A few years ago I posted an entry to one of my blogs describing how my iPod—courtesy of a stupendously depressing sequence of precisely themed, despairing songs that were too close to one another, and to me, to believably emerge from the random shuffle—was trying to kill me.

My friend Mark sent me an email in reply. He’d had an eerily similar experience himself, right down to having two of the same songs in the same sequence. “Apparently,” he wrote, “it’s going to rain when I die, and the grave digger is supposed to make my grave shallow so I can feel, so I can feel, the rain. However,” he went on, “the song just before that instructed me to wear my sunglasses at night, something I cannot do. I don’t have any prescription shades and I can’t see fuck-all without my glasses even during the day. Guess I’ll be sticking around and walking into walls for a while.”

My friend Mark introduced me, at various times, to the Weakerthans, to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” and other entries in the American series, to Elliott Smith, and to Ben Folds’ tribute to Elliott Smith after Smith died by suicide… a track that was part of my own iPod’s attempted homicide. All of which remain favorites.

My friend Mark never understood my obsession with David Foster Wallace, but he humored me beyond reason, including reading all 1000 pages of Infinite Jest closely enough to ask questions about it I still can’t answer.

My friend Mark used to play Dungeons & Dragons and I never let him forget it.

My friend Mark and I used to retreat to my little cabin and get so high that we remembered how to laugh without feeling self-conscious about it. We’d laugh so hard and so long that we actually feared we might die from lack of air, unable to take a breath. When we recovered we’d talk about how mystified the emergency personnel would be when they found us expired from laughter, surrounded by empty bags of chips, memorialized by our huge red bong affectionately nicknamed (and crookedly engraved) “The Rooster.” Which would make us laugh even harder…which would make us worry that we’d die of laughter, and so on until the night ran out.

My friend Mark looked like the captain of a fishing boat who was down on his luck or a heavy-equipment operator, but he could easily explain the stultifying effects of our unquestioning acceptance of Aristotle’s fundamental logic or the difference between Spivak’s and Derrida’s idea of différance.

My friend Mark was a big man, bigger than me, but he spoke softly, the words rounded in his mouth. He liked to say “Sheesh” and “Dang” and “Awfuckinhell.”

My friend Mark once pointed at me and said, mostly without irony, “now that’s the way to rock out with your cock out” while making devil horns at me with his other hand.

My friend Mark grabbed me by the shoulder at a rainy intersection in downtown Seattle, preventing me from absent-mindedly stepping in front of a speeding taxi.

My friend Mark said it was fine—if a bit aesthetically damaged—to love Courbet (anywhere) and Rothko (in the right light) and that he’d adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about my adoration for Ray Carver and Thomas Pynchon if I swore not to mention them in the same breath again.

My friend Mark laughed—out loud!—at my lame jokes about Heidegger and De Man when I presented my Senior Thesis and later gave me a blank card of congratulations because, he explained, it’s all text… inscribing it would be redundant, and I’d “just make more pomo shit up” about whatever he wrote anyway.

My friend Mark knew every word to every song on Boston’s Greatest Hits and once mangled “Peace of Mind” so horribly during a drunken karaoke night that every time I hear the song I instantly picture him, one arm up rock star style and my ears hurt.

In the early morning hours last Sunday—Palm Sunday—my friend Mark turned on every light in his apartment, put a record I can name only to myself on his prized turntable, and hanged himself without leaving a note.

[CC-BY photo by Chris Lott]

Drill Sergeant shouting at the viewer
[Apologies in advance for this ramble. Out of desperation I resorted to headphones, a timer, and an unedited—other than fixing basic spelling/grammar errors and formatting footnotes8—writing sprint.]

It’s been a few years since I’ve explored the research into the challenging relationship between instructors and instructional designers, but a quick trawl today at least makes clear that no magic communication cure-all has appeared1.

I say “challenging,” but anyone who works in learning design knows the common framing question is, “how do we overcome faculty resistance?” Or, as the more jaded might ask amongst themselves, “why do we have to spend so much time convincing faculty to just pick up some of those $%&# gold nuggets?

Some of the highest hurdles to teaching excellence are systemic: even assuming that an instructor can overcome the natural trap of “good enough,” and wants to improve continuously for their own reasons, most are trapped inside a double-layer of smothering bureaucracy. Teaching is usually not accorded the importance it deserves—if it is seen2 as important at all—and plays a correspondingly small, effectively unimportant role in promotion and tenure, compensation, workloads, etc. And this broken system is stuffed, turducken style, into institutions that not only aren’t philanthropic in nature, though they often like to pretend they are, but are actually big businesses in which credit hours and high-minded rhetoric are scanty fig leaves for real currency.

So I understand the reluctance. Academic work can be difficult, time is in short supply, and they aren’t paid by the hour.

But teaching is both craft and art. It’s more than a calculation of time and effort, more than the imagined billable hours on the mental meter salaried instructors frequently have running in their head. Good craftsmanship and creative teaching are hard. Caring about learners and working to improve are often Herculean labors7 that, unlike those faced by the mythical hero, don’t stop at a mere dozen. In fact, they don’t end at all, placing real demands on instructors and designers alike to manage their time. I frequently say that both could spend the rest of their careers improving and transforming a single course, but that isn’t our blessing/curse.

