Sunday, May 8, 2011

Against Effort

I like blogging because it requires little effort.  There are no deadlines to meet.  There is no sense that what I write is for posterity, so its flaws are forgivable.  The good and the bad alike are written in binary codes transmitted by electric currents, less substantive than writing on the sand.  Blogging is like keeping a diary or a journal, only public, with opportunities for readers to comment, object, or praise--and the freedom for me as a thinker and writer to change my mind.  I value the freedom to change my mind.  I dislike the idea of publishing a book that I would then have to beat a drum for at bookstores and on talk shows.  I dislike the idea of being haunted by something I wrote ten or twenty years earlier which I no longer believe or believe now in a different way.

I like immediacy and spontaneity.  I don't like to cram--to rush to make a great effort.  As an undergraduate I even reached the opinion that to study for exams was a form of cheating.  My reasoning was that exams exist in order to find out how much and how well a student understands the material.  To cram the night before the exam would then falsify the findings, making it appear that I understood more and better than I actually did, since almost everything I ever "learned" through cramming I forgot within days of the examination--and what would be the point of that?  I preferred (and still do prefer) to learn slowly--gathering knowledge and understanding in small increments, which I then mull over, over time.

It is perhaps for similar reasons that now as an instructor I loathe PowerPoint presentations, since slide presentations suggest that all the speaker's knowledge of and thinking on the material have been completed hours, days, weeks, months, before the speech--that perhaps the speaker really doesn't know the material at all but simply found some shit online he or she would now like to receive credit for, in show-and-tell fashion.  I realize that, for others, a sharp, snappy PowerPoint presentation suggests that the speaker is well prepared, that he or she has taken the speech seriously enough to make a "real effort."  I prefer to walk into the classroom knowing what I'm talking about, as much as possible, and continue the thinking process even as I speak before the class.  My approach may come off as more a shambles, with too many digressions, too many unanswered questions, but it strikes me as more intellectually honest--and such intellectual honesty is something I try to impart to my students--students already too prone to cheat, to plagiarize, and to cram--to aim for grades instead of understanding and skill.

I am not, of course, against every kind of effort.  But the word "effort" now suggests a kind of force--and, really, a kind of pretense.  The phrase "making an effort" has come to mean putting on a good show.  It has very little to do with substance anymore.  It has to do with dotting one's i's and crossing one's t's.  It has to do with putting on a jacket and a tie and forcing a smile to create the appearance of enthusiasm.  It has to do with filling out paperwork to prove that you are doing or have done what you might be doing for real if only it weren't for all the paperwork that needs completing.

The great ideas come when you are prepared--but usually not when you are preparing.  If you know your stuff, if you have done your research, if you have made it your life practice to think critically and creatively, the great ideas will come when you least expect them, perhaps in the middle of the night, waking you from your sleep, perhaps while you are in the middle of doing something else or, even more likely, doing nothing at all.  That last point is important.  Without leisure, there are no new ideas, no true (i.e. deep) thinking.  The deep waters must be still.  Busy-ness, a life of mindless routine and habits, procrastination and panic, time sheets to fill out, obsessiveness about keeping up appearances--all these are part of the so-called Protestant work ethic, the backbone of what passes as integrity and conscientiousness in business.  It's all "effort"--with nothing underneath to prop it up or at the end to show real accomplishment.  (Some teachers grade effort.  I don't.  I grade outcomes.  I expect students to do their best.  They often don't, usually because they have been too busy "making an effort.")

Effort may be a large part of what is supposed to work in business.  I suspect it doesn't even work there especially well.  But supposing that effort does work in business, what evidence do we have that it works in other disciplines--academics, science, politics, religion, art?

And what of "genius"?  Nobody seriously speaks of genius anymore--not in the ordinary sense it used to be spoken of, back when it was not the exclusive domain of artists and inventors with high IQs, back when it was of fundamental importance in education.  The discipline of learning, not the making of efforts.  What ever happened to the shaping of a human life, the making of genius--as opposed to the mere ornamentation of life with a long series of gold stars, trophies, resumes, promotions, and a gold watch and a tombstone?  Well, let's say the reason is perhaps that genius, in its original sense, has never been an especially "measurable" outcome.  When it comes to evaluating human beings in ledgers and accounts sheets--two columns for debits and credits--efforts are indeed much more quantifiable--you can check them off and tally them up.

But what, I ask, is the point?

Back to blogging, though.  I blog for the same reason I used to take snapshots of myself--to chronicle a life in progress and hopefully to leave something for friends and family who might genuinely want to know me better.  It's personal but also very public, community-minded.  Sure, it requires an exertion of sorts, but the blog accumulates organically, at its own pace (slowly, very slowly), with no particular claim of certainty or completion or regularity or consistency.  Perhaps in the future, in an academic setting without grades, without hoops to leap through, I will ask my students to blog--and my instruction, leisurely as always, will consist simply of prodding here and there, commenting, raising questions, and stirring the waters in such a way, I hope, as to leave the task of "settling" them in the students' hands.  

1 comment:

  1. James Watt did not invent the steam engine. He did, however, modify the concept so ingeniously that he now receives sole credit in our shallow high school history classes. Here is a quote from Watt's Perfect Engine: Steam and the Age of Invention by Ben Marsden (a short and interesting read) that speaks to leisure.

    Page 58:
    It was in 1765 that Watt finally hit upon the 'separate condenser'. Strangely, we do not know exactly when. We do know that the idea was clear to him by 29 April 1765, the day he wrote to James Lind about his experiments with a new model of a ‘perfect’ engine. There is a popular story, first told by Watt’s friend John Hart, that the solution suddenly dawned as he wandered pensively across Glasgow Green one Sunday afternoon. (A boulder with an inscription now marks the very spot.) Watt himself recalled the day:

    "I was thinking upon the engine at the time and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might be there condensed without cooling the cylinder. I then saw that I must get quit of the condensed steam and injection water, if I used a jet as in Newcomen’s engine. Two ways of doing this occurred to me. First the water might be run off by a descending pipe… and any air might be extracted by a small pump; the second was to make the pump large enough to extract both water and air… I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind."



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