Doing Less Better

A new semester is about to begin, and already I feel the overwhelm. I feel it in my body: a tightness in my throat and jaw. So many students, so many emails, so many tasks—giant and minute—to manage. As an introvert, teaching often feels to me like a maelstrom, out of which I emerge at the end of the semester drenched and shivering and in deep need of repair.

I think my students feel this way, too. My students often tell me that in school there is just too much to be done. Some have said that the workload of college creates paralysis, where the number of tasks is so daunting that the only thing to be done is to turn on Netflix and start bingeing. I admit that I have done this, too, when faced with over a hundred essays demanding my feedback. When there is too much to focus on, we can focus on nothing.

The culture of education is the culture of doing, of producing, of working hard. But after 20 years in this business, I have started to wonder whether there is a different, better way. “Doing less better” is how I think of my new (hopefully saner) approach to teaching.  

There is something mindless in the endless series of tasks that education demands of our students. It’s almost as if the work of school was designed to keep students so busy that they can’t get up to trouble by … thinking. Over the past few semesters, I have experimented with paring down my reading assignments to the essentials, while asking students to write more regularly about what they have read. Instead of stuffing the entire literary canon into my students’ brains, I’d like for my students to really read what they are reading—to read slowly, with appreciation, care, and wonder. I want my students to learn to really think for themselves about what they encounter in the world, rather than mindlessly performing the tasks of education in the spirit of just getting that shit done.

Thinking for oneself requires attention, and perhaps that is the real work of education in the modern age. How do we help our students pay attention to what is important (defined not just by me, but also by them), when the entire world is pulling them this way and that? In the marvelous book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, author Jenny Odell writes about attention as a “stretching towards.” In order to give our attention to something, she maintains, we must move towards it, with curiosity and openness. But of course we cannot do this if our minds are crowded with too much information, or too much to do, or too much anxiety about all we have to do. Attention demands open space.

What is it about open space that scares us in education? When I check in with the teaching podcasts and blogs, they are always talking about MORE. More tech tools, more assessment rubrics, more interactive activities. This is not to say that all more is bad. I have found many helpful tools from these forums. But I wonder if this drive to do more in teaching stems from a kind of anxiety. We must keep the students busy! Otherwise they will blow off my class and spend all of their time on chemistry! Otherwise they will be lazy and never get anywhere in life!

If students were less busy, if we gave them the space and the environment to think, what might they realize? I wonder if they might realize that much of education is a sham, designed to teach obedience rather than growth. If we teachers were less busy, what would we realize? The more I have streamlined my teaching, the more I have learned that so much of what we do in education is pointless. Grading, which eats up so many hours of a teacher’s time, actually undermines students’ intrinsic motivation for learning. And the notion that we can teach everything mandated by the Common Core or the Student Learning Outcomes is simply absurd. Students are not computers that can be programmed with knowledge. And yet pursuing such “standards” keeps everyone “busy,” so we cannot question what really comprises learning in our modern age.

“Doing less better” in my classroom means that we might spend an entire hour delving into one passage of a reading instead of trying to “cover” everything. We might spend a day touring the campus garden without our phones. We might abandon anything that feels like drudgery so that we can feel the excitement of learning again. For me, it might mean giving less feedback on my students’ essays but making that feedback more personal and meaningful. It might mean deleting the emails asking me to do MORE. “Doing less better” is a tough path because others will question your devotion to the profession. They might think that you are lazy. But there is nothing lazy about paying attention to one thing, in the moment when you are experiencing that one thing. The essence of learning is being curious enough about a problem to stick with it, to persevere in the face of a million other things asking for your attention. And perhaps the essence of a good life is knowing what deserves your devoted attention and what can be let go.

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