Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Why Bother? (Effort, Achievement and Risk)

Lucy Gunning: “Climbing around my room”. Video, 1993

"...effort is nothing more, and also nothing less, than tension between means and ends in action, and that the sense of effort is the awareness of this conflict." -John Dewey

I was involved in a really interesting series of studio discussions with some of the Photographic and Electronic Media students last week. They were sharing experiences from over the Summer break as a method of reintroducing themselves to thinking about how these experiences and observations might be placed within the context of reflecting upon, discussing and working towards art making. One thing in particular struck me amongst the many fascinating things we discussed - this was the extent to which almost everyone, myself included, had invested time, energy, money and especially expectations in the pursuit of specific experiential encounters: holidays, weddings, childbirth etc. Somehow almost all of us (though there were some exceptions) had bought into to the conventional notion that only these kinds of experiences are worthy of aspiring towards, making an effort for or sharing with other people, whilst everything else - jobs, relationships and a multitude of other 'commonplace' experiences - are merely a necessary part of - or, at best, a pleasant distraction from - our striving to acquire money or opportunities to achieve these other more 'unique' experiences. By way of contrast (though I didn’t mention it at the time) I was reminded of Xavier de Maistre’s extraordinary, but at the same time extraordinarily modest, expeditions:

“…in the spring of 1790, a twenty-seven-year-old Frenchman, Xavier de Maistre, undertook a journey around his bedroom, later entitling the account of what he had seen Journey around My Bedroom. Gratified by his experiences, in 1798, De Maistre undertook a second journey. This time he traveled by night and ventured out as far as the window ledge, later entitling his account Nocturnal Expedition around My Bedroom. […] …it was not Xavier’s intentions to cast aspersions on the heroic deeds of the great travelers of the past: Magellan, Drake, Anson and Cook. …it was just that (de Maestre) had discovered a way of traveling that might be infinitely more practical for those neither as brave or as wealthy as they.” -Alain de Botton

Much as I love this idea of a unique journey amongst the commonplace and familiar and much as I admire artworks that transform our understanding of such experiences, I’m nonetheless tempted to think of this particular case as an inventive but somewhat extreme example of the Principle of Least Effort. Indeed, De Botton goes on to say of De Maistre that: “He particularly recommended room-travel to the poor and to those afraid of storms, robberies, and high cliffs.” This seems a form of travel most suited to the risk averse, the unadventurous and the lazy:

“The most indolent beings won’t have any reason to hesitate before setting off to find pleasures that will cost them neither money nor effort.” -Xavier de Maistre

But is this really laziness? The great beauty of this idea (though it was patently intended as a parody) is it’s wonderfully unconventional simplicity, but would it be true to say that no effort is required? Effort has nothing to do with the grandeur of the ends but rather, as Dewey suggests, the conflict or tension between ends and means. As the games of every child clearly attest, it’s quite possible to create a genuine and engaging challenge even with the most meager of materials or environment. The effort in this instance then, becomes entirely a labour of the imagination: to embark on the journey anew, as if never before travelled and to voyage over each encounter, savoring every intricacy with the curiosity of the most inquisitive and observant tourist.

So what correlations may we draw between effort expended and our sense of achievement?

In psychology there’s a process known as Effort Discounting, which describes how our sense of reward diminishes as effort increases. We naturally tend to prefer low-effort routes to rewards. An analogue of this effect has also been observed in a neurological study published in 2009 by Botvinick, Huffstetler and McGuire. From a survival perspective, effort discounting makes evolutionary sense since there’s very little point in pursuing food, for example, if the resources expended in order to acquire it outweigh the benefit gained. But human tastes are far more complex than this alone would suggest. We often expend inordinate quantities of energy in seeking things to satisfy all manner of strange and exotic desires, despite the fact that these things provide very little in the way of energy return. It’s the promise of pleasure which drives many of these desires - desires that are essentially aesthetic in nature: food, music, art, literature, dance and even holidays. However, even with these unique experiences, we almost always have an underlying sense of how much effort is deserving of the end result and we quickly tire of what we anticipate to be unrewarding pursuits. Equally, when we gain something with unexpected ease the pleasure is often multiplied.

