Growing up, I sometimes tried to supplement my allowance with contract work for my parents. If they provided materials, I would wash the windows, paint the porch, clean up the yard, or do nearly anything that needed doing. My price would be a flat fee based on who knows what. The time allotted to the task would be who knows how long. Completion time: to be announced. But at the end of my task, my father often refused to pay what he promised.
“David, you haven’t finished,” he’d say.
“You asked me to clean the garage. Isn’t it clean?”
“Most of it is, but you left cobwebs in the window sills and in the corners near the ceiling and floor.”
“But you didn’t tell me that was part of the job.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you… part of the job is knowing what the job is.”
Though I’d go on to complete my father’s work order according to his unspecified specifications, I resented these conversations. I regarded them as puppy training, my nose pushed into my mess.
Now—of course—I’m my father. At least a third of my students’ questions amount to, “Exactly what do we have to do again?” I hear myself say, “If I tell you everything you have to do, how will you learn to figure out what needs to be done?”
In other words, “Part of the job is knowing what the job is.”
When I cleaned the garage or painted the porch I wanted to be finished and paid. Satisfaction was hardly my top desire, and I imagine it is the same with some of my students. I ought to understand. Whether I specify nothing or everything, the task remains arbitrary. It’s my job, not theirs.
Yet I’m quixotic enough to hope for transcendence. “This time,” I think, “they will take the task as their own and show me how resourceful and diligent they can be.” I think, “This time they will surprise me. In a good way.”
At one of the first department meetings of the year, as we were grousing about an “initiative” we needed to fulfill and talking ourselves toward resignation, one of my colleagues shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, they call it ‘work’ for a reason.”
Expecting work to be more than work may be setting myself up for disappointment, but I think my colleague has it exactly wrong. They call it “work” because it has no reason. If I could convince students a task is worth doing—not for a grade or for college, not for freedom from grounding this weekend—maybe they would clean cobwebs from windowsills or give their essays better titles than “Catcher in the Rye Paper.”
Buckminster Fuller once said that he never thought about beauty when he was trying to work out a design or idea, but, “When I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it’s wrong.” You have to desire a beautiful solution to arrive at one.
When I return essays, I identify problems I encountered—common mechanical errors or frequently unsupported assertions or troublesome quotations that weren’t properly integrated. Most students take my instructions with patience and mute gratitude, listlessly copying pieces of advice into notebooks, resolving— even if half-heartedly—to return to them before the next paper. Occasionally, however, someone rallies the courage to ask, “Why didn’t you tell us this in the first place?”
My answer is, “Sometimes I have to see your work to know where you need help.”
It’s a necessary but inadequate response. I’m still looking for a more beautiful solution. Maybe I should be honest and say I had hoped they wouldn’t need reminding. But I’m beginning to think it’d be better to focus less on what’s missing in their work. I should help them think more about what they can do than what they must do.
What they really need is a reason to work. Though I sometimes forget, trying to inspire them is what this job is.