the joy of grading papers

TL;DR: Can thinking about how we enjoy art help teachers enjoy the drudgery of their work? I think so.

I am in the weeds of some headache-inducing philosophy today: trying to understand some rather abstruse ideas, because I keep glimpsing ways I think they can help us understand some of the most pressing and practical issues in teaching. I grow so impatient with some philosophers, especially phenomenologists like the guy I am working with right now (Roman Ingarden). I am all in favor of saying something specific using lots of words, if you need all the words (and specialized vocabulary) to get across something that has not been said before – and I think that’s what he’s doing here. But still – uy.

There was a time when the music of long words and complex arguments was entrancing to me for its own sake. The ability to use those words had self-esteem value as a marker of how well-read I was becoming as much as for their actual import. But I am at a different place now, and am eager to understand high-minded stuff in ways that I can really relate to pressing questions that I face as an educator, and that my students will face eventually. I value erudition clearly expressed, above all.  (I don’t find this an anti-intellectual stance, incidentally: if anything it is energetically pro-intellectual, believing as it does that the life of the mind has vital contributions to make to policy and practice. So there.)

I’m also working on a paper for a philosophy conference next month, and these ideas are finding their way into that project, in the specialized language that is always a part of professional boundary maintenance. But this blog always helps me find (I hope) a clear way to express sometimes muddy concepts. So here I’ll try to explain clearly why I find this 1961 paper by Roman Ingarden so exciting, and why I think its insights have a lot to offer people who are engaged in the vocation of teaching. (And if you’re attending the conference too, well – spoilers ahead.)

Ingarden’s main project is to understand what we are doing with our mind when we become so engaged by an object that we get “swept away” by it into a rapturous engagement with it that he (among others) calls an “aesthetic experience.” The exciting idea he brings to this question is the notion that you – the viewer of a painting or a statue, or the hearer of a song – are participating in making that art object the something special that it is.

On the one hand, the idea that we participate in making art special is not so new or groundbreaking – I blogged about it earlier today, in fact, maintaining that it’s the specificity of our own engagement with this viewing of a film, or that listening to of a record, in a particular moment in space and time that makes it so moving to us. But I think he is going my idea one better: he is suggesting that we are actually doing some of the work that makes that painting, statue, or record so entrancing to us – that without us, it maybe is not so special. The work we are doing involves our willingness to cooperate with the object itself to make it all it could be, even if that means willfully ignoring some of its faults that might detract from its beauty, or becoming “complicit” in agreeing to imagine parts of it that are not there yet or never were, but that – if imagined – make it even more gorgeous.

He uses a vivid example: the iconic statue of Venus de Milo. The one thing everyone in the world knows about this statue is that it does not have arms, and yet most of the world still finds it ineffably beautiful. How come? Ingarden thinks it’s because the statue’s present qualities – the ones that are really there – are so engaging and promising that we willfully overlook any qualms we might have about looking at an armless statue and cooperate in imagining their presence (or, at the very least, not letting their absence detract from our experience of its beauty). The arms are only the most apparent example of the willful fooling-ourselves that we are willing to do: we will work to overlook all other kinds of flaws that might be found in this or any physical object or its presentation (e.g., pits in the marble, discolorations, bad lighting, a noisy tour group) if we are so engaged by the possibility of gorgeousness that we think it’s worth the effort.

So in a real way (this is what he finds most interesting, though not me), the object we are looking at and digging so hard is not actually a real object: it’s a constructed one in our minds, one where we have willfully filled in all the holes and glossed over all the faults in order to better render it something gorgeous and satisfying. He has some interesting ideas about how we know we are actually having an “aesthetic experience” because we can actually track our having of it by how completely we forget, if only for a moment, the everyday world we are in (we stop “dead in our tracks” to contemplate a gorgeous sunset, then have to remember what we were up to before we can continue on with it).  Which is cool, because it helps explain (justify?) the way the arts interrupt everyday life and (hopefully) change our perception of everyday life when we have to get back to things.

But the reason I find this whole consideration of aesthetic experience most interesting and exciting is because I think it helps explain a big part of teacher’s daily work and why (how?) they find it satisfying.

It seems pretty inescapable to me that teachers (English teachers and education teachers, in my personal experience, though I am pretty confident this holds for all other disciplines too) spend huge amounts of time hanging nose-to-nose with incomplete, underdeveloped, and sometimes just plain bad work. That’s because teachers, by definition, work with people on things that those people are not good at yet. or not-as-good-at-yet as the teacher is. The writing teacher became a writing teacher by reading a LOT and doing a LOT of writing; that’s what makes her someone in a position to help other people get better at writing. But that also means she’s spending practically her whole professional life with incomplete, underdeveloped writing – the exact thing she has spent a career identifying and, presumably, learning to avoid. How is she of all people – someone who KNOWS good writing, and presumably LOVES it – supposed to stay engaged and compassionate and focused and productive through hours and hours of reading POOR writing? Put this way, teaching – or at least marking up and grading student papers – seems like torture, and any pleasures that might derive from it seem masochistic or, at least, a little twisted.

