Celebrate the Small Victories

I’ve often thought we should treat academics a little more like athletics and last night watching the National League Playoffs reinforced that idea. I’ve been conferencing with my first year composition students on their second essays. Three days of repeating concepts I’ve been discussing for 2 months makes me question my teaching ability (and my sanity), but I like to meet with the students to individualize the comments. Here, I might say, is a spot you need to work on. We can talk through a process that might work for each student.

Meeting one on one, though, also lets me point to small successes (and sometimes they are very small, mind you), but these little victories are easy for students to overlook when they get focused on the final result. We’ve trained them, it seems, to focus on the end result at the expense of the small tasks that get us to the finish line.

As the Giants stormed the field after Travis Ishikawa’s walk off home run last night, we could see the unbridled enthusiasm of a job well done, but we saw that same excitement throughout the game. Every time a player performed the crowd celebrated in the moment. The tension was palpable even in my living room 2000 miles away and every single play mattered. Imagine, I thought to myself, if my first year composition students could generate such enthusiasm every time they wrote an insightful thesis sentence or a well-developed paragraph instead of being obsessed with the final grade.

We see this celebration week after week in sports. Football players chest bump after a hard hit, soccer players high five after a great pass, baseball players tip their caps after a diving catch–Imagine how different sports might be if we waited until the end of the season to celebrate these moments. Last night’s crowd would only cheer after the game when we found out if that diving catch in the second inning helped the Giants win. Instead, we celebrate in the moment not months later after we have a chance to average out the plays to see if they players made progress, find out if they were consistent, or see if they can perform some routine plays in a high stakes tryout. Sure, we might say to Adam Wainwright, you threw strikes all year, but we need to test you one more time to make sure the previous 25 starts weren’t a fluke.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this idea before, and Bill James, in his Slate article “Verlander and Shakespeare” makes a similar argument, wondering why we are so good at producing athletes yet so bad at producing writers. He argues we should begin identifying writing talent earlier and creating opportunities for those kids to earn money and receive recognition quicker. Doing so would create competitive advantages for kids and, he implies, help us see writing as something worth developing. In essence, we should, James argues, begin treating elite writers the way we treat elite athletes.

There’s a lot to like about James’ argument and I’m always amazed how shy we are in our schools about celebrating superior writing and other academic achievements. Understand that I’m not talking about overall, long term academic achievement. We have dean’s lists and honor societies. Schools have banquets at the end of the year celebrating top 10 percent students and other academic achievements. These are often formal, sophisticated affairs where we treat academic achievement with a kind of gravitas we think lends it importance. Polite clapping isn’t exactly infectious enthusiasm.

Grades and academics are, we seem to say, above emotion, as if somehow and for some reason intellectual achievement is devoid of passion. More importantly, as James points out, we celebrate academic achievement after the fact with end of the year awards or recognition at graduation. Delayed gratification that leads to apathetic dissatisfaction.

I recognize the larger cultural context and the stereotypes. I can’t tell you how frustrated I get when people assume a smart kid is athletically inferior or an elite athlete lacks intelligence. Athletes and their supporters who mock non-athletes with superior (and often threatening) comments annoy me to no end, but I’m just as frustrated by intellectuals who refuse to recognize the value of athletics within the larger cultural pantheon of human identity. Sports matter and I have little patience for those who dismiss athletics (and athletes) as irrelevant simply because we celebrate their success more than we deify great writers or brilliant mathematicians. Intelligence and athletic ability aren’t mutually exclusive.

Don’t get me wrong. Rewarding long-term achievement and consistent academic excellence is great. Straight A students have proven they value the life of the mind and they have the discipline to work for excellence. They are the little mini-Derek Jeters of the academic world and we owe them our respect and sometimes understated, sophisticated humility befits the serious life of the mind.

But, we also need to let our bacchanal tendencies out of their cage a little more often in the classroom. It’s time for us to stop shying away from their daily intellectual successes and begin celebrating more like athletes.

Yes, in case you were wondering, I’m talking about pen flips after we turn a phrase, fist pumps when students ace that test, and even end zone dances when you know you’ve nailed that lecture on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”

“Booyah! The l=2w + 3, biotch! Come back when you have some real algebra questions.” Spike the pencil to the ground and strut out of the room.

“I got your rhetorical devices right here! Let me know when you have topic where I have to be critical and think, cuz right now you’re just embarrassing yourself.” Flip the pen and high five the class as you go out the door.

I’m not talking about a Tiger Woods fist pump for turning in papers or putting names on the paper. We don’t chest bump just because the off road bike rider follows the trail to the end or when the volleyball player stays in the proper rotation. We celebrate beating the time trial for that section or earning the point that serve.

Passionately recognizing success isn’t about rewarding people for doing the ordinary. Do average work, and you don’t get the victory hug.

But maybe, just maybe, we need to start spiking the chalk after an insightful comment and pumping our fists when the numbers all fall into place during class. After all, if it’s okay for the baseball player, it should be okay for the scientist too.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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