‘I can’t read anything.’
‘Are you in pain?’
‘Agony. But it’s neither my leg nor my back.’
‘It’s what my cousin Laura calls “the prickles of boredom”.’
‘Poor Alan. And how right your Laura is.’ She picked a bunch of narcissi out of a glass that was much too large for them, dropped them with one of her best gestures into the washbasin, and proceeded to substitute the lilac. ‘One would expect boredom to be a great yawning emotion, but it isn’t, of course. It’s a small niggling thing.’
‘Small nothing. Niggling nothing. It’s like being beaten with nettles.’
-Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
A friend of mine places every contemporary social phenomenon (Donald Trump, College Rape Crisis, etc.) under the general heading “Boredom.” His argument is that technology and ease have made us overstimulated and underexerted, so any bright object or opportunity for excess can come along and turn our head. It’s a little too pat, but I do wonder, for example, if boredom is behind the intense draw of the “new urbanism.” Compared to the burbs, just getting around, getting groceries is enough of an undertaking to take the edge off of some existential anxieties, some of the time.
Boredom is probably a universal experience of being a student– I remember quite clearly being continually flabbergasted as a kid that a weekday went by so much slower than a weekend day– but managing and ameliorating boredom is a central task of being a teacher, and the process of teaching reveals some aspects of the psychology of the emotion that aren’t obvious when you are facing towards the chalkboard instead of away from it. Chiefly, it teaches you that ritual and regularized activity are the enemies of boredom instead of its accomplices in crime. As a kid, you experience school as a yawning chasm of empty emotional space, sitting at your desk, waiting for something to happen. I spent a good part of second grade, when I couldn’t sneak off to the reading corner for an hour or five, trying to figure out how many of a box of pins I found on the floor that I could thread through the skin in my fingers at once without them falling out. (I think the answer was “twelve.”) The teacher- a kind and intelligent woman who was the mother of a friend of mine- would drone on at the blackboard with Venn Diagrams and magnets representing positive and negative numbers, and I’d stab myself with pins. Beaten with nettles indeed.
So when you become a teacher, the impulse naturally is to try to destroy boredom with variety and unusual activity. Today, we’re going to play a poorly conceived board game about multiplying negative and positive integers. Today, you’re going to write a poem about the rock cycle. Today, we’re going to do this and that and this.
This isn’t necessarily wrong-headed, but it’s generally a failure, producing more boredom instead of less. It is not that a variety of experiences are contrary to learning-– obviously, insofar as understanding can be deliberately inculcated, it requires multiple perspectives, and even, as the educationists say, “multiple modalities.” I am not one to say that dipping your head into a bucket of water or letting huge millipedes crawl over your hand are necessarily contrary to the educational project. But constant variety of activity- or the teacher’s attempt at variety- presents a twofold problem. First, kids come to school with the expectation of working towards success- that they will put forth effort, if only the effort of sitting still while others blather at them, and in return they will be rewarded by not getting into trouble– and a class that is constantly trying one form of instruction and then another gives little in the way of consistent feedback to tell the kid he’s doing what he’s supposed to do. Second, a class where the teacher is constantly explaining a complex activity tends to require more time listening and less time doing, more cognitive burden just trying to understand what the teacher wants you to do, before it even comes time to try to understand curricular content. Together, being stymied in the desire to do some work and be told you did a good job and waiting, waiting, for the teacher to explain his dumb plan for the day is…boring.
This is particularly true if there’s much classroom disruption, if midway through the teacher’s endless explanation there’s a fart joke in the back row or a paper ball sailing through the air or someone being poked or a pencil being swiped. Suddenly, there’s still another cognitive hurdle to focusing back on what is supposed to happen, and still more time waiting to get to the part where you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You’d think that a class where the teacher is in a failed war against a few troublemakers would be at least entertaining to the kids not getting in trouble, but instead they often feel an oppressive sense of guilt that they did something wrong to make the teacher angry, combined with the unbearable boredom of waiting for the endless conflict to resolve.
The resolution that almost all experienced teachers come to- a strong degree of commonality from day to day to day, a ritualized structure to the lesson, unit, year- is almost the only one available. Sure, within that structure a lot of variation is both possible and preferable, and some teachers have such a strong personality that their relationship with the students itself- their patter and stories and injunctions and jokes- becomes the continuity that keeps everyone going. But the main tool that experienced teachers have is the consistency of expectations that keeps kids working, doing something themselves and feeling marginally successful about it instead of waiting for the adult to announce their lives to them for the day.
To go back to my friend’s theory- an expectation that you might hazard about adults is that as computers take care of the repetitive and regularized portions of our jobs, and as online distractions occupy more of our time while we are ostensibly at work, that the remainder of our working lives, once we tear ourselves away from those distractions, would be varied, unexpected, and almost boredom-free. Similarly, many smart people seem to think that a universal basic income or a similar welfare-state program that freed people from work would allow for engrossing and self-directed activity for one and all.
But if teaching taught me anything, it’s the opposite: that when we don’t know what the day holds, and when we feel little in the way of consistent obligations that matter to other people and that it is in our power to fulfill, we are, more than anything, bored.