There’s Meaning In The Process, Not Just The Product

It’s almost the end of the fall semester, a time when students are inordinately focused on one singular number: their final grade. I fear that even as they construct their final project, their writing e-portfolios, they are so concerned with the grade that they miss out on seeing the best parts: their growth over the semester, the diversity of genres and perspectives they’ve learned to navigate, and the risks they’ve taken.

When we’re pushing so hard for the ideal end product we have in our minds, it’s easy to overlook the parts that contribute to the whole.

I see traces of myself in the students who bemoan a B+ (ask any college instructor — it is always the student who receives a B+ who is most upset, not the student who gets a C or an F). As important and necessary as outcomes are, this is where I see a problem: when these students ask me how they can get an A, not how they can improve their writing. The final outcome is a product of all the brainstorming, revisions, and drafting, and shouldn’t supplant everything that went into it. They have a difficult time seeing that huge improvement from a rough draft to a final draft is itself an indication of success, or that digging into a compelling inquiry, especially when they don’t get the answer they expected and the results aren’t neat and tidy, is more important than playing it safe.

When we’re pushing so hard for the ideal end product we have in our minds, it’s easy to overlook the parts that contribute to the whole.

As someone who has always been comforted by clear-cut outcomes and tangible measures of success, I can empathize. But the older I get, I see more fissures in an outcome-based perspective, a sentiment that seems almost anathema to our cultural inclination to test, rank, and standardize. So much of life resists clear-cut outcomes. I know writing certainly does, as does teaching. Even though I am ranked by my department every academic year and find the self-reflection involved in the process and the candid feedback I receive helpful, the smaller moments in the daily machinations of teaching, facilitating workshops, and meeting with students are where I get the most insight into what’s working, and more importantly, what’s not.

Being a patient with incurable respiratory diseases has also shifted my perceptions of outcomes. The ultimate outcome, a cure, is simply not attainable for me. Instead, the ebbs and flows of illness and wellness are defining. I can do all the preventive therapies and take my medications and follow all the rules and still get an infection or need to go to the hospital. But that doesn’t mean the many small decisions I make every day to try and ensure good health outcomes don’t matter.

Without a doubt, becoming a parent has been the biggest influence of all. After a long journey to parenthood and a complicated pregnancy, I have seen what is possible when we let go of outcomes altogether and the end result surpasses every hope. Watching my daughter grow into her own unique, independent person is a constant exercise in living in the moment and appreciating the journey.

At 3, she is still a few years away from kindergarten screening, standardized testing, and more formal outcomes-based assessment. I want the pride she gets now when she writes her name, belts out a show tune, or gets dressed by herself, that earnest smile that lights up her whole face, to follow her, no matter the sideways letters, jumbled lyrics, or inside-out leggings along the way. She will experience many other risks and experiments that won’t pan out as she planned, and when things fall apart, I want her to know that much remains, too.

This program aired on December 11, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live