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Context and Variation

Context and Variation


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Survival, On the Roller Derby and Tenure Tracks

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Teammate Houchebag cutting her way around a defender, 21 Sep 2013.

Houchebag cutting her way around a defender, 21 Sep 2013. Photo by Tom Schaefges.

I’m having the conversation I always have with my fellow jammer after she does something amazing.

“What exactly are you doing when you get through that wall? What are you doing with your feet?”

Houchebag looks thoughtful, but doesn’t answer.

I persist. “You look like you’re dancing. How do you evade blockers so well?”

Eventually, Houche answers.

“It’s an act of survival. I’m just trying to survive out there.”

Her humble response always leaves me unsatisfied. I think she is so intuitively skilled and hardworking that she just can’t break down what she is doing into motions I can understand. I watch her the next time she jams, and the next. She manages to take the time she needs to get through our opponents’ walls yet carries a sense of urgency.

I am a lot more bullheaded, more panicked when I jam. I have a tendency to run straight at a wall in the hopes of busting it open. I have a lot of physical strength on my side, and I tend to rely on this more than skill when I am scared. When I am scared, my body reverts back to doing what it knows it can do, and it knows it can out-muscle most opponents eventually. So I skate full speed at walls made of powerful bodies, smashing and smashing until one of them falters. I exhaust myself running at the same thing head on, risking – and often incurring – the penalties that put me in the box and leave my team without a point-scoring jammer.

* * *

In the last few years, I’ve noticed parallels between my athletic and my scholarly personality. When I’m scared, I don’t want to feel that fear, so I just start running at whatever I’m scared of in the hopes I can conquer it, and bulldozing into things is a comfortable state for me.

In my first year on the tenure track, I got asked to take on a major service teaching project, when my focus should have been on establishing a research program. Sure! Let me run into this thing that I have confidence doing, and away from the thing that scares me! I also started to collect undergraduates, mentor them, help them graduate with good coursework and experience and letters, and they all get into good graduate and medical schools. I write this blog. Teaching, mentoring and communicating are aspects of my professional career that are comfortable for me. They are also activities that are typically gendered female, and – no surprises here – valued less than academic pursuits that require more direct self-promotion and one-upmanship, like competing for grants and fellowships.

On the one hand, the way I’ve run into these female activities has been a sort of “fuck you” to a sexist profession, an insistence on my part that these are valuable and important deeds. On the other hand, they have been a way for me to work incredibly hard at my job while not facing the impostor syndrome that rises up like bile every time I open my statistics software or a new grant application.

My teaching, mentoring, and writing have made me a good scholar, the kind of person who can think big picture and small. Over the last year I have noticed that people really listen to what I have to say, that specific aims, chosen statistics, and even the directions of committees can change, in part, because of me. A few mentors have appeared, senior women who really want to see me succeed, and they have opened doors or taught me things at key times that have helped me start to have success in grantwriting, and research more generally. I have taught myself more sophisticated statistics, gene expression analyses, and molecular biology.

I have been a tenure-track professor for five years, and only now am I gaining competence and sophistication in the measures that are valued most in this job.

Perhaps I ran too fast towards what made me comfortable, and for me being radical and difficult is being comfortable. But also, perhaps, gaining those skills have made me something more than I would have been if I had done what I should rather than what I wanted.

I just think it’s interesting to note that my gendered female moves towards teaching, mentoring and writing – things we so often advise women against, sometimes so they can pass as male, sometimes so they will not be forced to shoulder a disproportionate service burden – are some of the things that have made me a good thinker and better at my job. But they have only made me better because I forced myself to learn new skills and take new risks.

It’s only working because I got out of my own way.

* * *

This past Saturday was one of the most important bouts of the year, a rematch against our toughest opponent. We have never beat them. In our last bout, I smashed against their unmoving walls until I was too exhausted to be of any use. I threw myself at them again and again, gaining inches and then losing feet. Our other jammers adjusted. They moved fluidly, evading, surviving. I asked to block so I could at least help play some offense.

Since that bout, I have increased my strength and plyometric workouts, my comfort zone of training. But I also finally made myself do two things: add speed and agility workouts, and learn better cutting and hockey stop techniques to make me more evasive and wily on the track. I bought harder wheels, I did extra practices in our off season, I skipped water breaks to keep working on my skills. I watched bouts online and attended clinics.

