They Got Game

by grouperlab

You’ve probably seen the highlight film.  If you happened to see the play live, you cheered (if they were on your team), or groaned—even then, you might have to admit it was a memorable play.  The game winning grand slam.  (Yes, I’ve got Red Sox gear, and Phillies gear, at home.)  The clutch goal in the 85th or 90th minute.  (Extra style points for headers or bicycle kicks.)  Or maybe the 90+ yard touchdown run.  (Just to show that I root for Purdue, as well as for Wisconsin.)


I’ve got to witness several of these plays this past Fall, either in the stadium or on live TV.   Even the thought of the play brings a smile to my face. These are peak experiences for athletes, and sometimes even for their fans.  Big plays on big stages, they say.  “Big-time Players make big-time plays.”  But, how do you compare those peak experiences to those of others in other domains?  Do academics have the equivalent of a highlight reel?  Especially those who are in academia, there is a sense of life in the research university as a different tier of performance and competition.  Getting promoted in a US News top-10 ranked program is seen as a major highlight.  Being selected as a Principal Investigator (PI) for a new grant from a major government agency can be a hallmark of one’s career.  Academics even use the metaphors of sports to describe such events.  Home run.  Slam dunk.  Major League.


For a few days this month, that’s how I felt regarding my own research activity right now.  After weeks, or months, or in some cases years of effort, some ideas have been coming to fruition.  At Space Grant, we submitted a proposal to the NSF to provide research experiences for teachers to use the Purdue’s HUB technology infrastructure to develop software models to teach STEM concepts to K-12 students in Evansville, Ft. Wayne, and Indianapolis—and highlight some of these software models in the local science museums there.  I was asked to lead a FAA project to help with improving the quality and safety of weather information provided to pilots during severe weather conditions.   And best of all… A NASA research project that I have dreamed about for months, to help with information flow and task coordination for human-robotic collaboration to do planetary science for lunar and martian moon surfaces—how cool is that?  And my team was selected for such a project, within the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute!  Time to practice my fist pumping, shoulder brushing, touchdown dance?


Not so fast.  It is, of course, November.  This year, “Surviving November” (one of the GROUPER “song titles”) for me has included doctoral prelim exams, grading statistics exams, and evaluating team project summaries in both the statistics course and the capstone design course.  The task lists, and the email inbox, both grow—sometimes faster than I can recognize that I have more tasks to do over the next day, or week.  This is when it’s tough.  Why did I sign up for this?  Why do I put myself under this pressure?  And, in a question that I have asked several of my colleagues… Why am I still trying to get tenure?


The answer to that question is both viciously insidious, and beautifully clear.  I’ve been working like this for the past 30 years.  I have lots of ideas, and am rarely satisfied with the standard way of doing things (or having people tell me there’s only one proper or correct way to do it).  In 1983, it was becoming convinced that it was easier to get two undergraduate degrees rather than one.  In 1993, I had to learn that I couldn’t put every cool idea into a single paper that could get me tenure immediately.  But I did like the idea of studying the effects of time delay on tolerance for group interactions using this new technology called the web browser, or examining how to evaluate different options for that new digital voice mail technology being considered for state government.  In 2003, it was believing that I could do more with Indiana Space Grant, and maybe we should try to write a proposal for an upgrade, less than 12 months after doing a complete overhaul of the program and award structure.  So really, what’s been happening is that I have been rewarded and reinforced for being this way.  Intermittent reinforcement works the best, as the operant conditioning psychologists have long known.  If you want to make sure a behavior sticks around for a very long time, reinforce it.  But only do so a fraction of the time—maybe 15% or so.  On a semi-random basis.  (That sounds like grant proposal writing.)  In baseball or in funded research, what do you call a person who has an overall success rate of 40%?  A member of the Hall of Fame.


It’s a tough world, and it’s a devastating level of competition that can emotionally and physically hurt.  There’s no need to make it harder than it is, or to be erratic and cruel just to show the students how hard it can be.  Can it be sufficient to just say, “We’re not going to tolerate less than excellence today”?  That attitude doesn’t start with the award, and it doesn’t end with the award either.  Every day is a struggle, but not necessarily against a competitor.  Maybe it’s against one’s own doubt or insecurity.  Perhaps it is just the need to push back the veil and curtain of ignorance.  And sometimes, it’s just the desire to do just a little bit better than last time, or see if one can do just as well as last time.


I don’t want to be on the sidelines.  I want to participate.  Even if I’m tired tonight, I want to be able to function tomorrow.  And tomorrow, the game starts anew.