A lesson in strategic patience


Not being a teacher myself, I’m wary of handing out pedagogical advice. (I suspect that classrooms are more complicated places than I can imagine.) But this article by Harvard art history professor Jennifer L. Roberts, adapted from a talk she gave at an educational conference earlier this year, is something that I hope a lot of teachers will read. It begins with Roberts noting a recent shift in the way she plans her lessons:

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?

She offers a remarkable example of how she goes about engineering experiences “on the slow end of this tempo spectrum”:

In all of my art history courses, graduate and undergraduate, every student is expected to write an intensive research paper based on a single work of art of their own choosing. And the first thing I ask them to do in the research process is to spend a painfully long time looking at that object. Say a student wanted to explore the work popularly known as Boy with a Squirrel, painted in Boston in 1765 by the young artist John Singleton Copley. Before doing any research in books or online, the student would first be expected to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where it hangs, and spend three full hours looking at the painting, noting down his or her evolving observations as well as the questions and speculations that arise from those observations. The time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.

At first many of the students resist being subjected to such a remedial exercise. How can there possibly be three hours’ worth of incident and information on this small surface? How can there possibly be three hours’ worth of things to see and think about in a single work of art? But after doing the assignment, students repeatedly tell me that they have been astonished by the potentials this process unlocked. … What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.

Seriously, you should read the whole thing, even if you’re not a teacher. You’ll learn the backstory of Boy with a Squirrel, which, Roberts argues, “is an embodiment of the delays that it was created to endure” and hints at the way “the very fabric of human understanding was woven to some extent out of delay, belatedness, waiting.”

5 thoughts on “A lesson in strategic patience

  1. Smokey

    Not to quarrel with point of the article but I needed that sort of temporal shaping when I attended college in the early ’70’s. I’m tempted to attribute that ‘deficit’ to TV which I watched too much . Too soon old, too late smart, I suppose.

  2. Tom Panelas

    “Art cannot be fully experienced without our cooperation, and this involves, above all, our sacrifice of time. Sociologists, lurking inconspicuously with stopwatches, have discovered the average time museum visitors spend looking at a work of art: it is roughly two seconds. We walk all too casually through museums, passing objects that will yield up their meaning and exert their power only if they are seriously contemplated in solitude.”

    Sister Wendy Beckett
    The Art of Looking at Art
    Encyclopaedia Britannica
    (Disclosure: I work there.)

  3. Deborah

    Just reading this challenge of her’s makes me want to TRY this exercise. It is so foreign to our culture these days. In fact, I would go so far as to say there are SOME people who would consider gazing at one thing this long, ‘pathological obsession’.

    “Move along”, is a message that we get from virtually all avenues of our lives these days.

    I’m going to go read the whole article now…

    Thanks for sharing it!

  4. Mike

    As a teacher, I can tell you that I read this article with every one of my classes last week. She articulated quite well what has been a more or less tacit assumption guiding my practice for some time. That said, your review of Focus opens with what I take to be a helpful complimentary point.

  5. Scott Holloway

    I know this is an old post, but I wanted to share my favorite line from Roberts’ article: “Access is not synonymous with learning.”

    I can’t but help think of One Laptop Per Child and efforts trumpeted by Mark Zuckerberg and others to get the Internet to every single person on the planet! I can think of things that are FAR more beneficial.

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