In Praise of Inefficiency

Yesterday I ran out of papers to grade.IMGP7017

No fear, I’ll have at least twenty again by Monday at the latest.

But for today at least, caught up on grading and even on lesson planning, I found myself at loose ends, professionally speaking. What to do?

Ostensibly, I had a to-do list. On it were things like “return student papers” and “plan online composition course”. And ostensibly, I followed that to-do list. I headed down to the library with an armful of student papers to return, and I checked out a few books and send off some emails relating to planning an online composition course.

But I kept getting distracted. 

Without the pressure of getting my grading done, so I could buckle down to lesson planning, there was no pressure to get stuff ticked off my to-do list, and my tasks spiraled into much larger projects than they otherwise would be.

En route to return student papers, I ran into my colleague Steve in the library and picked his brain about how parents regulate (or don’t regulate) their children’s technology usage. (I’d been thinking about it since reading this post by Rod Dreher yesterday). We talked for fifteen or twenty minutes.

And in my office, working on an online version of college writing, all I really wanted to do was find a good resource for teaching students to structure persuasive writing. But there too the task spiraled outward, covering much larger territory. I talked books and pedagogy with a colleague across the hall. I read a variety of writing-related essays on the Internet, including a description of a course on personal essays, a Q&A approach to using sources, and the helpful and hilarious “How to Say Nothing in 500 Words.” I made no discernible progress on the online course. I got nothing ticked off my to-do list. In fact, I added a few things.

So no, I was not efficient today. Nor was I productive.

But being productive and efficient is not, or at least not always, the same thing as spending time well.

We modern Americans, immersed in a world of big data, like to think that only when we produce something that can be quantitatively measured are we doing worthwhile work. And of course, the more of this measurable work we do, the more efficient we are, and the better workers we are.

But good work doesn’t always work that way. A student who writes a ten page paper overnight is very productive and efficient, true. But his paper may not be as good as the six page one that was written over a period of two weeks. (I speak from experience here.)

Not all work can be quantitatively measured. Nor does getting a lot of work done in a short period of time always guarantee that we are doing work well.

Some work needs to be done slowly. Sometimes the things which make us inefficient, which cause us to dawdle and dally, actually make us better workers.

I have friends in graduate school who tell me that when they are trying to grade student papers or plan lessons, they are frequently distracted by interesting conversations with their friends. But surely the richness and depth of those conversations nourish in my friend a rich thought life, the kind that contributes to a much more enriching class for her students.

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. There, he writes that the best soil for growing fruits and vegetables is that which has been nourished by long, attentive care. Dumping some nitrogen fertilizer on sandy soil will not produce nearly the rich food that spending years spreading animal waste, rotating plants, and careful tilling  does. The natural method is longer, but the natural method results in much sweeter corn and juicer tomatoes.

The same with work. We Americans tend to honor work accomplished the nitrogen fertilizer way: Swig some coffee or Red Bull, power through a couple hours of work, and turn in as much final product, whether that be veggies or research papers, as you possibly can.

But the quality will always, always be better if we spend time over our work.

This is not to say that we should never work quickly. Sometimes working quickly is necessary, and indeed, at some point in the near future, I’m going to need to stop all the distracted reading and research that I’m doing for my online course and actually plan the dang thing.

But nor is good work always done quickly, and sometimes even the things which do not seem directly relevant to our project wind up being nourishing in the end. I did not intend to quote The Omnivore’s Dilemma in this blog post; I just read the book, and now my knowledge of it permits me an illustration which makes the blog post (hopefully) richer.

All I’m trying to say here is that sometimes we (or at least I) can feel guilty for not ticking enough items off my to-do list, or for making slow progress. Without items ticked off my to-do list, how do I know that I’m actually worth something? And so to me, or to people like me, I remember that while our culture teaches us that fast and efficient are better, slow work is better nourished, and much richer.




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