Monday, September 30, 2013

Stop Sucking

Holding expertise does not always result in good teaching.  We've all had the express displeasure of being taught by less than stellar educators.  Not just in the classroom, but also in life, and for the purposes of this blog, in the field.

I've been told many times that I should've been or still should be a teacher.  The numbers are probably skewed simply because I know a lot of teachers and everything looks like a nail to a hammer, but it happens fairly often that somebody says, only half mockingly, "Dude, you shoulda been a teacher."  I disagree.

Even in the few areas in which I hold a modicum of expertise, my teaching style often leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Holding the knowledge is not the same as being able to express it in an articulate and useful manner.  I can easily recall more than one instance in which a session showing somebody how to tie a fly or make a roll cast devolved into near-silent charades, ever increasing in intensity until both of us were frustrated almost beyond caring.  Monkey see, monkey don't.  When I get flustered in a demo situation, my usually acceptable command of the language largely sublimates into the wind, and I'm reduced to mumbling idiocy.

Stop sucking, just do the shit like this! may have actually passed from internal mantra to verbal exhortation on occasion, though only with the buddies I know can take it while happily pointing out everything I stumble over.

Pro Tip: if you ever get the urge to teach your significant other to fly cast, just slam your head in the truck door a few times, and get it over with before you start.  The only time I've bickered more intensely was the time we tried to put plastic film up on the windows together in an old apartment.  That stuff that probably saves three nickles on the gas bill, but takes a year off your life due to the stress of putting it up together -- divorce lawyers should sell that stuff in bulk.

Zeke gives spinning a shot on my vice by lantern light
I will say that when it goes well, introducing somebody to a new skill can be very gratifying.  A while back I was in New York for a fishing vacation with some friends from an internet forum.  My buddy Zeke and I sat down at the vice for a lesson in spinning and stacking deer hair on the hook.  I managed to remain coherent and somewhat informative, he didn't get frustrated, and all went swimmingly.  As it ended up, a line of people formed at the table to take their turns at spinning hair, and I had to rush at the end to catch the evening bite out on the lake, grateful and humbled to have been looked to for a bit of instruction in something I am fairly practiced at.

It doesn't always go so smoothly.  I once found myself watching late night baseball with an inebriated Argentinian college student in a dorm room in Portland, Oregon.  You heard me.  We'd returned from a long night on the town with a group of students, and I was none too sober myself.  I don't recall now what happened to the rest of the group, but there we were, suddenly alone with the Mariners on the tube.  Saturday night rock stars.

While I'm no baseball expert, I am a patriot and fan with a comprehensive understanding of the rules.  Twenty-some years of fandom, however, did little in preparation to explain the simplest of baseball regulations to a wobbly South American struggling mightily to understand the game and remain upright on a bean bag chair.  Our little vignette here opens with a foul ball down the third base line.

"So, nothing happens if the man hits the ball outside those white lines?" slurred our foreign friend.

"Not exactly. It counts as a strike unless he already has two strikes.  If he has two strikes, then nothing happens.  Then it's basically out of bounds and a do-over."

The catcher then immediately fielded a foul pop to end the inning.  Slowly assuming the form and posture of a garden slug in the bean bag, "I thought you said nothing would happen?"

"Yeah... unless the defensive player catches it on the fly.  Then it's an out."

"What's 'on the fly'?"

"... so... you play soccer?"

Which goes to show there comes a point in our understanding of any subject or activity wherein we are able to pass over the details to take in the entire picture.  The little stuff becomes given that the big picture may play out.

Experts hold "conditionalized knowledge," meaning the knowledge they hold reflects context and situation, and they can retrieve it quickly without much additional effort in the corresponding instances.  Novices, by definition, cannot be so lucky.  They have to slog their way through seemingly important patterns and facets that may mean nothing in the big picture, but appear to hold the key to cracking the code at any moment.

We woodsmen look at the woods and see individual species.  How they might be useful to us or relate to the species we're chasing, be they feather, fur, or fungus.  We see systems and interconnectedness and where we'd build the lean-to if we had to spend an unplanned night.  The novice can't see that.

On the other hand, if I look at a spreadsheet full of numbers or a malfunctioning carburetor, my brains starts to go all soft and tallowy.  I hear the Benny Hill theme, and feel the need to go fishing.

No matter our level of teaching proficiency, it is our duty as outdoorsy folks of all stripes -- fishers and hunters, foragers and wanderers alike -- to teach.  To get outsiders involved in our favorite activities.  Not only to bring to them the same joy we feel out there, but to preserve our outdoor way of life.

I used to bristle at that thought.  My personal manner of getting outside involves a lot of getting away from, well... everybody.  That's not the right way or the wrong way, but often when I head out there, I'm hoping to pass my time without seeing another soul.

The thought of bringing others into it only to clutter up the joint once seemed so counter intuitive.  Why would anyone ever want to see more chuckleheads clogging up the trout stream?

The answer has become obvious with age and accumulated knowledge.  If we don't encourage others to partake, vast libraries of personal knowledge and experience will be lost forever.  Not only that, but when there's nobody left to practice our lifestyle it will be deemed outdated and inconsequential, ancillary at best.  It will wither on the vine.

The proliferation of technology as it pertains to our outdoor pursuits is a massive subject due an entire blog entry of its own here (and much more), but I will say that there are many examples of how it can be used for teaching and learning in the arena.  For me, YouTube plays a very large role.

I watch a lot of fly tying demos.  I have shelves full of fly tying books, and while they remain both useful and sometimes beautiful in their compositions, nothing beats seeing it happen right in front of your eyes, sometimes in high definition, with the ability to pause and rewind at will.

There are all sorts of fly tying teachers floating around out there in the YouTube ether.  They range in style, quality, and teaching ability across a wide spectrum -- from Brian Wise, whose videos of chunkalicious streamers are played back on fast forward to thumping music for those of us who have existing knowledge of the materials and techniques used, to Davie McPhail.  His very comfortable pace and euphonious brogue lend themselves to in-depth and relaxed, comprehensive instruction.  If you ever zoned out to Bob Ross and The Joy of Painting on PBS back in the day, that's the neighborhood Mr. McPhail inhabits to me in the fly tying world, and his videos are as mesmerizing as they are instructive.  A happy little pine tree lives right here...

This post is sort maundering out of control at this point, but I think what we're driving at here is that if you know how to do something, especially something outdoorsy where this blog lives, I think you should teach others how to do it.  Don't mind the fumblings and stumblings if your teaching style is as abrupt and stilted as mine sometimes is.  They'll be happy for the instruction.

Brian has been shooting woodcock since before I could dress myself.  When I think of proficiency in an outdoor activity, I often think of him.  The way he powders a bird, then thumbs another shell into that ultralight pump gun as an afterthought.  I'm grateful for his years of instruction, and happy to report that the young buck here can now often hit the bird before he does when we swing on the same one.  Sucks getting old, I'm told.

Of course, all the experience in the world, mountains of teaching and learning, can do little when the birds simply aren't there.  Sometimes you just have to follow the old guy's lead when he says...

... Piss on it, dude.  Let's go get a burger.


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