All the Single Academics

October 5, 2011
By | 9 Comments

I’m glad that Antenna is starting a work-life column series, and I’m excited about what this series can do to help us understand the personal and professional joys and struggles that academics who inhabit different identities and have different lifestyles face. I’m especially hopeful that these columns can help demolish some stereotypes and assumptions we hold about how easy or hard other academics have it. I’ve already learned from Jason Mittell more about what my colleagues with children face as they navigate academic life.

This piece attempts to synthesize my own personal experiences with stories from colleagues who will remain anonymous. It is not meant to be, nor should it be taken, as an autobiographical account of my experience, but rather as a set of anecdotes that challenge the stereotypes that single academics can write all the time (or any time we want), are free from family responsibility, and somehow have it “easier” than other academics.

When you’re on the job market, you worry a lot about where you’ll end up. You don’t want to be the only single person in the village, and you’re afraid that even if you end up loving your job in a small town that you’ll feel personally trapped (or at the least that you chose your professional life over your personal life). And if you’re single and LGBT, you worry about being the only “gay in the village.”

When you move to a job in a new town, you move alone. Sure, you have friends that will help you put items in your ABF Relocube or moving van and hopefully someone to help you move things into your new place of residence, but when all is said and done, you are alone. If you live alone, and chances are you will at least for your first year in a new town, you’ll come home to an empty apartment, which can be sometimes be really eerie, haunting, and depressing after a really long day at your university.

Achieving a work-life balance is hard. It’s easy to become a workaholic if there’s no one to force you not to be one.

I know that married couples, partners, and roommates frequently divide chores, but there’s just you, so you are responsible for cleaning, cooking, doing the dishes, boxing lunch, finishing that lesson plan, answering those student emails, and polishing up that journal article that you’ve been meaning to send out. Maybe that’s why there are dust bunnies in the corner of my living room that are starting to look like life-size rabbits.

Single academics have to create support systems from scratch every time they relocate. Establishing a new community of friends and a social network in your town becomes a full-time job, especially if you are lucky enough to be in a tenure track or tenured position. You are in the process of making a life and a home, and while you know you’ll be happiest if you adjust to your new surroundings quickly, making your new town home can seem an arduous process.  You may feel that you have to accept every invitation to dinner, drinks, parties, picnics, and the movies in your first year in a new town. It’s okay to say no because you’re too busy. It’s also okay to say no because you’ve crafted a night in the week where you don’t work and you don’t worry; you just sit in front of the television watching Netflix while eating pizza.

Your personal life may be largely invisible to your colleagues. I know single academics who are the primary caregivers for parents, siblings, or close relatives who live hundreds of miles away, or who have deep ties, duties, and commitments to people who are not visible like partners and children when teaching schedules, committee assignments, and other departmental duties are divided up. It can be harder to speak up for yourself when the reasons behind particular schedule requests or needs are not visible on the left ring finger or pictures on your office desk.

There are other scenarios I could share, but I’d like Antenna’s readers to chime in with their stories. I don’t think anyone has it “easy,” and I think this series can show us how we have it “hard” in different ways so that we can be more savvy and sympathetic colleagues.


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9 Responses to “ All the Single Academics ”

  1. Elana Levine on October 5, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    Thanks for writing this, Ben. Reminds me of various posts by “Dr. Crazy” at Reassigned Time, like this one: I hate the term “work-life balance” but I like that you’ve included these voices/perspectives into the discussion of it.

  2. Anne Helen Petersen on October 5, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Thanks for this, Ben. I very much experienced the “single in the village” phenomenon when I was a Visiting Prof. at Whitman, where the vast majority of the faculty were older than me and the rest of the city’s population were younger than me. I was in a “no man’s land” — too old to be a student, too young to be considered part of the faculty circle. As a result, my friend group mostly consisted of coaches, which meant that I didn’t have an academic peer group with which to vent frustrations, confusion, etc. For broader problems (syllabus questions, looking for articles, etc.) I had the media studies Twitter feed, which provided a much-needed lifeline. I was only in Walla Walla for the semester, but as I prepared to return to Austin to finish my dissertation, I found myself wondering what I’d need in order to be happy, long-term, in such an isolated academic community: did I *need* to have a partner? Did I need to just get older?

  3. amanda on October 5, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    I’m grateful for this series, not just as a way to understand how other colleagues in my situation (parent of 2 young children) juggle the responsibilities of their personal and professional lives, but also to remind me of the struggles faced by colleagues who are in very different situations from my own. I think it is easy for working parents to idealize the lives of their child-free colleagues (“They can write ALL THE TIME!”). I sometimes forget just how busy I was prior to the birth of my children (I did NOT have time to write “all the time”) and it is good to be reminded of this. I also think that some of my colleagues feel guilty when they complain about being tired, overworked, or pressed for time. One of my colleagues (who has a demanding leadership role in my department) will often make comments like “I’m just so busy…well…not as busy as you, of course…” But she is just as busy as I am! Anyway, glad to hear this perspective…

  4. sophylou on October 5, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    THANK you. This really needs to be said, and said more often. The starting over when you move, and for me, the sense of there being no one who knows you at all in the new environment, is often overwhelming (and it doesn’t get any easier if you have to relocate several times). Can feel even more difficult if you land in an uncollegial/unfriendly workplace and are far from friends/family.

