Are They Getting Their Work Done?

It’s another snow day. I’m shoveling our sidewalk, while my husband is working on a talk about visual presentations of work, and I’m thinking about what he’s doing, what I’m doing, about what “work” is, and about Sudbury Valley.

If you’d look at my husband and me right now, you could see easily what I’m doing, while you wouldn’t be able to tell what my husband is up to, beyond the simple fact that he is sitting behind a laptop. Fact is, he is doing his work, while I am not (I should be at SVS), even though shoveling snow is a lot of work. And when I’m back at work at SVS, where I’d rather be right now, you would have a much harder time figuring out what I’m actually doing just by looking at me. That is, unless I was perhaps shoveling snow there.

Because my husband is a self-respecting self-reflexive intellectual with a sense of humor, and because his talk is about a video project devoted to the subject of work, he filmed himself while working at his talk, following the exact parameters of that video project: a single shot, 1-2 minutes, no cuts.1 The resulting clip shows him looking intently at a computer screen, his eyes moving right and left, up and down, and sometimes diagonally. His right hand clicks the computer mouse occasionally. There is some typing on the keyboard as well. On the whole, it’s rather low on plot and, just like now, you cannot figure out at all what he is doing. For all you know, he could be playing a computer game, or watching cartoons, and, come to think of it, that too could be part of his work, called research.

Why am I writing this much about my husband (Peter is his name) behind his computer, apparently doing nothing but actually working, while I am out there with my shovel, obviously working, but somehow also not?2 Not because I’m mad at him for not shoveling (he hurt himself so he can’t, and besides, I kind of like being out here, piling up snow, thinking, and feeling somewhat morally superior with my honest work), but because he looks a lot like our students at SVS behind their screens, and because they look a lot like SVS staff up in the office behind their screens, and because increasingly, that’s what many of us look like for much of our workdays, including members of the very nice academic family who visited SVS some time ago and did not enroll their child because, they said, they did not like seeing so many kids behind computer screens.

This incident has been haunting me. I cannot stop thinking about it, and I keep wanting to ask them and other academic friends, who seem to me to harbor a particularly deep and visceral dislike for computers, what their children would get to see their parents doing if they would visit them at work. Yes, there is teaching in the classroom, and copying teaching material, and meetings, but a huge amount of work would consist, to the naked eye at least, of sitting behind a computer screen, at home, in a café, or in the office.3

But, my friends might say or think about our students, they are just playing games. Couldn’t they do something educational, at least? This too has been haunting me, the question of things being “educational” or not. I kind of hate computer games, but I hate educational computer games even more. Or rather, I intensely dislike the education business, developing “fun” educational material and selling it to anxious parents and educators, who feel the need to make sure that their children are constantly learning something “valuable”. As if, as parents, we really knew what this “valuable content” actually was.

Wait a minute, how did I get from work to learning? Because my husband at home working looks a lot like students at SVS playing computer games? Because I am talking about school, and a student’s work at school is learning? Because learning is work and working involves learning? In any case, this is what I’ve been wanting to get to, the fact that seeing learning (at school or elsewhere) is just as difficult as it is to see work at work, apparently.

A friend of mine, whose job it is to help students in public school survive their day (she’s a student aid), often by cutting out chunks of assignments, told me she was asked by another teacher “But are they getting their work done?”

