Academic journal article Women and Language

Metaphors in the University, or I Never Promised You an Ivory Tower

Academic journal article Women and Language

Metaphors in the University, or I Never Promised You an Ivory Tower

Article excerpt


One morning as I was preparing to leave for the university on my bicycle, my neighbor greeted me, sighed wistfully, and ventured his evaluation of my work at one of America's largest universities, saying: "It must be nice to be a professor and live the easy life, lecturing to students and reading in the library." If he had looked carefully, he would have seen that I was in fact in considerable disarray as I struggled to keep my bicycle from falling over after having forced into the baskets about forty pounds of books, committee reports, and student papers--reading material that had kept me up until two a.m. Experience would have made my neighbor even less wistful for the professional life I was headed for that morning. For if he could have examined the metaphorical world of the university (that is, the metaphors used by academics), he would have discovered that our perceptions of university life are not the serene ones he was imagining. In fact, according to sixty percent of the metaphors used in two years of meetings I attended with my mostly male colleagues, the symbolic equivalencies we give to our activities are adverse ones of twisting, hammering, scrubbing, grinding, whacking, running, jumping through hoops, going to the mat, getting beat over the head, taking end runs, and getting into foul ball territory. And the metaphorical rewards for the struggles are usually little more than coffee ("Serve on forty-five committees and that will get you a cup of coffee"), carrots ("That's kind of stickish and we need to think of a carrot!"), gold stars ("We could even give out gold stars on a wall chart"), or perhaps a halo ("Is there a halo up there [for doing the right thing]?").


At the start of the two years of fieldwork on which this research is based, I wanted to find out what metaphors might tell us about how professors and administrators perceive organizational reality in the university. These people are an influential population whose language usage has not been adequately studied. I wanted to know what metaphorical equivalencies were being used for inchoate experiences and what sorts of attitudes and beliefs these metaphors might reveal for women and men. The 514 metaphors I was able to record were spoken in 101 university meetings held between October 1987 and the end of May 1989--the period in which I was an officer in the university's faculty senate.

My goal was to see how an analysis of the metaphors spoken in those meetings might provide us insight into the perceptions of the social reality of a university organization, with special relevance for the study of the way in which professors and administrators express their thoughts metaphorically.

Relevant Previous Research

Because the study of metaphor in context lends itself to interdisciplinary analysis, I combined approaches to the study of metaphor from the subject areas of linguistics, communication, rhetoric, and anthropology--areas where current research into the nature and meaning of metaphors is accumulating so rapidly that Wayne Booth has quipped, "We shall soon have more metaphoricians than metaphysicians" ("Metaphor as Rhetoric" 47). Lakoff and Johnson's pioneering book. Metaphors We Live By, and Lakoff's follow-up book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, are useful starting points for any investigation of metaphor. The hypothesis behind their research--that metaphor is a key to discerning how its users perceive reality--became the premise for the research reported in the following pages.(1) Reasoning from their position, I believe the categories relied on for metaphorical comparisons are central to their users' perceptions of organizational reality.

Support for this position is found in Deetz's article on metaphors in organizations:

Social reality is the world view that organizational members take on as their own as they live and work in a particular society or in a 'micro-society,' such as an organization. …

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