What Is the Point of Academia If Not the Community?

What Is the Point of Academia If Not the Community? February 14, 2021

The pandemic is making us all rethink many things; for me, a major point of reflection is the role of community in university life, and what to do when we are without it.

Interior of the library inside Wells Cathedral.
Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash. In public domain.

Everyone’s experience of education has changed in the last year: students, educators, the parents/friends/family of both. I’d wager that few of us are having a good time of it, not only due to the stress of trying to carry on in a global pandemic, but also because the educational enterprise functions best when there is a sense of community.

Within university life in particular, community takes on a special tinge: we are sorted into departments on campus, yes, with whom we often socialize and bond, but we also have connections to our academic disciplines more broadly. We have our friends from undergrad AND grad school, our colleagues we collaborate with, our roommates at conference venues, our internet friends in our field that we may or may not ever meet in person. We have frenemies, whoever-the-hell-is-Reviewer-2, rivals in prestige and ranking.

At any given point in my academic life – should I call it a career? I’ve never been employed on longer than a year contract – I can call up a constellation of contacts, conjure up images of an ecosystem in which I belong, nestled into my community. I have mentors I can ask for letters of recommendation; I know journal editors who will ask me to be a reviewer. Bizarrely in my mind, since I don’t meet all the metrics of success, I have people who look up to me and ask me for advice and letters of rec too.

At this point in my academic life, however, I feel rent apart by lack of access to my local academic community. Because it’s not safe to conduct much of the university’s daily business in person, I don’t see my colleagues very often apart from masked greetings across a hallway. I teach my classes face-to-face, and then feel like a ghost walking the halls of my campus. Like everyone else, I’m utterly Zoomed out. Even worse, I feel anxious and awkward when I participate in meetings given that it’s still unclear whether I’ll be able to receive a contract to stay on past May, so even my ability to make small talk reflects how isolated I feel (*waves awkwardly to any colleagues reading this*).

Some of this, of course, is an academic power issue: tenured and tenure-track professors have different investments in campus life than those of us who are contingent faculty. They have different protections. They have more to contribute to meetings that are about determining the future of a department or program, whereas those of us who are only guaranteed temporary positions cannot offer much help on that front, as much as we might like to. All these factors impact how much I feel myself to be in community on the campus where I teach at any given moment; add in the pandemic, and my feelings of isolation increase (I would hazard this is felt by many contingent faculty in many places right now).

In retrospect, I went to grad school because I loved the study of folklore and thought I could make a career of it. I did not realize how important academic community would become to me, because as an introvert, that’s generally not how I make my decisions. But looking back, if there was no stable job at the end of the path for me, would I still have gone through with a PhD? It’s not exactly thrilling to take on so much debt and look back on an adult life not spent accumulating life savings or retirement funds and wonder if it was worth it. I mean, I didn’t acquire such specialized knowledge that it takes a lengthy 101-level conversation to catch up normal humans to the point where we can actually have a conversation that interests and benefits me too just for the hell of it. I did it because I thought I’d have colleagues to converse with, people at my level to bounce interesting ideas off of, even if we weren’t at the same institution. Sadly, folklore programs are few and far between; many of us are accustomed to being the lone folklorist and having soul-thrilling conversations when we get to link up with one another at conferences.

I love my job, even as I recognize that this rhetoric is often weaponized against teachers. And I know that many things are harder in the pandemic, many things have lost their joy, but did I really spend 8 years getting advanced degrees in order to teach at the college level while feeling utterly bereft the whole time?

It took me a while to realize this (see above reference to introversion), but the life of the mind is not best experienced solitarily, for me at least. I want to be in conversation with colleagues in my discipline; I want to spend time with them and talk to them, share ideas and collaborate and discuss books we’ve read, articles we’ve loved and hated.

As contingent faculty, I already feel a bit like an outsider. Add in pandemic conditions, and my loneliness veers closer and closer to depression and burnout. I’m grateful for the thriving folklore community that connects online, as it helps keep me going while I’m in a holding pattern at my campus, hoping for another contract but unsure if it’ll come through. Now would be the time to mention that I’m going to be on the Folkwise livestream this upcoming Tuesday night starting at 9pm Eastern, I suppose…they’re but one example of my online folklore community.

So I can’t help but wonder: if I remain employed in academia, but feel cut off from a sense of community, what is the point of being there in the first place? Do others feel this way as well?

(I suppose it’s not an accident that I’m writing this post on Valentine’s Day; I enjoy romantic relationships sometimes, but there are pieces of my heart reserved for the friends I’ve made in higher ed, the ones who really “get it,” who “get” me, who understand all the weird little corners of my soul that peek out in my research, at conferences, in late-night Twitter conversations about tales types and trauma and R&Rs and so on)


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