This too is haunting me. What does it mean? If students’ work at school is learning, how are they “getting it done”? And how does the teacher know? Was she wondering if the students were finishing their worksheets? Or if they were able to do what the curriculum tells the teachers their students have to learn how to do? Does getting their work done mean they are doing something useful, like shoveling snow? Should they be finishing a project? Is it about their homework? What is this work that they are supposed to do? And when is it “done”? At the end of the worksheet? After writing a paragraph? When they have made a poster display? If their work is learning, that would be pretty open ended, so what is this notion of getting one’s work done in school? Do students get this pile of stuff every day, like I am getting this snow now, and they have to somehow deal with it, perhaps put it somewhere, transfer it from one place to another or make something out of it, or organize it? I can derive satisfaction out of moving a bunch of snow (less so with each snowy day, but still), and I remember trying to derive some satisfaction from applying a quantitative sense to my homework in school by, let’s say, treating a page of math problems as a bunch of stuff that just needed to be done, or a paragraph as something that just needed to be written to a certain length. This strategy always failed. For one thing, homework and teachers never managed to impress me with the same kind of existential authority that a snowstorm possesses, even though they managed to make me feel very bad. And, then, if the math was something I couldn’t do, it was of course impossible to just get it done, unless I would just guess and pretend, but there is no real satisfaction coming from that, and the job is of course not done. If it was some math I liked doing and was able to do, then it might be fun to do the page. But then, why stop at a page? Then why not make up more problems? Same with writing. If it was something I wanted to say something about, nothing could stop me, and I would be done when I was done. If it was not something I could write about, just putting words on a page until they resemble a paragraph didn’t really feel like having accomplished much. Learning vocabulary lists? Agony. Trying to read a book in a new language with many unfamiliar words? More my kind of thing.

Back to computers, work, learning, and computer games. I have recently tried to spend more time in the so-called Sewing Room at SVS, where a lot of that looking-at-computer-screens and gaming is going on. For a while I thought I should learn how to play a game or two, to figure out what people are actually doing, but I’ve given up on that for now. I’m just not interested. Not knowing what our students are doing within their games also doesn’t necessarily obscure seeing some of what they are doing when they are playing. You see, there is also a big difference between Peter in his film about himself at work at his project, and those students I am thinking of. He is sitting all by himself, but the students sit in a large group around an enormous table. They converse and confer with each other, and there are often clusters of onlookers, commentators and, as it seems to me, some kind of mentoring figures, gathering around them. They are frequently asked for advice, and they give it freely. The room frankly buzzes with mental activity and enjoyment. What this does resemble in many ways is working in the SVS office, or another workplace with a really good vibe, or at least, it could be a good model for how working in a group could ideally look and feel like.

Come to think of it, when Peter works in his office, colleagues tend to stop by my only seemingly solitary writing husband, to exchange thoughts and to field questions, and it is one of the things Peter likes most about his work. In many homes, people like to set up their work at least temporarily on the kitchen table, in close proximity to food, potential company and other forms of being productive, as in making coffee. Unless they have to go into some deep productive space, where no one should interfere—which is what you can also see at SVS, people tucked away in a quiet room or a corner, in their own space, behind their computer screen, or with a book, or a pad. People seek each other out to learn, and to work, as both are deeply social activities.

I think I am beginning to understand now that when I see students arrive in the mornings with their laptops in a briefcase, and lunch in a bag, signing -in, and setting up at a spot around the big table, they do not only look like they are going to work, they are going to work. They are learning, and they are getting their work done.


1. The project is called “Labour in a single shot” by Antje Ehmann and her late husband, the filmmaker Harun Farocki. It consists of making one to two minute one-shot films of people at work, with the provision that there cannot be any cutting. Just like my husband’s film, the resulting clips tend to not hold many visual clues about what it actually is that people are doing for work most of the time. The days when images of feeding chicken, harvesting fields and forging wheels adequately represented work are apparently gone for many, if not most people.

2. “So what is work,” Mimsy asks when reading this, “you never say!” After pondering this for a while and before googling it, I venture this perhaps slightly tautological definition: Work is what you do to make things work: Peter is doing stuff to make his sentences work so his presentation works, I’m shoveling to get our car out to get to school, somebody down the street (I can smell) is making some nice food so people can eat and happily continue doing what they are doing, a student is concentrating to get a line right in her drawing so it comes out right. If you are lucky, you get paid for it.

3. How strange work can be: On the “Labour in a single shot” project website I learned that in some “European countries farmers survive by leaving their soil uncultivated and being paid for it, an arrangement monitored by satellites.” 

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