In 1980, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson published Metaphors We Live By. Unfortunately, my copy is locked in my office, which I am not allowed to visit due to the coronavirus lockdown. I would very much like to read that book again, because I have been thinking so much about (and in) metaphors lately.
Over the past few months, there have been many changes in our expectations of how we would be spending our time in the spring, summer, and fall of 2020. (As usual, I am using my northern hemisphere orientation to the seasons.) Years of careful planning and negotiations fell apart, as conferences were cancelled, trips postponed, courses taught online instead of face-to-face, meetings carried out by teleconferencing, and virtual commencement ceremonies conducted at a distance. For many people, the pandemic-induced changes were more than inconvenient: For some this situation has resulted in unemployment, financial catastrophe, separation from loved ones, serious illness, and even death.
The topic of the pandemic is huge, but for the moment I am focusing on one particular issue that has been plaguing me in my role as our Program Chairperson. (Oh, dear – no pun intended, but plaguing is an apt example of the metaphors I want to write about.) As a result of changes brought on by the COVID-19 virus, our MA program’s course schedule for fall semester 2020 at MIIS (the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey) had to be reworked from the ground up (another metaphor). Ours is a small program but rather complex because we offer two masters degrees –– TESOL and Teaching Foreign Language (TFL). Students also have the option of staying an additional semester to complete one of our specializations (Language Program Administration, Intercultural Communicative Competence, or International Education Management). For these reasons, the schedule of classes must be carefully planned to allow diverse cohorts of students to meet their requirements in a timely fashion.
The culture of our program is very democratic, which is usually a blessing for me as a professor but sometimes a curse for me as an administrator (the blessing and curse language being an example of another widely used metaphor). In starting the schedule planning process, I gave all my colleagues their choice of courses to teach as well as their preferred schedules, trying to accommodate their individual needs (e.g., long commutes, child-care times, etc.). Getting the professors’ input and drafting a schedule took at least a week. Then, I had to check to make sure that no students were blocked (another metaphoric use of language) from taking required courses or electives due to scheduling overlaps. My colleague, Dr. Netta Avineri, checked the plan with me, and finally after several days of thought and consultation with the faculty members, I had a schedule that would work well for all the stakeholders (another metaphor).
Then COVID-19 hit and many things changed overnight. Sabbaticals were postponed. A hiring freeze was implemented. Professional development grants were cancelled. Fears about fall-semester enrollments surged. Would I have to cancel classes, or collapse two sections of a course into one? Would electives be under-enrolled and therefore closed? Would we be teaching all our courses online? My carefully crafted plan for fall semester had disintegrated (another metaphoric use).
Two images immediately occurred to me. My first thought was that the whole schedule had been a house of cards: too delicate and finely balanced, too fragile to sustain in the face of the pandemic. I also thought of the domino effect –– the idea that touching the first of several dominoes standing in a row can topple the entire chain (another metaphor).
Yet neither of those images works well as a metaphor for my current scheduling challenges. Yes, these images express sudden, even cataclysmic change, but as analogies they do not capture the unpredictable repercussions of the pandemic’s rapid and dangerous spread. A more appropriate metaphor for the effects of the coronavirus is an earthquake and its aftershocks –– both of which are unpredictable as to timing, strength, and location, or their possible effects on people.
Part of my job involves academic advising for our MA candidates. They are all sheltering in place now, and many of them are alone. Several of them are worried about their families – especially loved ones living in different countries. Some are stressed about finishing their course projects. One of my students told me that he feels like he will fail –– that he’s trying his best, but he’ll miss the goal. He said that finishing his courses this term feels like a high jump and he can’t clear the bar.
I asked why he had chosen that image and the told me he used to participate in track and field events. That fact gave me an idea for changing his metaphor. I suggested he think of completing the semester as a marathon instead of a high jump or a pole vault. He then shared memories of his first marathon, how his legs had started to cramp at the eighteenth mile. He said he had waddled across the finish line, but he had finished the race.
When we finished our conversation, my student promised he would keep the marathon image in mind. Changing the metaphor was intentional: Running a marathon requires persistence. It’s exhausting. It takes time and training. It lasts a great deal longer than a high jump or a pole vault attempt. But you don’t have to be the fastest and the first. You just have to finish.
