Loneliness and collegiality: a chronicle of academic alienation

Julia Molinari is an independent researcher and tutor of academic literacies and research writing based in the School of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK. She earned her PhD in 2019 with a thesis on What makes writing academic in which she argued for change and diversity in how knowledge is represented. She applies the social philosophies of critical realism, complexity theory and emergence to portray academic writing as a social and transformative practice rather than a mechanical and transferable skill. Her research monograph is forthcoming with Bloomsbury Academic.

Here, she has chosen the chronicle as the genre through which to reflect in times of COVID19.

First quarter of 2021. Year #2 of COVID19. Working at home. Small market town, The Midlands, UK.

Like many, I have not set foot on campus for over a year, but I have been emergency remote teaching (Hodges, Moore, Lockee, Trust, & Bond, 2020), home schooling, and researching despite mixed messages about whether business as usual is possible, let alone desirable. Indeed, whether ‘business as usual’ is ever an appropriate moniker to describe academia remains moot. The connotations of ‘business’ with profit, commodity and performativity are all too close for comfort.

Flashback. March 2020. Working on campus. UK University.

Just before the UK succumbed to its first wave of pandemic lockdowns, its academic sector had been in thrall to a very different kind of lockdown, namely a second wave of unresolved industrial disputes relating to pay, workloads, inequality, and casualisation. In many ways, these disputes were symptoms of a deeper malaise, one that Hannah Arendt (1953) might have framed in terms of ‘isolation’ that degenerates into ‘loneliness’ or that Karl Marx might have described as ‘alienation’ (Peters & Neilson, 2020).

The last week (of four) of balloted strikes, picket sit-ins and teach-outs ground to an abrupt halt as Vice-Chancellors across the country announced that university premises were to be evacuated with immediate effect. The suddenness and speed with which staff and students had to up sticks was likely received by some university managers as a bitter-sweet moratorium on the otherwise pressing need to address deep discontents with managerial and business ideologies, ideologies so constitutive of higher education structures as to daunt even those leading at the forefront. Discourses surrounding these concerns had long since been imbricated in neoliberalism, a language that indexes the logical consequences of a managerial approach to education, namely performativity, metrics, commodification, student fees, stakeholders, customers, rankings, evaluation surveys, inter alia. These can be understood as shorthand for a capitalist ideology of growth, the logic of which can lead to what Arendt calls the totalitarian ‘tyranny of logicality’, whereby “one idea [capitalism] is sufficient to explain everything in the development from the premise, and that no experience can teach anything because everything is comprehended in this consistent process of logical deduction” (p.317). Although reporting of such discontents during the early stages of the pandemic may have been bracketed to focus instead on the immediacy of a different kind of emergency, industrial unrest has not subsided. Indeed, as new waves of redundancies and course closures, especially across the Humanities, are announced, discontent within higher education may not yet have reached its peak.

February to March 2021. Tuesday online meet-ups. Respite.

Enter some relief. This came in the guise of PaTHES members Carola Boehm and Tessa DeLaquil, whose invitation to discuss “Loneliness and Collegiality” in academia provided respite from my emergency online teaching and its relentless emphasis on student engagement (as opposed to thinking or learning). Carola and Tessa’s invitation could not have been more timely. The meet-ups were anchored to readings of Arendt (1953)’s Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government and Rowland (2008)’s Collegiality and Intellectual Love. Questions to ponder included:

  • What might be the common purposes of academic communities?
  • How might we build relationships in spite of the fractured nature of societal relationships, politically and geographically?
  • What could be the effects on the university and the purpose of the university due to the loneliness experienced by its constituents – by faculty, staff, and students?

At a time of national emergency when universities were wholly dependent on the good will and solidarity of the very workforce they were overworking or threatening with redundancy, these questions came as a breath of fresh air: they became reminders that if even pre-pandemic the very purpose of the university was at stake, what must that purpose be now!

Carola and Tessa provided a weekly space to talk freely about emotions, virtues and vices, ranging from loneliness, isolation, and collusion, to agency, power, collectivity, activism, and the common good. The deeply unpleasant anxiety that had been engulfing me long before the pandemic found new expression through dialogue and shared experiences. The closest I had come to naming this angst had been as an emergent form of emotional alienation that was descending into a kind of existential nausea (Sartre, 1938). The concept of alienation seemed to capture a pre-pandemic feeling of professional and intellectual estrangement. The pandemic provided the bracketing I needed to reflect. Karl Marx’s socio-economic account of ‘estranged labourers’ (Entfremdung) seemed to explain several present-day dysfunctions within higher education, such as the intellectual alienation from a range of production processes: casual labour and redundancies are examples of this alienation, whereby precarious labour conditions (up to 50% in UK academia) mean that knowledge workers can have their contracts terminated in the midst of a project, before having had the chance to disseminate their research. This, in turn affects their future career prospects, alienating them further from the processes of academic production. Alienation also occurs when commercial publishers become the material beneficiaries of immaterial and free intellectual labour, further widening the gap between us and the material products of our labour. When the capitalist concept of labour comes to define our human essence, replacing virtues of collegiality and intellectual love (Rowland, 2008) with the imperative of growth, individualism, and competition, this alienates us from fellow human beings, othering them as means to an end.

May 2021. Entering the post-pandemic era.

Many are reflecting on and preparing for a post-pandemic university. My personal wish is for it to avoid the bleakness of Arendt’s isolation and loneliness (p. 322): the former arises in the social and political sphere, when we are prevented from acting collectively in the pursuit of our common concerns; the latter is when we are deserted by human companionship, our human essence having been defined by our labour to such an extent that alienation becomes the only logical consequence.


Arendt, H. (1953). Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government. The Review of Politics, 15(3), 303-327. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1405171

Hodges, C., Moore, S., Lockee, B., Trust, T., & Bond, M. (2020). The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/3/the-difference-between-emergency-remote-teaching-and-online-learning [accessed 03/05/2021]

Peters, M. A., & Neilson, D. (2020). Theorising immaterial labor: Toward creativity, co(labor)ation and collective intelligence. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-12. doi:10.1080/00131857.2020.1840349

Rowland, S. (2008). Collegiality and intellectual love. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 29(3), 353-360. doi:10.1080/01425690801966493

Sartre, J.-P. (1938). La Nausée: Folio, Gallimard.

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