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The Patience Problem

Sometime around the first of November, many of my students seem to hit a wall. The most dedicated writers may miss one of their weekly assignments for the first time in the semester. Other students, who have regularly contributed to discussion, go suddenly mute.

In the past I’ve tended to write off that malaise as a symptom of the season: Colds are catching, the social calendar hits a peak, and (as one working student mentioned today) the move to “holiday hours” in the retail industry means some students are working later into the night before returning to their studies.

Perhaps more important, though, by November students have been well grounded in the vocabulary, methodology, and basic subject matter of their courses, so the beginning of this month often marks a transition into the semester’s most challenging nuances of application. This time of year, more is being asked of them.

Students tell themselves, “If I can just make it to Thanksgiving break, I’ll be OK.” But in practice that kind of thinking leads to work that only barely meets the minimum requirements. By rushing their writing and reading, they may indeed “make it,” but are they really learning much?

As I wrestle with this issue, I keep coming back to a similar problem I face at the beginning of the semester. Students want to read the great poems of the English language at the same speed they read a billboard or a menu, and they’re discouraged when that approach fails them. I spend a significant portion of our meetings in those opening weeks trying to teach a commitment of time and attention (hence, among other things, those weekly writing assignments).

In my experience, students can be extremely receptive to the notion of patient study early in the semester. When they slow down and meditate on the implications of individual words and gestures, they see improvement in their writing and comprehension almost immediately.

But by November, with papers, exams, and final grades looming, they jettison that patience for raw speed. One student boasted recently that she could write three pages an hour, so she always knew how much time to allot for her essays. The obvious problem, of course, is that there’s no space for discovery in such a schedule.

This morning, in answer to that kind of thinking, I shared a quotation from Simone Weil with my students:

All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style, and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.

We spent the rest of our time together close-reading a short poem, practicing patience with it. But as our hour ended and they filed out of the room, I found myself reminding them that they had another assignment due on Monday.

Deadlines loom. As much as we may preach patience, as teachers we have only a limited time in which to evaluate our students. They must produce work. We must grade.

Obviously there’s a balance to be struck here, but I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. At this time of year, when students are increasingly stressed and worried about their grades (real problems), how do you encourage the kind of patience that facilitates real learning, the kind of scholarly attention that allows room for pleasure and surprise?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Dean + Barb.]

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