Thursday, May 14, 2009


"But I worked sooo hard on this paper!" a student says to me, upon seeing her grade.

I believe her. But I also think she's wrong. That sounds like a contradiction, but it isn't, really. I used to tell students that there's a difference between work and what I call "churning" -- an activity that feels like work, is very unpleasant, but doesn't really do anything. When you should be working on a paper, but you keep sorting your notes, checking your email, alphabetizing your snacks, and complaining to your friend about how this paper is killing you, you're churning, not working on the paper. It's a natural inclination; I do it, too. And it feels like work, because it takes up a lot of time, and isn't fun. But it doesn't accomplish anything, other than using up your time.

Cal Newport, an MIT graduate student, calls churning "pseudowork," but we're pretty much talking about the same thing. His column (see previous link) is well worth reading, since it explains -- much better than I ever have -- why straight A students tend to spend less time studying and writing than other students.

If you've ever heard the expression "work smart, not hard," that's what he's talking about. His points are spot-on, and I strongly suspect that a lot of students would enjoy their academic lives more if they were exposed to his advice, which he sets up to be pretty easy to follow. His basic mission is to show students how to simplify their lives, have more time for enjoyment, and do better, all at the same time. It is possible. And it isn't difficult.

I used to have a whole speech about churning that I'd give students in my 1A classes, but now I'll probably just have them read Newport's post. It's pretty good.

- GS

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