Academics are supposed to be open minded, explore unconventional ideas and question cultural norms – so why are they stuck on what it means to be single?
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I recently read a post titled “I Have to Remember to Put on My Dating Hat” in Chronicle Vitae, a website for college professors like me. It led to a series of short essays by single academics and I was struck by the overarching theme of loneliness. This is understandable, given that love and affection are parts of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And for many years, I felt that way too.
While earning my Ph.D. and during my first year as an assistant professor, I lived in both El Paso, Texas and Newport News, Virginia, respectively — small towns in the South where “family values” are the norm. For many years, I established relationships with women simply to be able to say I was “in a relationship.” I didn’t feel anything special for them, I only wanted to end questions like, “You’re not married?”
Below are some other examples:
Professor: “You’ve never even been engaged?”
Fellow Grad Student No. 1 (and future colleague): “Really? You don’t even have a dog?”
Fellow Grad Student No. 2: “Craig can go to Juarez. He doesn’t have kids.”
At the time, those comments made me feel shame. Some might say, “Oh, he’s just being oversensitive.” However, after educating myself on singlism, a term coined by singles expert Bella DePaulo Ph.D. to describe the stigmatizing of people who are single, I realized such comments are a form of discrimination. Moreover, they’re a form of prejudice that has been accepted by our government and in social norms for hundreds of years. This negative stereotyping appears to be especially enforced in academia, a place where skepticism and free thinking are supposed to be encouraged.
Doing more research on the injustices faced by singles — in the housing market, tax benefits, and in daily social interactions peppered with questions like, “Why aren’t you married?” and “When are you having kids?” — I knew I had to study further. I’ve learned a lot, including how conversations about social injustice are rampant in regard to feminism, racial discrimination, and gay rights. But there’s very little out there about the discrimination faced by single people. And while singles haven’t had crosses burned on their lawns, they face more subtle, socially accepted forms social stigma.
On the job: During the first year of my Ph.D. program, I traveled with a married colleague to a university to visit a professor who is also in our field. The conversation went well, except for the fact that the professor stated with pride that, “We’re a family-friendly institution,” to which my married colleague was elated. Being the only single person at the table, I couldn’t say anything but wondered if I’d ever hear the words: “We’re a singles-friendly institution.” In El Paso, Texas, where one is viewed as an oddball if they don’t have at least one child by age 18, the concept would be laughable.
In popular media: We’ve all seen these movies that paint the single person as screwed up before they couple up, and many of us have been conditioned to believe that’s normal. Some people even continue to stay in bad relationships because they’re so afraid of being single. The most recent example I can think of is Trainwreck with Amy Schumer. A more offensive example is Crossing Delancey, which is all about an empowered, liberated woman who enjoys her life, her career, and her friends, while her grandmother keeps nudging her to enter a relationship until she finally sets her up with someone. The protagonist is resistant throughout the movie until the obligatory Hollywood conclusion where she gets together with the man and they live happily ever after.
In basic customer service: Businesses routinely give discounts to couples and families all in the name of trying to be family-friendly, which is encouraged by society. Here’s an example: for a recent conference in my professional field, single rooms were $119 at the conference rate. Double rooms were $149. This meant that if an attendee wants to bring a spouse or significant other, it only costs $74.50 a person, not including taxes. Granted, the hotel may be offering that discount in the hopes that two people will spend more money on other items at the hotel, such as room service, vending machines, and laundry services — so it may not appear discriminatory. In fact, it may just look like good business. However, that common practice makes the single person pay more. Let’s also not forget family cell phone plans, discounts for the children’s menu, and countless other items.
This is, obviously, an abridged list. I haven’t even mentioned health and car insurance, employment benefits, social security, and free day care at academic conferences.
Even though books and academic articles have been written about discrimination against single people, the discussion of the problem remains largely confined to websites and online forums. As academics, we’re supposed to be skeptical about prevalent views. It’s about time our notions about how we blindly accept attitudes and beliefs about how our culture views singles is approached with an open mind as well.
Copyright © Craig Wynne / 2015 Singular Communications, LLC.
Craig Wynne, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia. He is currently researching singlism as pertains to academic careers. He has written articles on writing anxiety and enjoys writing fiction and how-to non-fiction in his spare time. When not immersed in his work, he enjoys hiking, running, and traveling. With respect to the latter, he recently taught developmental writing to high school students in Muar, Malaysia. He enjoys the single life and the freedom it gives him to grow.