Born To Run

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Can education be reduced to a metaphor? I ponder this question because I’m rather fond of metaphor’s, especially bad one’s. I have often used the metaphor of a journey to describe the research process. This is not just because it is a good metaphor, but mainly because it allows me to use pictures of the Starship Enterprise in my presentations.
But recently a friend of mine lent me a book by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In this non-fictional book he talks about ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘, which is a great title for a book. I haven’t completed the book yet, but in reading it I was struck by how much the author compares the art of writing to the discipline of running. This struck a chord.
I enjoy a run, though probably using the word ‘enjoy’ in this context isn’t entirely accurate. However, like Makurami I run regularly. I’m not a great runner, but neither am I a disaster. I can complete 10 kilometres in about 54 minutes. And, regularly average a pace of below 5 minutes 30 seconds on longer runs.
Has any of this got anything to do with ‘Thinking Socially’? I’m glad you asked. Reading Makurami’s account of his experiences running I started to wonder if running was a good metaphor for education. When students start courses isn’t it a bit like a distance run. At the start of a long distance race everybody is very positive and excited. They expect to do well. Like education, they are not necessarily in competition with the others in the race, but mainly with themselves – those all elusive ‘Personal bests’ are what rattle a runners chain.
But nobody can compete a marathon, or even a half-marathon (my current goal) without doing a fair bit of training. Is a degree a marathon, or perhaps we should keep the marathon metaphor for the PhD? Researching and writing a PhD certainly feels a marathon undertaking. It fits nicely inside ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ the classic 1959 book by Alan Sillitoe. That book, a fiction, is about the struggle of a young criminal, Smith, to assert his individuality through his running. The run and the training become a metaphor for life. Anybody writing a PhD will recognise the feelings both of isolation and invigoration that are key themes of Sillitoe’s work.
So, yes, a Marathon can probably be a metaphor for a PhD. But long distance, even short distance, running provides a metaphoric language for education.
Starting a degree is not dissimilar to the first few training sessions for a new runner. I regularly attend the Cardiff Parkrun, a weekly 5 kilometre run with around 400 other runners. Times range from 13 minutes to 45 minutes. Everybody there has an individual goal. Everybody wants to complete the course, often a goal of new runners is simply to run the entire 5k. I have never had to walk/run, even if my 26 + minutes is not going to break any records. But new students often make the same mistake of over-doing it. The idea that you can hold down a full-time job, keep your family satisfied and complete two modules simultaneously only appears over-ambitious when you get fired, divorced and fail at least one of the courses. Like runners who have never run the distance before thinking they might win the race, students very often have over ambitious goals.
If training for a run requires dedication it often requires you to face up to truths you have been trying to ignore. Having completed my second 10k of the year last weekend I realised I was nowhere close to being able to complete a half-marathon in 3 weeks time (for which I entered before picking up a niggly knee injury). I had been kidding myself I would be fine. I have now realised that the gap between my actual fitness and my optimism is so large that I am delaying my half-marathon attempt until March 2014.
My inner conversation reminded me of discussions with students who clearly are struggling to find time to put in the effort, but still expect good marks. With Universities under pressure to improve retention and completion rates we are confronted with a moral dilemma. What is in the interests of students is not necessarily in the interests of the organisation. Like demented personal trainers who drive on people to levels of effort their bodies reject (at a recent 5K a runner came past me at the finishing line being driven on by a personal trainer, on completion they threw up), we keep students studying who should defer, or even drop out, the equivalent of walking part of a run, or dropping out of a race we are in no fit state to complete.

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