Monday, September 12, 2005


Sprinting vs. Marathoning

In the last entry, I slipped in a metaphor that I’ve used privately for years, without bothering to explain it. My bad. I’ll try to explain it.

Teaching is like sprinting. (Okay, if I’m using ‘like,’ it’s a simile, not a metaphor. The point still stands...) A really obtuse observer might say, of a sprinter, that she has an easy job: 10 seconds of work, max, and she’s done for the day. How easy is that?

The joke, of course, is that the real work goes into preparing for those ten seconds. The race itself is just a small part of the picture.

Something similar (though less extreme) is at work with teachers. A really obtuse observer could say that college professors have it easy – just 6-15 hours a week in class (depending on the school), and that’s it. Not like the 40 that civilians do. Plus summers off! What a scam!

Deaning is closer to distance running. When I teach a class, I try to give it all I have, planning to rest and recover later. Leave it all on the field, as the sports guys say. Deaning doesn’t work like that. I’m in the office for civilian-job lengths of time, or more during rubber-chicken-circuit season, so constant sprinting just isn’t an option. I can’t leave it all on the field, every day, or there wouldn’t be much left to leave after a while.

The hardest semester I ever had was the first time I moved into administration. I moved mid-semester, so I had to carry my regular courses for two months while performing the admin job full-time. I felt like someone had dropped a piano on me. Since all of my previous academic experience had been on the teacher or student side, I initially approached the new assignment that way. Big mistake. After the first month, I wasn’t doing either job well, and I was dangerously tired. I had to learn to downshift, to pace myself more deliberately while in the dean’s office.

That’s not the same as slacking, any more than it’s slacking when a marathoner runs 100 meters more slowly than a sprinter would. It’s just pacing.

In some ways, I think department chairs have harder jobs than deans do. Chairs have to switch between sprinting and distance running, since they carry a teaching load every semester. I find switching back and forth much more draining than either by itself.

The academic calender is relatively well-suited to sprinting: intense bursts of activity, with significant downtime for recovery. The administrative calendar is incessant, but usually lower-intensity; the successful administrator figures out a sustainable pace, and devotes actual mental energy to preserving it. (This may be why, to professors, deans seem preternaturally unflappable: we can’t let ourselves get ‘flapped’ at every new piece of news, or we’d flop.) A professor can afford to ignore the vast majority of what goes on on campus, concentrating her passion on a pet cause or two; for a dean, the opposite is true.

The dilemma for colleges, of course, is that the best sprinters don’t always make the best marathoners. The skills and temperaments each requires are different. Yet we set up successful sprinting as a prereq to marathoning.

Research is something else altogether – I haven’t figured out a good metaphor yet. Any ideas?

A sometimes competitive scavenger hunt?
Carrying on with the running metaphors, I'd say research is like running on a treadmill - whether you're going for distance or for speed, the ground that you cover is ultimately in your head.

This may be too cynical a view, though.
Cross Training?
Speed work for distance runners?
A Triathalon Mentality?

You've sometimes got to sprint (write that grant by the deadline.) Then you've got to pace yourself for the long haul (research) Data analysis is a totally different beast from writing (biking vs. running?). And then you'd better have something left for the last mile for the revise and resubmit process.
I like an analogy that can include all those discussions with colleagues and friends, wherein we perform the intellectual chewing on our materials. So... I want a more social metaphor -- that research is like the planning, shopping and cooking for, and then holding the once-per season to-die-for dinner party.

Writing, as compared to 'research', is not at all properly named. Like "sewing" there is very little of the activity involved in the name it carries. That is: sewing is much more about measuring, pinning, cutting, and fitting than it is about sewing. Same with writing. I can write a 25 page article in a week. I wrote 30 page comps in 72 hours. But it can take months to be ready for those hours, and those months of preparation must all be assembled in a coherent fashion, lest you lose a piece.
Research is the Tour de France--days of riding with years of preparing.

I'm currently sprinting and marathoning at the same time. Yowsa!
I love the treadmill metaphor, but it's, well, maybe a little nihilistic (too close to the truth?).

The distinction between research and writing is dead-on. This was always my problem with the "write twenty minutes a day" approach -- it assumes that you have the content and the ideas, and you just haven't been disciplined about writing them down. I've written a 25-page comp exam in 24 hours (really!); speed of prose isn't the issue. The dissertation took so damn long not because I couldn't sit down at the keyboard, but because I didn't know what to write when I got there. Writing is the easy part. Thanks for the clarification!
How about downhill skiing? Exhilarating!!!! And then you crash and feel awful and embarrassed and have to pick yourself up and brush the snow off and it feels aboslutely terrifying to keep going down the hill but there's not really any other option outside of a helicopter. Then you do OK, sort of, but at the bottom, you have to walk all the way back to the top again. Or get a ski lift if you're at a fancy sort of a place :)

Plenty of time for discussions while you're walking up. Or on the ski lift.
I'll extend the triathlon metaphor for combo jobs that include administration, teaching, researching/writing, etc. That could include chairing depts or running smaller programs.

In a triathlon, you're not just switching sports during the endurance race; you have to approach each leg a little differently than if you were just doing a single event race, both in your training and in the race itself. For example, many triathletes swim without kicking; they learn how to balance in the water without kicking and use fish-like motions to reduce resistence in the water. They're not lazy; they're saving their legs for the bike and run legs. Triathletes (or even slumps like me) specifically have to train their legs to make the switch from biking to running. Legs do not like that switch, so to make it effortlessly during the race, you have to practice. You also have to work on both endurance and speed so you'll be able to last until the end and have the reserves to kick it up a notch now and then.

During the race, you find yourself in the midst of all this motion, and, for those of us out there for the experience rather than to win, you have time to chat with fellow racers, use their energy to keep you going, and celebrate each other's victories.
An analogy--
College professor is to running on a slow treadmill in an office as high school teacher is to doing a triathlon while carrying an administrator on his back.
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