We tend to define ourselves by what we do and I define myself as a “teacher”. That is what I do.
Whether I am in a classroom, delivering a seminar at a College or University, doing tutorials for a couple of sites, writing a book or producing some Video Training, I am simply teaching. The odd thing is I wrestled with that positioning for a number of years because I got caught up in the Conference/Author/Speaker whirlwind that swirled about me. As is so common with me, I became somewhat restive and it took me a few months of thinking about what I do and where I fit to realize the obvious: I am a teacher. It was a liberating conclusion.
It is a lonely job and, more often than not, based upon my subject, it is really hard for people from the College Administration down to faculty in other areas of my school to figure out exactly what it is I do. Trying to explain this silly business is not exactly “Elevator Pitch” material. Teaching it is a whole different conversation.
If there is one constant in this silly business it is that things change …. constantly. Standards are embraced overnight and discarded just as quickly. Technologies rise one day and go down in flames the next. Just when you get your mind wrapped around a tool it either changes profoundly or is replaced with something else. Markets fragment and consolidate and fragment again. Even the media in which our work is used- screens- seems to change monthly.
In the middle of all of this swirling chaos stands a teacher trying to make sense of it all by asking a simple question: “What do my students need to know to get in on the “fun” and what do I need to know to teach it?” The answer involves two stark choices: Do what you have always done and hope “God sorts it out” or take a deep breath and leap into the center of the maelstrom whirling around you. The pundits call it “disruption”. I call it “exhilarating”.
A good example is the rise of devices and smartphones and,in a certain way, the death of Flash on these devices. Having lived through,and taught through, a few of these things — the rise of the internet, the decline of print publishing and the rise of Desktop Publishing, the rise and death of the Interactive CD, and the rise of web interactivity and motion graphics — the common factor behind this disruption is not a “new way of doing things”. It is a “new way of talking about it.”
I can still remember, during the mid 90’s, showing gnarled film strippers Photoshop and watching how they recoiled from the computer. One of the first things I did was to get them to open an image in Photoshop , show them a channel and ask them a simple question: “What are you looking at?” I would go around the room asking each student that question and the answers ranged from totally techie to a few who shrugged their shoulders and said, “I don’t have a clue?”
“Guys”, I would tell them, “ you are looking at film and the only difference between the film you worked with in the shop and the film you are looking at here is the dots are square.” It was amazing how quickly they caught on and by the end they realized their years of knowledge still applied to this new way of doing things. The only thing that had changed was how they talked about it.
It was an invaluable lesson for both of us. When what we teach is “disrupted” the only thing that really changes is how we talk about the subject in the class. Though I can’t speak for the profession, I find “emerging technology” and “disruption” to be a lot of fun. I embrace it rather than moan about it because I know that I will be teaching this stuff in a couple of years anyway. By dragging my heels all I am really doing is postponing the inevitable.
Currently I am becoming fascinated with UX/UI prototyping, workflow and motion. As mobile design has risen to prominence, a whole class of prototyping apps is also coming to the forefront and rather than groan, “Oh Man!”, I find myself rather excited to dig into them and figure out where they fit into my teaching efforts. The crazy thing is these really aren’t “new” in the classic sense of the word. Instead they are a new way of talking about design comps and so on.
It is always an exciting moment for me to discover the skills used in a mature technology are easily transferable to an emerging technology. The hard part is learning the new techniques and workflows that my students will need to know. I need to know them first and I don’t have the luxury of a few leisurely months of poking around, reading books, watching the videos, doing the tutorials and experimenting to get familiar with it. My publishers and the tutorial sites I write for set my deadlines. The upshot is I take a deep breath and jump right into the middle of the maelstrom.
For me, writing books, speaking at Conferences, doing video courses for Lynda.com and writing a series of monthly tutorials for About.com is not driven by some sort of unnatural desire for ego satisfaction. They are my Professional Development in that I get to deep dive into a subject or piece of software and bring what I have learned straight into my classes. In fact, I emerge from the end of the process somewhat exhilarated.
The exhilaration comes from the fact that I am in the midst of a emerging technology and am there at the exact point in time when the people who will hire my students are developing the standards and workflows that will be common place once the dust settles a couple of years later. As those standards develop I get to participate in the “make it up as we go along” phase of an emerging technology. This is the part of the process where no one has a clue where this thing fits or how it works but “Damn, this fun”.
Throughout this process the most amazing thing happens. The core of what we do never changes. Moving something from “here to there” doesn’t change. How the industry early adopters and others talk about “moving it from here to there” does. New workflows emerge and a whole different way of describing how something “moves from here to there” is developed.
I can participate in these discussions, learn from their trial and error, my mistakes and bring what I learn directly into my classes and curriculum. At the end of the process a new standard arrives and industry starts working with and improving it. I rarely emerge from this process without feeling beat up, battered, bruised and wondering :”Why did I do this?”
The answer is simple: I am a teacher. It is my job.