  5. Jason Mittell on October 5, 2011 at 2:04 PM

    Great piece, and definitely it’s important for us all to make our various situations visible to provide context for the choices we make – and hopefully avoid the perennial “who’s more stressed?” game.

    I’d add that from the perspective of teaching at a small, rural college, there’s a general worry when hiring single faculty that they’ll want to leave if they can’t find a local partner, a concern based on the flawed assumption that partnering is everybody’s goal (balanced by the concern that partnered faculty will face problems finding employment for their “trailing spouse”). I know many single faculty who choose a long commute to nearby cities rather than being the “single in the [literal] village,” which further isolates them from the campus community (although that can have its advantages, of course!) and adds additional stresses and costs to daily life.

    And as a side note, I hope Antenna’s got someone on tap to write about the long-distance relationship situation that many faculty & grad students find themselves in. (If not, let me know as I know somebody who might be interested in writing about that…)

  6. Randy Nichols on October 6, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    This is a great piece, and I hope it will be expanded on, particularly to talk about the economic realities that can come with being both a single and a junior faculty member. One of the things that I’ve struggled with across universities stems from what sometimes seems a lack of understanding about the financial cost that is becoming increasingly the norm. I’m excited to see that the discussion’s been opened up.

  7. Hannah on October 6, 2011 at 8:15 PM

    Ben, I deeply appreciate you writing and posting this true and thoughtful piece.

    The isolation that comes with relocating solo to a small place with no other single people can also be really exacerbated by a big time difference (in my case this is 11-13 hours depending on the time of year) that makes it harder to stay meaningfully connected to people from your old life. That “eerie, haunting and depressing” feeling when you step into your empty place can’t be assuaged by a quick Skype conversation with a friendly face as it will be five, six, seven hours before anyone you know is even awake, and even then breakfast time is not traditionally the most conducive to a leisurely catch-up.

    Also, your point about the invisibility to others of ties that are not manifest on your finger or framed on your desk is very well made. I find it difficult to bite my lip as I am dismissively referred to as having “no family” as if I were a Dickensian orphan, or a misanthrope. I have a family. I love them and I miss them, and living and working on the other side of the world from them is challenging.

    Creating a support system from scratch is not only arduous, but can be a very slow and very gradual process and in the early stages it can be difficult to read people’s signals as, obviously, you don’t yet know anyone well enough. So, when early attempts to connect with colleagues (“Do you want to go for a quick coffee/drink?”) are rebuffed (“Oh no, I can’t – I’m busy with [insert one of several things that you as the “only single person in the village” would never be doing]”) it is all too easy not to try again. When people are up front with you about their time constraints and personal life commitments, you don’t want to push it, as you think they might be trying to convey that they don’t have space in their lives for any new friends from their pool of colleagues. So it is tempting to give in to that, and just stop asking, in the hope that when they have the time, they will ask you. Sometimes they do. But often they don’t. The reality is that incumbents with well established networks of their own have a lot less at stake in pursuing a connection with you than you do in pursuing a connection with them. As a new arrival with nobody around you, the onus is on you to take the initial steps if the people you meet in your new place, for whatever reason, are not forthcoming with friendly gestures. And that’s not easy.

  8. ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education on October 7, 2011 at 2:02 PM

    […] often hear about the work-life issues of parents. Ben Aslinger sticks up for the single academics: When you move to a job in a new town, you move alone. Sure, you have friends that will help you […]

  9. Suzanne Leonard on October 11, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    Apologies that I am coming a bit late to this party (or night in the front of the tv with Netflix and pizza, which I am pretty sure Ben took straight from me!)

    I wanted to pick up on Randy’s point about the economics of moving as a single person, particularly the fact that we generally move into apartments, not houses. There’s something of generational divide I see in my own experience, wherein the seasoned members of my department, whose salaries once supported home purchases in what is now an outlandishly priced area, can and do continue to host graduate students and even the occasional undergraduate event in their homes. And, in turn, they are responsible for the lion’s share of the work associated with such events. Not to groan too much (I happily leave my apartment and show up at such soirees with a salad) but I remember these events quite fondly from the time I was a graduate student. I wonder if the economic realities for professors are in turn, changing the roles that we serve with respect to our students? Is the faculty/student house party a ritual that will soon be obsolete? Should it be?