Enter Ingarden. Maybe what the writing teacher who thrives in this work is doing is a version of what Ingarden talks about: she is becoming arrested by the potential beauty that even incomplete or underdeveloped writing has within it, and is willfully doing the aesthetic work of creating another, “aesthetic” object of that writing in her mind: something that is more fulfilling, more satisfying. The “teacherly” part of this aesthetic work, of course, is the sharing of her own aesthetic construction of “what this paper could be” with the student and encouraging the student toward a better-developed next draft. Which draft may or may not conform directly to the aesthetic vision of the instructor, to be sure – but perhaps the aesthetic “object” conjured up by the professor will offer one possibility among many of where to go next. (This model does not, I think, have to be overly didactic – it’s a way of visioning and communicating potential and next steps, not a prescriptive recipe that removes the student’s voice and will.)

More to the point that I find most urgent: this way of thinking about the drudgery of spending days with incomplete work empowers the teacher to be not just a proofreading, red-pen automaton, but rather a constant seeker of aesthetic experience. And that’s an endlessly rewarding endeavor. We all LOVE aesthetic experience: by definition, really, it’s all the stuff we do not because we have to, but because we WANT to, because it gives us pleasure. Seen this way, perhaps the reading of student work becomes intrinsically satisfying to a teacher, BECAUSE she is doing the aesthetic work in her mind to make it so. And then, in handing along her vision of “what might be” to the student, she is also fulfilling her teacherly duty to help the student develop new knowledge, skills, and attitudes (not least, the attitude that “hey, maybe I have the germ of something beautiful within this draft. Let me go back to it and work on it more”).

Teaching is an uncertain business: despite the ever-mounting accountability measures that pretend otherwise, teachers really cannot see with clarity the full result of their efforts. They cannot know for certain that the sum of all the parts they work through with students will have been worth the work; they cannot know for sure that the drudgery aspects of their practice will always pay off. I am deeply impressed by how similar these teacher challenges are to the challenges that face other “caring professionals” like doctors, nurses, social workers, ministers: all people who work  on one issue after another, usually for long periods of time in under-resourced, high-stress environments, usually without much sense of the actual impact of their efforts. All of these fields struggle with burnout, “compassion fatigue,” and high attrition rates: all of them desperately need ways to engage their work in ways that find intrinsic satisfactions in the doing of the work. And I believe they all need to evolve to the point where asking that question (“what in this work can feed me?”) does NOT break the deep cultural codes of service at the expense of well-being that saturate all these professions, but especially the lower-status ones historically dominated by women: teaching, nursing, social work.

These same themes – perseverance in the face of uncertainty; faith that the result of what we are doing will be more than the sum of its parts; acceptance that some parts of the work are drudgery, but still have value even though it’s not immediately apparent – happen to be part of what leads Hansen to claim that teaching is best understood as a “vocation” (rather than a job, an occupation, or even a profession). Hansen (convincingly, IMHO) argues that vocation is the word that best describes what we do for two reasons: because the work is important for reasons BEYOND self-satisfaction (i.e., it has moral value) while at the same time giving us some sense OF self-satisfaction (affirming our sense of identity and worth, helping us feel we are doing the work only we can do). Only “vocation” gets at that quality of teaching, and in Hansen’s hands a big part of keeping that inside satisfaction / outside importance synergy going is remaining genuinely engaged in the parts of the job where the payoff is uncertain. where we need faith that it will all be worth it someday, and where we might be worn down by the work but need to see that the wearing-down parts also have deep meaning and significance (however invisible that may be in the moment). Only “vocation” gets at the quality of caring work that invites the practitioner to find ways to feed her own needs for pleasure and satisfaction WHILE meeting the needs of her students.

It seems to me that if we can find ways to talk about the intrinsic pleasures of doing caring work, and empower practitioners to bring satisfying ways of engaging tasks to their practice, we’ll have made significant progress toward addressing the burnout and attrition issues (at least on the individual, disposition level: institutional factors are a whole other bag of cats). We’ll improve the work experience of caring professionals, and along the way improve the quality of the care they are capable of giving. Aesthetic theory might seem like an odd place to look for ideas that can do that for us, but I say if the shoe fits, let’s invite people to wear it.

If this all makes sense to you, I’d love to hear your own thoughts.

Image from Wikipedia.

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