On Academic Loneliness and Its Counterparts

My purpose was to write a blog text about affects and experiences of a young researcher and approach this more in the form of a scientific essay but the process of trying to make this happen led me to think about the writing process itself through the lens of affects and self-reflection. Why is it that it feels so difficult to start writing a text?

One obvious reason seemed to be the fatigue that seems to permeate the everyday of many researchers and students’ lives, especially during the current pandemic situation. Another reason seems to be the constant sense of urgency when you are managing your projects while at the same time and trying to find some peace of mind for more contemplative work that writing and indulging in mapping out theoretical underpinnings and debates would require. Through the process of chasing these thoughts I figured I would try and write a text about something that felt like it moved me and felt meaningful and easier to approach at that very moment.

Around the time of this thought process I was about to participate in a discussion group where we talked about a song that is was important to us at that time. This made me shuffle through some tracks I have listened to a lot recently. The process lulled me back into realizing the yearning I had towards living in, and with, the melodies, melancholy, imaginary landscapes that music and art bring to one’s life.

The fulfillment one feels through music can often be dampened and forgotten in moments when I sense that I sink too deeply into the endless and ravenous stream that flows through the current day academia and also society on a broader level. In these instances, you feel that you are never enough and that you can and must always improve and prove yourself in order to exist as a legitimate person.

I shuffled through some tracks that I had listened to recently and one that strongly resonated with me at that moment was the Finnish solo artist Peura’s song Funeral. The song is written with beautiful minimalist melodies and lyrics that channel a tangible and permeating sense of loneliness – a personal experience of loneliness which forms also in the face of others’ indifference towards knowing of its existence.

Toista video YouTubessa (aukeaa uuteen välilehteen)

Whilst listening to the song I realized that the lyrics could very well transfer the experiences of academic loneliness. This led me to the decision to write about unpacking some of the weave of thoughts and feelings present within this interpretation.

When taking this stance towards the lyrics, the chorus feels like it manages to capture something about personal experiences that can often be difficult to vocalize or address in practice:

When I was losing heart, you knew
When I was giving up, you knew
That I had fallen far, you knew
But where were you?
Where were you?

When considering the construction of loneliness in these lyrics from a point of view that is based upon Sara Ahmed’s (2014) work on seeing affects as shaped by cultural and social meaning-making, it comes into being via the deprivation of needed contact with another. In this setting the other can be another person, a group or a more abstract body consisting of values, structures and constructs that shape what is deemed as important and worthy of care.

The other that is needed, but which leaves the subject of these lyrics neglected, could very well be a wider combination of institutional structures and practices within which the deprivation of the subject is formed. To me, the loneliness present in these lyrics seems to form also through affective circulation where the ‘I’ of the song is drifting. They are drifting, by ‘losing heart’, ‘giving up’ and ‘falling far’, from something that is constructed as cardinal to existential meaningfulness, to belonging and being heard, accepted and supported.

In relation to this, the object, that the text is speaking to, seems to be stationary and passive, while the subject of the song would expect – or at least hope – that they would care enough to support them in some way. While the object of the song is passive, they, however, are at the same time also constructed as an active agent who knows how the song’s subject is drifting but chooses to be out of reach and indifferent towards it.

When applying this line of thought to the context of academic labor and the observations we have made during our project’s data collection that we finished this week, the indifferent object of the song could very well be the institutional settings and system that frame it. While many researchers from students and doctoral researchers to academic leaders love doing research, teaching or shaping the future of higher education institutions, they are at the same time pressed by the constant expectations towards impactfulness, high productivity and excellence. At the same time they are dealing with limited resources, insecurity, fixed-term basis of employment, societal underappreciation of higher education and ensuring funding for enabling research in the first place.

This complex bundle of contradicting values, expectations, lack of time, lack of money, high competitiveness as well as precious collegiality paints an uncertain, but at the same time even alluring, picture that simultaneously seems to push one to build backdoors and plan Bs, but also draws one in to give their all for this career choice that also easily becomes, or is, more of a way of life than a ‘mere job’.

Some of the most valuable aspects of doing research seem to be the fruitful collaboration, support, learning and even friendships that we can have with one another while working towards a deeper understanding of both the world around us and also ourselves in this process. Things that gnaw at this are, however, also major questions to consider when weighing  if this is worth it after all.

The downsides present in this career path can be seen to include e.g. instances of arbitrary show of power, deliberate humiliation, gatekeeping from relevant scientific forums, continuous hurry and precariousness over the continuation of work, neglect of humane ways of encountering one another, being pushed to dedicate a disproportionate amount of one’s personal resources to work at the expense of personal wellbeing and reducing science to a race towards ‘being the best’ while others are left to bite the dust. Tackling these issues also becomes increasingly difficult the more the focus is shifted from system level weaknesses to individualistic questions such as ‘having the right type of personality’, ‘being lazy’ or having the ‘morally correct’ amount of self-restrain and dedication.

All in all, the ambivalence of academic labor can make it a career path filled with contrasting experiences and continuous existential questioning. In this line of work, we are constantly putting ourselves under evaluation and we need to be able to withstand recurring rejections, critique, and shame. This is also accompanied by having to contest the right to do research and receive funding for it.

Given this starting point, it seems even more important that intersectional (Carbado & Williams Crenshaw & Mays & Tomlinson 2013) obstacles, which deepen this trial for some but make it easier for others, should be paid closer attention to also on the level of policy making. Class background, racialization, able-bodiedness and gender, for example, affect people’s access, perceived career opportunities and experiences of belonging or being excluded from higher education and academic career. In addition, the way in which these points of view are considered or excluded also shapes the contents and viewpoints of research itself (see e.g. Williams Crenshaw 2019; Rastas & Poelman 2021 for Finnish context). Even though this is a systemic level question, it also includes the grassroots actions that we take in our everyday lives.

Thus, as a concluding note I could present a couple of questions that are also related to discussions we have had at our project’s Affect Café discussion workshops:

How would you characterize an emotionally sustainable academia?

And how could you and your work community take part in building such an environment?

Written by Elisa Kurtti (Doctoral Researcher)

Song: Peura (2019) Funeral.

Sources:

Ahmed, Sara (2014) The cultural politics of emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Carbado, Devon W. & Williams Crenshaw, Kimberlé & Mays, Vickie M., & Tomlinson, Barbara (2013) Intersectionality: Mapping the movements of a theory. Du Bois Review 10(2), 303-312. doi: 10.1017/S1742058X13000349

Rastas, Anna & Poelman, Sanna (2021) Suomalaisen sosiologian värisokea piste. Sosiologia 58(1).

Williams Crenshaw, Kimberlé (2019) Seeing race again: Countering colorblindness across the disciplines. University of California Press.

Images:

engin akyurt / Unsplash

Samuel Austin /  Unsplash

GR Stocks / Unsplash