Wednesday, March 13, 2019
In the mid-1950s, my father entered the heady field of computing. The astounding MOBIDIC, a mobile computer so small it could fit into the trailer of a semi, was his first major project; over the next three decades, he went on to teach computing to generations of West Point cadets and to write What's Where in the Apple, a book some called the "Bible" for the powerful (64K!) personal computer, the Apple II. Immersed as he was in computing, though, he struggled in teaching its fundamentals to his daughter. Patiently he would teach me what it meant to "boot" and the difference between ROM and RAM. Then just when I was congratulating myself on having achieved the intellectual equivalent of a breakneck 5 mph, he would accelerate up to Warp Factor 2 into ASCII and BASIC and FORTRAN and COBOL. Alas, this felt to me like being asked to do differential calculus right after mastering the times tables. Ironically, because his subject was so familiar to him, the skilled educator who introduced me to the old chestnut "When you assume you make an ass out of "u" and "me" himself assumed that any bright person could make the same intellectual leaps he had made.
Much of the time, we take the knowledge or experience of others for granted. In yesterday's blog post "Consider the Inconceivable," Bill MacDonald talked about the prevalence of the incredulous response of How can people not know that? When we're steeped in the midst of a culture (whether something as specific as a particular government office or university department, or something as diffuse as upper-middle class culture), matters that are opaque to others seem obvious to us. Administrators assume that faculty and students will know unwritten procedures like which committee to go to for different types of appeals. Instructors assume that students will know how to upload assignments on course management software, or even more fundamentally, that they understand that if they need help they can ask for it. But with all the differences between people -- cultural, generational, educational, social -- it's vital for us to continually test our assumptions and to modify our spoken and unspoken messages as needed.
Here's a wee, out-of-the-classroom example of how even minor assumptions can impinge on law student success. Last semester I had practically identical conversations with two different students several weeks apart. Both told me they were having difficulty finding a time to meet with me. I was surprised, not in the least because one of them regularly walked by my office several times a day. Not only was I scrupulous about keeping office hours, but my door (opening onto the main faculty hallway) was literally wide open most hours of the day. In fact, because my new office seemed so accessible, I had reduced the number of fixed appointment times on the somewhat cumbersome appointment system to accommodate more drop-in opportunities. It turned out, however, that the students and I had conflicting assumptions about my availability: I assumed the open door would make them feel free to walk in; these deferential students, on the other hand, assumed instructors would not want to be bothered outside of fixed office hours and appointment times. The first conversation I thought was a fluke, but after the second conversation I realized my assumption that "wide open door means students are welcome" was not shared by all my students. I had to move past thinking something was obvious to bridge the communication gap. Only by stopping and really listening could I discover the problem and take steps to communicate my availability in additional ways, both implicit and explicit.
The longer I'm an educator, the more my empathy has increased for my dad's attempts to teach me about his life's passion. Even for an ASPer, it's not easy to restrain myself from accelerating to Warp Factor 2 when teaching intelligent, motivated students. To best help them, though, every day I need to mindfully practice slowing down, listening, testing the verbal and non-verbal messages I convey, and correcting those messages that indicate I'm straying in the direction of becoming a long-eared equine.