Fly on the Wall—Solitary Scholars or Lonely Learners?

Unearthing Some Truths About Distance

Fly on the Wall—Solitary Scholars or Lonely Learners?

When Robin Williams passed away five years ago many of us sensed that one of the loneliest people on earth had departed.  His epic line, that “I used to think that the worst thing in life was to end up all alone.  It’s not.  The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone,” stands as a stark reminder that finding others who share our sense of life is not a foregone conclusion.  Williams’ sentiment resonates with anyone who has ever felt like a social outcast.  Here at AU, we may have wonderful personal lives, yet, by the nature of distance education, we nevertheless are somewhat alone in our studies.  We can’t expect loved ones and peers to necessarily understand our coursework for the simple reason that they aren’t sharing in it and, for them, school days often aren’t something they relish revisiting.

The distance between ourselves and others can be magnified when we embark on AU studies.  In moments when our education seems to wind us up a lonely path, we might recall the desperation mouthed by the grunge poet Steven Jesse Bernstein.  His surreal and preposterous lyrics remind us of our stable genius even while we feel a certain wistful nostalgia for shared experiences, good and bad, in our classrooms of yore: “You are gripping the phone, smiling, eating candy, crying, ‘I am with the important women now.  I am secretly an important man.  Hang up the phone, I can’t dance with you anymore.  Go to your freezer and get a popsicle.’” (Go get a popsicle, indeed.  Sometimes in our studies all we have are ourselves and our snacks for company.

Alone but Growing

The solitary existence of AU student life can also play to our strengths as vibrant intellectual dynamos.  It’s totally natural to feel isolation—after all, there’s a reason it’s called distance education, not intimate education.  Compared to its darker and more diabolical cousin, depression, intellectual loneliness can reveal how interaction with others founders on assumptions of total affinity.  Maybe we’re never with others or alone with ourselves as much as we think.  Certainly, we can’t expect even our closest friends to understand all that we do and are.  And even within our fine minds we have many aspects that occupy a diverse whole.

We are each not one but many and in this sense some parts of us are more distant from others.  “For the body does not consist of one part, but of many.” says the book of Corinthians and, more recently, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari argued that our being is like a grass rhizome: “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.  You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed.” Even our brains are provisionally divided by the corpus callosum into left and right hemispheres.  So, within us and without us, interactions provide the solace of contact even if true connections remain by nature provisional.

Our Individualized Worlds

AU leads us to encounter directly this solitary sense of contact with our subject material; the inanimate animates as inspiration breathes life into our readings.  Soon, what Pierre Bourdieu termed our “habitus” and Jurgen Habermas described as our “lifeworld” comes to represent, though not duplicate, all that we’ve absorbed during our learning process. Learning takes us to new islands of inquiry even as we may drift away from others and from former versions of ourselves.  The journey can be a lonely one.  As much as we love our family, friends, pets and hobbies, AU can lead us down a rabbit hole.  But it doesn’t have to be that way, thanks to grouped class forums and the Internet’s boundless interactive possibilities.  And much of what we learn is translatable into daily language.  There are no theorists or concepts we encounter that others haven’t studied in detail before.  Likewise, learned production begins with regular life.

What’s more, and most prescient when we think about being alone even with others, classroom study itself can often be the most desolate and lonely experience imaginable.  There’s a reason Jean-Paul Sartre concluded that hell is other people; many university classes lack the ecstatic spark that joyful learning provides.  Like a Norman Rockwell painting of students slumped, sleeping and dulled out in an antique classroom (does one exist, I don’t know, but we can imagine it in the solitary art museum of our brains!) brick and mortar institutions can suck the life of our love of learning.  Lucky for us, AU lets us design our own classroom and meander through course material with the free spirit of a snowshoe hair hopping through fresh snow.

Finding the Right Others on Our Journey

Of course, having a friend, acquaintance or mentor goes a long way toward academic success.  Yet we need to be careful not to take our commonalities too seriously; individualized study means we have to set our own course and adopt our own effective routines.  Just as with romantic love, academic partnerships have their limits; even the best study buddy can’t replace our inner resolve when it comes to accomplishing our goals.

This realism is far from pessimism! In a sense, all friends are imaginary.  We find affinities with others, such as when an acquaintance shares an interest in psychology or biology or museums, but these are limited to the bounds of their discipline.  We may abhor other tastes of theirs such as their amour for pugs or their fondness for wheat grass.  A perfect match between two people would be like an absolutely perfect map drawn in 1:1 ratio; such a map would cover the world and literally replace what it meant to describe (Borges, 1658).  Even matching ourselves to ourselves presents impossibilities.  We are never quite the same person in one present moment as we were in the past; this echoes how our cells are always dying and being regenerated and how our guts are full of foreign bodies that ferment and augment our digestive and endocrinal functioning.

Whenever we speak, think, or feel we are being ourselves expressing something that is neither quite all of us or an exact representation of who we are and how we feel.  Our sentiments form sentences but only by shearing away that which is untranslatable.  When we speak with others or reflect on our inner thoughts we automatically take multiple positions and receive different responses depending on countless contextual factors.  No interaction is a straight 1:1 map of sender and audience.  As such, we are neither alone with our thoughts as a singular unity nor ever quite in full embrace with an Other with whom we communicate.

Even the most sympathetic audience can only relate to us with a part of themselves and that’s ok anyway; we aren’t each blank slates waiting to be covered over with mute facts.  Vast swathes of ourselves and the others who inhabit our lives remain a delicious mystery; we’re never alone when we realize that there’s always more to explore.

Whatever parts we find to engage with in a person or a course, there will be other parts that disinterest us or that we abhor.  Although no amount of reasoning will bridge the divide, we can take solace in the joys of accepting incommensurate realities; who wants a world where everyone thinks the same as everyone else?

Borges, J.L.  (1658).  ‘On Exactitude in Science’.  Retrieved from