02 June 2011

On Boredom

I am not bored, but I am experiencing boredom. I owe to Adam Phillips some perspectives on this state. 
I raise the issue of boredom now because I am ‘between projects,’ and I am experiencing boredom. Oh, it is not that I have nothing to do, nor even that I do nothing. Ironically, the situation is just the opposite: I have too much to do and I have not yet chosen one activity I wish to engage in concertedly, or even seriously. At present, I read an assortment of books in a variety of genres placed strategically in various location throughout Walden and the base house, but I sit down with each each without a real question in mind: I am not even sure at times from where the impetus to read this rather than that book derives. I read sometimes out of obligation to too many things to which I may be committed; I read to belong to communities; I read obligingly in the field, and that which I think might be related to the field; I read to empty my to-be-read book shelf in order to make room for more books to be read. When I am not reading, I watch movies or stream old television shows onto the computer screen into my Walden. I am watching whole seasons during some weeks. I am actively inactive, but waiting in great anticipation for what will give my desire some form; I await some inspiration to act in earnest. I think this is Genesis all over again: there was Abraham actively inactive until the voice tells him to go to a land where I shall show you . . . and off he goes never to return. I await my call to go forth. 
I read my Montaigne steadily but slowly, and it intrigues me that he seems to have no essay on boredom. Perhaps it is that his essays kept boredom at some remove. I think the essayist had a remarkable curiosity, for there seemed so little in the world that would not set him thinking and writing. Or perhaps I might consider that Montaigne’s writing was inspired by his boredom as he sat comfortably in his chair awaiting the question? And if he was bored, then boredom was not something to which he wished to give much thought: he was busy. 
For forty years in the classroom I have listened to students complain that the work (either that in which they were engaged or that which refused to engage them) was boring. This particular grievance indicated that for the students there existed a separation between the learner and the to-be-learned, and the cry that  ‘this is boring’ indicated that a problem existed with that which was ‘to be learned:’ it was boring. Given the failure of the material then, students felt absolved of all responsibility to learn the flawed material: it was, after all, boring. 
Of course, this indictment of the material suggests that learning ought to be at least entertaining (which it often is, but not in ways that oppose it also being consideredat least, at firstboring), and it ought to be recognizably compelling at first approach. In many classrooms the power of first impressions is often definitive: if to the individual the work does not appear immediately accessible then it is boring and need not be engaged with seriously. 
The ascription of boring to the material assumes as well that all learning requires an immediate and perfect fit between learner and learned. There ought to be no discordancy, no friction, no rigorous exertion, no mystery in the engagement in learning. Nothing should require change in state. Everything should automatically appeal and suit each in exactly the same manner and to the same degree, and no one should ever suffer confusion. Elsewhere I have learned that confusion is a state out of which one must labor in order to achieve comprehension. 
It is also possible to understand boredom as a state in which the subject cannot pose any question to her environment. Sometimes the situation exists that the material permits few questions to be asked. This occurs in material so complex that a learner does not even know how to question the text or even what questions to ask it. Or in the case of the Dick and Jane Readers or formulaic films, the material is so simple that it inspires no questions; or the end is immediately evident in the beginning. The material is empty and does not arouse much interest. In the former case, the material is too dense and cannot be interrogated, and in the latter, it is too vacant. 
Boredom is not disinterest for in boredom there is a willingness that does not exist in indifference. When I am bored I am waiting; boredom is what I experience while I wait. In boredom, I am active. But when I am disinterested, I do not engage at all. I move on, a type of action, I suppose, but one that smacks of evasion and escape. 
Phillips suggests that boredom might be considered a useful object with which the subject might await something that will attract his attention. Boredom is a holding environment: within it one need not yet make a decision to act until his desire motivates him to act. Boredom maintains desire when the subject doesn’t even know that she desires. That is, desire is the pilot light; when I am ready to cook something I turn it up to ensure a proper temperature. Boredom ensures that the pilot light remains lit. 
Which returns me to the idea that in boredom nothing in the environment (the text) attracts the individual’s desire. Boredom is not an active refusal to become engaged, but rather, an active sensitivity to the environment in which one awaits some stimulus to spur a more focused action. I might consider that boredom is a state in which one becomes brave enough to let ones feelings develop and to actively reach into the environment for something that I did not previously know I desired though, of course, I did desire something. This accords with an argument I have entertained for a while now that says that education is the search for lost objectsthe Rabbis define a lost object as something that requires a relationship in order to fulfill its purpose or realize its potentialand that we do not know what we have lost until we have found it. Phillips makes the same argument for boredom. He says, “So the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know he is waiting.”  The individual thinks he is bored. 
I’m boreda charge I have for two decades heard from my childrenalso suggests a problem with the environment. Implicit in their boredom is a failure of any object to capture and enthrall their attention. I have not provided enough. I am another failed parent. 
But I think now that there is some relationship between these two conditions of boredom. In the first the idea demands that the stuff of the classroom ought in itself to capture the imaginations of the students without their effort. Students may thus absolve themselves of responsibility for their learning since the fault is, indeed, in the stars and not themselves. I would argue they are not bored but disinterested, and perhaps they are afraid to acknowledge this: they are, after all, supposed to be students, but perhaps we have not yet taught them the responsibilities that attach to that position. Our students are taught too much passivity during their formal schooling experience. Perhaps responsibility to the process of education must be taught along with the content. Students, I have learned, require education. The complaint that students make in the classroom assumes that the material is responsible for grabbing them without their effort. And my children (and three thousand million other children besides) demand to be entertained by something external to them. My children think they must have enough stuff about to ensure continual stimulation. It is this appeal, I suspect, that can be met by social networking institutions like Facebook and texting. 
When students complain that the material is boring, we might ask then to consider why they are having difficulty entering the texts. What questions can they ask, and how can they find answers to their questions. When my students say “This is boring,” I might ask, “What doesn’t interest you, and why exactly aren’t you interested?” When the children say they are bored, I might answer, “Well, good. Just relax, and wait to discover what you want to do next. Don’t worry: something will occur.” Boredom might be better enjoyed.


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