The “single woman in a rural college town” blues

I still read the Chronicle of Higher Education from time to time, and a few days ago there was an article about the loneliness of the single woman academic stuck in a tiny town where everyone in her social circle is married. The pseudonymous Sara Bradshaw (is that an homage to Sex and the City‘s Carrie Bradshaw?) finds herself caught between a lack of social interaction outside the university and a lack of socializing within her department:

Rural Town … lacked theaters, museums, interesting lectures on politics, walking tours, good cafes, and even good bookstores in which I could while away a lazy Saturday. In place of those, the town offered only an eerie silence. I couldn’t even find a good nonacademic book group. I had never really understood how isolated certain parts of the country can be until I lived in one of them.

When I was not in the classroom, the silence became deafening and I became clinically depressed. I love to read and I love solitude, but like everyone, I need some social interaction.

My colleagues, on the other hand, often worked at home, and when they came into the department, they shut their doors and hibernated. Having spouses and families at home, they had no need to create social relationships at work. I found myself drifting with my only interaction being with my students or a clerk in the grocery store.

Sara M. Bradshaw, "The Bachelorette in Academia"*

Quite. And I think a lot of single female academics and post-academics** could tell a similar story. Consider wolfangel’s latest post, for instance. I think there’s a tendency among academics to assume that one’s job is supposed to compensate for any loneliness that comes along with it; that the life of the mind is the life of the disembodied intellect, as a friend of mine once put it. The article is being discussed both in the Chronicle forums, where a few readers initially responded along the lines of "She left academia because she couldn’t get a date? How lame!" But they’re outnumbered by the other readers who comment that they’ve found small-town academia lonely too.

At LISNews, several commenters were off-put by the conclusion, in which Sara Bradshaw asks her librarian friend Emily, "But you are so bright and you have such a passion for history, why did you ever drop out of graduate school?" Which is indeed irksome in several ways. But Emily gets the last word. She cites the lack of an "office culture" in academia as one of the reasons for her career change. Bradshaw has a startled moment of realization: "Librarians are more socially outgoing than academics?"

Now that I’ve been amongst librarians for a while, I can say that the answer to that question is yes. There are reclusive people and outgoing people in every profession, but, like Emily, I’m finding that I greatly prefer office culture to the lone-wolf researcher culture. And pretty much every librarian I’ve met so far has been welcoming and friendly. (Yes, I know, I’ve only been doing this for six months, and there were friendly people when I was in grad school too, but the difference between the cultures is nonetheless pronounced.)

I don’t know what can be done about the loneliness, though. I suspect the problem is larger than academia, that it’s not just about how there are always lonely people, that it ties in with the overwork and lack of community that Laura at 11D writes about when she calls for "a social revolution … with more men and women downsizing their lives and reinvigorating community life." I want to see that happen too.

* One small peeve related to the title of the Chronicle article: I can’t stand the word "bachelorette." I think it’s much cooler for single women to appropriate "bachelor," a la Greta Garbo proclaiming "I shall die a bachelor!" in Queen Christina (mmm. Garbo. Cross-dressing seventeenth-century style. Mmm.), without the cutesy diminutive tacked on the end. It would be nice to reclaim "spinster" from all that baggage attached to it, too. There just aren’t enough non-insulting terms for single women: "singleton" is too Bridget Jones-ish, and "quirkyalone" isn’t in wide enough circulation to be used without puzzling the hearer.

** Question for single male academics who happen to be reading this: is it the same for you?

4 Responses to “The “single woman in a rural college town” blues”

  1. bitchphd says:

    I’m married with a kid, and yet I find that my experience of academe is the same. I, too, am lonely and feel isolated. What you say about office culture is really encouraging, b/c I’m thinking of leaving, and one of the things I’m hoping for is that office culture–the one pre-grad school job I had was lame, but talking and hanging out with the people in the office was cool. It always seems to me that the secretaries in my department are the best people to talk to, in part because they do talk.

  2. timna says:

    Seems to depend on the department and on the colleagues. I’m finding good friends among the ws folks even though I’ve been adjuncting for years in English. However, our social life is the Israeli post-doc/phd/fellowship/sabbatical folk, just as it was in grad school. I imagine that others have communities linked to their interests (yoga? biking? church? habitat for humanity) whatever? I’m really not sure.

  3. Rana says:

    I agree with timna — it does depend on the department.
    I would be wary of glorifying the friendliness of “office culture,” btw. I get along quite well with most of the people here, and we laugh and tease each other a lot — but only at work. A few people are friends outside the office too, but most of us go home at the end of the day and have nothing to do with each other until the next work day.
    I compare this to my experiences with various academic departments, and I’d say that I found the social dynamics there far more satisfying. We had more things in common, there were more people my age who weren’t already married parents, and the idea of moving hallway socializing off-campus appealed to many of them. The one exception was my quasi-adjunct job in a major metropolitan area, where most of the people ignored me during the day, so their ignoring me after hours wasn’t surprising. By contrast, the best social environment was in a small town, where faculty went out of their way to forge personal connections off-campus as well as on.
    I’ve never been very good at using activities as springboards for friendships – I envy those who can manage it.

  4. My thinking has always been that if you sacrifice everything to your job, then you should not be surprised if you end up at 55 or 65, alone in a house with only a cat and nobody calling you.
    Read the rest at: