Sunday, August 27, 2006

Fame and Work

Hans and I were talking a week or two ago about goals and practical rewards for students, finding ways to help more students invest in their academic work the way many find natural investment in sports or the arts. Why is it, we wondered, that kids who will put hours and hours into the often dull and repetitive work of practicing for football or rehearsing a play will declare even the least hint of repetition and practice in classwork to be the most boring thing they've ever had to do in their lives?

We identified a couple of things we thought influenced this dynamic -- first, that most people who excell at sports or the arts have chosen to do so, have devoted spare time to it, and have even worked to structure their lives around it, not because they were forced to, but because there is some inherent interest that makes such work pleasurable for them. Second, sports and the arts have practical outcomes. We go through all the exhausting running drills of soccer to become better soccer players and help the team with games; we endure long hours of rehearsal to become better at performing a play that will eventually be put in front of an audience. It's harder to draw such clear lines with academic work, because the real reason we do academic work -- to become better at thinking and learning -- is abstract and nebulous in comparison. (Certainly, sometimes we do academic work for practical goals like getting a higher SAT score or going to a desired college, but I'm not sure these goals are meaningful enough to be held up as goals we should aim our classes at.)

Hans wondered what level of achievement was enough -- for instance, is a student who performs in a school play doing that work so that they can, eventually, make it to Broadway? I don't think so, in most cases, and I'm glad of this. I think the work is reward enough itself. This is not to say that such ideas don't enter kids' minds -- I remember in high school now and then thinking it would be fun to be seen by a New York producer who would think I was a genius and offer me a lucrative job performing in a brilliant play -- but for the vast majority of kids, such far-off goals are not alluring enough to get them through the hard work they have to do. In the moment, it's enough to work hard for the next game, the next performance, the next painting or photograph or pot. If those simple goals are not enough, it's unlikely the athlete or artist will be able to put forth the effort necessary to sustain accomplishment.

I thought of all this again when I read two articles this weekend, one from the New York Times about fame and one from the Los Angeles Times about Orson Welles.

I take the Orson Welles article as a cautionary one. I've read the first volume of Simon Callow's biography of Welles, and I've seen nearly every Welles movie, including some of his late "one-man band" shorts. The more you study of Welles, the more it becomes clear that Richard Schickel's perspective is unavoidable: Much as he liked to blame forces beyond himself, Welles was the architect of his own failure. He was often a lazy, disorganized egomaniac.
The rebel pose makes for fine romantic copy, but the fact is that genius in the movies is the antithesis of genius as Welles flightily defined it. It is akin to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Every great director I've ever known spends months in the editing room, more months on the dubbing and scoring stages, driving themselves and everyone around them crazy with their slavish devotion to detail. When they're not doing that, they're wheedling money out of their backer or fending off suggested improvements. It is how great movies are made.
From early in his childhood, Welles was told he was a genius, and he believed it throughout his life. Thinking you're a genius allows you to make excuses for all sorts of bad behavior. As I was reading the article, I thought of something Pat Work once told me: The people who score highest on tests of self esteem are serial killers.

Which brings us to the fame article. The desire for recognition can be dangerous -- it's something we all possess, one way to give meaning to life, but in abundance it can lead to misery. If Welles had been less focused on being a genius and more focused on doing the work, he might have succeeded at creating more of the films he had the potential to create.

I don't think we as teachers have the power to create a sense of inherent motivation within students, but I do think we can shape the environments where we teach to help inspire it in at least some students. This is where high standards come in -- why lie to kids and make them think it's easy to accomplish excellent work? Why not, instead, coach them to realize some passion within themselves for excellence? Is there a way to show kids that true achievement is really difficult, but that they have the capability to achieve if they're willing to push themselves toward it? I'm not sure exactly what such coaching looks like, but more and more I think it is our primary obligation as educators -- the obligation to help students see that worthwhile endeavors require hard work, that hard work toward worthwhile endeavors can be rewarding in and of itself, that achievement is not an entitlement, and that fame is not achievement and seldom a reward.


Hans Mundahl said...

Yes! We need to coach students toward an understanding that excellence is hard work, that having high standards for ourselves and our work makes the work itself worth doing. I recall vividly a teacher who did this for me - what a difference it made.

I wonder if there isn't something failing in the nature of academic work for many students in the absence of such a teacher? A play, a pot, a winning goal all have with them a public, functional thingness about them. They are something. While a paper, a test, an essay in and of itself may appear to be less so.

I'm reminded of students in my high school growing up who we made fun of because they took vocational classes. Perhaps they simply had a lower tollerance for seemingly pointless work and wanted to engage in something that was functional in the near term. Perhaps they wanted a more functional role in society sooner?

Perhaps I'm generalizing too much from my own (now antiquated) recolections from my own high school years.

I'll have to take some time and read the articles. I've definately known some students with something Wellian about them as you describe them.

Matthew Cheney said...

The difference between academic work and other, more easily and inherently attractive activities, is a combination of factors (including choice -- sure, our students are required to participate in activities, but they've got a lot of leeway to make the initial choice, and some even choose to spend their spare time in others), but definitely the tangible product aspect is a part of it. What do those of us who love academic work get from it that we cherish? There's a sense of the progress of knowledge that is what, for me, makes academic work exciting -- I like to feel like I can explore ideas, and I love it when ideas begin to coalesce into other concepts.

I've been thinking about this a lot during my time at Dartmouth -- which papers, for instance, do I most enjoy working on, and which ones do I do just to get them done? Which classes do I look forward to, and which ones do I go to because I need to to get the degree? There's not a big difference from the outside -- I'm not revising my papers to publish them (thought about it with one, though, and may yet), I'm not getting anything particularly material from any individual class ... and yet some classes feel like work and some feel like play that involves a lot of heavy thinking. And it's the latter classes that I work hardest in.

I wish there were some simple formula for this, but there's not. Teaching and learning would be so much easier if it were...

I was fascinated by the piece on Welles because there have been times when I've felt like I might be falling into doing to a student what so many people did to Welles -- indulging their self-indulgence in ways that could cripple them if enough people did it. Which is not to say I think we should take a harder approach and say to kids, "Look, you're not as good as you think you are, and it's likely you're just going to fail in life." There's got to be a way to be a compassionate realist that is encouraging at the same time it's not coddling. But that's a very, very, very difficult balance. A worthwhile goal, though.