On Non-relational Love in Academic Life

Saying that early career untenured academics aren’t exactly having it easy is serving the obvious with a large side of the trivial. There exist fewer openings for tenured positions; fixed-time contracts are short, while research and teaching expectations are higher than before; salaries and benefits (if at all) are often low to the point of not being a living wage; a globalized knowledge economy and a buyer’s market means the next job might well mean a relocation to the other side of the globe, on a temporary legal status, sometimes for relatively short periods of time. And so, the kind of ideal professional that emerges from these realities is not only someone with a promising record of teaching and research. It is also someone who offers prospect employers maximum personal flexibility and availability, most importantly with regard to their time.

We junior academics work hard, often very hard, and not only in response to the time-heavy nature of profession (the running joke is that the flexibility of academic life means we get to choose *which* sixteen hours of the day we wish to work). Many of us do so not merely because ‘this is what we love’ (as if research and teaching is a kind of an excessive hobby), but rather because we are strongly invested in our work in terms of our identity. We are often very committed to our research and teaching, regularly putting in the extra hours to make sure that the work is done to our satisfaction and approval, even when the standard by which we are measured is a personal one, which doesn’t necessarily translate into immediate material gains.

We love our work, and that is no bad thing. What is bad, however, is the fact that the profession in its current state channels our love, and our emotional resources in general, towards our work and away from our social relations. Being ‘all in’ in the form of committing the entirety of our self to our work is seen as a badge of honor and an affirmation of one’s total commitment to the profession, even through ill-health and personal tragedies. And the more it is lauded, the more it is interiorized as the new standard. Be all in, dear junior academics, or be out. So we try to be all in, and in doing so we gradually reduce the social webs of our loves and affections. Sometimes we get lucky (as I’ve been, far more than my representative share), working with supportive colleagues and mentors and staying around for longer periods. But not everyone does, and even when they do, there is no guarantee of it lasting for long.

And here lies the cruel logic of this system: ‘being all in’ makes perfect sense. After all, on a career path that often seems like a patchwork of short-term positions around the globe, in which the most constant law of nature is transience, what is the point of maintaining, let alone developing, those social webs? Finding a partner or even thinking about having a family seems completely detached from one’s realities. What is the point of getting to know someone, or becomes acquainted with a place, if in a year or less one is most likely to find themselves in a brand new location, assuming that they are so ‘lucky’ to begin with? Why bother getting to know one’s neighbors and neighborhood, and what is the point of joining a choir or an orchestra, if it is only likely to end, again and again, in a heartbreak when the time is up?

The almost certain prospect of creating social webs only to have them terminated shortly afterwards on a regular basis is a foolproof recipe for social isolation. The more we are encouraged to direct our love towards our work and away from other people, the more prone we are to mental illness, which is, unsurprisingly, rampant in academia. And it is fast transforming from a side-effect of academic life to a rule of the game. Within the profession, unsustainable competitiveness and conservative academic culture (among others) means we increasingly regard each other as competitors playing a zero-sum game - for jobs, for grants, for prestige. And the more consumed we are by our passions within the profession, the less occasions we have of pursuing them healthily outside it.

Trying to play the game of academia, especially without tenure, runs the risk of reducing our perception of and capacity for love to a notion that is non-relational. I may (and do) love my work, but it cannot love me back, and doesn’t replace those familial and social ties part of whose purpose is to do just that. Even in the most optimistic scenario, expanding our non-relational love at the expanse of its relational counterpart can easily reach an unhealthy equilibrium. And when things don’t turn quite so well, as they most often do, we run the risk of purposefully reducing ourselves to an isolated subject committed, with the full range of one’s emotional capacities, to a single purpose that could never reciprocate the gesture.