Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Notes Toward a Prolegomenon To All Future Golf/Academia Analogies

Scott Eric "The Red" (of eye, in the public eye, or at least that portion of it directed his way by KC Johnson!) Kaufman kicked it off. All the many people who have written glowing encomiums to and analyses of C.L.R. James's Beyond a Boundary moved the ball down the field. So you only have them to blame for the following series of plays I'm calling here. (The football epic simile is all my own.)

So what do golf/academia analogies have to do with teaching? Thanks for asking!

Way back when in Andrew Ross's Cultural Studies course in grad school my best friend and I did a teaching presentation on Beyond a Boundary. I hope it was more memorable to the class than it has turned out to be to me or my computers or my bookshelves, as I can't find any trace of it anywhere. But once, I'm certain, I did attempt to teach cricket to someone. Ross must have found it hilarious.

Which is the scenic route to my point: if you want a cricket critic, I am not your man. Nor am I trying to do for golf blogging what C.L.R. James did for cricket criticism. (Insert appropriate Zaphod Beeblebrox quotation here.) But I will try to convince you we can learn something from analogizing the academy through golf. So long as you provide the "something," no one will get hurt.

Grad School:Q-School. This one writes itself. Q-School, for those who don't know it, is a 6-round ordeal which only the top x in the field advance through to qualify for the top professional tour in the U.S.--PGA for men, LPGA for women. Of course, to even get into Q-School, you need to qualify. So your entire amateur career is like your primary and secondary schooling, undergrad is like the sectional qualifiers for Q-School, the pre-dissertation phase consists of the first 4 rounds of Q-School itself, the dissertation is the 5th, and the job search is the 6th. So you can end up with exempt status on the big tour (tenure-track job) or become a non-exempt tour member (off the tenure track) or not (try again next year or play on the Nationwide/Futures/Hooters Tour--more TAing or maybe community college adjuncting). The analogy breaks down a bit with that last option, as you figuratively have to start over at the undergrad level if you have a bad 6th round at Q-School. And actually a flaw creeps in before then, because you can get a job before you finish your dissertation, which would be something like the LPGA saying, "Well, you can finish your 5th round later, because the other 5 out of 6 were so good you're practically guaranteed of getting exempt status. Just try to get it in during your rookie year sometime." But otherwise it's a damn fine analogy. If you think playing center field is tough, try the last two rounds of Q-School.

Money List on PGA/LPGA:Renewal Process for Pre-Tenure Faculty. This one almost writes itself. If you don't make the top 90 on the money list in a given year on the LPGA Tour, you lose your exempt status; it's top 125 for the PGA. The higher you get on the money list, the more exempt you get (longer exemptions, more invitations to limited-field tournaments). And if you win a tournament, you get an even longer exemption. So losing your card is like losing your job (but at least you get to skip to the last round of Q-School!), doing well enough to be put up for a two- or three-year renewal by your department rather than staying to an annual schedule and to begin getting invited to give talks at conferences and public fora is like getting into the top 40 or whatever on the money list, and publishing your book is like winning a tournament. Now, there's really no tenure on either tour, so the analogy kind of breaks down there, but most professional careers don't last 7 years, anyway, so let's ignore that problem and move on to the next analogy.

Your Individual Career:A 72-Hole Tournament. What I like about this analogy is that it brings out how academia is unlike most sports, in that you should get better with age, and the stakes get higher the further you go. Break your academic career down into 9-year segments and make each segment equivalent to one round in a tournament consisting of four such beasties. Grad school and any relevant experience before it is the first round; pre-tenure is the second (assuming most people these days start out with some sort of adjuncting or visiting experience before getting on the tenure track); then comes the cut (only the top 70 plus ties in a 120-to-144-player field usually move on for the final two rounds--quite a bit harsher than the overall tenure rate in the U.S. each year, I'll hazard a guess); then the last two rounds are where you're going for the win, coasting to retirement, or something in between (a WD is ok, but make sure you don't do something that'll get you DQed). By this count, I'm already in the weekend of my academic career. They call Saturday "moving day," because it's the time when the lead pack pulls away from the field. So if each academic year is the equivalent of 2 holes (yes, I chose the length of my segments carefully), I'd better start making some birdies.

Course:Institution. Some courses are tougher and/or more prestigious than others. The tournament organizers might want to set the course up even tougher than usual or they might want a birdie-fest. So how high the rough is, how narrow the fairways are cut, how fast the greens are running, how close to trouble the pins are placed, and a million other factors--including the weather--determine how difficult a particular course will be playing, above and beyond the course architecture/layout. So make the tenured faculty, administrators, and trustees of a college or university the tournament organizers, the taxpayers, alumni, and other donors the tournament sponsors and course owners, the students, parents, legislators, and others who affect the conditions of teaching and research the weather, and the tenure-track professors the humble players trying to figure out where the birdie holes are and how to survive the monster holes and howling winds. So while this analogy, when combined with the previous one, assumes you stay at one institution your entire career, it's otherwise pretty good.

Stats:Assessment. Moneyball magpies and fantasy football freaks may think they've got the market cornered on which stats matter the most in determining player quality/value, and they've certainly got a point that on its face it's tougher to do this for a team sport than an individual sport like golf, but, face it, people, golfers and golf fans are the nerdiest stats people of all--been tracking stats, arguing over which matter the most, and using them to develop and tweak player ranking systems for much much longer and better than anyone else. Players themselves try to "close the loop" by looking at outcomes to figure out where to improve their games. I don't quite know what greens in regulation percentage, scrambling percentage, birdies per round, scoring average, majors and other wins, top 3s, top 10s, and annual and career money lists are equivalent to in academia, but if I had more time, I'd flesh out that analogy at both individual and institutional levels.

Some other time. In the meantime, feel free to propose further analogical possibilities in comments.

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