Celebrate the Slog

Students don’t need to be rewarded for studying at every turn, but why not honor the march toward mastery now and then?

November 23, 2015

I am writing this on two hours’ sleep. Twelve hours ago, around 11 p.m., the director of my college’s writing center and I found ourselves side by side in the library, staring in shared marvel at what can only be described as the humming, thrumming, joyous chaos of work happening all around us.

I say "work" — and not "discovery" or "learning" or some equally lofty word — because that’s what it was: real, difficult work.

To our right, sitting on the floor at the base of a glass-sided staircase, a former student of mine, "Jonathan," worked through calculus problems with a dry-erase marker on the glass (something the library totally permitted and encouraged, by the way). At the circulation desk behind him, three more young men watched his every stroke of the marker, the way you might focus on the brush strokes of a master artist, studying his moves and hesitations. When he made a mistake, one would point at the error and ask a question, and then the four of them would work through the correction and move on to the next equation.

In the open space beyond the staircase, students worked in groups or alone, hunched over books and notes, earbuds jammed in place. Every study room was full. The writing center was full. The speaking center was full. The main conference room was occupied by a physics help session — a regularly scheduled meeting that relocated to the library for this one night only.

We were hosting our inaugural Long Night Against Procrastination, a sort of festive, communal event that seems to have originated in Germany and is associated primarily with college and university writing centers here in the United States. Most events under this moniker focus singularly on writing — specifically on getting people to write during extended hours in the writing center, where eager and abundant staff are waiting to help. An evening punctuated by messages of encouragement and, often, an hourly tally of words or pages written, it is an event that subscribes to the "butt in chair" philosophy of writing, while capitalizing on the social pressure and comfort of working in a more public, community-oriented space.

I’m a writing teacher, so when I first heard about this (through social media, of course), I was instantly on board. Having worked in my college’s writing center as an undergraduate, I knew how productive the place could be, especially "after hours," when the dim lights and the waning caffeine buzz combine to create the perfect conditions for hammering out page after page of wandering, abstract, sure-of-itself prose. I approached the center’s director and asked if she’d heard of this Long Night thing and whether we could give it a shot.

Due to the small size of our college and the configuration of our academic-support services (all of us are housed in the library), we thought it silly to limit the event to writing. After all, the horrible feelings of self-doubt and lack of motivation that Long Night aims to circumvent, if only for an evening, aren’t exclusive to writers (though we may be the most artful at expressing them).

So we circled the wagons and set about planning an event that would celebrate all forms of academic labor. Go big or go home.

We coordinated late hours for academic-support offices, recruited extra tutors and writing consultants, and arranged to have snacks available, as well as someone to lead hourly stretch breaks. We asked faculty members to hype the event in their classes and hung promotional posters in every academic building. And we got swag: T-shirts, cups, stickers, and stress balls — all bearing a custom logo and arranged on an escalating scale of prizes based on number of hours worked. Our president even got on board, offering himself as a raffle prize, agreeing to take a winning student out for a meal, give a guitar lesson, or allow someone to shadow him for a day. Students earned one ticket an hour for the prizes; the longer you work, the more chances to win.

So there we were, besieged by throngs of students blowing in from the cool fall night toting stacks of books and stray papers. To be precise: Between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., 187 students (out of 1,400 enrolled; or 13 percent) checked in with us. By the time our security officer showed up to lock the doors, the students had logged a combined total of 546.25 working hours. The last sign-ins happened around 11:15 p.m., and by midnight, fewer than 10 had left. Upon arrival, they were asked to write their study goals on a 2-foot-by-3-foot poster. We filled seven posters. "Read 100 pages," one student wrote. "Learn calc before I die," wrote another. "Get ahead." "Ace my international studies midterm." "Finish economics homework." "Write policy memo." "Get through Spanish." "Not fail" (followed by several exclamation points).

Around 11:30 p.m., a young woman rushed down the stairs to our check-in table and declared, rather hurriedly, that she’d already been here two hours and planned to stay at least two more to get a T-shirt, but could she please get her stress ball now because she was working through some very difficult reading. We gave her the stress ball.

The same thing happened an hour later. This time a young man lamented that he was out of gum and needed something tactile to help him tackle a challenging set of problems. He got a stress ball, too. Every hour on the hour, a dozen or so students gathered in a second-floor art gallery to stretch, breathe, move, and escape their work for 10 perfect minutes.

As students exited, we asked them to record whatever they accomplished on an 8-foot length of butcher paper. "Wrote a French fable!" "I learned more about Islam." "Philosophy reading. Go Hume!" "I’m going to ace my calculus test."

Did I mention this event took place on the eve of homecoming weekend, and in a time slot that forced us to compete with an annual and very popular talent show?

By the time I made it home, I was too wired to bank any meaningful sleep. The next day, I tried to articulate exactly why the evening felt so significant. After all, I’ve been told the library is a lively place after "the adults" go home — that most of its use happens after dark. Had I witnessed anything different during our Long Night Against Procrastination, or would I be equally impressed by walking into the library any other night of the week?

I think the answer is yes, and no.

The library is always packed on weeknights, and it’s certainly configured for all sorts of work, with walls and glass students can write on to provide them with lots of space to think through their studies. But what I’m sure isn’t happening on a nightly basis? The recognition that work is happening and that it is worthwhile and deserves to be celebrated. That’s a noteworthy difference.

The notion of embracing failure (you may prefer to call it difficulty or struggle) is quite the trend in academe these days. Whether in scholarship, critical commentary, or pop media, we seem to be focusing on the unconventional path toward success. We revere people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg because they show us that getting it right isn’t the most important thing. It’s being willing to risk being wrong and to think creatively that matters. (I’d include some pertinent links on this topic, but honestly, they are too numerous to pare down.)

But still. Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerberg? They are not exactly helpful figures when you’re looking down the barrel of 100 pages of postmodern theory or struggling to fully grasp the difference between xylem and phloem. The conversations about unconventional routes toward success aren’t useful if the narrative continues to romanticize ideas of conventional success while sugarcoating the labor of getting there.

The entire goal of Long Night Against Procrastination events is to shift the gaze from endgame to right now. We wanted, in a very deliberate way, to acknowledge, support, and even honor the difficult, laborious slog of academic work. That work is, after all, what we are all here to do, but so often, it goes unacknowledged or pushed aside in favor of hyping extracurricular activities on our campuses — athletics, social organizations, interest groups, Greek life. It’s not a zero-sum game. Those activities are worthwhile for dozens of reasons.

But too often in the culture of higher education, unless students are intellectual superstars, their academic achievements — their struggles and ambitions, their near-misses, and, damn it, just the work of it all — are considered comparatively insignificant, hardly worth discussion. Our Long Night event strived to invert the model. "Wow, you studied calc for three hours?! You finished 100 note cards?! You made it through that tough Aristotle section?! Have a sticker. Have a T-shirt."

This is work that deserves to be noticed. And before I am accused of coddling the latest generation of needy late adolescents, let me say that no, I don’t think they need to be rewarded at every turn with gold stars and participation ribbons.

But what I advocate for here, and what I think this event perfectly models, is a culture in higher education that celebrates the difficulty entailed with marching, however waywardly, toward mastery of an academic subject. We are shaping the development of these young people’s citizenship, not only through the courses we teach but through the structural and cultural conditions in which we ask them to live and work. If we can’t muster some measure of enthusiasm for the thing we prefer they prioritize above all else, what are we even doing?

Allison D. Carr is an assistant professor of rhetoric and director of the writing-across-the-curriculum program at Coe College.