Grabbing the brass ring


Many moons ago, I wrote some friends and colleagues to let them know I was starting a tenure-track position. One of them wrote back to congratulate me on “grabbing the brass ring.”

Grabbing the brass ring involves far more luck than skill. I know this from experience.

Have you ever grabbed the brass ring? I mean, actually, a real brass ring. Do you know the origin of the phrase?

There’s a gorgeous carousel in San Diego’s Balboa Park, more than a hundred years old, with most of the original parts intact. I’ve rode this carousel on occasion. This is one of relatively few places that still runs the classic ‘brass ring game’ that used to be a common feature of carousels.

If you ride on the outside row of the carousel, then you have the opportunity to reach out and grab at an apparatus that delivers metal rings. Most of these rings are made of iron or steel. If you grab a one of those rings , then you can just toss it at a target. But if you grab the brass ring, you get a free ride. At least, that’s the prize in Balboa Park. It takes a little bit of effort and dexterity to grab the ring. You’re going by pretty quickly, and you’ve got to hook your finger in just the right spot. But it’s mostly about being at the right place at the right time. There are lots of riders who grab rings on the carousel. It’s not that difficult if you’re trying to do so and you ride several times. So, when you get the brass ring, it’s mostly luck that you happened to be there when it came down.

I used to think that “grabbing the brass ring” was a phrase that referred to some kind of prize or some kind of achievement. And it is, but for anybody attempting to grab it, whether or not you get it is mostly luck. If you keep riding the carousel, then odds are you’ll grab a ring.

This is a germane analogy for the academic job market. Of course, some people are far more likely to get offers than others, based on their application materials. But once the short list gets drafted, well, everybody’s on a horse in that carousel, and someone’s going to grab the brass ring. There are lots of things that can affect the timing of when that brass ring is dropped, but it’s not under the control of the person riding the carousel horse.

2 thoughts on “Grabbing the brass ring

  1. Here here. I’ve always thought that, if the universe has replicates, that chances are excellent that I would have wound up elsewhere given the same search processes. Why did I get the offer from my College instead of other applicants? Why did I get this offer and rejections from many other institutions? Sure, my specific qualifications and the needs of my department played a role…but so did the mood of the Search Committee when they happened to read my cover letter, or something else unpredictable. Sunspots?

    Small consolation for those still trying for the brass ring, I’d assume…

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