#51

For the last month I have battled a family of birds living in the roof of our storage shed. These tenants are squatters who moved in after I evicted the previous occupants, a gang of rowdy squirrels with bad attitudes and poor hygiene. I tried jamming sticks in the holes the birds use (they pulled them out–sparrows are surprisingly strong, probably from all that flying). I put plastic mesh over the gaps (they used their sharp little beaks to cut it and then climbed through, laughing as they went). I tried yelling at them (no effect on the birds; the neighbors called the Mental Health Department). Yesterday I spent two hours installing a metal strip that fully covers each and every tiny gap, and I told myself (yet again), “I showed them.” It looks nice, it fills the openings with metal, not plastic, and I am (wait for it) 100% sure it will work. Again. Laura claims that the birds love me because I provide so many entertaining puzzles for them to figure out. She’s weird.

I am completing my thirteenth year of college teaching, and for the first twelve years, every semester ended the same way: me changing my syllabus to fix the problems that had occurred. This process was as predictable and dependable as the sun rising in the East or the Dallas Cowboys folding in the playoffs, and every year (like a Cowboys fan) I sincerely believed, “this is the one.” I know one teacher whose bi-annual ‘fix’ includes adding language to his course syllabus to address the latest creative student excuses  (“I forgot my homework was in the back of my pickup and I went through a car wash”) or efforts to bend the rules, leading to verbiage like this:

You have five days to make up a missed exam. Five calendar days (not five business or school days, meaning that weekend days do count), each containing 24 hours. Your five days starts from the scheduled (not actual) start time of the class meeting containing the exam you missed, regardless of whether the exam actually began at that time or slightly later. Your make up exam must be complete and handed in, physically, to me, on paper, by 120 hours from the start time of the aforementioned class period. DO NOT, under any circumstances, wait until your exam make up period has expired, then say, “I just need to bubble in my answer sheet” as that must also be completed (in pencil) prior to the previously defined deadline.

Vast swaths of British Columbia have been systematically deforested to provide paper for this guy’s 40 page syllabus.

As a Marketing teacher I can tell you there is enormous appeal in the promise of the quick fix. Our brains (which are both surprisingly complex and shockingly stupid) are irresistibly drawn to simple solutions, and generally repelled by complex and difficult answers (the kind that involve work and actually have some chance of success). How many products have earned millions of dollars by simply claiming that they can fix some nagging problem “as easy as 1-2-3”? We prefer pills over lifestyle changes, Cliffs Notes (is that still a thing?) over actually reading a book, and any ‘labor saving device’ that looks like it might actually make an unpleasant task (like exercising) even slightly less unpleasant. These products sell because they tell a story that human beings really, really want to believe: every problem has a simple, quick solution. Or it should have one, and if not somebody should get right to work on that and sell it for three easy payments of $29.95.

I recently attended a conference on classroom teaching, and for the first time in my career I came home thinking, “Maybe there are no real fixes….maybe most of the learning is happening or not happening regardless of my policies or my syllabus or how many amazing video clips I include in my lecture.” I realized I have now taught long enough that some of my ‘innovations’ may be reruns of fixes I implemented a decade ago and then abandoned in favor of new, better fixes. I strongly suspect that if I tracked grades in my classes since 2004 I would see no meaningful change in how much my students learn (the real goal), despite all my attempts to ‘fix’ the class. And over a decade in, I am finally concluding that course design and classroom management are not problems that can ever be fixed or perfected, but simply issues to be managed over time.

In the harsh reality that is life on this planet, no sentence in a syllabus is going to change the behavior of 20 year olds, most of whom won’t read it anyway. Case in point: my syllabus currently contains this offer: “Does anyone even read this? First one to tell me you saw this gets extra points,” and in a typical term with 175 students I hear from about 3. No amazing diet is going to change the simple physics of nutrition and allow you to eat whatever you want without simple cause-and-effect occurring around your waistline; for most of us weight control is a life-long maintenance project. Life seems to be less a set of buttons to press or problems to ‘fix’  or boxes to check than a set of chronic, nagging conditions to be managed, often for the long term. Ugh.

We recently lost a friend to cancer. In the early 1970’s, President Nixon launched a ‘war on cancer’ in the belief that the same ‘can-do’ spirit (and billions of dollars) that sent men to the moon could rid us of this dreaded disease within a decade. TV ads from one organization joyfully declared, “We’re winning the war on cancer.” We are now half a century into this war (am I the only one getting really tired of wars that seem to never end?) and cancer rates are rising, not falling. Detection is better, and treatments are less unpleasant, but the life expectancy with most cancers, caught at the same stage, is virtually unchanged since Nixon. As one writer observed, “In the war on cancer, cancer is kicking our butts.”

In our defense, most of us are optimists. We assume our plans will work, and we naively blame our failures on unpredictable events (who could possibly predict that the car wash would dump so much water in the truck bed or that the birds owned a pair of wire-cutters?), and since optimism is actually a far happier state of mind, why not just go with that? Seriously, I think that’s the better choice, since the alternative is far worse: decide that life’s problems are unfixable, collapse onto your couch, and lose yourself in endless reruns of Matlock. So we choose to believe in the quick fix, and though we are often proven wrong, we at least feel good about the future and that’s probably okay. Far better to expect the best, than to give up all hope. You can choose to expect either good or ill, and I promise you that expecting the former will make you happier than dreading the latter.

Today as we walked out to our car I saw the birds sitting on the beams under the carport watching me. They are plotting a new fix for the current problem, probably one involving a strategic alliance with the squirrels and the neighborhood badger who owns a reciprocating saw (we live in a tough neighborhood). And as always, hope dawns, and optimism prevails, and they are probably 100% sure they will soon be back inside their cozy home, while I am equally certain that my amazing new fix will really, truly, finally work this time.

The perfect syllabus is a myth, the cure for cancer may always be just five years away, and companies will continue to offer quick, simple fixes for problems that really have no permanent solution. Strangely, I feel better about my classes now that I know the truth, since I can innovate and try new things without the delusion that there is some magic formula I might be missing. I am also free to focus on some things that might matter more than delivering content, like engaging with my students more. In fact I am really optimistic that my new approach will finally fix all the problems that came with doing things the old way… Clearly the sparrows are not the only bird brains in this story.

See that scary owl in the picture up top? I just hired him as my new security guy…

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