Chapter 23 Diving Deeper

The Redemptive Power of Metaphor

In: Critical Storytelling: Experiences of Power Abuse in Academia
Helen Sword
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When the higher education research and development center that I had nurtured and led for seven years was quietly taken behind the barn and shot in the head (figuratively speaking), I felt disempowered, grief-stricken and angry. The whole operation was performed in such a secretive, cynical way—apparently designed by senior management to avert criticism rather than to ensure institution-wide consultation—that whatever faith I had once held in my university’s self-declared values of inclusiveness, fairness and research-led inquiry was left battered and broken at the scene of the crime, along with some of my center’s most cherished initiatives, not to mention the careers of several valued colleagues.

Unable to avert this abuse of institutional power (although goodness knows I tried!), I decided to focus on changing what I could control: my own emotional response to the event. Harnessing the power of language to shape reality, I turned to metaphor to help me restore and restory my personal narrative. I started by interrogating the shot-behind-the-barn metaphor that I had been using to frame that narrative, posing a series of questions adapted from a rubric that I had developed as part of an earlier research project on the emotional habits of academic writers from across the disciplines:1

  1. Domain Does my metaphor invoke the natural world, the world of human experience, or both?

    Key principle: DEEPER metaphors typically invoke both nature and culture.

  2. Emphasis Does my metaphor emphasize the event itself, the unfolding of the event, or both?

    Key principle: DEEPER metaphors typically encompass both process and product.

  3. Emotion Does my metaphor convey positive emotions about the event, negative emotions, or both?

    Key principle: DEEPER metaphors typically emphasize the positive aspects of an event while also acknowledging its negative side.

  4. People Am I present in my metaphor? Are other people part of my story?

    Key principle: DEEPER metaphors typically include both the subject and the subject’s social networks in the narrative.

  5. Empowerment Am I an active, engaged protagonist who faces challenges and is open to learning new skills, or does the metaphor depict me a powerless pawn caught up in someone else’s game? (Do I control the story, or does the story control me?)

    Key principle: DEEPER metaphors typically grant personal agency to the subject while also acknowledging the influence of powers beyond their control.

  6. Resonance Does the metaphor have personal resonance—that is, does it speak to me in some meaningful way? Does it have universal resonance—that is, does it speak to others?

    Key principle: DEEPER metaphors are personally relevant to the subject while also speaking to a wider audience.

These questions are intended not as “either/or” alternatives but as “both/and” prompts leading to the development of what I call “DEEPER metaphors.” The “taken behind the barn and shot” metaphor, I quickly realized, fails the DEEPER test on almost every count. For example, it focuses on a fait accompli rather than a process of becoming; it presents a narrative of helplessness in which my colleagues and I feature as a passive victims rather than as human beings possessed of agency, spirit and heart; and it allows no space for positive transformation or intellectual growth.

DEEPER metaphors are capacious and complex, embracing not only the positive aspects of human existence but also what educator Parker J. Palmer (2007) calls the “shadow side,” the sharp edge that leads us to change and grow. Diving DEEPER into the emotional wreckage of my own experience—a seabed strewn with sadness and shame—I eventually rose to the surface with a new metaphor, recasting my shot-behind-the-barn narrative as an intrepid ocean voyage instead:

The seagoing waka

Seven years before the big wave hit, twenty intrepid voyagers set sail in a seagoing waka, a large double-hulled canoe designed to traverse vast distances and explore unknown territories. As their navigator and rangatira (leader), it was my job to set the course, read the star signs and inspire my loyal crew to pull the oars, trim the sails and keep us on an even keel. Together we rode the ocean currents and caught the tradewinds; together we sailed past whirlpools and through tempests; from time to time we forged alliances with other adventurers, lashing our vessel to theirs to share stories and trade provisions. When at last our beloved waka went down, swamped by a tsumani too massive for us to weather, the bonds that we had forged during our seven-year adventure helped us all make it safely to shore, the weakest among us buoyed up by the strongest. Some of my shipmates went off to crew on other boats; some built new lives working the land; a few ended up marooned on the rocks, too exhausted and dispirited to pick up the pieces of their shattered careers and start anew. As for me, I climbed to the top of a hill and built a lighthouse there, a beacon of hope for weary travelers in need of a safe harbor as they traverse those same perilous seas.

