Growing up, for reasons my analyst has yet to explain, I was basically an optimist when it came to human potential in general and the fate of our civilization in particular. I say “was” because, several years ago, I began teaching computer classes.
Now, I’ve always been a nerd at heart, interested in the sciences and How Things Work, but I liked people too, and my zany approach to teaching was to make the material accessible and interesting. I came up with more ways to describe the inner workings of a PC than Bill Clinton defining the word “is”. My classes ranged in size from one-on-one tutoring to thirty or more packed in a coat closet, and the students were anywhere from 20 to Methuselah+1, and covering the entire spectrum of genders. These students had nothing in common aside from some basic amino acids, and yet there was one thick thread that ran through every class like the laces on William Shatner’s truss: they all had an innate fear of computers. Of course there were a few refreshing exceptions, namely any of my former students who might be reading this article, but the great majority of them entered the room convinced that they’d signed up for Deep Voodoo Astrophysics 593.
Fear is a funny thing once it gets its grips on a person’s brain – or more specifically, the person gripped by said fear often acts in funny (read “secretly amusing to me”) ways. The fact that they were in the class to begin with, except in the case of employer-mandated training, might suggest that they came hoping to learn something. The desire to learn was there often enough, actually, but it was locked in a never-ending WWF-like struggle with Fear that resulted in a constant state of terror sweat in most students, and more malodorous if less visible reactions from others.
The Fear can basically be boiled down to this: A computer is a box containing demons from the bad part of the Seventh Circle of Hell, and if I touch it wrong they will eat my skin. Dispelling this Fear took up most of the class time, which was unfortunate for the students who got the concept of “Click it with your mouse” before the tenth explanation. The struggle in the brain I described above is the only explanation I can think of which would cause a student to hear “Click it with your mouse” and interpret it as “Flip the mouse over, take out the ball, and stick the ball in your ear.”
As a computer instructor, I definitely had it better than your average teacher in some ways – better pay, fewer students in a classroom, and state-of-the-art (circa 1983) equipment to work with. On the down side, my task was to impart complex technical knowledge to inexperienced people who were convinced to their very souls that said material was simply unlearnable.
And yet they came, and so I taught. My classes ranged from short “What’s Inside Your Computer” or “How To Browse the Web Without Finding Porn” seminars to month-long “Re-creating Georges Seurat’s ‘A Sunday on La Grande Jatte’ With Microsoft Paint” courses, and many things in between. The “How To Browse the Web For Porn” classes always filled up fast, but none of the students ever showed up because they were too embarrassed, so I finally made a video for it, and it sold like hotcakes at a syrup convention.
Going back to the original lead-in on optimism, mine was slowly leached away by the students who asked how Thing A worked the very moment I finished a ten-minute discussion of Thing A, as though they had never heard of Thing A before in their lives. It was whittled down by the students who discovered Solitaire early on, and glared at me when I wandered back to see how their row was getting on. It was shredded like a stinky sock in a roomful of puppies by the students who insisted – insisted – that the way Thing A really worked was the way it had been described to them by their sister-in-law’s roommate’s co-worker’s ex-boyfriend, and he should know, because he worked in a computer store and had read an article about it on the Internet.
The most ironic part of it all was the teacher reviews. Whenever the students filled out reviews of the class, my marks very nearly always ranged from “Good” to “Very Good” to “Please Father My Children.” It was nice to receive the accolades, of course, but I always wondered if they were reviewing the same class I’d been teaching. When explaining something for the first time, such as how to copy a file from Point A to Point B on your hard drive, I wouldn’t expect it to sink in for everyone, but after the tenth slow, methodical, and thoroughly-explained demonstration to a particular student, and upon receiving that deer-in-the-headlights look like I’d just asked her to remove her own ovaries with a fork when I suggested she try copying a file while I watched, the rave reviews lost a bit of their savor. If only they knew that “the instructor was very patient and understanding” because he was amusing himself with images of a mouse-cord garrote.
In the end, as with most teachers, I can only hope that I touched a few people and shared a little enlightenment with them. As near as I can tell, though, most students were accosted by the Men In Black and zapped with the little neuralizer thingy that erased their memories of the class, because the next time I saw them in class, I would be digging the mouse ball out of their ear again.
Site Contents © 2004 Robert M. Rowan