Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Academic loneliness

I went out for a goodbye drink with a friend who's moving away to start a new job. She told me some distressing news. A former colleague in my PhD program has committed suicide. She wasn't someone I knew, really. She was a few years ahead of me in this program in which I was never very social, but I knew her to see her. I knew her, also, from her posts on the program's email list, which I am still on although I'm done with it- as was she even several years after she'd finished. She posted quite recently, in the same characteristic, quirky voice she had always used.

I have been told via a faculty source close to her that what drove her to end her life was her inability to find a job. She had been an adjunct at two universities for several years, trying to cobble together a living in an increasingly expensive city. Sometimes she would post to the email list on this topic - her posts conveyed deep disappointment, sometimes fury.

If it is true that her job situation led her to kill herself, then it is a terrifying measure of the psychic costs of the current academic job situation. I think sometimes we trivialize this, and this serves as a reminder of how the current model can have devastating consequences.

What strikes me even more than that, though, is the thought of this person's loneliness. She was quirky, odd. She wasn't ostracized or disparaged - just gently giggled about from time to time. But what is quite clear in retrospect is that she didn't have much of a community in academia. Not the way most others do.

As my friend pointed out, academia has its fair share of socially awkward people, and also its own social hierarchies - in which, sometimes, the awkward don't easily find a place. This death is a harsh reminder not to let those people become invisible.

7 comments:

MaggieMay said...

What a moving post. I was thinking about something like this the other day: are there "cliques" in graduate school (like there were in high school)? What about once you get a job? I was leaning toward saying "there are no more cliques", but your post makes me remember there are still invisible people, or awkward people, who often don't have much support. Good reminder for me, definitely.

lucyrain said...

So very sad, H. And ditto, Mags. A good reminder, indeed.

medieval woman said...

Oh god, this is horrible. I'm so sorry that you got that news and that she felt so lonely and despondent. If your faculty source is correct about her inability to find a job being the main reason she committed suicide, it shows how a subject that is seen as everything from a snide joke (to some) to a scary urban legend (to most) can have very serious consequences. I think that you and Maggie May are right about how it also stems from the loneliness of academia. Sadly, there are still cliques in grad school and beyond - indeed, some of the nastiest cliques I've come across have been new profs - a couple of years into their tenture-track positions who need to shed the grad school humility that most of us have and "make a name for themselves" - that often involves ignoring or being dismissive of the "peons".

I know I sound bitter and I don't mean to - I also know lots of new t-t profs (many of them my close friends) who are delightful, encouraging, lovely people. I just spoke to my best friend about this yesterday - she got a wonderful t-t position her first time out on the market - but she's feeling very down right now because, at a recent conference we attended, one of our old profs (a younger, up and coming star in our field) was very snarky and dismissive and was continuing an old habit of playing obvious favorites with certain students. Although this didn't effect me as much (I was never part of this prof's inner circle), it really effected my friend. Academia and its tendency toward cliquishness are hard for even the superstars to negotiate (I'm convinced that a lot of the nastiness of certain people stems from their own insecurity...of what, though? Of being "found out" in some way?) - but for the people who are a bit awkward, don't really fit in or speak the language with the same confidence, it can be awful.

Hilaire said...

You know, mw, I just don't get that kind of behaviour!! It's just awful. I think you're so right that it comes from insecurity - you often see glimpses of that in the eyes or smiles of people who cultivate invincible meanness. I've never quite understood how insecurity translates into overt nastiness, though. Does not compute, really. At any rate, academic cliques and snobbishness are such dangerous, dangerous games...

medieval woman said...

I agree that you can completely see it in their eyes and smiles - they shuffle from foot to foot while they're talking to you...they look over your head (especially if you're a leprechaun like me) to see who else is around...finally, you're just like "you're insecurity is embarrassingly transparent - go away!"

Texter said...

There is "community(ies)" in academe?

Anonymous said...

High academic status dont't mean all...
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GbZQLYpExEc