Just this morning, I stumbled across the scientiae carnival of women bloggers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Their current topic (the subject line) took over my thoughts like a mid-afternoon sugar craving. Sabbatical has helped me understand my deepest career hunger: to interact regularly with a small network of friends with common professional interests. I love teaching, being a professor, and working in academia. The emotional isolation wears me down though, and threatens to renew itself as I prepare to return in the fall.
This isn't meant to insult my closest friends at work. They are wonderful people who I confide in, enjoy talking to, and respect. They are also men closer to my parents' ages than to mine. I have close friendships with some women academics (in other fields) and writers of my own age that follow the interaction style I love: a seamless blend of work and non-work discussions that last for hours or days yet feel unfinished. I had one off-and-on work-based friendship as a postdoc 8 years ago, and another with a visiting researcher for a few months while I was faculty. The rarity of these relationships the last 12 years, whether with males or females, makes this my greatest hunger.
Watching my thoughts on this though, I noticed that I was answering the question "what are we hungry for", rather than "how we are hungry". How did I end up in this situation? I work in a reasonable department in a good school, my colleagues are collegial, with an above-average percentage of female faculty, and plenty of faculty near my age. I have some good friends in other departments on campus, but working in different buildings on campus, we manage to meet only once or twice a semester, never spontaneously (and we all live far enough from campus in different directions that after-hours gathering don't happen). I've met a couple of people (mostly women) at conferences with whom I expect I'd have such a friendship if we worked at the same institutions, but none of us make time to develop these long distance, given our other demands. Some days, I feel like my academic upbringing socialized me to not expect my style of friendships in professional circles, until I woke up and realized how much I missed them, and--worse still--how much I feel I stagnate intellectually by not having them. The latter is where this issue really irks.
Perhaps I shouldn't feel hungry over this at all. Perhaps I asking too much to want close professional friends with whom I can interact regularly and easily. Perhaps I am still mourning having graduated from college, where the dorms were a continuous feast of interactions academic and not. I know I'm not an academic in hopes of reliving college, but I did expect more from the promise of the academic environment as an adult.
Do others experience the disconnect between professional and other friendships? Do you feel it holds you back? Do you feel less productive having to have professional conversations in a style that doesn't come naturally to you? Suggestions on how to address it?
In the end, the question is simply how to get fed. Perhaps being involved in an online community, rather than trying to main electronic one-on-one conversations would help, simply because there's more chance of finding someone with free time to e-chat in the same day or week in a larger group. It would certainly be better than my current approach to the situation, which seems to entail too many cookies and chocolates.