"But, Ms, we've talked about this before!"

Most of us, raised in school systems that value efficiency above most everything, balk at repetition. And, if one considers education to be a series of boxes to check (American Lit, check; Shakespeare, check; periodic table, check), then repetition beyond what is strictly necessary seems wasteful of our limited resources. Once we know a fact, why would we revisit it?

Why would I ask the same discussion question that I led with two weeks ago? Why would we spend another day on the same poem? Why do we never seem to get away from perfecting the structure of our essays and sentences?

Consider, for a moment, that the purpose of education might not be to "know all the things." We know, at least, that we can't know everything there is to know; we're finite. I still want to know many things, but I'm relieved of the anxiety of having to rush on to new material for fear of wasting my time. Perhaps it’s more important to know a few things well, to return to subjects and ideas again and again until we know them deeply.

To be realistic, though, most of us probably dislike returning to an old conversation, or topic or text merely because we find it boring. It’s not that we are oppressed by the desire for new information, but that we are simply uninterested in looking at something a second (or third or forth) time.

I sympathize with the feeling of boredom; sometimes my attention span for ideas rivals a two year old’s. In the classroom, I usually just head into our material, trusting that learning will be its own defense. But sometimes extra encouragement is needed, so here’s what I might say to a student (or to myself, to be honest) who is frustrated at repetition* of material:

1. Be patient.

It takes time to know a subject or a text well; it takes time (more like years, not minutes) for our minds to process ideas.

2. Don’t be arrogant.

Scholars and researchers spend their whole lives investigating the questions and topics I might introduce in the classroom in an hour.

3. Give it a chance.

More often than not, the boredom disappears when we realize that there is more to be discovered in something we thought we’d mastered.

4. You can’t have the same conversation twice.

Since we discussed this last, you’ve changed and I’ve changed. This means that despite starting with the same question, we’re embarking on a brand new discussion.

5. Try it for yourself.

I encourage students to reread books that they didn’t understand or ones that they’ve never been able to forget, even if a simple text from their primary school days. The experience of coming back to a text and discovering something new is its own suasion.
 

My friends and conversation partners and I have come back to the same discussions for the best part of a decade, and I hope that in another decade we are still asking the same questions, but more clearly and with deeper understanding. I don’t particularly care whether, at the end of my life, I will have had all the conversations, but I do hope that I will have had a few very well.
 

*I’m not referring, in this article, to the use of rote repetition for purposes of information retention, but rather, the revisiting of topics and texts in discussion or lecture.

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