Things I Suck At

I fiddle around with a lot of things. It’s in my nature. I began listing my recent forays into configuring email as an example, and I realized quite quickly that the odyssey ought to be its own post. The reason I do this sort of fiddling, though, almost always composed of two intertwining mental phenomena:

  1. I know what I need, and
  2. I know the limitations of the thing I’m fiddling with.

Sometimes, when we’re talking about software or something similar, I know up front what the limitations are; often, though, I only find out by playing around with it. Likewise, I often know what I need up front; other times, though, I only find out what I need by finding out where my needs rub up against the limitations of whatever it is I’m trying to work with.

As I was listening to Back to Work 71, I started thinking about the problems that exist in organizations—things like the passive aggression that Merlin and Dan were discussing—as functions of that same pair of forces. More specifically, it made me think about the problems I have as a teacher with my students, the problems my students have with me as a teacher, and perhaps most importantly, the problems I have with myself as a teacher. All these problems—and perhaps all problems—come down to a conflict between one party’s expectations and another party’s limitations.

At that point—and at that absurdly high level of abstraction—there are two ways to go about resolving the problem:

  1. Revise the expectation, or
  2. Resolve the limitation.

What occurred to me as I was listening is that in the same way that what David Allen calls the 10,000 foot perspective is important to understanding the everyday projects and actions we undertake, understanding my own limitations on a broad scale can, I think, help me avoid the problems I tend to face in the classroom (and, I suspect, beyond).

Thus: Things I Suck At.1

  • Remembering. Really: I don’t remember anything. If you talked to me about it half an hour ago, there’s a decent chance I’ve already forgotten it. I don’t mean to; it’s just the truth of me. If you need me to remember something, or to do something for you, email me. Just talking to me will do pretty much no good.

  • Planning ahead. I am writing this on July 11, 2012, and by my standards, that’s an absurd amount of foresight for a Fall semester. Whether with my classes or with my life, I am generally no good at planning ahead. Sometimes this is because I’ve let time get away from me (see below), but a lot of the time—at least in the context of my classes—it’s because what I’m doing on any given day is determined by what’s happened in class in the days before.

    The upshot for anyone more future-oriented than myself, though, is that if you ask me a question like “What are we doing in class next Friday,” I probably can’t answer, because it likely depends rather a lot on what happens in class next Wednesday.

  • Estimating time. OH MAN do I suck at this. I suck at this so much.

    This morning my wife and I were talking about a job posting that the reliably awesome folks at Ravelry have posted, and I said, “I kinda want to apply for that.”

    You can’t,” she said. “It’s a full time job.” (I already have a full time job, of course.)

    I can’t do it full time, sure, but maybe I could do it full time during the Summer, and half time during the school year.”

    Do you think you have twenty extra hours a week during the semester?”

    And, until she said it like that, I did. I’m just awful both at judging how long things will take and at judging how much time I have to do the.

    For this reason, in class, I try never to say things like “I will have X ready by Y,” because one or both of those problems will likely make me wrong. I will usually say “I should have X by Y,” which leaves me a little room to be wrong.

  • Tackling things piecemeal. Let’s say today is Monday, and I have 50 student papers that were just turned in, and I want them to be back in student hands by Friday. What a normal person would do is try to tackle 10 papers a day, so that by the end of the day Friday, they’re done. Yay! Reasonable.

    I will probably not do this. Instead, I will try to orchestrate things so that I have an enormous block of time so that I can do them all at once. This may or may not work, and because it’s harder to get ten hours or so at a block than it is to get two hours together five times, it’ll likely end up meaning that I don’t accomplish things according to my own deadline.

  • Prioritizing. Broadly speaking, I have no idea what is important and what is not. If I have five tasks I need to complete, I have a lot of trouble deciding which I should approach first, even if one of them is “exit the burning building.”1

  • Being mean. This is a tough one. As a teacher, sometimes it’s my job to be mean. I’m good at that when it matters. If you need to fail my class, you need to fail my class—and while that sucks for everybody, you’re not going to be able to sweet-talk me out of it.

    The times when I suck at being mean, though, are the little times. I set out my policies pretty clearly on my Syllabi, and I hold to those policies pretty clearly. So when someone comes to me and says, for example, “I need to leave 45 minutes early today,” I’ll likely say “Okay,” and mean it.

    The problem, though, is that what the student hears is something like, “Oh, of course visiting your out-of-state stylist for an elaborate purple up-do is more important than my class; by all means, come and go as you please and expect no consequences whatsoever.!” When what I mean is “Okay, that’s your choice; as per the Syllabus, I’ll be marking you absent. Ta!”

My intention is to both include this on my Syllabi next semester—or at least, include a link to the relevant page—and to use this list to help me design my courses, such that I can build my practices and policies around my limitations, with the hope that I can thereby avoid problems.

We’ll see how it goes.

  1. Both in terms of its role on my Syllabus and its role in my life, I recognize that this should probably be paired with a corresponding list of Things I’m Pretty Good At, but at the moment, I’m wanting to work on some of those limitations, so this is coming first.