academic work · community · work

What’s your work pattern? Choose your (sports) metaphor

Last month, due to my parents’ being around, and thus benefiting from free baby-sitting, I went back to playing tennis. Playing tennis might be a bit of an overstatement in my case, which brings me to the point of today’s post. First, please indulge me in a little longer preamble. I went back to playing tennis after a gap of around five-and-a-half years. Last time I held a racquet I was taking lessons while 3-6 months pregnant with my oldest. So I thought it would take me a long time to pick up my long-lost skills, let alone be able to play tennis. Surprise, surprise: thanks to muscle memory, my tennis shots were somewhat better even than when I had left them off, a while ago. My game though, not so much. And this realization finally brings me back to the point of this post: while I had really good shots (my backhand is a thing to behold), I actually had no game. As I was rallying on the tennis court, it dawned on me that my tennis game, or, rather, its near-absence, is a metaphor for my academic life: all the elements are there (publications, teaching, service, awards, etc.) but, to elevate it into a fully-blown career, I need something more. An ace-yielding serve.

I learned to play (at) tennis as an adult, when my partner, an accomplished tennis player, gave me a racquet and free lessons (what can I tell you, I’m all about freebies) for a birthday. I will not, I repeat, *not*, reveal which birthday under any kind of threat or for any treats in the world. So I accepted his gift with a mix of emotions: yes, I was excited, but also a bit tentative (could I really learn a new sport at this–albeit still tender–age?), and somewhat pissed (who does he think he is trying to teach me stuff? men!). But learn I did, begrudging my partner’s patience (if he wants to act all superior and teacherly, the least I can do is become a difficult student, so I can teach him a lesson about trying that s*&@ again). Unfortunately for me and my subversive (or are they passive-aggressive?) intentions, I had a powerful shot both on the fore- and on the backhand, which was as exciting (on the rare occasions when they actually landed on the court) as a runner’s high. With practice, those shots found their target more and more often, and I was hooked.

My tennis career took a break, right after I was taking those lessons to bring the elements of my game together into a consistent whole. All I needed was a dependable serve and some practice in playing for points with someone of my own level. As most soon-to-be-parents for the first time, I thought I’d be able to go right back to all aspects of my life postpartum. Maybe not the next day after, but surely within two months, no? Well, I was no Kim Clijsters, and I lived in Edmonton, where the window for playing tennis extends for all of five months, if we’re lucky (and, yes, I can and will blame Edmonton for its weather). Long story short, here we are in 2013, and I’m discovering that while my tennis shots have improved during the pause, I still got no whole thing I can call a game.

How does that relate to my academic life? We’ve talked before on Hook and Eye about how parenthood makes one more focused during work hours (paying for child care sure gives you perspective), so I’ve been quite good at getting publications. I love teaching, and my department shows its generosity in giving me varied teaching assignments, while my evaluations show I’m doing a great job at it. I value academic community and strive to make it come about in various ways, so that ticks the service box, too. However, I still feel like something vital absents itself in a way that makes the totality of these elements add up to less than an academic career. I know my case stands hardly as an exception.

Now that I’ve gotten to the point of identifying the issue, I’m going to try to understand it, in order to remedy it. There’s probably not cut-and-dried answer to it, so am looking for my own answer to it, for my own version of the dependable serve or the ace. I’m tired of hearing “it’s not you, it’s the job market,” especially since that consolation voids any individual agency. So: I’m on a mission of finding my game, and I’m open to its taking me to unexpected places. I’ll keep you posted.

Et tu? Aimée and Melissa have already confessed to running metaphors for their writing, so here’s an invitation for you, reader: do you have a (sports) metaphor that (even partly) characterizes your work or career? How do athletic endeavours (yoga, pilates, pick-up basketball, hockey, softball, soccer, etc.) make you understand yourself and your idiosyncrasies better? I’m dying to know and learn from your stories.