Analogising Academia

I have a collection of ‘favourite’ analogies for academic life. A lot of people use phrases like ‘balancing act’, or ‘juggling multiple things’. I prefer to describe the semester as spinning plates myself; breakable and fragile plates that need setting down gently on their respective shelves rather than crashing to the ground unchecked and smashed. Regardless, they are all analogies that invoke the sense of a performance, if not a circus then certainly a street performance act.

It’s effectively the end of semester, and some would disagree on points of calendar driven pedantry because there is one more week of teaching after the Easter break, then exams, then resits, then exam boards, graduation, more resits and then it’s the start of semester again. The reality is that it doesn’t ‘end’ in the way it used to feel like it did. And I’m shifting gears from teaching to outreach for May and June with some lovely events coming up.

In this 14 week run down from Christmas I have: finished a book chapter and seen it through proofs; submitted a small funding application; presented my research twice; done some outreach of which some was externally funded; had a collaborative paper rejected; offered and received feedback on teaching from colleagues and students; taught my classes, rewritten 8 x 2 hour sessions, and taught two topics I love for the final time; watched students present, and interviewed them for posters; supervised project students; attended meetings; carried out research… and yet it feels like the pile of half-done things is somehow more significant than all that. The manuscript that is a third complete yet stuck because I don’t like the plan, the revise and resubmit that’s going to just have to be a fresh submission because any sense of a deadline is long in my past, the half-completed ethics forms for projects that I really want to do but can’t quite finish and submit the forms, the admin stuff that needs tending and has grown unruly round the edges.

I don’t really think street performance is the appropriate analogy for all of the above. I’m leaning far more towards snakes and ladders.

Snakes and ladders board – 62 squares, 5 ladders, 4 snakes and a big golden star prize at the end.

I would modify the snakes and ladders board however, I’d add in a few super top secret black holes; tunnels through the fabric of space, time and the game board that transport you to an unseen location, one only apparent when you land on it. We’ll call the black holes privilege. For those who have the right kind, they act as ladders. For those who don’t, they act as snakes. But you don’t know where they are unless you really pay attention, even if you see it, there’s little you can do to avoid one, and you may not recognise you’ve benefitted from one because to you, it just looks like the same ladders as everywhere else on the board. If we want to push the analogy further, we should add in a few glass ceilings and walls, and probably infuse the game space with the stench of bias because there is some stink in academia.

So I’m curious, what analogies do you have in your mind for academia?

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