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In Annie Dillard's memoir, An American Childhood, she writes of a time when, at the age of 10, she became obsessed with drawing. For days on end, following the advice given in The Natural Way to Draw, she drew study after study of a model — in this case, her baseball mitt. What she discovered was that finishing a sketch of her glove could be accomplished in under a minute, or it could take all morning.
“Evidently, a given object took no particular amount of time to draw; instead the artist took the time, or didn't take it, at pleasure. ... How long does it take to draw a baseball mitt? As much time as you care to give it.” The more time she devoted, the more details she discovered, the more she could develop the drawing.
It struck me, as I read the passage, how similar it sounded to writing and teaching. Any given subject can lend itself to a variety of treatments, and a variety of lengths. That got me thinking about how I could make use of this idea in my writing courses:
- I could give my rhetoric students a two-page passage of Dillard’s musings on drawing, and ask them to think about how her approach might apply to writing.
- Maybe I could have them read The New York Times’ recap of the 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner — a few paragraphs in a piece of no more than 1,000 words. Then I could show them John McPhee's Levels of the Game, a book-length description of that same match, stretching to 149 pages. Students could write about the differences between longer and shorter pieces on the same topic.
- Or I could ask them to describe an object — first in a single sentence and then in a two-page essay. We could explore questions like: What changes when you spend five hours on an essay instead of one? Or when you write five pages on a subject instead of one?
Such activities could be adopted to any number of disciplines, helping students to see that the length of time we spend on a project changes its outcome significantly. A math instructor could ask her students to first estimate the answer to a problem in 30 seconds, then work to solve it exactly (which might take considerably longer), and then write an analysis of the problem and its context in the history of mathematics. Students could see how different approaches, and different levels of engagement, yield different results.
Dillard's baseball-mitt epiphany also applies to teaching itself. Any academic who has tried to get any serious writing done during the semester can attest to the fact that course prep is an excellent procrastination activity. It is necessary work, and, if you need it to, it can expand into whatever amount of time you have. Often, those on the tenure track are warned about this: Set limits on how much time you spend on your teaching, otherwise you'll look up after six years and not have any publications.
But it’s also the case that teaching rewards the time you give it. With more time and attention, it becomes more interesting and more fulfilling. Too many academics — even those off the tenure track — still see teaching as a task that gets in the way of their real work when, in fact, it’s an undertaking every bit as challenging and intellectual as scholarly research. Sometimes the answer to classroom burnout is to give more time to your courses.
It’s not always possible, but try to give your teaching more of the right kind of attention this fall. It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing a baseball mitt as merely a baseball mitt. It’s easy to see teaching as a series of tasks. You get bogged down in minutiae that can leave you feeling more like an administrator than an educator.
Strive, instead, to give yourself time to think about your goals for your students, and about how best to help them achieve those goals. For me, that centers on refining and making more precise the skills I want my students to develop. What exactly are the sub-skills they need to become excellent writers? Well, they need to practice developing an argument. They need to learn how and when to quote others, and how to comment on other people's ideas. They need to figure out how to conclude an essay without repeating everything they’ve already said. I could spend my entire career thinking up skills and sub-skills to teach my students, but since that’s not possible, I'll do what I can in my courses now.
Or maybe the baseball-mitt lesson is best thought of as a metaphor for learning itself. A 2014 book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, explores the possibility of our brains getting “full.” Is there a maximum amount of stuff that we can keep in our heads? “If you're just engaging in mechanical repetition, it’s true, you quickly hit the limit of what you can keep in mind,” the book argues. “However, if you practice elaboration, there’s no known limit to how much you can learn. ... The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to your prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later.”
In short, it’s not enough to present all of the relevant information and expect students to stick it in their heads for safekeeping. We have to entice them to revise their previous understanding of our subjects. We have to engage them in a process of elaboration that may not have an endpoint. We have to convey that learning isn't a straightforward process, like putting beans in a jar. In time, they, too, will learn that the more time they spend with a subject, the more complex — and fascinating — it becomes. They’ll learn that “figuring something out” is often just a step toward discovering that there’s still so much to know.
Invite your students to rethink how they view their education. They are drawing an ever more elaborate study of a baseball mitt, and watching as it gets more and more lifelike. Sure, they may be able to get the gist across with some quick scribbling. It’s up to us to show them the value of an illustration drawn patiently and with care.