“The Teacher’s Mid-Life Crisis: Moore’s Stairmaster of the Fittest” by Garvey

  • ©Gregory P. Garvey




    The Teacher’s Mid-Life Crisis: Moore’s Stairmaster of the Fittest



    In his article “As We May Think,” Vannevar Bush proposed a device called the MEMEX as a solution to the problem of information overload. Today, those teaching computer graphic design, animation, non-linear video production, multimedia and Web page design, sound editing and composition, or interactive art face a related problem of the information age: ongoing obsolescence of knowledge, skills, expertise, even aesthetics, and the imperative to continually upgrade and acquire new skills and knowledge to keep pace with the march of technological innovation and cultural fashion. In institutions of higher learning, Moore’s Stairmaster favors the young, the fit, and the tireless. The World Wide Web may be a partial realization of Bush’s vision for managing the explosive growth of information. For the educator, there appears to be no relief from the perpetual scramble to match teaching and research to the demands of a client-centered model of higher education.
    Many credit Bush with the invention of hypermedia technology, which later inspired Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web. Motivated by concern for the loss of scientific information, Berners-Lee explains, “…the dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information.” Yet this vision of the Web as a solution to the problem of information overload, management, and retrieval offers little relief for the educator suffering a mid-life crisis.
    Moore’s Law is unforgiving. As the power and complexity of silicon chips doubles every 18 months, each previous generation of computers and the software applications designed for them are rendered obsolete. The marketplace drives the proliferation of
    new features in upgrades and proclaims: upgrade or die! Software development resembles an autocatalytic chemical process, which increases in speed according to the volume of products it has created. With each hardware and software upgrade, there can be a concomitant obsolescence of skills. Educational institutions are hard pressed to find the funds to cover costs of the next cycle of upgrades. Administrators are often reluctant to pay to retrain faculty and find it more expedient to hire recent graduates or expatriates from industry who are already expert users.
    High-end software packages from Softimage, Discreet Logic, and Alias|Wavefront have steep learning curves that demand a tremendous time commitment. For a mid-career educator with full teaching, administrative, and personal responsibilities, this time is hard to find. Specialization is nearly unavoidable. If one chooses to maintain skills in Web site development using HTML, JavaScript, Lingo, Shockwave, Flash, VRML, CGI, and Java, there may not be time to tackle Softimage. A few years ago, it may still have been possible to maintain up-to-date working knowledge of a number of commonly used packages. Today there are Adobe Photoshop experts who may have never heard of VRML. Like increasing the resistance on the Stairmaster, the need to simultaneously maintain and reinforce existing skills and acquire new ones is an uphill struggle.
    The client-centered model of education tends toward training on demand. Especially with complex software, the desire to learn how to do something often upstages questions about what to do and why. From the viewpoint of protocol analysis, much end-user software expertise is essentially scripted or procedural knowledge. Almost all tutorials follow this step-by-step cookbook recipe approach. This “training” approach lends itself to distance-learning strategies, which may have the secondary effect of reducing a teacher to the role of a technical troubleshooter. For some administrators, this diminished role is a cost-cutting opportunity.
    Theory is compressed into practice. Critical thinking is often shunted aside because students know what they like. The cultural paradigms that drive young imaginations are increasingly drawn from popular culture. There is a clear feedback loop from
    industry to the schools. The window on popular culture is a shifting frame of reference that increases the gap between the educator and the student regarding what is “kewl” to do. Like Dawkins’ selfish-gene, new aesthetic memes are rapidly eclipsing the cultural icons of earlier generations. Influences can be traced from games and films like Mortal Kombat, Japanese anime culture, or the continued predominance of DJ club culture. Interest in these stylistic approaches shows no sign of abating and, in fact, continues to spread among the youth cultures of the world. Rather than hoping to be a Rembrandt or Beethoven, today’s students are more likely to emulate a graffiti artist or a DJ. Increasingly, educators must acknowledge that this represents a legitimate cultural shift that offers opportunities for critical consideration and a rich resource for artistic creation.
    I, among others, have argued elsewhere that learning by doing is by far one of the most effective methods for teaching the use of computer technology in fine art and design. The way to learn to draw with a piece of charcoal is to do it. Likewise, you learn how to create and edit NURBS through the experience of doing it. There is a tendency to confuse art made with computer with a kind of objectivity that belongs to science and engineering. In order to make art with a computer, you must conform to the dictates of the interface, which requires a deliberate and planned step-by-step approach. This is a rational process that yields to scripting and recipes. Yet this objective knowledge is no substitute for the subjective know-how and understanding that only comes from repeatedly using the menu-driven tools to achieve different aesthetic ends. In order to get over the hurdle of learning the interface, there must be the desire and infatuation with both the technology and its aesthetic outcomes. The “kewl” factor as a motivator is not to be underestimated.
    New programs, curriculum development, and the needed implementations brought about by the demands of clients, both students and industry, affect hiring practices and conditions of employment for mid-career and entry-level educators. Could a revolving door between institutions of higher education and industry benefit the educational process and enrich the industry as well?
    This hands-on workshop guides educators and students through the process of setting up an animatic and teaches them how to create a short story using traditional and computer-aided methods. The presentation includes:
    • Story – how to structure around a given theme or music.
    • Storyboarding – written as well as drawn visualization.
    • Key framing – posing out the characters and scenes.
    • Timing – guessing at what it should be (theory vs actual).
    • Premeire – using the software to marry the visuals with sound; putting
    “theory vs actual” to work.
    • Scheduling – how do you estimate the time it takes to do the work?
    • Budgeting – if this were a real job what would it cost?
    • The business – how students should think about marketing themselves.
    The workshop also teaches the teachers what they need to set up a similar situation for their own teaching purposes. It includes samples of completed works and works in progress, to illustrate the process more completely.

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