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Solitude: 'The Most Pressing Issue on Campus Today'

Take small walks; you don't need a trip to the mountain. Give yourself ten minutes to meditate or let go. Stop at the gym briefly. Welcome the red traffic light as a friend. Small steps become a habit to enhance your quality of life.


Dr. Mara Adelman

Virginia Woolf said a woman must have a room of her own in order to write fiction. Already in the 1920s solitude was rare and precious for women. Today the distractions have intensified and solitude—or even the capacity for it—is an endangered species.

Women live in networks of relationships. They are daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins and friends. In higher education they relate to students, colleagues and administrators. These networks provide community and support; in times of crisis women gather to tend and befriend.

If webs of connection provide a safety net, webs and nets can also entrap. Think of spider webs and butterfly nets. Without the balancing effect of reflection and solitude, women can get trapped in webs of relationship.

“Solitude is very gendered,” Dr. Mara Adelman said in June at the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education conference, where she led a workshop on distraction and solitude. She is an associate professor of communication at Jesuit-run Seattle University WA.

She showed a picture of a solitary woman and a solitary man. Participants noted the woman is in a room, sitting in shadows. The man is standing outdoors in nature, strong and free.

Why the difference?

Time. With most women now in the workforce and still doing most of the housework, there’s a huge difference in the time demands on women and men. Men head off to fish or climb a mountain; women do well to get into a room alone and close the door.

Vulnerability. When she worked as a bartender she rarely saw women order a drink alone. Women also rarely travel or go to a movie by themselves. It’s partly preference, partly societal pressure but also a question of personal safety.

Norms. With an adult population that’s 47% single, Seattle has one of the highest singles rates in the nation. “Our society is not conducive to being single,” she said, describing the “tyranny of coupledom.” Nobody offers a singles discount.

Demands for nurture. Even single women are expected to nurture their nieces and nephews, and the children of their friends. Students on campus come to women for a listening ear. More eldercare falls to daughters than sons.

Distraction and attention

“Deciding what to pay attention to for this hour, day, week, or year, much less a lifetime, is a peculiarly human predicament, and your quality of life largely depends on how you handle it,” Winifred Gallagher wrote in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (Penguin 2009). Interruptions compete for our attention.

Your exposure to distractions and interruptions depends on many factors. A recluse sets different boundaries from an earth mother. Professional demands vary by job; 24/7 availability contributes to faculty burnout. Environmental constraints like your office location matter too.

Although technology could free us up for increased focus, reflection and solitude, the ways we use it have the opposite effect. How often do you check your email? Do you use your cell phone while you drive? Are you always on call for work, just because it’s technically possible?

Our students grew up on texting, facebooking and tweeting. Many of them text in class, figuring they’ll pick up the course content by osmosis. Adelman’s study of 45 students at Seattle University found they spend 4.6 to 6 hours a day of their disposable time on some form of electronic media.

Their iPhones are the transition objects they carry to feel safe in new situations, the way they might have taken teddy bears as youngsters. They experience “no-mobile phobia” or fear and anxiety if they leave their cell phone behind. Her students don’t think it’s funny.

Electronic communication has its upsides. It keeps us in touch with friends and family far away. It lets us post course materials for students, promote online discussion and answer their questions out of class. It makes resources more readily available than ever before.

Without boundaries, such advantages come at a cost. Constant communications mean constant distraction. “Distraction takes us away from what is valuable,” she said. While distraction has its place, as when we’re in pain or grief, more often it diminishes us.

Multitasking. You’re sitting at your computer and an email comes through. You’re lunching with a friend and the phone rings in your purse. She said that 22% of Germans will interrupt sex to answer their cell phone.

Doing several things at a time may feel efficient, but research shows it’s stressful and counterproductive, unless the activities are mindless. Listening to the radio while you fold laundry probably won’t hurt you, but sending text messages while you drive is downright dangerous.

Superficiality. Turn on a 24-hour news channel and you’ll see a main picture with audio, text to the side of the screen and a row or two of headlines across the bottom. You’re getting too many bits of information and none of it in depth.

“We’re twittering our lives away. I eavesdrop a lot but the conversation is so banal,” she said. Her sister uses the term “non-versations.” Do your Facebook friends really care what you ate for breakfast? What’s a friend anyway? “Having 500 virtual friends doesn’t affect who you’ll donate a kidney to.”

Loss of proportion. Everything is an emergency, from running out of gas to a hangnail. Parents panic any time they can’t reach their child by cell phone.

Changing attention span. This one’s tricky. A video game addict may play for hours nonstop, but the game designers built in constant new stimulation to hold that attention. Is it harder today for students to sit down with a book-length work of literature and keep reading? Do they find it harder to read closely and easier to skim?

