Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty

In a recent satirical piece, I described an imaginary movie called “Won’t Quiet Down” (a dark spoof on “Won’t Back Down”), in which two disaffected students launch a “student trigger”: namely, they talk nonstop in class until the school, weary of efforts to “engage” them, converts itself into a computer lab without teachers. This was not a commentary on my own students, though some of them do get chatty. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at the consequences of distractedness and disruption in schools and beyond. It was also a parody of propaganda films, so the message was intentionally crass. But it had a serious element.

Incessant talk runs into serious trouble. It can’t honor things, because there’s no “sacred space” for them (to quote someone with whom I spoke recently). There’s no sense of a time for quieting down and listening. Thus, there’s little room for taking anything serious in. Instead, people vie to be heard—but no one’s listening anyway, so no one gets heard. This is an exaggerated representation, of course, but it’s largely accurate.

The problem is not just that people talk, talk, and talk. (Nor is it a problem of extraverts versus introverts, as many who qualify as introverts have a great propensity for chatter.) It’s that there’s so much rush, so much overload of work and information, that people don’t even have a chance to ruminate, to sift through experiences, to read books for pleasure and interest, or to test out ideas. I have discussed this in my book and elsewhere; I see it as one of the primary problems of education.

Teachers and students have little time to think. They scamper from one thing to the next. During the week, I am on a gerbil wheel; I can think of little more than the things I have to get done for the next hour and next day. Over the weekend, I have hundreds of assignments and tests to correct. (I really mean hundreds, since I have about 260 students, whom I teach twice a week.) I love teaching philosophy; at its best, it’s illuminating. Listening to my students discuss the Book of Job, Pascal’s Wager, and Kant’s categorical imperative has given me hope. These kids are reading and pondering the texts and analyzing them keenly.

But what I don’t have, and what they probably don’t have, is time to putter around. (Today’s an exception. I am intentionally puttering today, since I need it badly. I don’t teach on Fridays, and last night I was at school until late for a glorious Hispanic cultural evening.)

Most of my good ideas come out of puttering. I love to mull over lesson planning: I read the text, think about it, think about different ways to present it and things to pull out of it, think about how my students might respond to it, and start to shape the lesson from there. I putter when coming up with ideas for writing and when revising existing pieces; they take various shapes in my mind, and I seize the one  that seems best. Puttering allows me to reread books, listen to music, memorize a poem, work on a math problem, and so forth; and each of these activities can expand into something more.

Of course, you can’t spend your whole life puttering. You must also be able to pull things together under pressure. I like deadlines and performances for that very reason. Sometimes they bring things out that would not have been brought out otherwise; at the very least, they can help you get things done.

But I long to take my time with things, including lesson planning. I consider this a staple, not a luxury. Yet our society seems to treat it as either a vice or an afterthought. As a culture we place more value on doing, doing, doing than on thinking; more value on certainty than on uncertainty; more value on saying something than on taking something in; and more value on results of any kind than on slow and soulful labors.

Throughout the school system, throughout the country, from what I have seen and heard, teachers strain under unreasonable workloads, as do students. Not only do teachers have large classes and many of them, but their “prep” time during the day comes to little, if anything. In urban districts, a quiet place to work is a rarity; teachers often share classrooms and may not even have a desk. As for students, they are in class every minute of the school day except for lunch. They stay after school for electives and sports. Then, when they get home, they have several hours of homework. Students with college aspirations must build resumes and portfolios; in many cases, they must show not only their academic ability and interest, but their ability to lead a club, initiate a project, and speak on video. On top of it all, they have many digital distractions.

I do not recommend eliminating homework or extracurriculars (or, for that matter, technology), but something has to give. How is it that in high school I took Latin, Greek, French, history, physics, math, and English (sometimes two English courses at once), practiced cello for two or three hours a day, sang in the school choruses, participated in sports, and still had time to take long walks, see friends, and write stories and poems? Part of it is that the school trusted us with free periods during the day, so our schedules were not packed. Some of our frenzy today comes from a perceived need to fill everyone’s schedule, to make everyone accountable for every moment.

If we want to relieve some of this pressure and live more sanely, we need to move from accountability (where you must give moment-to-moment account of your actions, on someone else’s terms) to responsibility (where you honor your conscience and duties, relying primarily on an internal guide). Accountability has its place, but as a way of life it will squeeze the best out of us and drive us to exhaustion. Responsibility is much more difficult to build and sustain, but it allows for tranquility, though it puts us to serious tests.

But building responsibility—in society as a whole—is a complicated matter. It involves strengthening one’s solitude and learning not to give in to every passing craving or demand. It also requires having something to live up to, something worth the responsibility, something beautiful to carry as though it were our own.

Note: On March 5, 2013, I deleted the original first paragraph, as it was about the blog, not about puttering.

Leave a comment


  1. Diana-You’ve hit the nail on the head! Teachers aren’t given enough time to plan, let alone think and reflect about their students, classes, lessons, assessments, or to read research and articles of an educational nature.

    I’m an 18-veteran of the secondary classroom, have recently switched to higher education, and am working on my doctorate degree. My research is student responsibility for their learning. I first chose student accountability, but try to find anything under “student accountability” and you won’t find it. I had to switch to “responsibility” to find any research out there, and it’s primarily in the educational psychology field.

    The accountability movement forgot to include our students, and that needs to change.

  2. Reblogged this on Curiouser and Curiouser and commented:
    No post this weekend. I’m puttering.

  3. Thank you. This is beautiful.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Senechal, for writing so eloquently on an issue that I struggle with the guilt of with nearly every day.
    Though I am a “people person,” and though I often speak to strangers in stores, parking lots, restaurants, etc., and though I absolutely love being “onstage” for my kids (students), I desperately need my own time and space with increasing frequency.
    I need to have time and space to not answer questions, not decipher handwriting, not be bombarded with sound–either discordant or pleasurable. I need time and space to not cook, not clean, not tend to the mail and bills, not strive to achieve someone’s “rubric”– stated or implied–of who and what I should be. I need time to not be VAM’ed.
    I need time to contemplate, whether consciously or unconsciously. I need time for resting my brain, body, and emotions. I need time to be neither annoyed nor intrigued.
    “‘Me’ Time” sounds so hackneyed, clichéd, and vaguely ’70s. “‘Me’ Time” sounds selfish and self-serving. “‘Me’ Time” sounds uncaring, uncivilized, and–Egads!–downright un-American.
    That being said (and that being my guilt doing the saying, anyway), my “‘Me’ Time is indispensable.

  5. I really needed this. I am not a teacher (my daughter is), but I work in banking and I am familiar with the hamster wheel. I often come home mentally exhausted. Thank you for a well-written post.

  6. Thank you for all of these comments. I wanted to respond promptly but have been swamped and under the weather….

    In my talk at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music, I examined the distinction between responsibility and accountability:

    Click to access NASM2012-Keynote_Senechal.pdf

  1. Why Puttering Matters | Diane Ravitch's blog
  2. Ruminate | Reticent Mental Property

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s