Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Primary Way in Which Teaching is Easier Than Tutoring -- Prep Time Amortization

I've done plenty of teaching in the past 5 years, and I've also done plenty of tutoring. 

Teaching is what I do exclusively now, and it's what's in the cards for me for many years to come.  For many reasons, I far prefer classroom teaching to one-on-one tutoring, and one the most important of those reasons is this:  the way the necessary preparation time amortizes with experience

You might *think* this to be the case with tutoring -- after all, take subjects like Calculus, Economics, Statistics, Accounting, etc.  They don't really change much year to year, right?  You learn the material once and then you just sort of have it, right?

Not exactly.  Every instructor at every school teaches each of those subjects just a bit differently.  Interpreting meaning can sometimes be just as difficult for a tutor as it is for a student.  I still remember the Macroeconomics Professor who tried to explain everything through these way-too-unnecessarily-complex arrow diagrams.  All of the assignments were based on those diagrams, so as someone who hadn't ever been to the class, trying to help someone who had (but was lost) had a deaf-leading-the-blind sort of pain factor to it. 

Even at the time, I had begun teaching part-time, and I figured out the key difference between the two jobs -- playing offense vs. playing defense (pardon me now as I blur the metaphor across different sports).

Offense is fun.  On offense, you control the flow of the game.  You decide where the ball or the puck goes.  If you don't like how a play is unfolding, you can simply stop the play.  You can run out of bounds (we'll take our break now), you can throw a challenge flag (that's not relevant to this, but...) or you can even break out the old hidden ball play (I'm not sure what that meant, so I took those slides out of the deck 10 minutes prior). 

On defense, you have to be Grant Fuhr and Patrick Roy every single time.  That gets really stressful, and no matter how good your reflexes, no matter how sharp your skates, no matter how solid your pads, you can't keep every puck outside of your net. 

As a result, the preparation time required for playing defense -- and really playing it well, at the honest-to-goodness NHL equivalent -- never really goes away.  It drops off a little, but that's it.

Offense, on the other hand?  Way different.  It's really hard to do the first time.  But once you've moved the chains all the way down the field once?  You work out the kinks, you know what the endstate looks like, and you can far more easily brainstorm better ways to get from A to B.  But when you don't even know what B looks like, because you've never seen it?  Pardon the cliche, but it's the proverbial building-the-plane-in-midair problem. 

You're not really supposed to get stale, and you shouldn't, but if you have to wing a class you've taught 11 times before?  Yeah, you can do it.  It's your show. 

Even when you really do it right, and you're updating your stuff, your prep-to-class ratio is still probably somewhere around 1:1, which is far better than the 6:1 or even 10:1 that a first time go-around can require. 

Right now, I've got three new classes running a la fois, in addition to one that I've done umphteen times.  That one?  I still go full-tilt on grading, but prep is a breeze.  Those other three, though?  I can assure you, I'm feeling the full weight.  

But I also know that there's a wonderful silver lining to it all -- it'll be far, far easier to do any of these again.  And even easier the time after that, and so on. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Stop Me If You've Heard this One Before...

TL; DR:  Beware of open-ended agreements.  Saying "no" to something up front could cause an ounce of pain now that spares you a pound of pain later.

A quick personal update before I write the vignette to explain the summary above:   

Things went from crazy to normal to crazy again, and now they're back to normal.  Back in the summer, I accepted an opportunity to come onto ADOS (active duty for operational support) status at Fort Devens for a while, and thereby jettisoned my self-imposed adjuncting-and-tutoring hamster wheel life.  Uncle Sam handed my unit an end-of-fiscal-year surprise with virtually no warning, though --  on 30SEP I was no longer on active status, and had missed the start of fall semester.  I took a very blue collar job in Billerica at a warehouse, working for a large corporation.  The hours were weird, but I loved it and it served the immediate purpose of paying a lot of bills.  A happy twist came in November, and I was hired as a full-time lecturer at BU  -- my first-ever non-military, permanent, full-time position (I held out long enough though, didn't I?) I started this week, and now I *just* do that, plus the Army Reserve.  Life has never felt so normal.  

