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.

10 thoughts on “What’s your work pattern? Choose your (sports) metaphor

  1. I'm an NBA fan, so I need a basketball metaphor. I think I'm a highly efficient low-volume bench shooter. There are players who score, say, 10 points on nights when they play 10 miutes. Give them 20 minutes of court time, and they'll score 20 points, and so on. Then there are players who score 10 points in 10 minutes, and will score the same 10 points in 20 minutes, or 30 minutes, or 40 minutes of play. They might be great shooters, they might have fantastic accuracy, but their achievements don't correlate with playing time.
    When I'm focused on work, I get a lot done in a short amount of time. But even though I can get five good pages drafted in two hours, that doesn't mean that if I sat in front of the computer for eight hours, I would produce twenty pages. I'll likely max out at that same amount of production regardless of how many hours I put in. Once I figured this out, I used it to schedule my time and started working on projects further ahead of the deadline. I also stopped comparing myself to people who put in 12 hour days. They might be high-volume superstars, but they also might be bench shooters like me who are staying on the court long after their shooting hands go cold. I structure my work day around short bursts of activity, and don't stress out about taking time away from work to recharge. I'm like… the Kevin Martin of diss writing.


  2. This is awesome! Thanks so much, Alison! I was a version of the bench shooter myself when I was writing my dissertation, and it's a great reminder that things can change. Also, different kinds of work require different methodologies/metaphors.

    Keep 'em coming, folks! Thanks!


  3. Ballet. I spend a ridiculous amount of time not working, but I think of it like stretching. Stretch, relax, stretch, relax, repeat endlessly. Like Allison above, I'm only “productive” in short spurts. These are my moments of performance, whether that's in the classroom or on the page. I wish that I could think of it as a nine-to-five job, but that has never worked for me.

    While the aspects of this metaphor (stretching versus performance) could be applied to any sport, I think of ballet because it pushes the art motif. Being technically proficient (for us, perhaps that's being well-read) is only part of it. Just as ballet provides space for an individual sense of phrasing (a stilled movement here, a faster, higher movement there, still within the steps and built on that earned proficiency), so too I think we need to allow ourselves space in our academic lives for our own senses of academic phrasing. The pressures of publishing, job hunts, teaching etc. makes that phrasing difficult, because I suspect that many of us follow a pattern of what we think is the “right” thing to do/the next “step.” I'm hardly far along enough in my career to have any kind of wisdom, but I'm starting to think that the most successful academics–and here I define success not necessarily by prestige or publication, but by people who seem interested in and satisfied with their careers–are those who work within the academic framework, but who allow themselves the freedom to “phrase” their work differently, according to their individual loves and quirks.

    For me, the hardest part of grad school (and something I'm still trying to understand in my job) is learning how to give up my constant comparison with others (who are inevitably smarter, better read, more charming, etc.) and recognize that my personal road to success will be based on the quirks and oddities of my work. I still have to stretch and perform, but I'm just starting to realize that I can phrase my career/my writing/my teaching/my service according to my own talent, and not to how I think I should be. So… ballet.


  4. Such a thoughtful and generous analogy, Amanda. I especially like how the ballet metaphor allows for moments of non-productive work, which are so difficult to justify to ourselves (there was a whole convo on Twitter earlier today about how exercising makes academics feel guilty, because they're taking time away from work) and to others (how many people outside of academia actually understand that we don't have four-month vacations every year?).


  5. Looks like the adage about great minds holds true, InBabyAttachMode! It's fascinating to see how much science work has in common with the humanities/social sciences, in spite of popular thinking. Thanks for stopping by with your example!


  6. Poker. Not a sport, a game. To play poker at all well, you've got to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, take tough stuff as a lesson, pay attention to others and not just yourself, and win graciously. You recognize that there is a luck element, but it doesn't have to determine how you play. You play with all kinds of people and you have to get along with them. You have to respect people's differences. You set goals to see if you can make them. You stick with it even when it's boring, and you commit yourself to continuous learning. Sometimes, you have to call someone's bluff because they are all talk. You have to be tough, but generous and open in order to be respected in the community. And, you sometimes have to knock off, go home, and do something else, because poker isn't all there is to life.

    That's what I have learned from poker. I apply those ideas to my research, administrative work and teaching all the time.


  7. Never would have thought of poker, but you make such a great case for it, Dr. Identity! Oh, how I would love to call some people's bluff [wait, was that my outside voice?]. Thanks for this great analogy.


  8. perhaps what's missing is not a sense of career but a calling to deep and egalitarian community that is undermined by the competitive structures we find ourselves in? i work hard too and love the work, but sometimes it feels like i am playing shuffleboard on the titanic, in which case maybe i'm both rowing and bailing, in concert with others. this article from Topia's issue on the university helps to articulate some of my unease: (“Academic Feminism’s Entanglements with University Corporatization” by Janice Newson)


  9. Shuffleboard on the Titanic! Now that's something that would never have crossed my mind, but thanks for picking up on that, and for reminding me of this awesome–albeit depressing–special issue, to which I've actually contributed a meagre review. You're right, of course, mycorrhizalwong, that we are facing a systemic problem. My challenge to myself is to try and think through it, against it, and, finally, beyond it, and to conceptualize this impasse in ways that produce a conversation (thank you for participating), and that offer glimpses of alternatives.


Comments are closed.