We live in a time of change and challenge.
Dictionary.com defines change as a transformation or modification, an alteration; variety, novelty, or deviation; the substitution of one thing for another; the passing from one place, state, form, or phase to another.
That same website defines challenge as a call or summons to engage in any contest; something that serves as a call to battle, contest, special effort, etc.; a demand to explain or justify; difficulty in a job or undertaking that is stimulating.
These issues remind me of the concept of metaphors. Why? Because earlier this month I had the good fortune to work with several of the teaching and administrative team members at the University of Oregon’s American English Institute. In talking about the changes and challenges we currently face as language teaching professionals, one of my colleagues there remarked that working in our profession is rather like a roller-coaster ride.
Later, I was thinking about what the psychological impact is if I choose to think about my professional life as a roller-coaster ride. This idea reminded me of the classic Lakoff and Johnson (2008) book, Metaphors We Live By, which was first published in 1980. Earlier this month the citation for that book had recorded nearly 45,000 hits on Google Scholar. I take that number as evidence that the book has generated a great deal of interest in understanding metaphors and how they influence us.
A basic tenet of Lakoff and Johnson’s view is that our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. This idea made me think about the metaphors – especially the visual metaphors – we might use to refer to our work.
Let’s start with the concept of a roller coaster at a circus or an amusement part. We choose to ride the roller coaster. But once we get on, we can’t get off until the ride is done. We have no say over where it goes or how fast it goes or who’s in control. The roller-coaster ride may be scary, but for some people it can be exhilarating. When the ride is over, we end up back where we started.
A somewhat different visual image would be the moving staircase from the Harry Potter films. A staircase, whether it is made of wood or stone, is supposed to be stable. It should lead us predictably from one place to another, whether we are outside or indoors.
But in the world of language teaching, administration, assessment, and research, our metaphorical staircases sometimes move unexpectedly and in unpredictable ways, as they did for Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the Hogwarts castle. Staircases should lead us upwards and onwards, but we cannot count on challenges in our field being what we expect them to do or be. Eventually we’ll get somewhere, but it may be different from where we expected to be and there may be a huge, hungry, drooling, three-headed dog waiting for us there when we arrive.
Yet another image is that of building a plane while it’s in flight, or – depending on our perspective – flying a plane while it’s being built. Let’s imagine ourselves as the crew. We, the crew members, and the pilot are well trained and responsible. However, the aircraft may not be 100% ready for the challenges it faces.
Before departing we will have filed an academic flight plan. The plane leaves its point of origin with a clear destination. But changing weather conditions and political issues may force us to alter our course. Eventually we’ll land safely, with our passengers and crew intact, but who knows where we’ll be or whether we’ll arrive on time?
A final image is that of sailing through stormy seas. If we choose a sailboat as our metaphorical image, we know that making progress involves tacking with the wind. We have to work with the wind in order to move ahead. We know where we want to go. We understand our craft and our limits. We recognize (most of) the threats: the depths, the potential storms, the unpredictable winds, and even pirates.
But when we are sailing, we know who the captain is. We trust his/her skills and knowledge. Maybe we are the captain(s). We sail by choice and with a clear destination in mind and a sensible plan for getting there safely, even if we encounter a few adventures – and maybe even some rough weather – along the way.
Whether we are teachers, researchers, administrators, or test developers, or work in any other position for a school, nonprofit organization, or company, we rely on teamwork to be successful. We work with trusted colleagues. We help one another in taking risks. We work together to balance the ship, no matter what the equipment failures or weather conditions may be.
For these reasons, I choose the sailboat as my over-arching metaphor, instead of the roller coaster or the staircase or the half-finished plane in flight, to describe my professional life. I hope that you will consider getting on board with this line of reasoning. As we face the inevitable tides of change and challenge, I would like to wish you smooth sailing in all your endeavors in the year ahead.