Okay, we're totally caught up now.  In broad strokes, that was the past eight months of my life.  

While I was working in Billerica, I befriended a guy who was a decade-plus younger, had immigrated to the States just a couple years ago, and got to work each morning via bicycle.  As someone with a fellow hustler's spirit, I admired this kid -- he only lived a mile or so down the road, but it's dark and cold at 12:30 a.m. in Massachusetts in the winter, and this kid pedaled his way through to grind it out and earn some money over on Salem Road.  I'll call this guy Pierre.  

I gladly gave Pierre rides home when I saw him on the way out.  He mentioned to me that he wanted to get a license, but couldn't pony up the dough for a driving school.  In a combination of sympathy for his situation and admiration for his hustle, I gladly volunteered some instruction of the free variety -- after work, we tooled around in the parking lot, starting with the gears, the gas, the brake, etc. and graduated to driving laps, backing into a space, parking between the lines, using lights and blinkers, etc.  We even took it to the mean streets a few times and he drove around on some quiet back roads, without incident.  

Our after-work driving sessions would end with me dropping him off at home.  On one of those days, as I was dropping him off, Pierre asked if I could begin to pick him up on my way in each morning.  Reflexively, I said "sure."  He was *basically* on my way, after all, and my only admonition was "don't make me late -- if I get here, and you're not ready, that's it, I'm taking off."  He agreed.  

I picked Pierre up all through our "peak" holiday season, right on schedule, six days a week, like clockwork and without incident.  

After the New Year, though, my schedule started to get a little bit complicated.  There was an Army Reserve weekend, and there were days that I had to get to Boston and wouldn't be at that job at all.  

Naturally, I coordinated with Pierre to relay this information.  

Still, some balls got dropped.  

There were times I had to waste half an hour playing "Where's Waldo" at the end of the shift after I couldn't find him in the parking lot.  There was the day that he forgot I was coming to pick him up beforehand, despite multiple confirmatory texts the day prior.  There was another time when I wasn't coming but got woken up anyway by a 1:30 a.m. text message to see whether I was on my way.  

At some point, I decided that I'd had enough.  Figuring out my own schedule was getting hard enough, let alone having to juggle this voluntary -- and increasingly complex -- coordination with someone else.  I reached out to let him know that I'd no longer be offering my ride service in the mornings, owing to the scheduling difficulty.  

So what do you think happened?  

Do you think:

(a) I got a thoughtful message of gratitude in return for all the help I had provided across the past couple of months?  An acknowledgement of that positive contribution on some cosmic, karmic scoreboard somewhere?  or

(b) A continued stream of text messages repeatedly asking for rides, that I initially responded to but then just began to ignore, culminating in him becoming angry with me, raising his voice, and then storming away on the shop floor on my last day there? 

Well, stop me if you've heard this one before...and if you've ever been in such a situation, you probably chose (b), correctly.  

For the record, I didn't help Pierre with the expectation of getting anything back in return -- not gas money, not some obsequious display of gratitude...not anything.  I helped him when I could, because it made sense, I didn't mind, and it was the right thing to do.  

But when it *stopped* making sense, when I *did* mind, and when it no longer felt like the right thing to do, I no longer felt obligated to some open-ended commitment that I never remembered signing up for in the first place.  

...and the point of this blog post isn't just for me to vent and whine -- it's to make a much bigger, very general, and hopefully helpful point to someone reading this:  be very, very hesitant about entering into ANY open-ended commitments, anywhere.  The ounce of pain that could come with an up-front "no" is far less injurious than the pound of pain that will come when the open-ended commitment breaks (which it inevitably will, somehow).  

Absolutely, by all means, be helpful.  

Give people rides.  Help them move out of their apartment.  Walk their dog when they go on vacation.  Start their car once a month while they're deployed.  Let your cousin crash on your couch while he looks for a new lease.  

