Here’s one way to start a rumination on the uses of classroom time in teaching writing: at West Point, classes are 55 minutes long, and I work the hell out of the clock. The section marcher renders the report at the :00 second mark, and we go until I dismiss students, usually no earlier than about 54 minutes and 50 seconds after that :00 second mark, and certainly no later than the 55:00. Our class time is precious and I plan it well, including incorporating at least 20 unbroken minutes (and often more) for students to write during every lesson. Students’ time outside of class is equally precious: West Point cadets are overscheduled, and one of the essential things I can do for a plebe is to respect the time he or she spends beyond my classroom. I do so scrupulously.
Here’s another way to start a rumination about time: I’m turning 42 in a little over two months, and while I’m thinking about time and economy, it seems appropriate to note that in 1748, a 42-year-old Benjamin Franklin wrote in “Advice to a Young Tradesman” that his “friend, A. B.” should “[r]emember, that time is money.” I never liked that saying. Taken as a component of the broader argument of the “Advice” piece, the statement makes sense, but I don’t like the way it categorically commodifies the dimension across and within which we all live our lives. Time is money? Well, yes, it can be. Time is theft? Sure, if you do it right and avoid your workplace internet filters. Time is a gift? Certainly, if you’ve lost a loved one to an illness.
Time is context. In 1748, Franklin was writing in the context of what was still a largely mercantile and manual-labor economy. Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Raymond Williams argues that the broad cultural changes associated with the industrial revolution started around 1780. Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville was executed in 1793, but his treatise The Commerce of America with Europe (translated and published in English in 1795) declared that
[t]he Americans must have watches; this admirable invention carries with it such a degree of utility for even the poor classes in society, that it ought not be considered as a simple acquisition of luxury, especially in the United States, where the distance of habitations one from the other makes the necessity of it most fully perceived,
and further that “watches must be made good and at a cheap rate; these two conditions will assure them a prodigious sale wherever civilization exists; time there is a precious property, and its price renders the instrument necessary which divides it.” Still, though, at the time, very few Americans owned clocks, partly because of the expense that de Warville implicitly decries. It would not be until after Eli Terry’s innovations in Connecticut in the first decade of the 19th century — clocks became the first machines to be mass-produced out of interchangeable parts — that the prices of clocks would start to start to decline to the point where broad portions of society could afford them. That decline was precipitous: while only the wealthy were once the only owners of clocks, within a generation, Harriet’s sister Catherine Beecher’s 1841 Treatise on Domestic Economy would argue for the importance of “[a] clock, in or near the kitchen […] to secure regularity in family arrangements.” In other words, in the space of a few years — the time it takes for a child to grow to adulthood — technological use becomes an apparent technological necessity even as that technology creates economically-based class differentiation and shapes economic change.
In the Academy where I worked in Afghanistan, the starting times and ending times for classes are declared not by a bell but by a bugler. The bugler does not wear a watch, and I never found out how he determined when to blow his bugle. Based upon what I saw of how the rest of the Academy worked, I suspect someone from the Academy command group would come from headquarters or send a messenger to tell him when to blow the bugle announcing the end of one class hour or the beginning of the next. Some of the cadets wear watches, and many carry cell phones, but never seemed to pay attention to time as any sort of abiding concern, or at least as not any concern involving empirical accuracy. According to the time I kept, the Academy’s classes would start and end at different times every day, depending on the odd times at which the bugle would sound. Those times were almost always at least five to eight minutes after the Academy schedule said classes were supposed to start, and almost always at least six to eleven minutes before classes were supposed to end. To compound that circumstance, there are many classrooms on the Academy campus where one simply can’t hear the call of the bugler, and so instructors rely on their best guesses and upon the arguments of students as to when classes should start and end. There were many occasions when I watched with some amusement as an instructor would arrive in class six or seven minutes after class was scheduled to start, welcome the students, and then would demand to know why the students who came into class a minute after him — or sometimes ten or twelve minutes after him — were late.
In the way that Americans experienced the industrial revolution as it started at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the increasing specialization of the assembly line (which started with Eli Terry’s clocks) helped push a mercantile and manual-labor and individuated economy into a mass industrial economy. There was a second step, as well, though, that happened partly after the time-based regimentation of the assembly line and the innovations of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and that second step lies in the radical romanticizing of the individual as a result of the injuries of industrial capitalism. The ultimate extent of that romanticizing of the individual re-coupled with niche capitalism as it evolved from mass capitalism and transformed into the radical individuation of consumption and production (including immaterial consumption and production of information and experience goods) that we see today. If you’re wealthy enough to own and use a smartphone (which, naturally, keeps time), you’ve heard the expression, “There’s an app for that.” I think it’s important to point out that the self-regulation of time offered by watches and their successors enable us to mark and measure and have some control over the ways value is appropriated at various points in the economic cycle of production, distribution, use, and re-production: in other words, we know what we’re doing and when we’re doing it, and tracking time helps us do what’s most valuable for us.
In Afghanistan, I took up my concerns about classroom time management with a senior leader. I pointed out to him that universities work upon a system of credit-hours, whereby certain class credit is given based upon how many hours students have spent in class and how many hours students are supposed to have worked outside of class. A three credit-hour course presumes that students spend roughly three hours per week in class; a four credit-hour course presumes that students spend roughly four hours per week in class. (Three credit-hours are presumed to be equivalent to roughly 120 hours’ work of class, inside and outside of class, over the course of a semester.) So the concern I brought up to the senior leader was that these problems in timekeeping presented a potential problem for accreditation: if students receive three credits for completing a course that is supposed to total 40 lessons over the course of a semester, and if that class loses an average of 12 minutes per session, that three-credit course functionally becomes a two-credit course. I proposed to him what I saw as a fairly simple solution: talk to the supply officer and see if we can simply install a clock in every classroom. That way, if we also post the official schedule in every classroom, everyone — instructors and students alike — can see when class is supposed to start and end.
My friend and colleague grinned indulgently at me, tilted his chair back, spread wide his hands, and said in good humor, “Dr. Edwards. This is Afghanistan.”