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April 22, 2004

The Single Guy

Thoughful posts all around about the recent Chronicle articles on the single/parents divide in the profession. The two most prominent articles, "Singular Mistreatment: Unmarried professors are outsiders in the Ozzie and Harriet world of academe" and "Singing the Grad-School Baby Blues." These articles invoke many of the typical difficulties that singles and parents face within the academic profession (whether or not to have kids if you're married, whether you can talk about baby strollers with your married colleagues). Like Laura at 11D (who has a thoughtful post on the issue), I think these conflicts reflect the pressures of an incredibly tight job market, leading workers to turn on each other. Laura adds that:

Everybody else's life looks better than their own. The parent workers are jealous of their single counterparts who can work uninterrupted, who get a full night's sleep and a weekend off. The singles feel that they don't have the excuse of a soccer game to get them out of a departmental meeting.
Quite honestly, I generally don't think I've ever felt "discriminated against" (as the Chronicle article describes it) because of my status as a single person. I don't feel like an outsider at parties, even if the topic changes to the best brands of baby strollers. And while I wouldn't be able to take advantage of some university perks such as cheaper tuition for my children, I don't perceive that as a personal loss because it's not an expense I face (perhaps a small bonus to apply towards my student loan payments would balance things, but I've got no real beef here).

I also realize that being single gives me lots of free time to think, write, and read, all tremendous assets in my profession. I don't have to worry about budgeting my time as carefully, which is kind of nice. I've felt a little pressure to teach at certain times because of my "single" status, but usually those times coincide with my personal schedule, so it hasn't been a major problem. Other singles complain of the difficulty of being single during the stressful, lonely moments of academic life, which I know from experience can be demanding, especially when combined with household tasks (running errands, paying bills, etc).

In general, I like being single (I'd make more of an effort to change things if I didn't), so I simply don't perceieve myself as being slighted here. Then again, according to the "Singular Mistreatment" article, my feelings could have a basis in my gender:

Women in academe seem to experience singleness differently from their male counterparts. That may be in part because female professors are more likely to be single. According to the Higher Education Research Institute's survey, 82 percent of male professors were married in the 2001-2 academic year, compared with 65.5 percent of female faculty members. The single male professor has an "almost fetishized status," says Johnnie Wilcox, an assistant professor of English at Ohio University's main campus.
It does seem significant that most of the people who were interviewed for (or at least quoted in) the Chronicle article were women, but in general, I'd imagine this is a question that deserves further investigation than the fleeting observations I'd be able to make. I do think these comments speak to how married and single people believe themselves to be perceived by their colleagues.

The "Singular Mistreatment" article does raise the point that the job market can be difficult for single people who have little choice about where they live, which might mean living in a small town where there are few romantic prospects, but again, I think marrieds and singles face similar difficulties here. While it might appear easier to be married in a small town, parents may be concerned about the schools and other community opportunities their children miss. Again, I think the real issue is that we're facing a tight market, and competition for a limited number of jobs brings out these complaints of bias, loneliness, and alienation. I don't have any solutions here, and I really should be grading, but I think it's important to recognize that both singles and "smug marrieds" are confronting similar problems, and that those problems are symptomatic of another, larger problem, which is a competitive job market and a struggling economy.

I may write more about Bella DePaulo's focus on the "psychology of singleness" later, but for now, I'll agree that I don't see singleness as a problem that needs fixing. And now, I really have to get back to work on finishing some grading. Regular classes end tomorrow at Georgia Tech, so I've got a busy day (and night) ahead of me.

All of these links via Scribblingwoman, who was too busy with parental obligations to comment at length (perhaps illustrating that I have it easier than I thought).

Update: These articles only pay the mildest lip service to gays and lesbians, who still tend to face difficulties in obtaining partner benefits at many major universities.

Posted by chuck at April 22, 2004 12:38 PM

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To me, I'd rather hire a single person because they'll be able to devote all their time to their work, without worrying about them wanting to spend more time at home with their husband or dealing with issues with the kids.

Of course, men don't really have the same stigma attached to them. It's never presumed that a married man's wife or children will cause interference with the job.

Posted by: Jen at April 23, 2004 9:41 AM

I was struck by the artiicle's heavy-handed emphasis on single women's "plight" too... And it made me feel like part of it was the usual backlash-y trick that uses partial and faultily interpreted statistics to make me, a woman, feel bad about not behaving more like a woman "should" - i.e., get married, have kids, follow my husband to the end of the world even if I might be depressed out of my mind because I can't even get a decent adjunct position in the small town he shlepped me to (all this I should want instead of consciously enjoying that I reap the rewards of my own choices and like to spend time by myself...) I also think this artcle tries too hard to categorize people and stash them away neatly and permanently (as if this kind of sticking people into cubbyholes and expecting they'll stay there forever reflected anything in life, even academic life) and leaves little room for the very real fact that life changes, and marriages as well as singlehood end. (Funny, I wrote a post about the chronicle article in a state of annoyance just last night...)

Posted by: LiL at April 23, 2004 10:41 AM

It's true that many of the statements quoted in the piece are easy to contradict -- it's not a strong argument.

But there is something about being a single academic in a small town that just really sucks, especially if you come to it after being part of a happy social network as a graduate student. It might depend a little on where exactly -- I found Bethlehem PA to feel like the end of the earth when I moved there in 2001. And I noticed that I complained more about it than my (married) peers did.

Posted by: Amardeep Singh at April 23, 2004 10:55 AM

This is a really tough issue. I am male, married, and have a kid. Because I live in an expensive city rather than a small town, there are all sorts of other issues involved: cost of living is through the roof, I don't get paid enough to support a family, does the wife work so the bills can get paid or does she stay home and work with the kid so I can work and get tenure. If she works and I watch the kid, tenure isn't going to happen. Others profs/admin don't care if you have a kid. They expect all the work to get done. Tack on a hour commute because I can't afford to live near school and life is far from easy. The academy just isn't made for parents. Two female colleagues who came in at the same time I did and have kids have similar problems. The academy and kids just don't mix. Bottom line? It's hard being single and being married--it's hard being an assistant prof no matter how you look at it.

Posted by: B. at April 23, 2004 12:28 PM

Amardeep: That's a point I considered raising. I taught for two years at the University of Illinois, which is in a decent college town, but I can only imagine that life in a smaller town would be even more difficult.

LiL and Jen: There was a strong tendency towards simple categorization of "single" and "married." Interesting that you, LiL, had a slightly different reaction to those disciplinizing moves than I did.

Posted by: chuck at April 23, 2004 12:47 PM

B, your comment came in while I was typing. I think that your answer is about right. Being an assistant professor (or post-doc in my case) is tough no matter what.

Posted by: chuck at April 23, 2004 12:49 PM

I think being single can be tough no matter where you are. A busy city doesn't hand out suitable mates on every streetcorner either (well, in one way it can - but I don't think that's the kind of mating we're talking abut here.) And a single person's loneliness is right there out in the open for everyone to see, there's no other person around to act like a buffer. It's harder to notice when a married person's lonely - there just aren't a lot of ways to admit that without taking drastic measures like separation or divorce.

Posted by: LiL at April 23, 2004 6:46 PM

I've found being single more difficult in smaller towns, but that's a purely anecdotal observation. At least in a big city, like Atlanta, I can find enough distratcions (movies, community involvement, restaurants, etc) whereas in a smaller town (like Lafayette, IN), there just aren't that many things to do. But that comment probably reflects my own personal big city bias more than anything else.

Posted by: chuck at April 24, 2004 1:31 PM

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