Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Teaching "the deliberate engagement of delay"

I very much enjoyed art historian Jennifer Roberts' explanation of why (and how) she teaches patience to her students. Roberts observes that nearly every feature of our culture encourages and rewards rapidity. But there are certain facets of objects and texts that can't be observed in a snapshot way, and that faculty should consider the temporal speed of the learning experiences they expose students to. We should, she argues, teach "the deliberate engagement of delay.":

During the past few years, I have begun to feel that I need to take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences of the students in my courses; that in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences. When will students work quickly? When slowly? When will they be expected to offer spontaneous responses, and when will they be expected to spend time in deeper contemplation? 

I want to focus today on the slow end of this tempo spectrum, on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention. I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they simply are no longer available “in nature,” as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.
Roberts has her students look at a single painting (Copley's Boy With a Squirrel, above) for three hours. For her, this is a way of challenging the assumption that vision is "immediate, direct, uncomplicated, instantaneous." Students come to appreciate the gap between looking and seeing — or more generally, the difference between access and learning.

I must admit that I've not quite thought of how to teach "delay" deliberately in philosophy. But no doubt it's something that many of us value and would want to teach if we could. Consider the skill of charitably considering objections to a philosophical view. Students struggle with this, in no small part because it demands patience of them. Philosophy is about thinking, yes. But more than that, it's about thinking againIndeed, one way to see what philosophy is all about is to emphasize that it addresses questions for which we don't have established or uncontroversial methods of investigation, and as such, any plausible answer to a philosophical question isn't going to emerge from a five minute bull session. 

So how do we do this? What techniques or methods will work to motivate students to decelerate and immerse? Can we help students the rewards of patient engagement, or is that merely swimming fruitlessly against the tides?


  1. I wonder how well the task Roberts describes (3 hrs looking at a single work of art + journaling) could transfer more-or-less directly to philosophy, but replacing the single work of art with a philosophical text. For example, assign students a short but philosophically-rich passage and ask them to spend three hours reading it, reflecting on the arguments contained therein and on the questions it provokes, and documenting their evolving thoughts. (Perhaps combine this with having students share their journals with one another, so they can see the range of reactions a single text can inspire.)

    Another thought, if the aim here is to show the value of a slow, deep reading over a quick, cursory reading: have students read a passage each way. First, ask students to spend a fixed short amount of time reading a passage and jotting down some reactions to it. Then, ask students to set aside three hours for a reading of the sort suggested above. (You could also follow this up with some questions that encourage "metacognition"---ask students to reflect back on their own thought processes during the quick read versus the slow read, etc.)

    The fruitfulness of these activities may depend a lot on what skills students already possess and what directions (if any) we provide along with the assignment. (I'd like to know more about what sorts of directions, if any, Roberts provides to her students, e.g., does she offer any suggestions for where to direct one's attention during the three hours?).

    A concluding worry: I fear that some students will get a lot out of such tasks and some will simply find them excruciating, but that students of the latter group may be the ones most in need of seeing the value of delay. (Roberts reports that "at first many of the students resist being subjected to such a remedial exercise...But after doing the assignment, students repeatedly tell me that they have been astonished by the potentials this process unlocked.") Perhaps some of us will simply have to give some "deliberate engagement of delay" assignment a try and report back!

  2. Interesting. The following passage from Roberts' piece struck me: "Before doing any research in books or online, the student would first be expected to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where [that painting] hangs, and spend three full hours looking at the painting, noting down his or her evolving observations as well as the questions and speculations that arise from those observations. The time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions."

    Perhaps the equivalent would be telling students to take their book (or print out an article), go to the library, put everything electronic away, and read and ruminate over a particular passage for three hours.

    Like Daniel, I wonder what directions we should provide. I worry about not providing any; many students might flounder. I also worry about providing a list of questions; many students might plod through the questions and conclude that they've finished the assignment. Maybe the thing to do would be to model the right kinds of thought processes in class with several papers and then send them out on their own?

  3. I'm working on a book about patience (no kidding!), and I think often about these issues. It's hopefully not just a matter of my writing swamping my thinking about everything else to have come to the conclusion that perhaps patience is one of the most important skills we might try to cultivate in our students--especially given our culture of acceleration and constant distraction. And the ideas above are surely on the right track, except that it's hard to see how in the world we can actually hold our students' feet to the fire--that is, to make sure that they spend the right amount (to them, a painful amount) of time reading and re-reading and thinking about a particular text.

    That said, there are some things that can be done in class to model patient, ponderous reading (such as reading a text out loud, and adding the thoughts and questions that you have as you read). That might be a start, as David suggests. Additionally, we might sacrifice content coverage/breadth in order to spend an atypical amount of time looking at one text, over the course of several classes. (Think, for example: how many different topics/arguments/discussions could you generate out of directing attention to various parts of a single text, such as Plato's Apology? The trick would be to find ways of directing and re-directing each re-reading of the text.) Here the risk will be that students will get bored, not see "why we're still talking about this", etc. Of course, some of those complaints will themselves be symptoms of impatience. Framing probably matters here--i.e. it probably shouldn't be a secret what one is doing.


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