Academia on Wheels
|The Author! Photo credit: Martyn Boston|
“What are you going to do to reduce the stress in your life?” the doctor asked me in September 2012 after I described the shooting head pains I’d been having for five months. We’d also discussed my middle-of-the-night hospitalization in July for chest pains the day before I submitted the manuscript for my second monograph.
My response to the doctor’s question? I laughed. My teaching term was beginning in two weeks. I couldn’t conceive of anything it was in my power to do, bar quitting my job, that would effect any sort of meaningful stress reduction.
But I did do something in the fall of 2012 that took me a while to connect to what the doctor had asked me: I went to a roller derby recruitment event. I had figure skated as a child, but I knew nothing about roller derby. A friend of mine had recently become involved (another academic, who is now a fantastic roller derby referee), however, and encouraged me to do the same. I watched Whip It! and was confused (turns out it’s not terribly representative of the actual sport). But the recruitment event was held down the road from my house, I was curious, and I had nothing to lose.
For those who don’t know (and/or have been equally confused by Whip It!), roller derby is a contact sport played on quad roller skates. Although men play it, too (both on men’s and co-ed teams), roller derby, in its current incarnation, is a twenty-first-century phenomenon initially devised for women. Its much-vaunted ethos of “by the skaters, for the skaters” has the effect of bolstering a sense of community both on- and off-track. While individual skaters may have different senses of themselves in relation to feminism, on the whole I would say that roller derby constitutes an empowering, feminist space.
What a difference, then, to the oftentimes explicit misogyny of the academic workplace. And while I often get asked about the risk of injury in roller derby—“Isn’t it really violent?”—I can’t help but think of myself in that doctor’s office, as she tried to point out what my body was telling me three years ago: it had had enough of what my job was putting me through.
“When do you have time?” I’m also asked, given my commitments not only as a skater on both A and B squads, but also, currently, a member of our training committee. When I started roller derby, I skated in the evening of my heaviest teaching day of the week, when the last thing I could do was keep working, and the only thing I could do, it seemed, was skate.
Gradually, I realised that roller derby was helping to save me. My acupuncturist, whom I consulted about those mysterious shooting head pains, told me I should think about my feet. It occurred to me that skating ensured I was thinking about my feet: certainly, to think about work in the middle of a contact sport would have been foolish. My feet enabled me to give my head a break.
When I was lying in the hospital bed in July 2012, I caught myself worrying about whether I would die before my book came out. My chest pains, thankfully, turned out to have a muscular, rather than cardiac, source, brought on by a six-week cough and the toll on my body of the final push towards my manuscript deadline. I was discharged in the morning.
But I was determined, as an academic working in the UK system structured not only by a lack of tenure (abolished, surprise surprise, by Thatcher) but also by “Research Excellence Framework” imperatives, never again to let myself think about my mortality as a publication record problem. I was determined to reclaim something resembling a life, and a healthy one at that.
It may seem paradoxical to think about a contact sport as a form of self-care, but roller derby has almost certainly played that role for me. And while my academic career is likely to last longer than my roller derby career, I am convinced that I am only able to keep going in the former because of powerful lessons taught to me by the latter.
Gillian Roberts is an Associate Professor in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at Nottingham University. Her focus is on Canadian cultural texts and their circulation and celebration examines how the boundaries of 'Canadianness' are constructed and reconstructed according to opportunities for Canada to accrue cultural power. Her work consistently returns to hospitality discourse both in its engagement with immigrant and hyphenate Canadian writers who become internationally celebrated and in my interest in the Canada-US border: in both these areas, she is interested in how a 'Canadian host position' is constructed, as well as in the discrepancy between Canada's projection of itself as hospitable and the exclusivity with which 'Canadianness' is often defined. Her second monograph, Discrepant Parallels: Cultural Implications of the Canada-US Border, has recently been published by McGill-Queen's University Press (2015).