Finding Brains in Blood and Brawn

James Pfrehm describes how cage fighting has reinspired his inner academic. That's right -- cage fighting.

February 14, 2017
 
 

We touch gloves and put up our hands. We have three minutes, in this first of three rounds, to knock out, beat until the ref says stop, bend back limbs, cut off airways or otherwise force the other guy to cry uncle by tapping out.

I’m a full-time assistant professor in the humanities at a well-regarded private college. I’ve been in academe for nearly two decades. I have a Ph.D. and the usual slew of publications. I’ve taught dozens of courses in multiple departments. I’ve served on countless committees.

In short, I’ve done everything I could to be the best academic possible -- for my institution, my students and myself. And yet this is how I rediscovered my passion for what I do: 18 months ago, I decided to be a cage fighter.

Why would someone with an unwavering track record in the intellectuality of the liberal arts -- why would such an “enlightened” individual -- choose the brutality of mixed martial arts (MMA, for short)?

I get this question all the time. And, admittedly, the two seem categorical opposites at first blush. The former we think of as productive, civilized, introspective and graceful. The latter we think of as destructive, vulgar, impulsive and coarse. In his riveting Professor in a Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, Jonathan Gottschall counts MMA among the “wild and frequently ridiculous varieties of ritualized conflict in human males.”

Indeed, I’ve grappled with this chasmic contrast, too. And until recently my answer to the inevitable why was something along the lines of “I just wanted to try something new.” Even typing it here, I can feel my inner academic bristle! It’s a vapid explanation. Banal. Shooting from the hip. It is, in other words, a far cry from the academic standards of careful, reflective deliberation that I preach to my students.

So this article is my attempt to do right by my inner academic. I talk about things like multidisciplinarity, collegiality and inclusiveness. But it’s more than just a self-indulging self-analysis using these fancy terms. It’s also a story, one that’s going on right now within any given faculty contingent at any given institution. And it’s one that, I hope, will offer guidance and/or solace to those going through it, for it’s the classic tale of the high-achieving, optimistic academic turned burned-out cynic and how he got his academic mojo back.

Recent shifts within higher education haven’t exactly been nurturing motivation and sanguinity among its employed ranks. We regularly hear doomsday talk of decreases in funding and student applications. Not to mention the ever-increasing commercialization, bureaucratization, administratization and so forth of our institutions. “Higher education,” William Deresiewicz laments in Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, “increasingly resembles any other business now. What pays is in; what doesn’t is under the gun. Instruction is regarded as a drain on resources.”

At the risk of sounding whiny, being a faculty member today entails a lot more than just showing up to teach our classes, publishing some articles and powering through departmental meetings. We have to parry with large-scale forces, from above and below, that leach into our professional day-to-day in subtle yet influential ways. And by my 15th year in the classroom, I sensed a burnout coming. My armor of didactic optimism, with which I had entered the academy in order to “positively and lastingly impact my students,” was weakening.

I had to do something about it. And soon. Otherwise, I feared my continued downslide would land me in the eternal pits of academic despair. And those who would suffer most would be the same people whom I had set out to help: my students.

And so I decided to practice what I’ve been preaching to them for years: “Learn how to feel comfortable with making yourself uncomfortable.” By this, of course, I mean that they should take (reasonable) risks, intellectually and socially. Switch off your electronic devices for a weekend and read an entire book, I tell them. Invite a classmate whom you’ve never talked to out to a concert. Learn how to use a fly rod and try out one of upstate New York’s fabulous waterways. Figuring out how to be all right with “not all rightness,” I pontificate, is something you should expect from a high-priced college education.

My version of “not all rightness,” I decided, would be something altogether antithetic to academe. MMA seemed the obvious choice. Turns out -- and this is hard for an academic to admit -- I was wrong. Because what I have discovered, in the blood and brawn, is that this sport throbs with as much multidisciplinarity, collegiality and inclusiveness as my cerebral nine to five.

Multidisciplinarity in cage fighting, I quickly learned, means endless hours of training in several fields of combat, including, among others: boxing, striking, muay Thai, Greco-Roman, judo, tae kwon do and jujitsu. Wikipedia lists more than 15 separate common disciplines of MMA. “We’re not boxers, martial artists or grapplers,” one of my coaches likes to say, “we’re fighters.” This multidisciplinary element spoke right to my inner liberal artist. My teaching and research commonly draw on history, literature, anthropology and computer science, to name a few. So while the physical challenges of MMA’s multidisciplinarity made me uncomfortable (and bruised), I felt at home in its theoretical arena.

Collegiality is what cage fighters would call “being a solid teammate.” The fighters on my team are tightly bound, socially and emotionally. We help one another prepare for combat by holding mitts, sparring and pushing each other during practice. We travel distances to watch each other’s fights. We listen to one another’s problems, whether about girlfriends, finances, injuries or if we’re just feeling down. I can honestly say that I call most of the guys on my team friends. They have my back, and I have theirs.

How many times in academe have we read and offered feedback on a colleague’s writing? Observed their teaching? Written recommendations? Attended their conference presentation?

Inclusiveness wasn’t something I’d even considered when I googled “MMA gyms in my area” 18 months ago. But being inclusive, regardless of how you look or sound (or, for that matter, smell) lies at the heart of the sport. To wit: I’ve rolled jujitsu with an unemployed 400-pound Trump supporter, been choked out by an Eastern European Ivy Leaguer, and been socked in the nose by a lesbian professional fighter who -- God bless her! -- spends her days working with children and youths. I’ve sweated and bled on, and been sweated and bled on by, people from all walks of life. MMA doesn’t care who you are, what you look like or where you come from. All that matters is what you can bring to the cage.

A similar ethos permeates the humanities -- namely, that every human being has a right to knowledge. What counts is the desire and commitment you bring to acquire it.

My answer, then, to the question of why this “enlightened” academic straps on four-ounce gloves and steps into an octagonal cage: I’ve found in MMA those things I value most in my profession but had begun to lose sight of: multidisciplinarity, collegiality and inclusiveness.

For the record, in no way am I suggesting that my cohorts take up cage fighting to recalibrate their raison d’être. “To do MMA is to hurt,” Gottschall sums up. “The sport is one-on-one tackle football -- with the addition of punching, kneeing, choking and cranking.” So, yes, I recognize that MMA isn’t for everyone.

What I am arguing, however, is that we in the academy should occasionally break out of our quotidian molds and look for venues of reinspiration -- at the very least, for the sake of our students.

Most of us love what we do. We thank our lucky stars that we can be creative and self-directed, that we get to work with a young, curious population and that we’re allowed to express -- profess, even -- our personal identities and opinions. During the hard times, when we find ourselves adrift and questioning, it's important that we find ways to remind ourselves of these and the other things that we treasure.

As I’ve limned in this essay, for me it took some jabs to the face. And while I wouldn’t -- and don’t -- suggest this literal route of self-rediscovery, metaphorically I think we all need such a jab from time to time.

Bio

James Pfrehm is an assistant professor of German and linguistics at Ithaca College.

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