However, the answer isn’t spending as little time as possible on preparation and teaching, either, turning what should be creating a world of connection and learning into a producing a minimum viable product. I understand when good enough to go teach a course has to be good enough to stop improving a course. I don’t understand why so few teachers put in the effort to go further. Where are the artists challenging themselves of their own accord? The craftspeople who want to go beyond assembling items from the publisher’s versions of IKEA?

I’ve been in this field for a long time and, in the end, I don’t believe this kind of creative striving is something that can be instilled, only discovered and cultivated. I can work to establish relationships with instructors and gain their trust, facilitate learning communities, and put on events. I can provide cookies and coffee. If I’m fortunate, I can provide stipends and release time. These things will help some teachers do more for a while but, as the cliché goes, the motivation and passion have to come from the inside. Extrinsic motivations, even if maintained materially, are not enough to foster permanent change. Teachers who want to pick up and spend those bags of gold have to do it for themselves, the same way writers have to choose to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard3 without being told to and, for the vast majority, with insufficient compensation and little to no fanfare.

All of this is why the common framing in the instructional design world of overcoming resistance and convincing faculty feels off. Before instructional design work of consequence can happen, the instructor needs to have an authentic, intrinsic desire to create work of consequence. Before faculty development events can succeed, those motivated faculty need to be found—or aided in discovering their own creative ambitions.

As a poet4, I’ve taken my fair share of poetry classes and workshops and had the fortune of leading them myself. In many ways, the pursuits of writing poetry and teaching demand, if one is to “succeed” at them, the same things: desire, intrinsic motivation, and the willingness to find the time to put in the hard intellectual labor at a pursuit that will never be finished.

But poetry writing classes are attended by people who want to write poetry. No one is being forced to be a poet, and teachers don’t spend time trying to convince their students that creative writing is a vast, life-long discipline, and poetry a demanding art form.

Faculty, on the other hand5, are often practically forced to teach. For the most part they don’t recognize, or they discount, education as a real discipline, and they don’t understand that teaching is an art. And I’m not even going to get started on lack of knowledge of, and disrespect for, the discipline and art of learning design6, even as those designers have to simultaneously do their actual work and fill in for what would be, in the poetry analogy, introductory literature classes that provide exposure to different authors and work ahead of some of them self-selecting into that world.

As I said earlier, some of this is systemic. A real solution would involve recognition and review of teaching, unbundling research and teaching, proper compensation for dedicated teachers, and much more. Meanwhile, while teaching remains for most a necessary sidelight to achieve things they feel are more important, and part-time lecturers are given little or no time for development of themselves or their courses, learning design is left to attempt the impossible: creating compulsory, collaborative art.

1. The pharmaceutical industry is woefully behind in created such a wonder drug.
2. A sad reality is that even the pretense of prioritizing teaching is often dropped, leaving teachers who want to excel “seen” in the same way one might note that a driver saw a pedestrian…and ran them over anyway.
3. And often head to table, hard.
4. Or more accurately, former poet and MFA program deserter.
5. Particularly full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty.
6. Maybe another time. But it’s bad. At least once a week an instructor will ask, essentially, how they can quickly “pick up instructional design” when they have a bit of free time.
7. If you’re getting bored already, may I direct you to reading Stephen Fry’s depiction of Heracles in his excellent book Heroes.
8. Yes, I do think with footnotes!

[CC-BY image by lylejk]

cypress trees emerging from a lake's waters

It begins with the bald cypress bursting from the moss and water.

Somewhere invisible the tentacles of root become a single rough trunk.

Its knees are supplicants, wading to or away from their barked deity I cannot say.

The water still laps at the rocks, slowly smoothing them, the wake of some dark thing that passed unseen.

The darkness is the immortal, the thing that’s always been.

It came before and will long outlast even the stars falling into the water.

So let’s say you capture all of this.

Let’s say you become known as the painter of dark, each canvas more inscrutable and desirable than the last.

And someone buys and loses your final masterpiece, the one you finish just before you close your eyes for the last time, just before you struggle and fail to find some profound final words.

And then it’s found, decades later, at a rummage sale.

Someone buys it for the frame but decides to keep the painting rolled up in the spare room that never brightened into a nursery.

And more time passes (it doesn’t really matter how much).

And then a fat, florid estate-sale bargain hunter buys it for the proverbial song and makes a big splash on Antiques Roadshow, which she wasn’t even gonna bother with but she just had a feeling.

And the linen-suited expert says he’d insure the piece, conservatively, at somewhere between the wholesale value of Daisy’s voice full of money and the chance to see your long-dead father one more time.

And you wonder, from somewhere without walls, where it never gets dark, how you can get one of these visiting gigs because among the many things you haven’t heard since you watched your body shrink and disappear into its own spark is how to get out of this photonic loam, for even a little bit.

You’d like to spend one more night on the bank next to the tree.

This time you wouldn’t fall asleep or even close your eyes.

This time you’d catch the dark that moves through the dark.

Blinking at the spectrum-stuffing lights in the convention center the bargain hunter tries to look like she’s not planning to sell the painting as soon as she can.

And the sky wheels on the water, touching everything everywhere.

[Featured image by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash]
[Written in 2016 as part of a 2xl project]