My new metaphor helped me to shift the focus of my story from institutional violence to human agency and to paint an emotional landscape tinged with darkness yet suffused by light. However, when I subjected the metaphor to the twelve questions from the DEEPER rubric, I uncovered two central weaknesses. Firstly, my ocean voyage metaphor lacks personal relevance or resonance; I have never even sailed on, much less captained, a seagoing waka and have no direct affiliation with the Polynesian cultures (Māori, Tongan and Samoan) from which I have appropriated some of the metaphor’s most compelling features: the seagoing waka; the lashing of the canoes, the art of star navigation. Secondly, in my eagerness to reclaim agency and empowerment for myself and my crew, I have allowed the metaphor to go overboard (so to speak) in its representation of administrative decision-makers as an unstoppable force of nature. We were not in fact struck down by a natural disaster such as a tidal wave or a tempest; rather, our vessel was deliberately sabotaged by senior managers in an act that resembled the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (the Greenpeace ship infamously limpet-bombed by French government agents in New Zealand to prevent its crew from protesting nuclear testing in the South Pacific), rather than that of, say, the Edmund Fitzgerald (the Lake Superior freighter that sank with all hands aboard after reportedly being swamped by a rogue wave).

While neither of these shortcomings would, on its own, necessarily have forced me to scupper my waka metaphor, together they contributed to a nagging feeling that the sea voyage trope wasn’t quite working. Reluctantly I abandoned ship and cast about for a redemptive metaphor with greater personal resonance and a darker edge. Eventually I settled on the art of mosaic-making, a metaphor that I have frequently used to describe my writing practice and now broadened to include academic leadership as well:

The mosaic path

I love collecting objects that have been discarded or passed over by others—stained glass offcuts, chipped crockery, river stones, seashells—and assembling them into new works of art, creating unexpected juxtapositions of color and form. When the intricate mosaic walkway that I had spent seven years designing and grouting into place was bulldozed by autocratic university administrators and replaced with a straight and narrow footpath, I understood their motivation: my joyfully meandering pathway was too non-conformist, its colors too rich, its energy too vibrant, to suit their dehumanizing neoliberal agenda. But a mosaic, having been created from fragments, can be reassembled in new configurations even after having been blown apart. I now spend my days on a beautiful South Pacific island laying out another crazy paving, this one even more colorful and playful than the last. This time, however, the pathway runs through my own property rather than the university’s; never again will I risk having my life and art consigned to a dumpster by philistine landlords.

The mosaic metaphor helped me recognize my former academic leadership role—indeed, my entire scholarly career—as a creative practice that, like all art-making, is richly fulfilling but fraught with risk. At the same time, the DEEPER rubric prompted me to pose some hard questions thrown up by the metaphor: for example, what does it mean to be a scholar whose creative energies feed on the smashing of icons? As a leader, do I treat those I lead as mere tesserae in my mosaic, to be manipulated and glued into place? My metaphor becomes even more powerful and emotionally nuanced when I cast light into those shadows, reaffirming my commitment to what academic activist Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2019) calls “generous thinking” and celebrating my colleagues’ roles as co-creators of a pathway that we designed and built together. Like me, they are now picking up the scattered pieces and laying out new mosaics of their own. In the years to come, I expect that our paths will intersect in unanticipated ways, linked by a shared history and ethos.

I do not mean to suggest here that metaphorical language can always pave over pain, nor that beleaguered academics should respond to all administrative abuses of power as I have done in this instance, by retreating to an island (literally as well figuratively) and giving up on institutional activism. My decision to start my own business as an international writing consultant, building new pathways into writing for scholars around the world, has come towards the end of a long career spent fighting in the university trenches for causes such as gender equity, cultural inclusiveness and student-centered teaching. If I were ten years younger, a different set of metaphors might have inspired me to gird my loins emotionally and return to the fray. (Rest assured, however, that I would not have persisted with the military trope for long; its shadow side is too dark to dwell in, even if academic life does sometimes feel like a war zone.) Either way, redemptive metaphors have helped me find my way forward. Indeed, the very process of writing this essay has accelerated my transformation from a self-perceived victim of circumstance to a maker and shaper who has taken my future into my own hands. By diving DEEPER into metaphor, I have salvaged my sense of personal agency, affirmed my creative resilience and emerged from a fetid swamp of negative emotions into clearer air.



Adapted from an exercise in Sword (2019).


  • Fitzpatrick, K. (2019). Generous thinking: A radical approach to saving the university. Johns Hopkins University Press.

  • Palmer, P. J. (2007). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life (10th anniversary ed.). Jossey-Bass.

  • Sword, H. (2019). Snowflakes, splinters and cobblestones: Metaphors for writing. In S. Farquhar & E. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Narrative and metaphor: Innovative methodologies and practice (pp. 3955). Springer.

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