During warmups on bout day, I was cutting back and forth, doing those fast moves across the track that the other jammers do so effortlessly, and lamenting in my head that I probably wouldn’t do this once the whole bout. It wasn’t muscle memory yet, I told myself, and I knew my tendencies. Instead of give in to this, I let myself recognize the fear, and recognize the skill. The truth was that my body knew how to do it, it had known for a while, and I just had to tell my brain to stop putting false limits on my abilities. I was ready for this bout.

The bout was violent, our opponents so consistently powerful that none of us jammers got a break. But we were getting through. I waited for my blockers to make offense for me, or I waited for holes to open. I juked, I cut. I ran into blockers, but then used the momentum to turn me sideways and slink around them.

We were behind the whole bout, but at various points had chipped away at our opponents’ lead. With only a few minutes to go, I was back up as jammer. Soon into the jam the opposing jammer got sent to the penalty box, which is a huge scoring opportunity, but also meant all four of their blockers would be focused solely on me. Gulp. I got through the first pass thanks to my blockers and made my way around the track, my blockers executing their passive offense well and leaving me space to work.

I approached the wall of four and did something I had never done in a bout before. I cut in one direction, then cut back to hit the wall at a diagonal, aiming for one skater’s hips. The wall of four splintered and I got through.

Five points.

I heard the crowd start to go nuts as I skated around the track for another pass. Approaching the wall, again I cut one way and hit them at a diagonal. Again it splintered and I got through. I fell a little, and ran my way out of the fall.

Another five points.

Again the screaming, it seemed in that moment like the loudest, most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I called it off so our next jammer could benefit from starting with a power jam, as the other jammer was still serving her time in the penalty box.

I looked at the score. 135-134, I think it was. We were finally in the lead. Our other jammers outdid themselves in the last few jams, the whole team playing clean, cool, exceptional derby in those last minutes to secure our win, 148-136.

The win came largely from our blockers’ spectacular defense and the fact that we all played so clean. And I don’t think that one jam means I am forever transformed as a jammer. But I think I am starting to understand what Houche – our clutch jammer who went back to back in the last two jams to win it – meant when she talked about survival.

Survival is about building up what you’re good at as well as building up what you’re afraid of. It’s about trusting your abilities while being relentless about improving them. Survival is letting yourself get comfortable with uncertainty, with being both relaxed and tense, present and anticipating.

I know we often hear that we need to “survive and thrive,” and I hear that alongside the mythical “work/life balance” as well. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think aspiring to a pretend life of “thriving” or “balance” is nearly as stimulating as aspiring to the biggest, boldest life you possibly can. Big, bold lives are scary, they are a lot of work, and you spend a lot of time wondering if you’re doing it wrong. But there is no bigger rush than when it goes right.

Survival may sound like a cruel word, but it’s what we do. Surviving is exhilarating, it means getting to live another day, to face your challenges and make decisions about your life. For tenure-track faculty with identities that are underrepresented in our fields, it’s about the most radical thing any of us can do.

Some of my team cheering right at the buzzer of our win. I'm the one jumping.

Some of my team cheering right at the buzzer of our win. I'm the one jumping. Photo by Tom Schaefges.

This post was written on the eve of the Purdue Pre-Tenure Conference for Women, which starts tomorrow. This was written to help me think about the panel I will be on Thursday at 11:15am.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. anonpostdoc 2:13 pm 09/25/2013

    I just got teary reading this. I don’t know anything about derby terminology, but I could very much relate to the middle section about tenure-track fears. I’m in my first year of a brand new faculty job and I have two main tasks: prepare to teach and publish. I have so much dissertation data that the publishing part *really* shouldn’t be a problem right now, and I did manage to submit some manuscripts nearly a year ago, but I am absolutely terrified of the revisions. I will choose anything – lecture prep, new data collection, blog reading, advising, anything service-y, ANYTHING – over the gut-wrenching task of opening and confronting reviewer comments. I know this can’t continue. I know I’m hamstringing my own career. I know the comments are not that scary. I know I *can* revise these manuscripts and write new ones and live the big, bold life I want. I’m just not sure that today is the day for it. Tomorrow might not work, either. Thanks for writing this and helping me realize (again) that I’m hiding, but also that I’m not the only one who struggles with aspects of the job. Maybe tomorrow will be the day, after all.

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