Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Five Lessons Factory Work Taught Me About School

Students often come to college thinking an education will save them from blue collar work. But working at the factory while continuing to teach, though very difficult, has granted me important new insights into how I teach, and how they learn. Let me share just the most significant.

1. Pain is a sign that you are learning.
Setting components on the assembly line looks easy until you do it. When the machine runs at a standard forty-five units per minute, rest assured, on your first day, you will fail to keep up. Even after months on the job, minor setbacks can knock me off the production line. You run the machine, but the machine can easily wind up running you.

Yet watching a colleague with a year’s seniority, I noticed he didn’t even look at the components as he set them on the line. He just lifted them off the pallet, set them on the line, and boom, there it was. Trying to keep up with him proved physically painful. But I embraced the pain, and I’ve made significant strides in keeping up with the machine.

Students often avoid learning’s natural discomfort because they think, if it hurts, it’s harmful. But as Srinivasan Pillay says in Your Brain and Business, the process of growing new neurons, of your brain becoming more complex, feels painful at first. Diving into this pain is necessary to cultivate a more sophisticated mind.

2. Pay attention to the present; the past and future will pay attention to themselves.
At the standard running rate, I have only one and one-half seconds with each unit on the line, to evaluate it, decide whether it’s ready for the process, and fit it for the next station on the line. I can only do that if the unit before me occupies my whole attention. If I double-check prior units, or look ahead to the next unit, I can’t pay attention to the one in front of me, and I can’t do the best possible job. Work is downright Buddhist that way. We must remain mindful of the present, because the future and the past can crowd our consciousness detrimentally.

Students often become so entangled in what they think their finished product should look like that they never start. Others look backward, constantly correcting perceived error, and thus never finish because their attention is anchored backward. I do not mean that students should not plan, nor that they should avoid evaluation and revision, but when they let these steps crowd out the actual process, they bog down in ideals and never make inroads on the task before them.

3. Tension is desirable.
My job involves two work spaces. In one, the line runs rapidly and work keeps me moving. In the other, work runs stop-and-start, parts are often missing, and the pace lags. The first is harder, the second more restful, so you’d think I’d prefer the second. Yet without continuing tension, the second is often tedious, and eight hours passes with excruciating slowness.

Most students, and many teachers, think they prefer a leisurely, peaceable classroom. But I can tell the difference in output between my early students, when I ran a loose ship, and my recent students, whose feet I’ve held to the fire. Tension may seem unpleasant in the near term, but that extra little edge can often make the difference between real learning and sluggish tedium.

4. Rest often.
Some management theories contend that laborers should work with machine-like ferocity. Yet when machines run continuously for shift after shift, they break. When the metal gets strained, joints overheat, or the governing computer can’t manage the demands, the machines go ping and stop running. I’ve seen laborers do the psychological equivalent on the factory floor.

Many students push themselves to appalling lengths. In addition to full-time studies, my students often maintain jobs (some full time) and robust social schedule. Their workloads take a toll on students’ health, appearance, and job performance. Unfortunately, among those options, they most likely consider school of lowest importance.

Lack of rest, including but not limited to lack of sleep, causes musculoskeletal disorders, psychological distress, and endocrine imbalances. Henry Thompson, in The Stress Effect, catalogs the damages wrought by lack of rest, including weight problems, diminished judgment, and stunted prefrontal cortex. Whether you work or study, make rest a high priority.

5. Pee regularly.
Work, like learning, is difficult enough. Don’t compound that by facing the day with the frustration of a clenched sphincter.

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