The Advantages of Practicing “Deep Patience”

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In Harvard Magazine, there’s a very interesting account of the 2013 Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching conference, which took place on the Harvard campus earlier this month. An excerpt:

“Jennifer L. Roberts, professor of history of art and architecture (and chair of American studies), drew on the conventions of her discipline to make the case for decelerating education, introducing Internet-era students to the virtues of deep patience and close attention—attributes ‘no longer available in nature’ as they experience it.

She explained how she required her students to prepare an intense research paper on a single work of art, beginning with close examination of the work at painful length: three hours. The time is ‘designed to seem excessive,’ she said—but students emerge ‘astonished by what they have been able to see.’

She proceeded to demonstrate the payoff by offering a mini art-history lesson based on her close analysis of John Singleton Copley’s 1765 painting Boy with a Squirrel. Vision—seeing—has come to mean instantaneous apprehension, she said, but  ‘There are details, relationships, and orders that take time to see.’

During her first hour with the painting, she recounted, details emerged about the shapes of the boy’s ear and the squirrel’s ruff, the proportion of hand and glass of water (and the symbolism of the latter, an image Copley used only this one time), the folds of a curtain and the depiction of eye and ear.

Over time, she elicited a story about philosophical empiricism, and Copley’s deliberate creation of a work he planned to send across the ocean for review and reaction in London—an early instance of ‘distance learning’ as he sought training from the academic painters at the peak of the European art community.

Given the communication speeds of the day, she said, ‘This painting is formed out of delay, not in spite of it.’ In light of the sense of time and speeds of the day, the meaning of the work can be interpreted only at ‘the slow end of this temporal spectrum.’

For Roberts, these were some of the fruits of ‘teaching strategic patience’ (what others today might call ‘time management,’ she joked, or ‘patience engineering’)—and of giving students permission to slow down and exercise their unknown faculties.

The challenge for a harried Harvard faculty member, she said, was to model this behavior without showing how frazzled she could herself become from the demands of teaching, research, and the rest of contemporary life.” (Read more here.)

There are so many fantastic ideas here: first of all, the notion of “decelerating education,” of deliberately slowing the pace down so that we’re learning and processing deeply, not quickly and shallowly.

I like, too, Roberts’s insight that “the virtues of deep patience and close attention” are “no longer available in nature” to young people. That seems accurate: where, after all, can young people see these virtues in action? They’re certainly not modeled by adults, rushing as we do from activity to activity, scrolling on our smart phones all the while.

I appreciate Roberts’s point that seeing has come to mean instantaneous apprehension. We take in a web site in a fraction of a second, and assume we have seen everything worth seeing. But there are other, more careful ways of looking. I describe one such method—the observation practiced by scientists—here.

And lastly, I love the idea of “strategic patience.” We assume that the competitive advantage always goes to those who are fastest to respond, quickest to act—but it’s clear that sometimes, taking our time is the best strategy of all.

What do you think of Roberts’s points? Have you ever practiced “deep patience” and been rewarded for it?

(Hat tip to Dan Willingham for calling attention to the presentation by Roberts in his blog.)



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3 Responses to “The Advantages of Practicing “Deep Patience””

  1. Ken k. Chartrand says:

    Yes, once, when a famous art exhibit toured and was displayed in our city at the WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery). I went in having never seen paintings by famous Europeans. I was astonished at how the real paintings close up gave you such strange and exhilarating feelings.

  2. Ivan Gruer says:

    This is really something to think about.

    As Albert Einstein said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

    Nowadays the information flows so quickly due to social media, forcing people to react rather than to think (a social object in twitter reaches its peak of influence after only 2 hours). What kind of impact do you think social media could be having on our brains, as well on the brains of digital natives? Is there some ongoing research on this?

  3. Jill Matulionis says:

    As a high school student, I participated in a zoo internship, and worked with field biologists in the monkey house. One of our exercises was to sit in the exhibit with the squirrel monkeys and observe their behavior for an hour. I had been in monkey exhibits before many times, but sitting in that exhibit for an hour, I could not believe how much I had missed. By the end of the hour, I was able to tell one animal from the other (they all looked the same at the beginning), decipher relationships, and start to understand behaviors. It was amazing to me that I had missed so much in the past by just spending a few minutes standing in the exhibit. I try to remember to apply this to my life now, although it is definitely a challenge. Sometimes it really does help to get perspective by just slowing down, and taking it all in.

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