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When Is Competition a Positive Force?

April 17, 2012, 11:16 am

Thomas Eakins, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871), Metropolitan Museum of Art

Yesterday morning I was gliding down the river in my single scull. I was ten to fifteen minutes from the dock, workout complete, leg muscles burning slightly, warming down and starting to think about the rest of the day. After I navigated the last turn, a long bend that can make you or break you in the annual 3.5 mile race our rowing club hosts in October, it would be a straight shot back to the boat house.

Then I noticed another sculler on my port side: I was about a half length ahead.

I don’t wear my glasses on the water (more than one rower has sent an $800 pair of specs to the bottom of the river) so I identify others by how they row and the color of their boats. It was Jackson, a 70-something masters’ rower who taught me how to steer the big turn when I was new to the river, and who was doing his usual neat job of clearing the docks by about six inches, minimizing the number of meters he would row. As we both headed toward “the wire,” an electrical cable that crosses the river and serves as the finish line for our intra-club races, the competition bug started to nag me.

I picked up my pace a few beats. So did Jackson.

I added a little pressure.

So did Jackson.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jackson begin to lean into the piece, his blades crisply cutting into the water and his body moving at a steady, faster rhythm. I brought my own ratings up to race pace, aiming to match his power. Without saying anything or gesturing to each other, we were on a race course of our own device, each of us grimly determined to prevent the other from crossing the wire first.

Before I tell you how the race turned out, I want to translate this experience to the different varieties of competition that we engage as academic laborers, and argue that informal competition is the most generative for our work. At its best, competitiveness pushes us forward intellectually, challenges us to think faster and more originally than those around us. It helps us get over the line with books and articles that might otherwise be put off. Other kinds of competition, as we all know, creates stress without giving much in return. We watch other people publishing more and fantasize about their mysterious “connections,” what that person’s advisor or mentor is doing for them that ours isn’t, the “moving goal posts” or the cr^ppy parental leave policies that seem to make the task of coming up for tenure insurmountable. Competition can leave us bitter about work experiences and the pettiness of academic life, actually tearing down our capacity for creative work.

Or there is the destructiveness of inter-institutional competition, driven by the odious U.S. News and World Reports College Rankings.  Every year, as if it had never done so before, this publication breathlessly asks a question that makes little difference to the 99% of students and higher ed laborers:  is it better to attend Princeton or Harvard? Williams or Amherst? For the twenty years I worked there, Zenith University hovered somewhere between the tenth and the twelfth spot, which is pretty respectable in the scale of things. And yet, until Current President took over, and mercifully put a stop to this hazing ritual, the faculty was castigated on an annual basis because the trustees felt we were not doing our part in helping the institution move up the list. One year in the far past we were all ritually shamed because Zenith had been passed by Smith, the subtext being, of course that Smith is a grrrrlz skool!!!!!  Part of why Zenith ranks lower than our friends to the north is the size of its peni$ endowment, which could lead you to say: “look how much more Zenith does with so much less!” On the plus side, because of its smaller package, Zenith also doesn’t have money for those horrid cowbells that Williams fans are always banging on at sporting events.

The U.S. News and World Report rankings, in my view, would be an example of bad competition because they are pointless.  As you move down the list of excellent schools, where people work hard to educate the students they have, the rankings reveal very little about the character of colleges, why students are happy there (or not), what gets taught and how effectively, or whether the IT and library support the college’s mission effectively. Student to faculty ratios, for example, tell you nothing, since they are calculated on the presumption that all faculty are on duty all the time, and that responsibility for teaching and advising is divided equally among them.

I could run down the list of other kinds of bad competition: worrying about whether your tenure case measures up to X’s, the one that went through with flying colors last year; whether you negotiated a bigger startup than Y in your new job (hint:  people lie about what they have negotiated from a new employer all the time); whether you are Professor Fabulous’s favorite graduate student; and ditching low classy dinner companions at a convention so your friends will see you walking out the door with Chauncey DeVega and his friends.

So what about good competition? Good competition results in people pushing each other to be better.  Good competition is when you look at a colleague who is publishing a lot and instead of making a list of the reasons you can’t, or don’t seem to want to, write, thinking instead that you are going to bring your game up just a notch.  Good competition is when you are interviewing for a job, you’re scared, you’ve heard all sorts of rumors about “what they really want” and you decide to go for broke and leave it all on the floor in your job talk. Good competition is when you have a writing group that is being supportive, but not just supportive – you are goading each other on to really finish something. Good competition is not to be shy about getting three cases of that book you just published and selling it out of the trunk of your car at the book party. Good competition is, when you are brainstorming with a group of colleagues, coming up with an idea that is just a little bit better, more original, and more viable, and is going to push the group harder.

So to take you back to the river, Jackson crossed the wire first. Even though I adjusted several times to get a little more speed, his consistency won out.  And yet, because I took the opportunity to compete, I had gotten to test myself just a bit: see where I was and how I measured up next to a rower who is older but far more technically skilled than I. We coasted back to the dock without talking, and when we landed and were taking our oars out, I said, “Don’t even pretend you weren’t racing me back there.” He smiled good-naturedly and swung his boat up over his head.

So all competition isn’t good, but some of it is — and as they say about the lottery, you can’t win if you don’t play. Readers — how do you decide when it is worth your while to compete?

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