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Outside Smoke

Swimming is my thing. Sure, I’ll go for a run sometimes. But that’s only because I couldn’t get to the pool.
If I won the lottery, I would build a fifty-metre lap pool in my backyard and swim endless laps every day, many times a day, any time I didn’t have to be doing anything else. If it could be a magically (and, yes, terribly wasteful) heated outdoor pool where I could swim with the rain and the snow falling on my lips and ear every time I turned for a breath, even better. If you’ve never swum laps in an outdoor pool during a rainstorm, I’m not sure you’ve lived.
When I was in high school, I accidentally joined the swim team. I remember it being an accident. I think some friends suggested that we go to try outs. It was a lark. I could barely swim the length of the pool. I figured there was no way I would get on the team. I didn’t know that my high school swim team was the MOST democratic athletics team ever. They took everyone. My team won the city championships one year. Maybe two years in a row. I don’t really remember. I remember knowing that I didn’t do much to contribute to our victories and learning that, if the team is big enough, you can have a gold medal hanging around your neck and still not have won your heats (ahem, that was often me). You could lose individually, but your team will still pull through for a win.
That was one of the many, many things I learned, and am still learning, from swimming.
Like, how you only ever win a race by staying focused on what’s happening in your own lane. It was always so tempting to sneak a peak at the swimmers beside me, to see how I was doing compared to them, to see if they were pulling ahead. But that was always a mistake. It was completely wasted movement in a race where every millisecond counts.
For me, there is a lot about academic work that is like that. I can look over to see how someone else is doing (did I publish more than him this year? Are my teaching scores going to beat out the department average?) but I am only ever wasting energy that I really should devote to my own race, my own swim.
But it’s the whole idea of outside smoke that really gets me. In Swimming Studies, Leanne Shapton tells us that outside smoke describes an unlikely winner in a race:
The woman with the fastest time after preliminary heats occupies lane four. Second-fastest is in lane five, third in lane three. The rest, in descending order, are in lanes six, two, seven, one, and finally, eight. This placement accounts for the inverted-V formation that typically occurs during a race. A swimmer who leads from lane one, two, seven, or eight is often called “outside smoke.”
Swimmers who are understood to be less competitive are placed in the outside lanes of the big races. When you are in the outside lanes, you are at a disadvantage. The water is choppier on the outside. You have to deal with more drag. Being put in lane one or eight means that you are literally racing against expectations and that you will start from a position of disadvantage because of those expectations.
There is something about being outside smoke that seems especially relevant to thinking about difference in the academy. If you are a woman, if you grew up poor, if you’re not white, if English is your second language, if you are not able-bodied, if the circuits of your desires didn’t always line up with what dominant culture told you to want, you are swimming a race where you’ve already been put into the position of someone who is not expected to win. You are in lane one or eight. You might have a sense of structural disadvantages but you won’t always be able to name it the way a swimmer who is ready to leap off the block in lane eight will know, before the start gun ever sounds, that she has got to swim faster and against clear structural disadvantages if she wants to win.
Outside of the pool, you don’t even always know that you have been put in a crappy lane. At least in a real race, you can clearly see that you have been given a bad lane to start with. But part of the problem is that everyone tells you that the race to tenure is the same for everyone, when it really isn’t. Or you think you can go to a meeting and say something smart and be heard when what actually happens is that the (inevitably male) chair of the meeting doesn’t hear you and then, when a male colleague says the exact same thing a few minutes later, the chair of the meeting pauses thoughtfully and says, Great point! And then you want to gag or punch the table or both. Sometimes, there is SO much drag to get through before you hit the finish line.
But here’s the thing: you can still win. Remember: swimming has a sexy name for that kind of magic trick. Outside smoke. Here’s the other thing, I look around and I see all kinds of outside smoke all around. It’s amazing. There are so many of you out there, swimming these impossible races, coming up first even though you were given the worst lane to start with, and you are totally doing it. 

It’s March and a winter storm is about to descend even though I don’t think I can bear one more day in my winter boots. These last few weeks of term always seem so long. Already, twice this month, I’ve been so sick that I couldn’t get out of bed. I am staring down a lot of marking. And deadlines. And everything else. I know you are too. So, I just wanted to remind you, you are amazing. You keep hitting that finish line and beating all the expectations and you have to remember that even though every race you swim is your own, you’re on a big team and you’re not alone.

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