Zen and the Art of Academic Motorcycling

When the pressures of the job are getting to him, Todd Diacon hops on his bike and hits the road.


July 14, 2009

When colleagues learn that I ride my motorcycle to work they often respond with some sort of mid-life crisis quip. Maybe so, but I’ve been riding motorcycles since 1972, when my brother went to college and my parents forced him to leave his 185 Suzuki with me. I was 14 at the time, the legal driving age in Kansas back then for going to and from school and work. Certainly I did stupid things on that bike, but running off the road in Wellington mostly meant encountering wheat fields (my brother did wreck his Honda once, but that’s because he goosed it on a gravel patch while making a turn).

Motorcycling is very dangerous, and in no way do I wish to minimize the danger here. My wife posts newspaper accounts of motorcycling tragedies on our refrigerator, and refuses to go near my bike, so I’m reminded regularly of the perils that await each time I suit up for a ride. I wear the best protective gear, go out of my way to add high-visibility touches to my bike and outfit, and never consume alcohol during the course of a ride.

Yet in spite of the dangers I believe motorcycling has its upside, which includes a surprising health benefit.

This has been a trying year in academia. The roller coaster ride of a national economic meltdown, mounting state budget problems, mind-boggling budget cuts (nearly 20 percent at my school), the last-minute stimulus package, and now the growing understanding that this package merely delays the inevitable add to the worries of faculty, staff and administrators.

And yet, in spite of the grim international and national economic news I believe that many people, and particularly our professors, do not fully recognize and appreciate the presence and impact of events beyond campus. Faculty are unhappy, and I do not blame them for being so.

Yet when I talk with them their complaints and villains are often personal and local. Frequently in such conversations professors fail to acknowledge the larger context that clearly is generating some or many of the problems they are experiencing. When they blame colleague X’s behavior for a department’s difficulty, or their dean, or me, I rarely hear them observe as well that all of us are working in the most trying and stressful of times.

In such conversations I remind them that these are the worst times I have ever seen in higher education, and that any evaluation of the abilities of colleagues and administrators should at least acknowledge this larger context. In other words, if the sky is falling I want us to recognize that it is doing so not just because of the actions of people in our university (but of course we can always make a bad situation worse -- and it is our job as administrators to explain larger contexts and restrictions as best we can).

So if things are so bad why am I writing about motorcycles?

Given the troubles of this year I do so simply to remind people to take care of themselves -- to do what they can to reduce their stress levels when we are in times like these. And here I return to motorcycling, for this is my personal recipe for relief from the pressures of the job.

Riding a motorcycle forces me to concentrate on the moment. I have to pay attention to the truck beside me on the interstate, or the car waiting at the intersection of a rural highway. But at the same time I get to feel the wind in my face, and glimpse the stunning scenery around me, and wave at fellow motorcyclists, and simply marvel about how wonderful it is to be in control of this machine that offers such a privileged view of the world.

It is meditative because I’m filtering out the usual mental soundtrack that plays an exhausting loop of worries from work (meeting enrollment numbers, responding to angry parents, the latest bad budget news, office politics) and concentrating on the enjoyable task at hand. If I’m on a really long ride I end the day physically tired and mentally rejuvenated.

My point is an obvious one: we must reduce our stress levels to be effective at work, to last on the job, and most importantly to be happy. Yet, not everything works to reduce stress, at least not for me. I’m not sure why I do this, but I run marathons, and during training and races the stressful mental soundtrack does not disappear, and at the end of long runs I feel terrible to boot. So getting away from it all has to either last long enough or be special enough to provide respite from the incessant and agonizing replay of events past, and the urge to rehearse constantly for meetings in the future.

Even just thinking about motorcycling calms me, and it helps me concentrate. I remember that I have to focus. I remember that certain things (staying upright and avoiding that merging car) are more important than others (like speeding up to catch another look at that cool bike that just passed me).

Is this rocket science? Nope. Is it motorcycle maintenance? No. But academic motorcycling is meditative, calming, and oh so necessary for the times in which we live.


Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.


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