Do these things not in search of chits to call in later, or to annoyingly lord it over them for years afterwards, or to seek elicit some explicit acknowledgement of how great you are, or how grateful they ought to be.  Do these things just to do them.  

But make sure there's an expiration date built in to the favor.  It's like, I'll gladly weed your garden and help water your plants today, but no, I can't do it every Sunday.  I'll gladly let you stay here while you get situated, but *this* can't be your indefinite plan -- don't put your name on my mailbox.  

When you ignore this rule, a collision course scenario will unfold -- eventually, you'll get tired of whatever *it* is, and this will come after the other party has come to expect it.  You'll tear the band-aid off, and when you do, all of the accumulated goodness that you might've imagined is for naught, replaced only be resentment and confusion.  

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Difficulty Surrounding "Difficult Conversations"

First, as I always say after a long blogging hiatus, thanks for reading.

The past couple of years have certainly seen their share -- and then some -- of divisive rhetoric.  I sort of don't *want* to believe this, because it cuts against the grain of my all-American optimism and general sense that we're constantly on the march towards something better than we had before, but it looks like the overall climate around public discourse is deteriorating.

Who's to blame?  Well, familiar bogeymen include the President, the media, whichever political party you don't belong to, and social media.  And maybe all of them are a bit guilty of something.  Regardless, that whodunit is way more ambitious undertaking than my time and inclinations allow for here.

So in the meantime, I'll just say this:  my LEAST favorite expression in the modern public vernacular is "difficult conversations."

The reason I dislike it so much isn't because I am afraid to have difficult conversations; on the contrary, I'd really love one.  Or several.  Instead, it's because the phrase is so loathsomely disingenuous.

Almost invariably, someone proposing to have "difficult conversations" or generally opining that Americans need to have more "difficult conversations" is suggesting anything but.  Rather, he or she is really saying:  more people need to wake up and see the world they way that I do.  Now, I don't have a problem with that per se, and I probably have a lot in common with whoever is saying it, at least in terms of their intent -- people in comparatively privileged, comfortable positions don't just naturally, on their own, even consider the points of view of marginalized people, without considerable prodding.

So prod.  If you want to lecture me, then lecture.  At least to a point, I'm eager to listen.  But please don't call it a 'difficult conversation.'

If you want conversation?

Well, first of all, that term by its very definition involves two sides.  So that means that you can tell me how terrible you think Aziz Ansari is, but it also means that I would be able to offer up some mitigating details on his behalf.  That doesn't mean I think the two sides in this -- or any -- dispute or mix-up are equal parts valid.  And it doesn't mean that I have some knee-jerk, male reaction to every #MeToo allegation that's bubbled up since last fall.  But it is, well, a conversation.

Ditto for anything else.  It's not a difficult conversation to just yell about some government policy that "sucks" so your social media echo chamber can tell you that you "totally NAILED it!"  It's a LOT more difficult to look at the policy itself, think about ways it could be better crafted, and even -- gasp -- to ask whether someone in trouble with ICE could've done anything differently along the way. It's also really difficult and uncomfortable to ask why the media took a pass on the Mesa, AZ police execution of a man desperately pleading for his life, but ran unquestioningly with a false narrative in a different instance after a particular police shooting two years prior, sparking weeks of riots.

Those would be conversations that might be difficult for people from across the ideological perspective.

The perspective that I see the world through is that of a white, conservative, upwardly-mobile, well-educated, Protestant, heterosexual (is that what the kids means by cis?) male who has never been harassed by police, sexually assaulted, forced to worry about immigration status, or had to deal with an ongoing physical disability.

So is it important for me to step back from that and think about the worldview of someone who might not default as naturally to a lot of my assumptions and views?  Absolutely.  But do all those boxes I checked in the paragraph above invalidate my opinions and worldviews?  Do they necessarily make me wrong -- and you right -- about the things that we both observe? Absolutely not.  And that is precisely my point of departure with most of the Progressive voices I hear calling for these "difficult conversations" while describing something else entirely.

Please, I beseech you, let's just have some truth in advertising along the way.

Unless, of course, it's a conversation you're after.  In which case...