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Friday, January 28, 2011


While an undergraduate, I used to volunteer with an adult literacy program at a nearby men’s homeless shelter. The weekly “lesson” topic was established by the shelter staff, and the student volunteers would prepare materials accordingly. These followed a Freireian methodology, in that the men explored themes of interest to their own daily lives, and we, the “instructors” served mainly as facilitators for the discussion or interspersed reading/writing exercises.

Topics were often general, but lead into unexpected, yet illuminating discussions. For example, one week’s topic was, “Music.” We played Johnny Cash’s rendition of “A Boy Named Sue,” (one of Shel Silverstein’s darker works). One man commented that the opening lyrics resonated with his own personal experience living with an alcoholic father. When we asked the group if anyone else shared this experience, every single had went up. It was a living, breathing sociology class.

The most uncomfortable topic I was ever tasked with was: Motivation. Motivation is a loaded topic, especially as a class facilitated by privileged college students with a group of homeless men. I almost backed out. The men however, loved it. What surprised me was how incredibly positive they were. Motivation and strength derived from religious faith was a huge theme. In fact, in the entire group, there was one man who gave any hints at negativity, or expressed challenges to motivation. He had just lost his job as an electrician, and had three kids at home. He voiced his frustrations with his current job search. The other men responded in a positive—though perhaps naively so—fashion. One man exclaimed, “That’s why you need to work for yourself! Be your own boss [so that you don’t have to worry about getting fired],” to which another man responded “Right! You just need to get motivated—write letters to the government in Washington, they have all this money they will just give you to start a business. You just have to be motivated and write them.”

Meanwhile, everything in my academic courses (in sociology, critical theory and constructivism) were screaming out: from the internalization of a systemic failure as an individual problem of motivation, to differential knowledge of how political and economic networks are structured and accessed.

The men had very high expectations of themselves and their social systems. This may serve as a source of motivation initially, but it is unlikely to be sustained it if these expectations aren’t met. Similarly, in my current work with human resources for health, while many health workers enter motivated by a sense of “professional conscience,” or desire to better their communities, many become de-motivated when their efforts are continuously defeated by larger, systemic issues. For example, chronic medical supply shortages, or lack of supportive supervision by superiors at referral levels.

Similarly, Richard Levins writes on our role as “radical health workers”:
“ …We are also workers. We are hired to create and apply knowledge within the constraints set by our employers. But we are a special kind of worker in that our labor is not completely alienated from us: we are really concerned with the product of our labor, with what it does in the world, unlike the employees in an ammunitions factory who do not seek out that job for the joy of helping to kill people. As workers, a major concern is to keep our jobs and receive reasonable compensation and benefits. But as intellectuals we want our work to be meaningful and effective. We are terribly frustrated when we lack the resources to do what obviously needs to be done, when class size or number of patients to care for guarantees that we cannot do what we entered the profession to do and when our best ideas are not fundable or not even mentionable, when our activism is condemned as unprofessional, when our tasks are constrained by wrong or narrow theories, when we may contribute to deep studies of the problem but the reports end in banal recommendations such as ‘we should pay more attention to questions of equity’ or the almost inevitable ‘more research is needed.’”
As several recent Methodlogical posts have discussed, often what motivates us—to vote, or to serve—is complex, and far from rational. It seems to me that motivation is as much a product of our social systems as it is of our individual predilections and personal sense of fulfillment. I’m interested in your own experiences with motivation, and how you think we can change our systems—and the incentives inherent to them.

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