By Samantha Brennan
“More than ever before in my life I’m comfortable with failure. My powers of patience impress even me these days. … There are things that come easy and things that come hard and it’s not necessarily the case that you’ll do better at the easy stuff. I try to model that and teach it to my students. In the classroom I’ve tried some things that haven’t worked. It’s no big deal.”
This summer I turn 50, the Big Birthday. I recently declared myself at the halfway mark in my career as a university professor. And mostly I’m excited about that. I love my job and retirement is the furthest thing from my mind. (Well, except for hating Canadian winter. But as I’ve recently realized, you don’t need to retire to flee cold weather. I’d love a joint appointment at a university somewhere warm.)
I’ve been interviewed about about turning 50 at the Queer50 site and written about it lots over at Fit is a Feminist Issue, the feminism and fitness blog I started with my friend and colleague Tracy Isaacs. See, for example, On not growing old gracefully. There I wrote,
I began as an assistant professor at 28 and ending at 68 sounds good. And here I am at 48. And, here’s the best bit, lots of the hard work is done. I’m a full professor. (Professors move from the rank of assistant, to associate, to full.) Kids are successful and happy, in their teen years and beyond. So the stressful, hard work of getting tenure and coping with toddlers is behind me. So I’m going to have fun. I love my job, love teaching and love research and writing. Great friends. Great family. And as you know from reading this blog, lots of enjoyable and rewarding physical activities. Fun times and adventures ahead.
But what does that mean for teaching? I know what it means for research. I’m taking on some big exciting fun projects (Feminist Philosophy Quarterly: coming soon) and writing about some fun things, like Miss Piggy for example! (See Is Miss Piggy a Feminist Icon?) I’m submitting fewer things to refereed journals and accepting more of the exciting invites that come across my inbox. I know I should care more about my research profile but I’m also just coming off a long stint of academic administration (eight years as Department Chair) and I’m ready for fun.
I have to confess that for a philosopher, I’ve been awfully non-reflective about my teaching, not as philosophical as I might be.
But I have been thinking a lot about fitness and what it means to be a midlife, middle of the pack athlete and it seems to me there are some things that midlife teaching and midlife racing and training have in common.
Here’s six thoughts:
1. In both athletics and academics I love teaching new people, introducing people to the sports and to academic disciplines and ideas I’ve come to love. I get the same feeling when a friend buys her first bike (see here, here, and here) as I do when a student decides to major in Philosophy. I’m all “See here’s this beautiful shiny thing that I love. You might love it too!” and when that works, and the two connect, that’s just wonderful.
2. I have a base level of fitness/knowledge that allows me to branch into new things. Last year it was trying rowing and teaching Digital Ethics, both brand new to me. My level of background in applied ethics is such now that I feel like I can take on new courses without the amount of preparation required eating up an entire semester. In sports my fitness level means I can concentrate on skills. I’m not out of breath from the effort involved.
3. I’m a good student. I love coaches. We had a terrific rowing coach and I think the CrossFit London coach is also amazing. I’ve learned a lot from some of the Aikido Senseis. These days I’m finding I pay more attention to the teaching techniques they use and trying them out on my own students. I’ve been thinking about the role trust plays. When they say I can do something, that something will be hard but I can do it, I believe them. I say similar things to my students about understanding philosophy.
4. As a teacher and as an athlete I know my strengths. There are topics I can turn to in the classroom that I know will go well. “Let’s take some time and talk about the utilitarians as moral and political reformers and their views about homosexuality.” Off we go. On the bike, I’m no hill climber but give me a straight stretch of a road and a sprint, and I can have fun with that.
5. More than ever before in my life I’m comfortable with failure. My powers of patience impress even me these days. There are things that I do that I find very hard but I stick with them. Aikido is like that. It took me nearly six years to learn how to roll. But I did it. There are things that come easy and things that come hard and it’s not necessarily the case that you’ll do better at the easy stuff. I try to model that and teach it to my students. In the classroom I’ve tried some things that haven’t worked. It’s no big deal. I have a long history of successful teaching behind me. It’ll be okay. I’ve started sharing bad news – SSHRC grant rejections, journals that don’t want my work – on Facebook so that my graduate students can see that it’s normal, just part and parcel of an academic career.
6. In both the academic classroom and in the athletic context, there are a great many things I can’t wait to try. I keep drafting course outlines for future courses in a wide range of areas: the ethics of big data, sexual ethics, sports ethics. I do the same thing with sports that I admire from the outside but don’t have time to try. I add them to my list. Cyclocross racing anyone?