Work for a Reason

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.

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1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Laments, life, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

One response to “Work for a Reason

  1. hhstheater

    A provocative piece, David. I found myself locating points of comparison in both my father and my students. Money, however, was never part of the equation. . . and perhaps that made me look for more meaning in work than I otherwise might have. I can remember one year our father had my brother and I move the woodpile. Then once we’d moved the whole thing, he changed his mind and had us move it again. . . and again. Even at the time I recognized the absurdity of it. . . the kind of unintentional zen training it was.

    As for student writing, I’m reminded of a section from S.L. Rubinstein’s book Writing: A Habit of Mind that’s entitled “From Need to Desire.” He writes, in part: “An essay responds to the need or desire of its writer. I can establish, for a student, need. He needs to write because I say so. But I hate to read the essay he writes: he writes what he thinks I would write. And he is always wrong. Both he and I are wasted. We must transform need into desire. Somewhere my assignment must become his investigation; otherwise, his essay will be neither profitable nor bearable to read. I must want to hear what he has to tell me; he must want to tell me something. Each desire exists if the other does.
    “The good composition teacher should be an ignorant man. Not merely profoundly ignorant. He should be also superficially ignorant. He should not only lack wisdom; he should lack information. He needs his students’ help. Because he needs their help, he gets it. The courses he teaches teach him. The students he teaches teach him. He should not know –and should not care to know–who in his classroom the teacher is.”

    This is just a taste of the essay, which was originally published in College English in 1967 (the book itself is long out of print), but if you have access to JSTOR, you can find the entire article there. Taken as a whole, his book is the most creative and engaging writing about teaching composition that I’ve ever come across (in large part, I think, because he approaches the text as a creative writer). It’s no small compliment when I say that your writings on teaching remind me of his.

    I found the essay on JSTOR, and it is pretty amazing. How could someone have said so much that was so sensible and not changed our teaching more. Since writing this piece, I’ve had more candid conversations with my students about my status as profoundly ignorant. My ninth graders will probably see it as an invitation to summarize, but I hope my Shakespeare students will take it up as a challenge.

    Hope your year has started well.I’ve been using a little of the theatrical stuff we learned this summer, and I’m hoping to do more this week. It’s still a little awkward–I’m so unpracticed–but I’ll let you know how the experiment works out.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments–it’s great thinking you’re out there reading.

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