Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Sprezzatura, for those of you not obsessed by early modern Europe, is a term that Baldassare Castiglione uses in his The Book of the Courtier to talk about the way a courtier should seek to make difficult things seem effortless and spontaneous.

For example, if you were an Elizabethan courtier, you might want to think of some really good lines of poetry in advance, so you could "toss them off" as though you'd just thought of them on the spur of the moment. Done well, I imagine dazzling mastery. Think of Joe Montana making the quick pass to Jerry Rice look easy. We all know it's not easy, but they could sure make it look that way sometimes.

It's a matter of being so thoroughly prepared that you make whatever it is look like it takes no thought or work at all.

I admire sprezzatura, I admit. Some people are naturally more capable than I of pulling things off; I need serious preparation. Sometimes, that means really figuring out the questions and problems, and doing some background research to really have a solid sense of the issues, and to be able to discuss them as if you've put no effort in. It means reading whatever reading, taking good enough notes that you don't have to refer to them much, and being ready to field questions.

In a way, I've been thinking, being a good committee chair is a little like sprezzatura. I spent a fair bit of time these past few days putting together memos and sending off this and that, making sure I'm ready for whatever questions will come up at the meeting when we make our proposal. And mostly, no one will realize how much time things took. I don't think I'm especially slow about things, just that doing things right actually does take some time. And I imagine other folks take time to put their stuff together, more time than is readily apparent. Except when someone doesn't have their stuff together, it's easy to tell there's a problem.

And, of course, you have to balance the need for information or explanation with the time you have available and the brainpower you have left. Alas, I don't have a photographic memory, either!

I gave my first presentation at the local library this week to a very receptive audience. It was fun, but also a little nerve-wracking. You see, when I came here to the Northwoods, I filled the spot of a colleague who retired that year. And this colleague, an utterly charming, kind, and helpful person, came to the presentation. And I'm still a bit intimidated by this colleague, in part because I know s/he was a big part of the committee that hired me and has said how much s/he enjoyed my teaching presentation when I was interviewed. So I feel like I have a lot to live up to in order not to disappoint him/her, if that makes sense.

But some of the questions the audience asked were tangential, and that's when the whole sprezzatura thing comes up. It's spine-tingling fun to know things well enough to have answers to even really bizarre questions, to have specific examples to help people understand the answer, and that's how the questions went. Of course, they could easily have asked a dozen questions I'd have been stumped by, but I got lucky. Or just was adequately prepared.

I love the performance part of sprezzatura, the making things seem so easy that it looks utterly safe, although you know there's really no net.


  1. Montana to Rice? Nah.

    Jason Spezza is the one with sprezzatura. A friend who is a fan once attended a hockey game with a giant sign that read "Spezza has sprezzatura". Apparently Spezza threw her an appreciative, but puzzled glance.

  2. I agree that preparation is key to a successful lesson, but how does talent fit into this notion of sprezzatura? I am a GED test prep instructor and a first semester adjunct teaching three sections of Developmental English to an inner-city population. In both arenas I have had to rely on two things, knowledge and talent. (Please pardon me if I sound tentative, but I’ve never commented here and your blog kind of intimidates me.)

    I have quickly understood that the needs, moods, and/or interests of developmental learners can and will change in an instant. In order to avoid a disaster, I have to know my material well enough that I can show them the same thing in many ways. This I feel is maybe what you are saying about sprezzatura. However, I am also often confronted with situations in the classroom that would be impossible to prepare for.

    The most extreme example happened on Monday when one of my students working on an argumentative paragraph introduced the topic of gun violence. Since most of my students live in very segregated low-income neighborhoods, the issue raised a number of vocal opinions. Normally I would be elated to see my students so engaged in a group discussion, but in this particular class my full attention was immediately drawn to one student. Earlier in the semester I had been told by one of the college’s counselors that this student had lost a sibling to gun violence just two weeks before the semester started. As the discussion became more animated I could see that this student was becoming visibly shaken. I knew that I had to immediately redirect the situation without drawing attention to this student, but also promote the active discussion created by the rest of the group. I quickly applauded the class for their involvement in the lesson, told them what they were doing right, and asked that they pair with another student and use the same techniques on the topic they chose. I then paired myself with my shaken student and began to ask questions about a prior assignment s/he turned in that I knew had nothing to do with guns and homicide. Within moments s/he had calmed considerably, but I was a mess.

    I was proud of how I handled myself and kept the class moving in a positive direction. I honestly wondered how managed to do it. Was it talent? I would like to think so. Let’s face it; some folks just have something in them that elevates their ability to teach effectively. I know that what happened in that class and how to handle it was never made privy to me as a student. I did not prepare for the situation, but everything moved along like it was orchestrated to happen.

    In the classroom, does talent make the existence of prepared knowledge possible? Does prepared knowledge elicit the confidence for talent? How does the combination of the two make for a successful and interactive classroom environment? I don’t expect a response to these questions, but your post got me thinking, as they usually do, and I thought I would type it out. Thanks and take care.

  3. Wait a minute! Did you swipe that word off my blog? I just used it a couple of weeks ago...and you's not one that pops up in conversation a lot...Weird.

    So now that I'm down to 23 hours, what book should I use to really not study?

  4. Amanda, Thanks for the introduction to the NHL :) I'm 400 years behind in my reading; 25 years behind in my football references, and now I need to learn about hockey!

    Kelly, Thanks for commenting. I think Castiglione's ideal would be that sprezzatura is totally talent driven; the fantasy is that you just are THAT good, and don't actually have to prepare. But most of us don't live up to the fantasy. However, it sounds like you did a great job bringing experience, knowledge, and quick thinking into play to solve your class problem. Well done!

    MSILF, Well, I'm probably a little late, but have you read Sherman Alexie? How about some of Sharon Olds' poetry? Or maybe the Faerie Queene :) Yeah, that will keep you off the streets and out of your exams for a bit!

    Maybe your mention of sprezzatura got into my head, but I wasn't consciously thinking of it.

  5. Anonymous7:54 AM

    for some reason, this made me think of this random quote from Pindar that I know that I throw into lectures on my dissertation topic. I really don't know that much about Pindar but throwing in "You know, Pindar said..." as an aside makes you look like you know lots of things.

    Come to think of it, I've done the same thing with the information that most ancient copper came from Cyprus. People think I know a lot about copper. Or Cyprus. Neither is the case. I just know a piece of trivia. but it has the same effect as if I knew a whole lot.