Friday, October 21, 2005

Rule 7

As a college professor, I've long been giving my students (what I hope is) useful advice. Here's one of the best pieces of advice I know for doing well in college:

Rule 7

The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.
I found Rule 7 years ago in Learning by Heart, a book by the artist Corita Kent. It appeared in an informal list of rules, some funny, some serious, made for the students and faculty of a college art department. Rule 7 seems both funny and serious: a Zen-like joke, abolishing all the rules that precede and follow it, and a statement that's absolutely true, for makers of art and for anyone engaged in learning. Note that Rule 7 doesn't say that the only thing to do is work. Rather, the only necessary thing is work. The only way to catch on to things (or to make them happen, to change metaphors) is to put in the necessary time doing the work, whether that work is sketching, practicing scales, memorizing a declension, mapping out an argument, studying a timeline, making notes on an article, or looking up words in a poem.

Whoever thought up Rule 7 caught one of the key points of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: deeply-rewarding activities require a significant investment of time and effort before they show any return. In this respect, Rule 7 differs greatly from Nike's more facile "Just do it." Rule 7 acknowledges that learning involves some struggle, that matters may not be clear at first. If you're just beginning Homer's Iliad, you are likely to feel quite lost. You can't "Just do it" when it comes to understanding an epic poem. But it's easy to catch on if you give yourself a chance by putting in the work.

It makes me happy when students recognize the truth of Rule 7 and make it their own. My students (who get Rule 7 at the start of the semester) often say that the way to do well in my classes is to "do the work." One of my wife's students just reinvented Rule 7 on his own. Seeing her on campus, he announced with delight that he had finally figured out how to do well in college: "Do the work!" Nothing could be simpler, or more profound.

A related post
Rule 7 and other rules (Who wrote it, really?)

comments: 7

Anonymous said...

I taught a class in which all the students had failed it or the prerequisite (they were both required). We had a motto - something is better than nothing. It worked for us. I don't think anyone failed. We all worked hard, including me. One student returned, at least a year later, to say he was still using the something is better than nothing and doing well.

Michael Leddy said...

That's a nice motto—thanks for sharing it. I can easily imagine applying it to any large project (just getting started) and to class discussion, everybody putting something, not nothing, in the pot. (Stone soup!)

Curtis Corlew said...

I just learned the Aligator rule. Students already know that bringing a live 10 foot aligator to class would be inappropriate. It's not in the syllabus, they just know. All other things stupid things not expressly mentioned in teh syllabus (like smoking and spitting and being a jerk) are assumed covered by the Alligator rule.

Patrick said...

"Something is better than nothing" has gotten me through many tests. Most recently a Spanish exam (for which I had under-studied). I couldn't remember the format for time. So I put the number of hours figuring that would be worth .5 to 1 point each. From there, I managed to remember more.

My physics professor (from a once-upon-a-time major) used to say "Put pencil to paper, if you don't know what else to do. Draw a picture or diagram, write the equation or given information, just write SOMETHING, and from there, often more will come." It wasn't enough to get me through physics, but it's helped in other areas.

Michael Leddy said...

Your prof was on to something. I’ve found sometimes that just putting a problem into words can be a way to generate ideas.

Unknown said...


Rule 7 - "Do the work" - is the missing Rule 3 from your article "How to be a student a professor will remember (for the right reasons)"!

Michael Leddy said...

Steve, thank you for that. I will add it to the post as your suggestion.