for the most part. We spend large portions of our days in isolation from others, sometimes writing, sometimes reading, sometimes preparing lectures, and sometimes analyzing our data. Compulsory working from home has made us even more lonely. When I go into the office, at least I see colleagues as I walk down the hall to the print room. Even if they say nothing to me, I’m happy just to see them smile. But day in and day out, we spend most of our time by ourselves.
Of course, some parts of our work force us to be social, even against our better nature. We have to collaborate with other researchers. We have to attend faculty meetings. We have to give lectures to our students. Notice the phrase “have to” in the preceding sentences. I would venture to bet that most academics are more comfortable working alone. Introverts self-select into academia and we force ourselves to be extraverted only when necessary.
Alone time is important for any scholar. We need this time to get lost in our thoughts because that’s when real breakthroughs happen. I take a daily walk by myself so that I can critically appraise my morning work and prepare for my afternoon work. The more remote the setting for my walk, the clearer my thinking becomes. When no one is around, I sometimes talk to myself (and I hope I’m not the only one to admit to this practice!). I try to converse empathetically with myself about what I’m working on at any given moment.
And yet, the loneliness can also be crushing. I’m not sure if this is idiosyncratic to academia. Overall, there has been a recent paradigm shift in society away from relationship quality and toward relationship quantity. When I was a boy—before social media—I had very few friends, but the friends I had were like brothers to me. Today, I have thousands of “friends” on my social media platforms, but I’m only close to a handful of them.
“The loneliness can also be crushing. I’m not sure if this is idiosyncratic to academia. Overall, there has been a recent paradigm shift in society away from relationship quality and toward relationship quantity.”
I am active on #AcademicTwitter and have almost 19,000 followers, mostly academics. Every time I post something (such as this article), I have recurring anxiety over the number of “likes” and “retweets” I get, as though this were some kind of quality indicator. Inevitably, I receive far fewer “likes” than I’d hoped or expected, which only reinforces the loneliness I feel.
Some of you will argue that, because academics are largely introverts, we prefer loneliness. That’s not entirely correct. Even introverts value social relationships, but we are more comfortable in small groups and intimate settings.
Loneliness is, unfortunately, a bridge leading towards depression, desperation, and despair. I know this to be all too true. I recently lost a loved one to loneliness and promised myself I would never follow in her footsteps. Loneliness literally kills. I think we can all take steps to combat loneliness in academia simply by reaching out to a friend or colleague to say hello. Just don’t do it via social media.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 license.