Metaphors surround us. They are part of how we deal with the world. In a review of Metaphors We Live By, Peter Norvig (1985) wrote, “Metaphors are not just matters of language, but are used in reasoning and understanding. Typically, an abstract domain is understood metaphorically in terms of a more concrete domain” (para. 5).
The use of metaphors has been rampant in discussions of the coronavirus. In a fascinating podcast, Lewis Waller reminds us of Lakoff and Johnson’s point that metaphors give us a way to process experience. Waller directly relates those authors’ ideas to the metaphors used about the COVID-19 virus. He comments that metaphors often involve reference to a physical thing to help us understand abstract concepts. He explains that several speakers, including political figures, have used war metaphors in describing the coronavirus. (For Waller’s clear, twelve-minute summary of Lakoff and Johnson’s ideas, please click here.)
In a powerful article published in the Scientific American, Adina Wise (who is herself a doctor recovering from the coronavirus) notes that recently “a flurry of headlines about healthcare workers treating people with COVID-19 have utilized a wide array of military metaphors: Doctors are fighting on the frontlines without sufficient ammunition. They are battling the enemy. They are at war” (para. 1). She further states that “[t]o adopt a wartime mentality is fundamentally to allow for an all-bets-are-off, anything-goes approach to emerging victorious. And while there may very well be a time for slapdash tactics in the course of weaponized encounters on the physical battlefield, this is never how one should endeavor to practice medicine” (para. 4). (See also Musu, 2020.)
The Linguist List (dated April 8, 2020) recently announced that three researchers (Elena Semino, Lancaster University; Ines Olza, University of Navarra; Veronika Koller, Lancaster University) are collecting metaphors people use to talk about the pandemic. Their study focuses on alternatives to war metaphors. Anyone is welcome to contribute to a multilingual open-access document with the hashtag #ReframeCovid.
Let us return to Waller’s podcast. He points out that the pandemic is more like “a horror film than a war film.” Indeed, in a Washington Post article dated April 11, 2020, Julio Capó Jr. says that “metaphors can help us make sense of an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. This is what science fiction films did during the 1950s and 1960s” (para. 5).
Writing in the Connecticut Mirror on March 31, Mark Pazniokas said, “Public health experts speak calmly of an approaching storm, one moving west to east, like most weather in New England. Don’t forget your umbrella. The governor and hospital executives use more urgent language, warning of a surge, maybe even a tsunami” (para. 1).
What is the point of all this discussion about metaphors? I want to stress the idea that the metaphors we use not only reflect our thinking. They also shape it. Here’s an example. In referring to the allowances we would need to make for some of our students due to the COVID-19 lockdown, a colleague reminded me that some would need more time to finish their projects. She quoted an oft-used phrase: “We are all in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.” The juxtaposition of these two metaphors (the storm and the boat) helped me see that some students have few resources for coping with the changes wrought by the pandemic.
To return to my own earthquake metaphor, the infrastructure of some people’s lives is much less stable than mine. My biggest problem right now is rebuilding the fall semester schedule of classes. I have food, shelter, my health, and a relatively reliable Internet connection. I can conduct the bulk of my work online. My job is mostly secure and, thanks to the Foundation’s Trustees and donors, TIRF is financially stable – at least for the present. As you can see from the foregoing articles in this newsletter, the Foundation’s programs are continuing.
As the months ahead unfold (another metaphor), I will be asking once again for your financial support for TIRF, but not right now. For the time being, it is important to shelter in place, to stay safe or get well, and to support those in need in our own communities. Eventually the aftershocks will subside and we can begin to rebuild (another metaphor) our lives.
Capó, J. (2020). Metaphors make sense of the past. Can they guide us toward a post-coronavirus future? Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/04/11/metaphors-make-sense-past-can-they-guide-us-toward-post-covid-future/
Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. 1980. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Musu, C. (2020). War metaphors used for COVID-19 are compelling but also dangerous. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/war-metaphors-used-for-covid-19-are-compelling-but-also-dangerous-135406
Norvig, P. (1985). Review of Metaphors We Live By. Artificial Intelligence, 27(3), 357–361. Retrieved from norvig.com/mwlb.html
Pazniokas, M. (2020). The metaphors, metrics and modeling of COVID-19. Connecticut Mirror, Retrieved from https://ctmirror.org/2020/03/31/the-metaphors-metrics-and-modeling-of-covid-19/
Wise, A. (2020). Military metaphors distort the reality of COVID-19. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/military-metaphors-distort-the-reality-of-covid-19/