Half-Baked Thoughts: Academia is like playing chess in a world that’s on fire

Academia is like playing chess in a world that’s on fire.

These ideas echo through the vocabulary we used to describe it. You strategise, you play the game. You might accuse someone of gaming the system. We fear burning out. Every academic understands this meme.

In this scenario, there are two components. There is the game, and there is the fire. As an academic, you are the player. The game is academic success, promotion, publications, and increasing power and prestige. The fire is all the additional work we do. It is the (sometimes thankless and invisible) jobs of administration, course and program convenorship, teaching, lecture preparation, marking and grading and feedback, outreach, Open Days, and committee meetings.

Neither of the components is entirely optional. I suspect it is impossible to play chess and put out a fire at the same time, so you have to take turns doing both. There is one exception to this that I can think of, and I’ll get to it momentarily.

First, the chess. If you don’t know the pieces move, well, that’s it, game over! If you know what moves are possible, you have a chance, at least a remote one, of surviving a couple of rounds at least. Depending of course on your opponent. The only way to have a chance of something that looks like winning, is to have a strategy. But even if you an absolutely unbeatable strategy developed under the mentorship of a GrandMaster, you still, at some point or another, have to take out time to put out the fire. At least if you have a strategy, your time away from putting out the fire is used to its full potential.

The fire is something wild and all-consuming. It will take up as much of your time as you will let it. It will never go out, you can never truly win. There will always be more fire.

The solution, in this metaphor, as I see it, is to play the game whenever you can as well as you can. This may mean letting the fire get bad at times and thus more time-consuming later to control. As with research, success seems to come with a degree of willingness to get uncomfortable – accept that your arm hairs might get singed, but also be aware of where your limits are, how much discomfort you are able and willing to endure. Otherwise the fire will just burn you (out), right?

As with chess, academic success I believe can be achieved through immense effort and dedication. The study of chess strategies, learning sequences of moves, analysing the games of the masters. But unlike chess, the landscape of academia is perpetually shifting – the strategies that were successful for senior colleagues might not be equally applicable to their new and junior colleagues, because the latter operate within a very different set of parameters. For me, what has proven invaluable, is the advice and guidance of mentors. The secret is not to be taught what to do (moving the pawn to King 4, or relentlessly trying to publish that article in that one specific journal), but how to think through the strategies that help you consider outcomes several steps ahead. Navigating the fire and the game can become an informed balancing act.

The one exception to that scenario that springs to my mind is a collaboration, where both (or more) colleagues take turns to put out the fire, freeing their colleague to concentrate on their game. But this isn’t without its own problems, and there is a risk of either or both partners risking taking so much fire-extinguishing on that their own game suffers. I think those who help us put out fires, either regularly or even as a one off, are amazing, wonderful, cherished colleagues, and we should be aware and grateful for their support and contributions. I think if more of us consciously and deliberately chose to identify opportunities to put out fires for each other, we could make huge improvements to academia.

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