Indirect Education: Thoughts on “You Suck at Photoshop.”

I have been thinking about ways to tell a story about one thing in the foreground with the true message happening in the background. This technique is not exactly new, but it fascinates me when a story can behave as though it is about a boy’s adventures growing up in the pre-Civil War south, when actually it is a profound critique on cultural norms of an entire society. It is amazing when a story like, David Means’ “The Secret goldfish” describes the relative condition of the a goldfish’s tank, and from this wonderful unknown perspective he describes the level of peace and unrest of a family’s domestic health. The story is about the fish, but is not about the fish at all. I want to make a video of a simple foreground story while actually introducing characters and a second narrative in the background.

There are hundreds of examples of this kind of thing but I recently heard a piece on NPR by my hero, Scott Simon, as he discussed a tutorial series called “You Suck at Photoshop.” This sounds like any of the hundreds of these self-assigned tutorials where folks or varying skill levels take it upon themselves to narrate screen captures and show the world how to click and drag. This one assumes a few things up front. Things that educators tend to assume in a less explicit fashion all of the time. The narrator knows things that the listener wants to know. That the expertise offered is of enough value to put up with the inherent condescension of the instructor, who does not view the pupil as a peer with different skill sets , but as a bone head who is likely to make all of the cliché errors that the expert has seen countless times. The theme of this tutorial is not that there “are no stupid questions.” But rather that stupid questions are all there are or one may ever hope for.

The podcast is a parody and while it does do some instruction, it hooks the viewer with the back-story: that the narrator, Donnie, is a troubled soul with a broken marriage whose every instructional comment is saturated with self-involved soliloquy and telling, unhealthy obsessions. The target audience for this parody of dismal pedagogy and a no-life YouTube producer is the coveted 13-29 demographic I assume, and it is pleasantly sophomoric as he gives every listener far more than the student of Photoshop would want to know. In this case I am amused not because the number two story is the main point, but rather because there is instruction at all. How interesting is it when a skilled instructor hides real meaning in a personal narrative? How can stories be told on multiple levels? How can, how should we make education interesting? I am not suggesting that this is the model, but it may be closer than most would want to admit.

We have had instructors who had the uncanny ability to make the bland interesting. Listening to lectures by physicist, Richard Feynman; author, Bill Bryson; or psychologist Jeremy Wolfe (through MIT opencourse)Their stories and illustrations enhance the material so much that while they tell a story you don’t just (as preacher Maurice Boyd says) hear the illustration and miss the point. As an instructor myself the goal is to blur the lines between living and learning. We can enjoy learning. We should enjoy living. Setting aside learning activities as unenjoyable chores is like telling kids up front that painting fences at always a bore. Who knows it may be fun

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