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posted: 1.23.12 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

When I was in my late teens, in the midst of the transition to college and young adulthood, I read and fell in love with Albert Camus’s the Myth of Sisyphus.  Published in 1942, in the midst of the catastrophic events of World War II, Camus presented a lesson on persistence that I have never forgotten. This brief synopsis of Camus’s retelling of this myth sets the scene:

Condemned by the gods, Sisyphus is ordered to push a boulder to the top of a mountain. Each time, as Sisyphus neared the top, the boulder would roll all the way down to the bottom again. Sisyphus would head back down the mountain to retrieve the boulder begin the task again, only to lose the boulder each time as he approached his goal. According to Camus, the gods believed “that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Yet in the midst of his hopeless and absurd situation, Camus suggested that Sisyphus need not fall into despair.

“There is no sun without shadow,” he writes, “and it is essential to know the night.”

The present moment holds the possibility for change. The difficult hours prepare us for joy, just as joy remembered helps sustain us through difficulty. As a first-year college student living away from home, Camus’ essay moved me profoundly—not merely as literature, but as a lifelong lesson. Many years later, I shared this lesson with students in basic writing. My goals for presenting this lesson were twofold: first, I wanted the students to revisit their values and larger purposes for attending college. Second, I wanted to present Sisyphus’ dilemma as an analogy for the writing process.

Our class had just written their midterm essays. Grades were low and spirits were flagging, but the weather that spring was achingly beautiful. The semester was a study in contrasts and contradictions. Yet I held high expectations for the students. I believed that they would learn from their determined persistence and that their writing would benefit as a result. If we were to make any progress as writers, we would need to remember persistence, even if we felt like Sisyphus, pushing that boulder uphill time after time without hope. The boulder metaphor worked well for the students. The myth inspired provocative conversation about the meaning of persistence, and students recounted stories of persistence in other aspects of their lives. Collectively these life stories held resonance for students’ persistence in their first year of college—and for their persistence in writing.

Persistence is a much-discussed topic in postsecondary education at this historical moment. The article “Who Comes First,” published by Inside Higher Education, focuses on “rationing student access” in the California two-year colleges based on quantifiable measures of persistence, such as “students who are most likely to earn a degree or certificate.” These students would be allowed priority enrollment; those targeted for reduced access are referred to by the term “less disciplined students.” The article quotes Chancellor Jack Scott of the California Community Colleges, who suggests, “We’re not open to all. Some people don’t want to face up that it’s reality.”

As that former first-year student still enamored with Sisyphus, I hold a strong connection to the term, “less disciplined students.”  Perhaps you knew me, or someone like me, a teenager with undiagnosed ADHD, uncomfortable in my own body. I sat in the middle row of my English literature survey class (first-year composition was not required at my private liberal arts school), loudly cracking my gum (to keep me going until lunch after missing breakfast), my head wrapped in a blue bandana (to cover my unwashed hair). I fidgeted in the small classroom seat and doodled random squiggles on the lined paper where I was supposed to write lecture notes. Every day I attended that class, I fought with vague feelings that I did not belong there, and the grades on my essays seemed to indicate as much.

Yet herein lies the contradiction. Undisciplined as I appeared, I did not drop out and I somehow managed to pass the course and to persist, with stops and starts, long enough to earn a PhD. I learned to overcompensate when I faced adversity, to persist in the face of difficult odds. Persistence did not come to me naturally, nor was persistence “common sense,” or a subject offered at school. Like many of us, I learned theories and practices of persistence from powerful life lessons, and I review these lessons often to retain their significance.

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (written collaboratively by members of the Council of Writing Programs Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project) lists characteristics of persistence that can be applied to Chancellor Scott’s notion of the disciplined students, such as: “follow through, over time, to complete tasks, processes, or projects.” Persistence thus helps to achieve the institutional goal of retention and to offer the institutional reward of privileged access to enrollment. The Framework also offers a definition of persistence that complements the meaning suggested by Camus: “the ability to sustain interest in and attention to short- and long-term projects.” First-year students, perhaps like Sisyphus, manage to sustain their interest and attention, but this ability is not necessarily acquired overnight, and surely the journey toward persistence is not always attained, or even welcomed by others, with open arms. Indeed, the lesson of persistence also can involve a great deal of difficult struggle.

Camus draws additional significance from this myth. In the moments between losing the boulder and retrieving it, when he must climb back down the mountain, Sisyphus is free from his burden, and also free to contemplate his fate. This freedom helps Sisyphus not only to persist, but also to experience joy: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concludes, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Such remains the nature of persistence.

Categories: Developmental
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