At this time of year–because it is semester’s end, the last Friday of Fall 2010 (before final exam week)–I am thinking again about patterned precarity. “Patterned” because the academy’s clock punctuates our lives with fairly arbitrary (if systemic) endpoints. That semesters end means for many students an intensified two-week window near the end of time when a flurry of deadlines, for admittedly complicated reasons, amount to a heap of dustbin deliverables and an even taller heap of stress. I know I am generalizing: it doesn’t always go this way, nor does it have to go this way. But often it does. End of semester grunt/strain/anguish is palpable, thick in the air.

Especially so this semester, it seems.

E., my friend in Kansas City, shared an anecdote with me once about the learner’s mindset and the thrill of close calls. The story I (mis)remember goes something like this: in Kaffa, the region of Ethiopia known as the original growthplace of coffee, there emerged an astonishingly widespread practice among teenagers of something like “fender glancing.” Fender glancing is a game of chicken with moving cars. Basically, participants in this activity enjoy a rush by close brushes with automobiles. A near miss is invigorating–literally life-giving. I made it! As you might imagine, this does not always turn out well. Almost being hit by a car–when the choreography goes badly–can be lethal or at the very least bone-breaking. E. explained how he saw many correspondences to this in those he was teaching (to play soccer), particularly when they were bored.

Thrill seeking isn’t a new discovery or even a new cultural phenomenon elucidated by the derivative (i.e., friend of a friend said; an admittedly lazy, heard-about method) anthropology above. But it nevertheless reminds me about revaluing the relationship between what happens all along, in a given semester, and what happens at the end, as well as rethinking how practices in a given course must spill beyond the time-bounded container of fifteen weeks. In other words, for teaching, how can we redistribute intensive encounters so that a class doesn’t reduce to an ultimate showdown at semester’s end?


  1. There’s two answers to your question, IMO:

    * We can’t. The system is what it is what it is, and because of the sheer bureaucracy of organized education (grades, degrees, curriculum, etc., etc., etc.), all of us– students, parents, publics, professors, administrators, you name it– must heed it. Fighting against such a system is as futile as fighting against gravity. Or death.

    * Make stuff due two weeks earlier (duh).

    Actually, there’s another issue here too, which is if it really is the condition of the “ultimate showdown” that is a cause of regrettable work. I am increasingly of the opinion that giving students (or frankly anyone) time to work on a project that they are likely to sit down and completely at the last minute is pointless. I wonder what it would be like in a writing class to assign a seven page essay on such and such and then say “oh, and it’s due tomorrow.” Would the work really be that much different than if you gave students two weeks? I have my doubts.

    (he says, going back into the cynical grading cave….)

  2. I don’t think of semesters (or other institutional time units) as being quite the same as gravity–not exactly as much a necessary, natural force, anyway. And of course I say this having just listened yesterday to the RadioLab podcast on vertigo, on altered gravity experiences (many of which, I suppose, are augmented by technologies), etc. I also saw something earlier this week in Keri Smith’s curious book, Mess, about rethinking and even using gravity as a medium. At the very least we can become more conscientious about the dangers in a seeming naturalness we grant to institutional time cycles. I admit this may amount to nothing more than an awareness campaign: notice that semesters are arbitrary.

    But the larger point for me here hearkens back to something CGB often talked about at Syracuse related to blogging and other stream-writing. We are, with some of these immersive, distributed writing practices, deviating from event-modeled composition (e.g., looming, ultimate deadlines). Sure, semesters end. But stream-writing assumes a different time-logic than does the timed in-class essay or the short-schedule essay (like the “due tomorrow” scenario you mention). Both have their place…maybe. It’s just that I’m more often thinking about how their places are shifting, how, in other words, the immersive-distributed stream-writing (and collecting/reading/annotating, as in Google Reader) are closer to the sustained, durative activities likely to carry on after a terminal date. In these maybe there is less of a showdown, fewer dustbin deliverables (e.g., the stuff that collects in the boxes outside office doors only to be read once and discarded, or, if we are lucky, recycled). There are distinctly different consequences attached to each of these composing time-logics, too. And just one of the consequences of event-modeled writing is a sharper drop off at semester’s end.

  3. Well, this might be a bit cynical, but it’s something I argue for briefly in in “When Blogging Goes Bad” and I think it’s true here: we can try hard to create scenarios which allow students to “just write” in the sort of way you’re describing here, but the bottom line is that students don’t “just write” or “just do” anything without an assignment and guidelines. I think the kind of writing you’re talking about of course happens, but that kind of authentic writing doesn’t really happen in classrooms.

    I had a professor at BGSU who studied this sort of thing, and I guess he had a book out about it:

    I always thought Joseph was too cynical about all this, and I don’t want to suggest that the kinds of writing that students do as a result of assignments are inherently “dustbin deliverables.” And of course some assignments are more “real” than others. Nonetheless, I think we’re sort of trapped in the maze here: as long as we’re within the bureaucracy of higher education (grades, degrees, outcomes, etc., etc.), we don’t have a lot of choice. Like death or gravity.

    Of course, this is also the reason between “education” and “learning.” Ideally, an education helps people learn things, but we all know situations first-hand where that turns out not to be the case. On the other hand, we also have all learned things outside of an “educational setting” and also for no particular motivation other than self-fulfillment.

  4. Might be mis-reading you, Steve, but I don’t think of what I’ve said here as inviting students to “just write,” or to encourage self-sponsored writing beyond the curriculum. It is a related concern, but in the entry I was thinking about time, specifically a presumption that academic time must govern writing habits. It’s less about a given platform in this case (e.g., blogging) than it is about how academic time gets it wrong when it becomes the only notion of time around. At the end of a semester in which multiples classes on a student’s schedule have devised make-or-break “ultimate” assignments, the academic clock fails all of us involved. Distributed writing practices cut against this clock (they unwind it?), whether the writing is self-sponsored or assigned in a class. And I would argue we could do a better job of making conspicuous that the academic clock need not dominate writing rhythms, as has too often been the clamoring we hear as the final hour approaches.

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