I teach at a university and recently had an interesting interaction with a student who approached my desk with an assignment. I watched as he pulled it from his pocket and held the crumpled sheet out to me.
“What’s that?” I asked. His response: “My work.”
I was, in a word, aghast. All I could do was stare at it long enough to recoup my voice and tell him to redo the assignment and hand it back to me as a clean, flat, unblemished copy. As the student withdrew, I picked up the merest whiff of indignation.
If I have a pet peeve as a teacher, then this is it: quality. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success is showing up. I believe that the other 20 percent is doing conscientious work. During the long course of my teaching career I have given my students great creative latitude and granted many extensions of deadlines, but my expectation of quality remains anchored in concrete. I have always felt that should I relent on this one essential issue, then all is lost.
I come by my demand for quality honestly. Growing up, my dad was a “do it the right way” kind of guy. I remember, as a young teen, trying to change the tube in my bike tire with a couple of screwdrivers. With tongue distended and plenty of grunts and groans, I struggled to pry the tire back onto the rim while my dad looked on with quiet disdain. “You’ll puncture the tube with those screwdrivers,” he said.
“No, I won’t.”
Yes, I did.
And then I quietly moved over and watched my father use the blunt handles of a couple of spoons to accomplish the task.
I learned the hard way that a shoddy preparation usually means an unsatisfactory outcome. Rust must be removed before painting; wood must be sanded before applying stain; a car must be washed before it’s waxed; and a biology report must be edited and cleaned up before it’s handed in.
Why is the lesson of the pursuit of quality so difficult to impart?
I think it’s because we live in an age where speed is of the essence: the tweet, the text message, the meal we can seize on the go. No wonder students bristle when I suggest that they – gulp – rewrite their work until it shines. Quality takes time.
So what became of my student with the crumpled biology paper? I’d like to say that he turned around and gave me something fit to set before a king rather than put out with the cat. He didn’t, which is why I interceded. We sat down together, and I examined his subsequent draft, which was disorganized and coming apart at the seams. That’s when the lesson of my bike’s tire tube resurfaced. “Look,” I told him, “it’s like you wrote this with a screwdriver. You punctured your prose and it’s leaking all over the place.”
I explained, quietly and clearly, that one’s first effort is exactly that: a start. And we took it from there, whacking his work into shape: moving a paragraph, deleting the unnecessary word or sentence, correcting grammar, and making the assignment say what it needed to say. Once those basic nuts and bolts were tended to, my student asked, with cautious abandon, “Are we done?”
“Not yet,” I smiled. “One last step.” I told him to read his work out loud and listen, really listen, to his words. Under this duress, he did as I asked. After he finished, he lowered the paper and looked at me, his expression laden with hope.
“Are you happy with it?” I asked.
“So am I.”