Monday, August 23, 2010

Mired in details

We faced our brand new students for the first time today, and once again I felt the tension between the processes we design to get education done, and the education that is supposed to flow through those processes.  As with all meetings of this kind, introducing people to a new institution, there's a fair amount of "go here, push this button, don't forget this, here's a tip, new policy -- be alert."  It's damnably difficult to avoid talking as if a facility for navigating the institutional corridors is the aim, rather than the pursuits that are supposed to take place within them.

Now, you do have to learn the language and get your sea legs underneath you when entering a new and complex institution.  But the problem is that you can't accomplish that by having somebody talk to you about it.  You have to get in there and do it yourself.  The best way for us as instructors to help is by providing easily accessible guidebooks and tutorials -- step-by-step instructions they can follow to walk through the processes the first few times.  Hand 'em out, or send 'em a link, and resist the urge to read it with them.  They're big kids.  They can read on their own.

In a week or two, what seems bewildering and labyrinthine now will be second nature to most of these students.  What will have been lost, though, is the chance to set the tone of our face-to-face meetings.  You only get the one shot to show what you value by making it the theme and content of your first encounter.  If you bow to what seems like necessity, and spend that time on logistics, the message comes through loud and clear: The important thing about this course is the margin width on your homework.

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