Mess Over Magic

Pet peeve: magical thinking.  I frustrate easily when I encounter assumptions about a process being easy.  I also get frustrated when people assume that sought-after ideals in education – creativity, critical thinking, connections – just magically happen under the right circumstances.  The fact is, many processes and products that look easy were anything but.  And the technique, training, and understanding that lie behind the ideals take grit and persistence.

We perceive magic when we observe efficiency and effectiveness.  For instance – my Ceramics III students have been working towards creating 25 cups.  Watch any student in this class throw, and you’ll see magic.  Each of them has enough time and training on the wheel to make the process seem effortless.  Most of the finished cups are magical, too – beautifully crafted, thoughtful, and generous.

But each one of these students has developed his own making process through trial, error, and persistence.  Joe had to switch strides midstream when his coiled details kept breaking as the cups dried.  Colin tried sgraffito on several bisqued cups, before he found that mishima on leather-hard work was more effective for his desired result.  Mike is still struggling with attaching handles to porcelain.  Time is a factor, too – with a necessary deadline approaching, more and more of the magic is happening after class, in the mornings before school, or during lunches.

Here and there, a grumble about time, or deadlines, or repetition, but our class is mostly filled with quiet, focused work, and mutual respect.  These students know that creativity comes out of persistence, hard work and learning from mistakes.  The beauty in their work is anything but magical.  It has come through cracked handles, collapsed walls, chipped rims, and work that is bone dry too soon.  They can really appreciate when something beautiful happens, because they know what ugly looks and feels like.  And they are enjoying the immersion.  One student recently remarked, “I never knew there was so much to a cup.  I thought I’d be bored by now – but I’m not even close.”  

Not to pat myself on the back, but I’m good at making some things look easy.  I can put together a 40+ page booklet in three insanely long days while not sacrificing my day job.  I can get forty or two hundred high school students through weeks away from home, healthy, happy, and more confident than they were when they left.  I can manage this, this, and this, and still have time for conversations like this.

But nothing about any of my work is magical.  Stubbornness in my genes was nurtured by a workaholic parent and encouraged by some top-notch mentors.  I enjoy a challenge – which is probably how I got into doing and teaching something that involves as much coordination as clay.  A perfectionist streak leaves me spending too many hours in process, and then more hours trying to make it seem like I put in less.  Crazy?  Yes.  Messy?  Yes.  Magical?  Hell, no.

I’m part of a group of faculty at our school who has been reading The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin as a springboard to discussions about reforming education.  And while any book that starts off with the line, “We are all artists now,” is going to be mostly a love affair for me, I’ve been worried lately that Godin’s thinking is a little too magical.

In Part Two, he actually writes, “Your job isn’t to do your job.  Your job is to decide what to do next.”  I cringe at this line, and at the thinking it represents.  How do you know if the job is working, if – instead of immersing yourself in the process – you’re always deciding what to do next?   How do you know if the messy, hard work is worth it – if you spend more time talking about it than immersing yourself in it?  And how do you learn to respect and value the hard, immersive work of others if your only model for its results is magic?  

Godin’s ‘impresario’ is “weaving together nothing and ending up with everything.”  My students, on the other hand, are applying well-practiced skills, synthesizing hard-earned knowledge, and ending up with occasional, precious successes.  I’ll take the mess over the magic any day.

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One thought on “Mess Over Magic

  1. Reading from Dan Pink’s “Drive” this morning:

    Quote from Carol Dweck –
    “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life. Effort means you care about something, that something is important to you and you are willing to work for it. It would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”

    And from Julius Erving –
    “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.”

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