Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Time Has Come Today
Joseph Chambers & Willie Chambers
The Chambers Brothers

Who Knows Where the Time Goes

A Man hanging by the big hand of a clock on a clock tower.
Harold Lloyd from the film Safety Last

Filling the time is often difficult. Some believe ninety minutes is too long for a class to last and others that forty-five minutes is much too short. It all depends, I suppose, on how the time is employed, The modern teacher has excite the class about something, give the instruction on how to complete the assignment, and have time left over to actually complete the task. Ideally there is time after the task is done to review important points, discuss the homework, and set up the nights reading assignment. Time and its management is a tricky thing.

How is time used most effectively, especially in the classroom where I work (not that time isn’t important for people that work outside the classroom, but they will have to find their own answers)? So much of effective education depends on repetition and paying attention. Instruction is given, for example, on how to complete a bibliography (something few outside of academia care much about). The steps are pretty simple. The citation that must be placed inside the paper is also pretty simple. These tasks do not have much that is confusing about them, but the tasks and the instructions on how to complete them, are tedious. And even if the students are going through the motions of paying attention, their minds are elsewhere. When the time comes to complete the bibliography or cite the source most will be back asking how it is done.

Other tasks are more complex and have the potential of inspiring more interest, but only to those that already possess an interest in the subject. I often tell students that if the class is statistically balanced fifteen to twenty percent will be interested in what I teach, English. The remaining eighty percent or so will be interested in the other disciplines (math, science, history, phys-ed, and foreign languages). There will probably be another few percent that are interested in other things that are not likely to be found in a classroom. But then many students have not yet come to understand why education is important (they understand the argument that is made and most agree with it, but many have not “owned” the task as necessary.)

So does it matter if the class is ninety minutes or half an hour? Does it only matter that the time is somehow filled, however much it is, with material that will hold interest and provoke, perhaps, students to dig deeper into the material on their own time and at their own pace? I think educating the mind is exciting, I have always been curious, and as a result have always wanted to know more than the teacher taught, no matter how much the teacher taught, but, honestly, only about the things that interested me. I found Gauss an interesting man so I looked up material on him while in high school and learned a lot about his life and work, but did not learn much of the math that is necessary to really understand his work. I suppose that is how most of us are; we investigate what interests us and, maybe, a few of the tangents, a bit less deeply, that present themselves along the way.

The school that sponsors my classroom went from ninety minute blocks to seventy-five minute blocks in the morning, hence the concern for time. I find that I cannot get done in seventy-five minutes what I used to get done in ninety. That should come as no surprise, the other fifteen minutes should have been filled with something, and that has to be left behind. Another five minutes have been added to the afternoon classes, going from forty-five to fifty minutes. But five minutes is not enough time to introduce something new and than finish whatever that something new happened to be. For those that count minutes in the classroom five minutes is five minutes no matter where it lives. But of course in the classroom where the five minutes lives can make all the difference in the world.

When I was in college the university I attended thought they would save money and make students happy by ending the first semester at Christmas break in the middle of December rather than the middle of the following January where it traditionally ended. However, the missing four weeks or so had to be made up somehow. This was done by adding a chunk of time to each class. I forget exactly how much time was added to each class but it equaled the amount of class time lost by ending early. One of my professors thought this was wrong. That adding some time to each class could not make up for the time lost because in those four additional weeks students could be given additional books to read and discuss. The time in class did not change but the time spent out of class preparing for what happened in class did change. It takes time to read, digest, and reflect on a work of literature. Much of the time devoted to reading and reflecting is what was lost.

That is perhaps the larger issue. We are in the midst of an election. Time needs to be spent finding out what it is we want the government to do, and what it is the government must do if the nation is to remain healthy and strong. Most importantly we need to think about which candidate can do those things. This decision ought to be the product of time spent thinking and reflecting on issues and problems. Most, though, will probably make this decision based on their political philosophy; the conservative will vote for the most conservative candidate and the liberal for the most liberal. Odds are that after reflecting a bit the result would be the same anyway so why invest the time. There is some truth in this, but what happens to a society that does not nurture reflection or develop it as a skill in the first place.

Popeye for President
Director: Seymour Kneitel
Producer: Paramount Pictures

In the Popeye cartoon we see Popeye and Bluto both running for office. Their platforms revolve around giving something to voters, not on the best interests of the community, though by promising the electorate spinach Popeye has the health of the electorate more in mind than his opponent. This is satire of course and real politicians are not as blunt as this. For this sort of campaign to work, the electorate cannot look too deeply into what the candidate truly stands for. Few voters would be won over by campaigns as crass as Bluto or Popeye’s, but to avoid being fooled time must be spent. James Thurber believed you could “fool too many of the people too much of the time.”

That may be true, but only if citizens do not take the time to find things out to think in some depth about what is actually going on and being promised. Some complain about how long this election has gone on. It has been longer than most, but though the candidates have spent more time talking and debating have voters spent more time thinking about the process. Do they complain because they are used to things taking less time, not more, to be completed. Again, the issue is not so much the election, though that is important I suppose, but the resistance to the contemplative process. There are important decisions that life and society place in front of us and though we would wish otherwise there is a cost to making these decisions too quickly and too thoughtlessly.

I wonder what the desire to streamline things, from classrooms to computer access, has on people. I know in my classroom students struggle with books that make demands on their time and interest. They have difficulty understanding what a book is about when plot is set aside for other interests of the author, like setting or character. In their minds understanding a book relates almost entirely to knowing what is happening. When Beowulf is fighting Grendel students know what is going on, but when he is giving a speech or the poet is philosophizing about the nature of honor students get lost. That, I suppose is what the teacher is for, but is it wise for the teacher to always help them out of these literary potholes; don’t students need to work their way through some of these problems on their own? This becomes difficult when class time disappears.

I think stories are important in this regard. When we reflect on them they give substance to the concepts we believe and help us recognize the importance of the issues the stories raise to our daily lives. The stories do not need to come from the canon of great literature, nor do they need to be long and involved. Theodore Roosevelt (I believe) once said “Loyalty is being faithful without being famous.” That is a story of sorts or at least it contains the kernel of a plot that could make a good story. I started reading a new book by Margaret Atwood today. It is called Payback and she begins with an observation by another writer, Alistair MacLeod, that writers write about what worries them. Atwood adds that writers also write about what puzzles them.

Our relationship to time and our attitudes toward time, worry and puzzle me. We are becoming less and less comfortable with free time. But it is in these unfilled blocks of time where we come to know ourselves and the world around us. Atwood’s book begins by telling a story of Ernest Thompson Seton and the debt he owed his father (it is a wonderful story and you should read the book). She wonders about our indebtedness to those that raised us. Time spent by the adults around us teaching and caring for us is an investment. No one has figured out how to quicken the race to adulthood, it still seems to require eighteen some odd years. The kind of adults our children become depends on the kind of time we invest in them. Some of this time is invested in classrooms. I worry about how this time is spent and am puzzled by what some think is a wise and productive allotment of that time.