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There IS a Formula for Drudgery

September 16, 2009

It is not hard work which is dreary; it is superficial work.
•Edith Hamilton

I’ve been collecting old books since I was a little girl because I’ve always been fascinated by the historical context of things that interest me. One of the categories I collect is education. Others include old books about sex and relationships, including a favorite from the mid-nineteenth century, Plain Points on Personal Purity, or the Startling Sins of the Sterner Sex, a book warning against becoming the kind of cad who stands on street corners waiting for an errant breeze to blow a lady’s dress up so that he can see her ankles.

Despite being written almost a century ago, there’s lots of commonsense information in William Carl Ruediger’s 1932 book, Teaching Procedures, a book I bought for a dime in an Ojai, California, bookstore when I was in high school. There is a formula for drudgery in Ruediger’s book. If interest is missing, he says, almost any kind of activity can be boring and unpleasant. Duh! Unfortunately, in school, we are often urged to do our best at everything

This just isn’t possible because a) we don’t have equal abilities to do everything equally well, and b) we don’t have equal interests in everything, and c) lots of other reasons I won’t go into. There are some things that we will never be as good at and some things we just don’t give a hoot about even though we may have to give a little toot about them to achieve a larger goal.

When you’re back in school and making choices about what courses to take, it’s important to remember that things you don’t understand or aren’t interested in can become interesting—can even become passions. I became an English major because I loved to write, not because I enjoyed analyzing literature. My friend Pam and I sat in the back of our first college lit class making fun of—and secretly envying—the literati at the front of the class who seemed to understand what the professor was talking about and who actually added real insights to the discussion.

We were lost. Symbolism? Hidden meaning? We just didn’t see it and we didn’t have anything to say. After class, we’d wonder why we couldn’t get it and we awfulized about how we never would. But because we were English majors with plenty of lit classes ahead of us, we knew we had to figure out how to see beyond the immediate words on the page. We also knew that mid-terms and finals and research papers would require the skills of literary analysis. We didn’t want to have to do it, but we knew we needed to if we wanted to become English teachers.

We still laugh about the day we looked at each other, sitting in the front of another lit class, and realized that WE were the literati. Our becoming was a process of wanting to know and systematically pursuing understanding. At first, we had to work at being interested, but as time passed, we found ourselves both interested and interesting. And then we had something to say.

Which subjects in school interest you? Which ones are drudgery? Why?

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