These observations strongly suggest that, as beings, we’re very highly attuned to the economics of effort and reward - to our own individual cost-benefit analysis. But there’s one further set of experiences for which we’re frequently prepared to exert ourselves physically or cognitively and these are processes that are in themselves pleasurable - that provide stimulating feedback or the release of mood elevating endorphins. Many areas of human endeavor exploit this tendency, from sport and exercise to art and craft. There’s little doubt though, that many of these pleasures are acquired tastes and to expect them to arise spontaneously or to be appreciated as immediately gratifying is frequently unrealistic or frustrating. For example, the pleasures of exercise are relatively easily acquired by comparison with the pleasures of creation which require skills and sensitivities that take time and practice to develop:

“Children who have not learned that drawing skill is based on practiced observation will be very frustrated when they reach the next developmental stage. They will wish they could draw more realistically. As they get older, they mistakenly believe that they lack talent while others are gifted in drawing. They give up because they see others who can do better. Art educators refer to this as the "crisis of confidence." -Marvin Bartel

In all this talk of effort and reward there is one further consideration that demands our attention: risk. I’ve written about risk previously, but in that instance it seems I neglected a vital aspect which has only become clear to me through a recent exchange in which I was asked if a grade for effort might be a legitimate method of encouraging students to take risks “particularly in the creative arts, where the "willingness" to fail is such a hard thing to encourage?”

The important thing to bear in mind in relation to effort and risk is that the teacher and student both need to understand, and agree upon, exactly what is being assessed (the "ends" for which effort is being expended and risks taken) and this ideally shouldn't be set by the teacher but rather negotiated between tutor and student (though, of course, this isn't always possible, especially when there's a fixed curriculum to follow).

Much as it might appear to make intuitive sense to grade students on their effort, their “willingness” to expend effort or to take risks should never be c0-opted by the temptation or threat of a grade but rather by the aim of improving what they do to the greatest possible degree. Success should therefore not depend upon an artificial extrinsic reward, but rather on achieving what they set out to achieve or, ideally, even more than they set out to achieve. This is the value of self-efficacy and intrinsic motivation, as opposed to fixation upon rewards, or conversely, being continually reminded of others' “evaluation” of how much effort needs to be put in. Ultimately it comes down to establishing what exactly the student is aiming for, so that the teacher can support them to achieve this - or, if they're aiming for something unrealistically difficult, to encourage them set their sights on something a little more achievable and to help them to see how this is something genuinely worth working towards instead.

Willingness to fail can only come about when students (or anyone for that matter) feels secure enough to take risks. So it's the teacher's - indeed Education's - duty to ensure that every possible measure is taken to alleviate pressure upon students and certainly not to add a little extra in the form of an intimidating or distracting grade for effort.


BARTEL, M., Teaching Observation Drawing to Young Children. Goshen College Publication.[Online]. Available from:http://www2.goshen.edu/~marvinpb/PreSchool/aboutschematic.html

BOTVINICK, M. M. & HUFFSTETLER, S., McGUIRE, J. (2009). Effort discounting in human nucleus accumbens. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 9(1), 16-27. [Online]. Available from:http://www.princeton.edu/~matthewb/Publications/BotvinickETAL_CABN09.pdf

DE BOTTON, A., (2002) The Art of Travel. Penguin. p.243-245

DEWEY, J., (1897). The Psychology of Effort, Philosophical Review 6: 43-56. [Online]. Available from: http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Dewey/Dewey_1897.html


Tamsin said...

Here we are with assessment again! I support what you're saying completely, but what student is 'never co-opted by the temptation or threat of a grade'? Doesn't the very situation of being assessed within an institutional context mould and influence any kind of assessment practice, however subtley?

Tamsin said...

I'm still thinking about this. Let's say, as your student, I tell you that I want to make a certain kind of painting. How can you then assess/judge my success at making that painting? You can't completely get what it is that I want to do, so how can you know whether I've done it well? Surely only I can judge whether or not my painting is doing what I want it to. I can't for the life of me see how anyone else can assess it....

J. Hamlyn said...

Hmm, well they can asses the work but their assessment is clearly different from that of the maker. This is why criteria are so popular with institutions since they at least give the impression of credibility. But as we all know, criteria - especially in Fine Art evaluation - are notoriously flawed and nobody really agrees on a universal set.

Morris Weitz, who conceptualised the four stages of criticism as Description, Interpretation, Evaluation, and Theorization, argued that the further we move from description, the more contestable become our assertions and the further from any real ‘Truth” about the work.
So yes you’re right, there’s a serious problem with the assessment of artworks. It might be said that art schools try to mitigate this by assessing the whole portfolio of a student’s work but this doesn’t really overcome the problem.

Socrates had the right idea:

“In ancient Greece, Socrates tested his students through conversations. Answers were not scored as right or wrong. They just led to more dialogue. Many intellectual elites in the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. cared more about finding the path to higher knowledge than producing a correct response. To them, accuracy was for shopkeepers.” - Jay Mathews, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/11/13/AR2006111301007.html

Tamsin said...

That's great, isn't it. How on earth to return to such an attitude, though.... In this climate....

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