How we’re wired to be impatient and how one art teacher is resisting…

Patience--Boy with Squirrel

Technology is not neutral—it wires our expectations.  It enables our desires to be satisfied with ever increasing immediacy.  The two-day delivery of Amazon Prime is not about to become passé.  But like the other giant retailers Walmart and eBay, Amazon is in hot pursuit of the holy grail of Internet retailing—same-day service.  And so is Google with Google Shopping Express, which was launched in March of this year.


All talk of future delivery by drones aside, same-day services are already in place in several metropolitan areas that have the population density to support such a business model.  For those of us small-town folks, a visit to the website of eBay Now will elicit an apology, “Sorry, we don’t deliver to Cookeville, TN yet.”  Yet … we may someday!


But goods and services are not the only things being delivered from these networks of warehouses interconnected and animated by sophisticated computing systems.  A less tangible but culturally potent product is the expectation of immediacy.  A headline in The Boston Globe spelled it out this way:  Instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient.


The demand for instant results is seeping into every corner of our lives, and not just virtually. … Smartphone apps eliminate the wait for a cab, a date, or a table at a hot restaurant. Movies and TV shows begin streaming in seconds. But experts caution that instant gratification comes at a price: It’s making us less patient. …


We’ve come to expect things so quickly that researchers found people can’t wait more than a few seconds for a video to load. Ramesh Sitaraman, a computer science professor at UMass Amherst, examined the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users in a study released last fall. How long were subjects willing to be patient? Two seconds. …


“The need for instant gratification is not new, but our expectation of ‘instant’ has become faster, and as a result, our patience is thinner,” said Narayan Janakiraman, an assistant marketing professor at the University of Texas, Arlington.


Harvard art professor Jennifer Roberts has started designing into her course outlines ways to resist the everyday cultural drive toward “immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity.”


During the past few years, I have begun to feel that I need to take a more active role in shaping the temporal experiences of the students in my courses; that in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences. When will students work quickly? When slowly? When will they be expected to offer spontaneous responses, and when will they be expected to spend time in deeper contemplation?


I want to focus today on the slow end of this tempo spectrum, on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention. I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they simply are no longer available “in nature,” as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.


In all of my art history courses, graduate and undergraduate, every student is expected to write an intensive research paper based on a single work of art of their own choosing. And the first thing I ask them to do in the research process is to spend a painfully long time looking at that object. Say a student wanted to explore the work popularly known as Boy with a Squirrel, painted in Boston in 1765 by the young artist John Singleton Copley. Before doing any research in books or online, the student would first be expected to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, where it hangs, and spend three full hours looking at the painting, noting down his or her evolving observations as well as the questions and speculations that arise from those observations. The time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.


At first many of the students resist being subjected to such a remedial exercise. How can there possibly be three hours’ worth of incident and information on this small surface? How can there possibly be three hours’ worth of things to see and think about in a single work of art? But after doing the assignment, students repeatedly tell me that they have been astonished by the potentials this process unlocked.


It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous—which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. But what students learn in a visceral way in this assignment is that in any work of art there are details and orders and relationships that take time to perceive. I did this three-hour exercise myself on this painting in preparation for my own research on Copley. And it took me a long time to see some of the key details that eventually became central to my interpretation and my published work on the painting. …


What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.


The art historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experience—“time batteries”—“exorbitant stockpiles” of experience and information. I would suggest that the same holds true for anything a student might want to study at Harvard University—a star, a sonnet, a chromosome. There are infinite depths of information at any point in the students’ education. They just need to take the time to unlock that wealth. And that’s why, for me, this lesson about art, vision, and time goes far beyond art history. It serves as a master lesson in the value of critical attention, patient investigation, and skepticism about immediate surface appearances. I can think of few skills that are more important in academic or civic life in the twenty-first century. …





“The Power of Patience,” by Jennifer L. Roberts was published in Harvard Magazine and can be found here.   Dr. Roberts is currently Elizabeth Cary Agassiz professor of the humanities at Harvard University.  She has accepted an invitation to occupy the Slade Professorship in Fine Arts at Cambridge University in 2018.


“In War for Same-Day Delivery, Racing Madly to Go Last Mile” is available online.


Go here to check out eBay Now.


The Boston Globe article, “Instant gratification is making us perpetually impatient,” can be found here.



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