Footnote 25 — Harvard Magazine: The Power of Patience: Teaching students…

Footnote 25 — Jennifer L. Roberts, The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, Harvard Magazine (November-December 2013).

Read more at: http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience

Editor’s note: The Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference last May asked participants to ponder the following framing question: “In this time of disruption and innovation for universities, what are the essentials of good teaching and learning?” At the conference, after a panel of psychologists had discussed aspects of the “science of learning,” three speakers addressed the “art of teaching”—among them then professor of history of art and architecture Jennifer L. Roberts (now Elizabeth Cary Agassiz professor of the humanities), who also chairs the doctoral program in American Studies. She confessed limited exposure to education theory, and then proceeded to provide a vivid demonstration of deep humanistic education and learning, drawn from her own teaching in the history of art, but with broader applications. Although she makes broad use of digital technology in her teaching, she feels that it is also essential to give students experience in modes of attentive discipline that run directly counter to the high-speed, technologically assisted pedagogies emerging in the digital era—and to the experiences and expectations of contemporary students. Roberts adapted the following text from her HILT presentation.

I‘M NOT SURE there is such a thing as teaching in general, or that there is truly any essential teaching strategy that can be abstracted from the various contexts in which it is practiced. So that we not lose sight of the disciplinary texture that defines all teaching, I want to offer my comments today in the context of art history—and in a form that will occasionally feel like an art-history lesson.

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.

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DECELERATION, then, is a productive process, a form of skilled apprehension that can orient students in critical ways to the contemporary world. But I also want to argue that it is an essential skill for the understanding and interpretation of the historical world. Now we’re going to go into the art-history lesson, which is a lesson about the formative powers of delay in world history.

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And this is actually a lesson with much wider implications for anyone involved in the teaching or learning of history. In the thousands of years of human history that predated our current moment of instantaneous communication, the very fabric of human understanding was woven to some extent out of delay, belatedness, waiting. All objects were made of slow time in the way that Copley’s painting concretizes its own situation of delay. I think that if we want to teach history responsibly, we need to give students an opportunity to understand the formative values of time and delay. The teaching of history has long been understood as teaching students to imagine other times; now, it also requires that they understand different temporalities. So time is not just a negative space, a passive intermission to be overcome. It is a productive or formative force in itself.

GIVEN ALL THIS, I want to conclude with some thoughts about teaching patience as a strategy. The deliberate engagement of delay should itself be a primary skill that we teach to students. It’s a very old idea that patience leads to skill, of course—but it seems urgent now that we go further than this and think about patience itself as the skill to be learned. Granted—patience might be a pretty hard sell as an educational deliverable. It sounds nostalgic and gratuitously traditional. But I would argue that as the shape of time has changed around it, the meaning of patience today has reversed itself from its original connotations. The virtue of patience was originally associated with forbearance or sufferance. It was about conforming oneself to the need to wait for things. But now that, generally, one need not wait for things, patience becomes an active and positive cognitive state. Where patience once indicated a lack of control, now it is a form of control over the tempo of contemporary life that otherwise controls us. Patience no longer connotes disempowerment—perhaps now patience is power.

If “patience” sounds too old-fashioned, let’s call it “time management” or “temporal intelligence” or “massive temporal distortion engineering.” Either way, an awareness of time and patience as a productive medium of learning is something that I feel is urgent to model for—and expect of—my students.

Read more at: http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience

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