Do as the Japanese do and embrace imperfection

There’s nothing more exciting than the arrival of spring, or at least, the illusion of the arrival of spring. The dark days of winter and endless rain supposedly come to an end, flowers start sprouting up from the ground, and birds return to sing their songs. However, for me, there’s more to spring than these external signs. 

Spring is the time of year when I’m faced with grading a pile of students’ tests and assignments. Much as I love teaching, I die a little inside every time I have to use a rubric. I see them as a way of killing creativity and authenticity, and of labelling students: those who do the absolute minimum, those who exceed expectations, and those who are somewhere in between.

So, to avoid this pointless labelling, I procrastinate in every possible way: I vacuum my entire apartment, I sort my wardrobe just enough to be able to find what I need in a reasonable amount of time, and I write haikus for cats.  

Wabi-sabi is exactly the opposite of grading standardised university tests and assignments

Instead of grading, this wannabe spring morning finds me watching a video on YouTube – something I rarely do – about wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy of perfect imperfection. At its core, wabi-sabi is about embracing imperfection and finding beauty in things that are authentic and imperfect. In other words, exactly the opposite of grading standardised university tests and assignments.

I laugh as I dare to even think for a moment about how wabi-sabi could be used as a framework for universities that obsess with perfection and success, and with ticking off boxes on standardised rubrics. Wabi-sabi encourages us to find value in the journey rather than the destination. What could that mean for universities? 

Perhaps putting the emphasis on the process of working towards collective projects, instead of the final product? What if those projects were personally meaningful for the students? What if they had some value for the local communities universities are part of? How about, for example, an interdisciplinary and intergenerational project with Dutch farmers about agricultural pollution and emissions? Ah, but then – I hear the question coming – how would you grade that? Well, that’s the question indeed.

Could we become readers of our students’ work, instead of judges?

Could we ditch standardised rubrics and instead provide personalised feedback sessions, just like what happens in everyday life? Can you imagine leaving a doctor’s office with a document that says ‘sore throat 10, headache 9, stuffed nose 8’? Or the hairdresser’s with ‘80 percent curly, 20 percent straight’?

Could we become readers of our students’ work, instead of judges? To do that, would mean learning to appreciate imperfect journeys and embrace failure, something that is so central to scientific practice. 

Spring inspires me to embrace tons of failure as part of my perfectly imperfect academic career, and to have a fresh start on multiple projects I had pushed aside during the dark days of winter. Wabi-sabi, much as I adore you, I need to get back to my damn grading now.

LUCY AVRAAMIDOU

Dutch

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