Roller derby! It seems to be everywhere these days, and I couldn’t be happier. Derby 101 has begun at my local league, and I am learning to skate (in between all the times I fall down). I’ve started noticing some important ways in which academia and roller derby are similar -- and ways in which they are really, really, different.
1. You’ll fall on your ass. A lot. And you just have to keep getting up over and over again. In academia, it’s metaphorical, but it still hurts.
2. Perseverance is much more important than innate talent. In academia, it’s been noted by many people that finishing your Ph.D. is more a reflection of your ability to keep at something until you finish it, and less a reflection of your intelligence. In roller derby, the same seems to be true. More than once I’ve been lying on the floor panting, and a veteran derby girl skated over to assure me that the first time she put on skates, she couldn’t stand up without falling down either. It just takes practice, and the willingness to get bruised (see #1).
But this is pretty much where the similarities end. It’s much easier to think of ways that roller derby and academia are different.
1. Criticism vs cheering. In academia, it’s all about peer review and criticism. The idea is that peer reviewers are the gatekeepers of scholarship, ensuring high-quality work. In reality, however, peer review can be just plain mean sometimes -- we all have our Reviewer #3 experiences to share. Graduate students are encouraged to start thinking this way right away. If you’ve ever given a seminar to a group of early-stage graduate students who turned in anonymous critiques of your talk, you know what I mean -- they’re often hyper-critical without any sympathy, because they haven’t yet tried to do much real research themselves. The general attitude of academia is sink-or-swim: if you can’t take the criticism, then you don’t deserve to be an academic. When you fall down (see above), people tend to look the other way and hope it doesn’t happen to them.
In roller derby, the emphasis is on cheering each other on. During practice, we are told that we are not allowed to judge ourselves and feel bad about how we’re doing. I am one of the slowest and least skilled skaters on the track, but several times during practice the instructors make a point of telling me what a good job I’m doing and how fast I’m improving. When you fall down (see above), people check to make sure you’re ok, assure you that it’s happened to them too, and help you get back on your feet.
In both academia and roller derby, when I first began, I felt like I really didn’t know what I was doing, and that everyone else was better at it than me. In my first year of graduate school, I spent many tearful nights alone in my apartment, seriously considering dropping out. In roller derby? Not a chance. I’m having a fabulous time, and I’m confident that I’ll get better at this.
2. Exclusivity vs. inclusivity. Academia is a tough world to break into. It’s hard to get into grad school, finish grad school, land a tenure-track job, get tenure, get funding. Etc. And a lot of people think that’s just fine, and enjoy the exclusivity. In roller derby, the more the merrier! Tell a derby girl that you enjoy watching derby, and she’ll invite you to learn to skate and to try out. Seriously.
3. Unfriendly vs. friendly competition. Academic rivalries can get pretty ugly, to the point that journals and grants usually give you the opportunity to request that certain people not review your manuscript or proposal. In roller derby - despite what you saw in Whip It - everybody’s friends. Go to any derby bout, and you’ll see the opposing jammers dancing together or even hugging during the line-up before the jam starts. Yes, they compete against each other hard - but then they go out for beers together after the bout and tell each other how awesome they are. And they mean it.
4. Mostly men vs mostly women. Is this the reason for the other differences? Hmm, maybe. Sometimes I think so. But there are men involved in roller derby too, as coaches and referees and non-skating officials, and they are just as inclusive and supportive as the women in roller derby, so maybe it’s more than just gender.
In roller derby, and I suppose in other team sports (not that I’ve ever played any), all of the time spent on the track and falling down and being in pain and whatnot are a bonding experience. It’s something that the other people in your life don’t understand and haven’t experienced. Academia is also time consuming and often painful... but it doesn’t seem to lead to the same kind of bonding. I used to be ok with it, but now it makes me sad.