on principles of least effort

It’s funny the things you don’t expect about being a teacher. Things like the need to discern the difference between a stretching student, student raising a questioning hand, and a student with the tendency to twist the hair on top of her head while working.

We’re doing in-class research today, and one boy sprawls across two chairs, hands above head, reading an article, while others lean over their desks, encircling pages of notes in protective arms. They’re more inclined to ask questions if I walk among them, seeming to realize, by the fact of my nearness, that they don’t have to figure everything out alone. There are fewer questions when I stay at my desk in the front.

They need help with citation format, naturally, but also need help with the process of finding a book in the library stacks, need me to explain how to check out a book. (Since our class meets in the library, this is easy.) They’re excited to find that, when they follow one call number down into the stacks, they come upon whole shelves of books relating to their topics.


You’d think, for students versed in the millions of results available to an internet search, the thousands of articles that appear with a few key-strokes in a database, they’d be used to choosing amongst sources, but multiple books overwhelm them. “Which one should I use?” “You mean I have to read the whole thing?”

In a research class I took as an undergraduate, we read Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models: A Guide to Classification, Cataloging, and ComputersI confess to not remembering most of it, beyond the fact that — as I recall — the author is a private investigator-turned-librarian. (A fact which, reinforced by the fact that one of the librarians with whom I’ve worked recently used to be in law enforcement in Atlanta, has made me believe that library science is not, perhaps, populated with only calm, bookish types.) But, among the several research models and principles he listed, one stuck out to me: the Principle of Least Effort.

While Mann did not recommend it as good practice, he noted that it was common practice: researchers tend to follow the path of least resistance, rather than the path of best results. I’ve been guilty of it, often and often. And I see it operating among my students, as they do the least they can to get by. Search engines and online library catalogs make this model more palatable than it was, perhaps, in 1994 when Mann penned his tome, but even taking the few extra steps to streamline the process of filtering search result lists seems to be too much effort for many of my students. This means that their PLE practice actually leads to more effort, because they spend more time browsing sources than they might have done if they’d learned to use their tools effectively. (I remember Mann making a similar point.)

And so, while I work to interpret the hand signals, to anticipate the questions they won’t ask, while I lean over shoulders and explain — again — what to do if an article has no author, I think about how this Principle of Least Effort seeps into other areas of life, how it infiltrates my Christian walk as well as my research practices.

I think of how scripture, “breathed out by God,” is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” to make us “competent, equipped for every good work.” I think of how God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us” — that knowledge, again, available in scripture. And I think of cursory attention I give to the book which makes me competent and gives me all things pertaining to life and godliness, and I think of how I struggle and feel inadequate.

And as I watch the questions multiply when I move between the desks, I realize that, though I cannot see him, my God is always here, and he bids me ask, seek, knock: “for everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” How small  my asking often is, how hesitant, as if he were far away and hard of hearing and stingy in his answers. But he is none of those.

My PLE, applied to my Christian walk, burdens me with the weight of being and doing enough, when my God has worked for me, prepared works for me, promised his power — not my own — sufficient for me, made perfect in my weakness.


©2014 by Stacy Nott

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