Thursday, February 02, 2006

Being Claude Rains

The Turner Classic Films Network is doing a series on Academy award winning movies (or those that received nominations) for the next month or so, until this year’s awards ceremony. Last night they had two Humphrey Bogart pictures back to back; first The African Queen, where Bogie plays opposite Katherine Hepburn in what might seem unlikely casting but which comes off remarkably well as the derelict gin drinking boatman and the prissy missionary form an indelible bond via their trip down the river in the African Queen and which provides the only role where Bogie won the Academy award for Best Actor, and Casablanca, the quintessential anti-hero picture, which still is a wonderful movie though it has become a cliché – in the Dooley Wilson character Sam, the song As Time Goes By, and the closing line “Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

I want to focus in on the Capt. Renault character and then use that characterization and the relationship of that character to the Rick Blaine role that Bogart plays as the way to idealize the relationship between instructional designer and faculty member and then to pose the question how we might, even remotely, approximate that ideal. Louis has a knowing ironical style throughout the film. He is a corrupt lecher who abuses his power, but does so in a way that both the German bullies and the heroes in the film are comfortable accommodating. He has insight into the behavior and likes of others and in the main respects those deeply, not projecting his own views on things till the very end of the movie. He has a gracefulness in his speech and an elegance in his style that make others want to be around him. Yet he knows he is the second fiddle, in particular to Victor Laslow (played by Paul Henreid) or to “Monsieur Rick.” He knows the arena where it is right to make his own wants and needs the object of focus as wells as the space where he rightly should subjugate himself to the needs of the protagonists.

These features of Captain Renault, as embodied by Rains’ masterful performance, make the character a highly attractive model for the instructional designer. And it contrasts so strongly to the view Mark Prensky gave of instructional designers at ELI – Instructional Designers suck all the fun out of teaching. Rains as Louis is nothing if not fun – mischievous and scheming, taken with his own amusements. Prensky’s description, on the other hand, brings to mind another descriptor – pedantic. And I must say on this point I’ve heard Prensky’s view echoed by many others. The instructional designer is all too often the pedantic authority to whom no faculty member wants to listen. The instructional designer may not have started out that way and, indeed, may very well have been a member of the faculty early in the career. But somehow the pressures of the job or the removal from actual teaching transforms the instructional designer in a way that is detrimental to the job.

So we want to ask how we might turn instructional designers into Claude Rains and how we might make it that faculty seek out the friendship of Instructional designers. This, I think, is not easy and discussing it might create quite a good deal of irritation among practicing professionals. But, in the interest of trying to get from here to there, here is my list of suggestions.

A Bag of Tricks of Quick Hitters that Work

Many instructors don’t want a full analysis of their course for the purposes of coming up with a detailed teaching plan to implement a redesigned offering. Instead they want to make a tweak or two to try and keep the rest of what they were doing beforehand. If they are going to change anything, they want it in itself to make a difference. This is the spirit behind the work on Low Threshold Applications. Instructional designers either need to play with the existing ones on their own so they are comfortable with them and can with confidence recommend them or, alternatively make their own low threshold applications, which requires play of a different but related sort.

Part of the idea is to build up some trust between instructor and designer. If trust is low at the outset, then offer something lightweight that is likely useful. That very well will not solve all the teaching issues, but it will create a good channel for further problem solving down the road. Win some early battles, built trust, and then hope the instructor comes back for more.

Get out of talking about method and instead talk about teaching-issues

Most instructors are simply not interested in learning about method. If they have to learn a full methodology before they can begin to apply it to their class – well that is just too slow and most instructors won’t go for it. Instructors confront issues while teaching. Instructional design must be about issue resolution.

Brand new instructors most likely have a common single big issue – they are afraid of interacting with their students for fear of being shown that they’re not good enough to be teaching them, the “confidence thing” if you will. So the issue is how to build instructor confidence and how to avoid many of the struggles that young professors typically go through.

Many more experienced instructors, after having gone through the “awkward teenage blues” of being a novice teacher, then have the problem that the students don’t talk up in class. This is a different issue, though almost surely related to the first one. The Instructional Designer recommendations have to be seen as instrumental in addressing the issues. Otherwise, why bother paying attention to the recommendations.

Don’t insist that the instructor make course goals explicit

Instructors know a lot about what they want their students to achieve, but they may not be able to articulate that as a list disembodied from the work the students do. Their knowledge may be more situated. So some instructors, and I’m definitely in this category myself, prefer a tacit approach to achieve course goals and thus a discussion of those goals can happen only over a long time period as the variations of the course unfold.

How to proceed, in other words, depends on the learning style of the instructor and the good instructional designer must be sensitive to that style. Absent the ability to administer a formal test of learning style, this will have to come out through conversation and other interaction with the Instructor.

If we’re preaching learner centric approaches, then make the designer–faculty member experience about the faculty member.

The idea here is quite simple, but I suspect this is very difficult to actually do. With regard to knowledge about teaching, presumably the designer is the expert and the faculty member more the novice. In a learner centered approach the expert brings attention to the learner’s focus and tailors the approach accordingly.

In this instance, however, the faculty member may very well not feel comfortable showing their lack of expertise and the designer may feel the need to establish a credential, to justify the faculty member willing putting in the time. But surely this is the road to ruin – the outcome that Prensky talked about. The designer must have enough confidence in himself so that he can encourage the faculty member to vocalize the teaching issues.


I know my suggestions are only a drop in the bucket, not a full answer. I don’t have a full answer, but having the imagery of Claude Rains as the ideal endpoint seems a useful conception to me.

No comments: