You’re not alone: tips to help academics avoid social isolation

Connections with colleagues matter – without them, support during periods of reappointment, promotion or tenure can feel tenuous. And those unwritten expectations of collegiality become opaque, explains Karen Z. Sproles

Karyn Z. Sproles 's avatar
United States Naval Academy
11 Apr 2023
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Social isolation in academia is, as it sounds, keeping to oneself on campus. This is a habit we often pick up in graduate school while binge-writing our dissertation. It is tempting to protect ourselves when we are feeling anxious and unsure, but if we ­don’t get occasional feedback on how ­we’re ­doing, it ­will probably be too late to make adjustments when we discover that we ­aren’t meeting institutional expectations we ­didn’t even know existed. Keeping to ourselves seems normal, especially if the model is your graduate school professors who showed up only to teach and then headed back to their lab or home office. This is not a practice that leads to a good start or a happy ­career.

It’s for good reason that Robert Boice, author of Advice for New Faculty Members, warns us that social isolation is a key problem that can derail new faculty members. If we ­don’t make connections with our colleagues, we ­can’t expect them to support us during periods of reappointment, promotion or tenure. If they ­don’t really know us, they ­won’t be invested in our ­future. Even if we meet the standards for teaching and research, the more nebulous issue of “service” and the often-unwritten expectation of collegiality can be more problematic than we are led to believe. As always, this is especially true for ­women and faculty who are black, indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC).

Boice is refreshingly candid in stating: “My guess about why academe keeps its criteria for socialisation and service vague is this: Unstated and uncalibrated rules leave the most control for gatekeepers because they can adjust their implicit criteria to fit their biases.” I hope your internal alarm bells are ­going off. Bottom line: if your colleagues like you – translation, look like you – you’ll probably succeed. If your colleagues ­don’t like you – or just ­don’t know you very well – you might be surprised by the roadblocks you stand to face.

One of my black female colleagues asked several ­people, all white men, for help working out the guidelines for hiring a research assistant; all said they had no idea when, in fact, all had hired an assistant in the past. And –here’s the worst ­thing about ­those roadblocks: you might not realise ­you’ve been rerouted, ­because it often happens in the form of not warning you about something or not giving you help with something ­else. You ­won’t even recognise that you’re on a side road ­until you fail to arrive where you thought you were headed. Someone might not deliberately give you bad directions, but they also might not say: “Stop! That’s a dead end.”

Cultivating colleagues who can and ­will volunteer good advice is especially crucial for adjunct faculty members. I know you are likely racing from one class to another and, in some of your cases, driving between institutions to cobble together a full-time job. You should not, however, lose sight of the fact that if your colleagues know you, you ­will be more likely to get rehired and have a more accommodating schedule. A friendly interaction ­doesn’t have to take long. I sometimes think the most productive part of my day is chatting around the photocopier. I try to pay attention to the questions my colleagues ask that generate good conversations. “What are you teaching today?” is my favourite. We are always ­eager to talk about that. On the other hand, “How is your research ­going?” may very well lead to a deer-in-the-headlights situation.

Connecting with colleagues is probably easier for extroverts, who are naturally friendly and outgoing. For us introverts, it feels more natural to hole up in our offices or labs or living rooms or coffee shops, especially ­those of us who are also shy. ­After all, that is when we are getting our work done. ­Unless ­we’re working collaboratively, we need to be alone to get anything accomplished. I can happily spend weeks on end reading and writing without having a single meaningful conversation. When I’ve done it, it’s been ­great. I confess that I’m one of the ­people who was relieved by the required cancelling of social engagements to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Being alone recharges me, and like me, a lot of faculty members tend to be introverts. Academia appeals to us –because it is conducive to being alone. I find ­great solace in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. It helped me understand the difficulty I have speaking in a group if I don’t have a specific role. Teaching ­isn’t a problem in this regard ­because I’m supposed to be in charge. Similarly, I would rather host a party than attend one. Cain’s book is excellent in helping introverts understand the social anxiety that often accompanies introversion. Not all introverts are shy, but many are. I am. I prefer seeing and dealing with ­people one on one. This was an important ­thing for me to recognise about myself. Quiet might be an even more important book for the extroverts among you because it can help you see and understand why your quiet colleagues (and family members) might be silently seething.

Quiet is enlightening. It is also deeply affirming ­because Cain points out the many strengths that come with introversion – thoughtfulness, self-reliance and caution – but also a greater willingness to take a risk if confident of success. But they ­don’t change the fact that in most Western cultures, extroverts are privileged. You ­don’t have to be an extrovert to get to know your colleagues, but you do need to be deliberate about it.

It might feel hard to reach out to your colleagues, but you should ask for help. It is a ­great way to connect with them. Thinking that asking for help is an admission that they ­aren’t qualified for the job often trips up new faculty members; this feeling ­will likely arise again when they take on new responsibilities or leadership roles. As I’ve said, you ­can’t possibly know the department and institutional culture and expectations upon arrival. This is especially true if you happen to be at an institution where you ­were a student. The roles are so dif­ferent that thinking you totally understand the place can get in your way.

More often than not, your colleagues ­will be flattered if you ask their advice. ­Don’t you love it when ­people ask you for advice? You feel respected and valued, and so ­will they. Do this by email before you even arrive on campus and especially if you’ll be teaching remotely. Reach out to members of the hiring committee or someone working close to your field. Identify potential contacts while interviewing and, while ­you’re at it, ask ­whether they have time to go for coffee if ­they’re ­going to be around during the summer, perhaps when you return to ­house-hunt or virtually if you ­can’t meet in person. The department chair and members of the search committee have a vested interest in your success. Stay in touch with them occasionally as you prepare to move, and you ­will likely find them on hand to give you a warm welcome (even if on Zoom). You ­won’t come off as someone who doesn’t know what ­you’re ­doing. You’ll look like someone who is making an effort to do a ­great job.

How to avoid social isolation

  • Get to know your colleagues, including the staff.
  • Don’t use introversion or shyness or busyness as an excuse to keep to yourself; connecting in your department is part of the job.
  • Build work relationships into your daily schedule by asking colleagues for coffee or lunch or a walk.
  • Be on the lookout for allies and potential mentors.
  • Be aware of department politics when making friends; be friendly with everyone ­until you know the lie of the land.
  • Maintain and develop professional networks.
  • Remember that making social connections with your colleagues is one of the most important ­things you can do for your ­future.

Karyn Z. Sproles is the dean of faculty development and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the United States Naval Academy.

This extract is adapted from Nine Guiding Principles for Women in Higher Education, by Karyn Z. Sproles. Copyright 2023. Published with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

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