Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Showing Up for Practice

I've never really been involved in school sports but I imagine that if you don't show up for practice you risk losing your place on the team. You are expected to say no to things that are also perfectly valuable because you have prioritized the sport. At practice, meanwhile, you do more or less as you're told. Much of it is just physical conditioning (running). Some of it is more technical (making a shot). Some of it teaches you broader strategic competences (how to move on the court). While I'm sure there'll always be some grumbling and belly-aching, and while some coaches are wiser than others in what they put their athletes through, the basic rule is that you show up and do the work. If you don't like it, there are other teams, other sports, even altogether different pursuits.

I think we could vastly improve higher education by insisting that students show up for daily writing practice. For an hour a day, first thing in the morning, students would show up and complete a series of mandatory writing tasks under the "exam conditions" I described yesterday. Many of them would consist simply in writing the best possible paragraph they can in 27 minutes, perhaps given a key sentence by the teacher/coach. Sometimes they'd be given less time to rewrite a paragraph. Sometimes they'd be asked to write a paragraph reflecting on a quotations, perhaps specifically requiring them to quote it or, alternatively, to paraphrase it. They would show up, complete the tasks, submit them, and their work would be quickly checked by a teaching assistant. The teacher would spot-check (perhaps sometimes guided by a concerned TA) and intervene in the writing development of especially weak or especially strong writers, just as a coach on a sports team corrects people who are making mistakes, pushes people who are capable of more, and lets (I'm assuming again) most of the team, most of the time, just go through the motions, which are valuable precisely because they are "exercises". The motion itself develops your talent.

I imagine this idea can be criticized as either an infantilization or a militarization of higher education. In whatever sense this criticism might hit its mark, consider my suggestion a "modest proposal", i.e., a satire of the massification and corporatization of our universities. It's a way of taking the idea that universities should "train" citizens for service to society seriously. I don't deny that at a certain point (and a very extreme one that my proposal doesn't directly imply, I will insist) such training is merely indoctrination, a preparation for a life in servitude. The same critique can be made of sports teams and scout troops at all levels. Ideally, university students would cultivate their own exquisite solitude, requiring merely a gentle, mentoring hand from their teachers and a context for ongoing conversation (a classroom). They would not need to be forced to sit down and struggle with their writing. A university education would be reserved for people with an intrinsic desire for knowledge, and it would be of no use to people who lack the curiosity and drive required. But that is not the reality; universities have become an obligatory passage point for the pursuit of a wide variety of professions, not all of which actually demand "academic" skills, but all which, for some reason, would prefer to employ people who have demonstrated a modicum of such competence.

So I'm not actually being ironic at all. In the early days of the universities students would sit in lecture halls and be read to by, yes, "readers" (lecturers) and their main job was to write down what was said. This is how books were made before the printing press. But it is also how a particular kind of mind, and a particular kind of mentality, was formed. It may, indeed, be how the peculiar inwardness of literary pleasure was originally invented. Maybe it's not for everyone. But surely there is nothing wrong with maintaining an institution that cultivates it? My proposal is just a way of introducing a bit of realism into the way we approach writing at universities. Surely, your performance as a student must demonstrate "academic" ability even if you have no desire to be a professor, just as your performance on the varsity basketball team must be "athletic" even if you have no long-term professional ambitions. Just as in sports, you'll have people coming out of this with a "merely" solid set of skills and their prose in "merely" good shape. But you are also providing a place for people of exceptional talent to excel, again just as in sports, eventually to pursue careers as professional writers, scholars, intellectuals.

P.S. I didn't do sports in school, but I was in the band for a while. Not only did we have band practice, we were also expected to practice at home. It's just so obvious in the case of music and sports! Why is it so hard to approach writing the same way?


Anonymous said...

Perhaps because sport and band/orchestra have always been presumed to lead to publicly performed outputs, but writing was not perceived to be public. Especially so in school, where one's athletic and musical triumphs and tragedies were openly shared. Writing in school was done as a private exchange with a teacher. Triumphs were only rarely noted publicly; tragedies never. And my recollection is that my writing in school, save for graduate theses, was always "unpracticed performance" for the teacher.

Thomas said...

I have the same undergraduate experience. I could always write well enough, and no one told me to practice. Imagine what state professional basketball would be in today if the idea of practicing never occurred to anyone. If there were just games and then the players living their lives. Well, the loss in quality that you presumably picture gives you some indication of the potential gains in intellectual life that making writing practice a normal and required activity might bring.

Andrew Gelman said...


I think that the sports team model is an excellent model for education in so many ways, so much so that it makes me wonder why it is not adopted more. I think one issue is that much of learning, at least as traditionally framed, is individual rather than team-based.

Thus, I don't think the key distinction is public vs. private output (as suggested by commenter randallwestren above) but rather team vs. individual.

Consider these comparisons: soccer practice vs. judo practice. Debate team vs. chess team. Chorus vs. piano. In the first example of each of these matched pairs, there's an obligation to go to practice, an expectation. You might skip the occasional practice but if you skip too many, you're letting the team down. In the second example in each pair, it's more of a hassle to practice, you have to be reminded each time (unless of course you really really love the activity, but that's another story).

As a teacher, I try to do classroom activities in pairs, and students can do homeworks in groups. Still, it's not so easy to develop that team spirit.

Having a teacher develop the attributes of a "coach," that's also important, and it's another story, I think. In my mind, the coach focuses on mastery of specific skills, whereas in teaching (at all levels, from elementary school to postgraduate), we jump around a lot more from topic to topic.

Thomas said...

I really think the jumping-around school of teaching results from not really being sure what you want the students to be able to do at the end. (I say that as someone who has taught that way.)

As for individual/team. My daughter is a figure skater. There's a "team" that she trains with, but nothing depends on her showing up as far as the others are concerned. (They just get more attention from the coach if she's not there.) The thing is, she can't practice without ice. So she has to go the rink when it's her time. With writing, we aren't dependent on having a "gym", and that's why we leave it up to the individual. And that's why the individual fails.