Lost conversations. Like the rest of us, students don’t like being chided or having a finger wagged at them. But some respond positively to noting how many possible conversations they miss by staying wired, their earphones or keypad-in-hand giving the message “don’t speak to me.”

Fear of solitude. We not only let technology keep us from solitude; once it becomes a habit, we may find solitude uncomfortable. But it’s important to a balanced life for students, faculty and staff.

Why solitude?

Having a room of your own may mean a literal space, especially if you share a home and workspace with others. It may mean having focused time away, where the phone won’t ring and nobody will knock on the door. To write quality work or get into the flow, you need uninterrupted blocks of time.

Solitude without work may be harder to justify to yourself or others, but it holds many virtues for quality of life. She drew seven from the solitude studies of Philip Koch and John Barbour:

1. Freedom. When you’re alone there are no social constraints to limit your thought, imagination and physical movement.

2. Attunement to self. Alone you can reclaim your voice and connect with your deeper, authentic self. 3. Attunement to nature. Ego melts away in a sense of mystery and awe as the barriers between self and nature disappear.

4. Reflective perspective. Alone with our memories, we reflect on past experiences beyond the limits of rational inquiry.

5. Creativity. In studying the autobiographies of 300 geniuses, Edith Cobb found that their creative imaginations developed during childhood times of self-reliance and unstructured play.

6. Healing. People withdraw to regenerate from physical or psychic wounds. Social interactions at such times can drain and deplete us.

7. Adventure. Some find a challenging adventure in going off alone, whether in a vision quest or in a less formal time of solitude. Solitude should not be confused with its negative cousins: loneliness, social isolation and alienation. We need human connection and relationships. But we also need voluntary withdrawal to restore the spirit in relationship with self.

Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Teaching Restorative Solitude

Invited a few years ago to teach her dream course, Adelman chose “Restorative Solitude” and used a year’s sabbatical to prepare it. Her interdisciplinary course includes readings, outside assignments and in-class contemplative practices including sitting and walking meditation.

Students watch the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Although she’s been told her topic is not in the Jesuit mission, Adelman has one class session containing a presentation by a Jesuit priest relating solitude to faith and the Jesuit ethos.

Students explore such questions as:

  • Can you have solitude in a crowd?
  • How does solitude relate to privacy?
  • When or how do you experience joie de vivre?
  • How do simplicity and slow living fit in?
  • How does media saturation affect your life?

For a week they track their usage of the Internet, email, social networking, cell phone, land phone, text messaging, television and radio. Their log tells time of day, duration and their emotions before, during and after. After a week students summarize any patterns in their usage and related emotions.

Later they commit to four full days of “media liberation,” eliminating all non-work-related media use. How does it feel? What are the challenges? Students also conduct interviews and complete an individual major project such as a research study, poetry reading or photo exhibition.

Elsewhere in the classroom

Adelman also offers a faculty workshop on “Pedagogy of Solitude” and an adaptation for faculty, students and staff called “Solitude for Everyday Life.” When she offered a faculty workshop on dealing with students’ distraction in the classroom, especially related to their use of technology, she got 48 responses within two hours of posting the workshop announcement.

At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the music school offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Jazz and Contemplative Studies, grounded in the idea that meditation and related practices enhance creativity. Brown University in Providence RI offers courses in “Introduction to Contemplative Studies,” “Still and Moving Minds: Contemplative Practice in Literature” and “Theory and Practice of Buddhist Meditation.” Faculty from several departments have formed the Contemplative Studies Initiative with a goal to establish a concentration combining objective study with firsthand understanding.

Smith College MA hosts an annual summer session for educators on contemplative curriculum development. Smith’s social work school offers a graduate certificate in Contemplative Clinical Practice. The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education held its second annual conference last fall at nearby Amherst College.

Research at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Emory University in Atlanta is documenting the educational value of solitary practices such as meditation and free writing. While critics say they’re impossible to grade, it’s hard to question the academic value of focused attention, creativity, nuance and memory, all of which benefit from solitude.

“This topic needs to get a place at the table. It’s the most pressing issue on campus today,” she said. If you’re trying to reduce distractions and work more solitude into your life, she suggests being gentle with yourself. It’s not “the whole enchilada or nothing.”

Take small walks; you don’t need a trip to the mountain. Give yourself ten minutes to meditate or let go. Stop at the gym briefly. Welcome the red traffic light as a friend. Small steps become a habit to enhance your quality of life.

To contact Mara Adelman:
mara@seattleu.edu  or 206.296.5344


Cook, Sarah Gibbard. Solitude: 'The Most Pressing Issue on Campus Today'. Women in Higher Education, 20(8), p. 1-3.

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