Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Nature of Work

16. The Nature of Work

Technically speaking, “work” as expressed in a concept like horsepower, involves the effort required to move a certain amount of weight a specific distance. It took work to move the entire wood pile thirty yards when the fire marshal said that it had been originally stacked too close to the building. It took work to unload the pallets of dry clay by hand when the delivery truck arrived and the forklift was broken. It takes work to move a wareboard of greenware out of the drying area and over to be loaded into a kiln.
We have expanded the original meaning of the word “work” to include virtually any effort expended over time. I might work on an essay, work on my income taxes, or work at being a better person. I’ve even heard of couples who were “working” at getting pregnant. I think we may be using the word too broadly.
This situation first came to my attention teaching a Ceramics I class. One of my students had some sort of problem and part of my solution was that he should “put in a little more work on it over the weekend.” I stopped and corrected myself. You see, he was going to college on a football scholarship. His new coach was a tyrant and quitting the team would mean losing the scholarship and quitting school. “Work” for him meant mandatory wind sprints, weight lifting, and three hour long daily practice sessions. I simply couldn’t put the making of a few extra coffee cups in the same terms.
I told him so and we talked about the difference between work and time. Yes, he was going to have to use his muscles and if he maintained the same activity (say, bending over the wheel) for too long, those muscles might get sore and ache, but really he just needed to devote enough time to the problem.
Pulling handles is not the same use of energy as splitting wood or mixing glazes. Every aspect of a potter’s work (or a student’s) involves different degrees of physical and mental effort. Mixing up those diverse activities can go a long way towards maintaining your physical and mental health. If some part of your workload is particularly grinding you down, re-examine it. Can that activity be done a different way or to a different schedule? What equipment can you get to ease the strain it puts on you? Can you eliminate that chore altogether, or perhaps pay someone else to do it?
For instance, I have no inclination to dig my own clays. For one thing I’ve never lived anywhere where the native clays were particularly well thought of by potters. For another I’ve generally lived with my studio and never wanted clay mixing operations to add to the general dust levels already present from throwing and trimming. But mostly, it’s a lot of work. I know what it costs to buy my clay pre-mixed and de-aired. Clay I have to sweat and groan out of the ground and laboriously process seems too expensive. Perhaps if cash were in short supply and time were plentiful, I’d feel differently. But I doubt it.
No, I’m not a lazy potter, nor am I urging others to be lazy. But each of us has a limited capacity for strength, stamina and attentiveness. When you are planning your workweek, you need to budget those resources in order to receive good value in return.
One of the classic tricks of the lazy man is to carry heavier loads so as to save on the number of trips. If I go back and forth carrying one hundred pounds with each delivery it will take me half the time and distance it would have if each trip I had carried fifty pounds. For classic “work” problems this makes sense, until you damage your back. But it doesn’t succeed for problems that are actually “time” problems. You can not make extra mugs by working extra hard (using extra muscles, for instance). You can only make extra mugs by devoting extra time to the activity. So, when you’re tempted to say to your students (or yourself), “you’re just going to have to work harder to get X done,” correct yourself. You can work more thoughtfully or with superior planning or with better techniques but mostly what you’re asking for is more time.
What we’re doing is not generally hard work, it just requires time. Don’t trick yourself or your students into thinking otherwise.

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