Tulane rhetorician T.R. Johnson writes eloquently in his book A Rhetoric of Pleasure about the importance of play in the teaching of writing. Similarly, ProfHacker contributor Nels Highberg (University of Hartford) has written about the even more literal importance of play (and a play not necessarily related to a desired teaching or scholarly outcome) for those of us in the academic ranks (Act Like a Child and Visit a Toy Store for Yourself). I couldn’t agree with T.R. and Nels more.
On a trip home to Virginia last fall I rediscovered and liberated my old Lego sets with the intention of putting them in my office. As a new tenure-track faculty member I was a little paranoid that someone seeing Legos in my office might judge me as non-serious. That’s a fault that–as much of this website attests–I could be accused of. I took the Legos in anyway, for exactly the reasons that Nels suggests. “Lock-in” is an important concept in the digital humanities right now. And just as interfaces and technologies can lock us in to certain patterns of behavior, so too can we lock-in to certain well-worn mental paths. Those paths, I think, should be disrupted from time to time, and abruptly so. Playing with Legos–no, building with Legos–is both playful but engaging enough to allow me to disengage from writing momentarily, perhaps providing me with a legitimate mental break, but in a far less distracting way than, say, checking my email or RSS reader.
I think that many of us in the humanities get locked in to only using certain regions of our brain, especially when we write. (I’m sure there’s a lot of relevant research out there on this, but since this is an informal forum, I haven’t taken the time to look it up.) Anecdotally though, I know that a couple of minutes of building weirdo spaceships with Legos can jumpstart my writing when it stalls. Or my grading when I get bogged down, for that matter.
Bringing Legos into my office is partially an effort to practice what I preach. With undergraduate writing students I’m constantly preaching that they need to experiment with different and new writing processes that work for them personally. And those processes will probably not work as well if they’re static. Sometimes you need to introduce new things to the process. That’s what I’ve been doing with Legos lately. I’m convinced that short Lego breaks, administered as necessary, relax my brain and allow me to go back to writing as a more efficient humanities machine. It doesn’t matter if I’m correct or not, because that’s how it feels. Whether I’m actually doing something good for my mind or just tricking myself into continuing to write really doesn’t matter. I expect the trick to stop working at some point. The more worn certain processes get, the less they seem to work for me.
What I’m saying is counter-intuitive: interrupting my writing with Lego “play breaks” seems to make me a more mentally efficient writer. May not work for others, but seems to work for me.
Could my perception of my improved productivity derived from Lego play breaks be simple wishful thinking on my part, essentially, The Hawthorne Effect, which my WCU colleague in the department of psychology, Hal Herzog, defines in his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, as “temporary improvements caused by a change in routine”? (I cite Hal’s book because it’s where I–with no background in psychology–first learned of the Hawthorne effect.) It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that I’m simply Hawthorne-ing myself into slight upticks with the Lego breaks. But should I even care if I can keep finding stimuli to impel the Hawthorne Effect?
Finally, as everyone who’s ever played with Legos knows, it’s totally lame to just build from the directions. Build from the directions once, and then throw them away.