Reflections on Teaching

My first year of teaching graphic communications and computer applications were intense experiences. I’d just graduated with a masters degree (in music) and suddenly I was thrown into a new job that I hadn’t precisely prepared for! But I had a lot of computer experience and I set about designing lessons on that experience as a designer and computer enthusiast.

I know that sounds weird, but my computer education had started in elementary school when I’d begun to program in the 1980s. I’d been exposed to Logo then BASIC, and eventually 6502 Assembly language. I’d also been the first non-academic customer in my state to purchase Finale and spent many years writing music with notation software on the Mac. I had some skills.

But backing up some old files burned to CD-R discs from my first years of teaching, I came across a lesson I’d designed on the ENIAC computer. I wanted my students to understand how far computer technology had come, and how powerful the iMacs in front of them were in historical context. I’d read about the ENIAC many years ago as I remember my mother helping me write a paper in middle school. I’d never seen it, of course, never used it, or anything like that. This early computer was a figment of my memory, an historical relic that I thought was important in the timeline of computing history. For my lesson, I’d used the Internet to augment my memory.

I don’t mention this lesson because it was profound by any means; seeing the word on the screen, ENIAC, reminded me that many years later, walking around the Computer History museum in the valley outside San Fransisco, that they had the early computers there, on display. It was huge and it looked like furniture, much like I’d imagined it.

“I once taught kids about this thing,” I said to my friend, who wanted to see the special Steve Jobs exhibit. “And?” he asked. “I don’t know. It’s a real thing, and it’s here. It just is kind of surreal.”

The experience of seeing that old machine—one of the first modern computers—was lasting on me. Not because of its size or its role in the history of our country’s military past, but because put into perspective a lot of things.

  • Why was it important to share this with students?
  • What perspective would they gain in learning about an early computer?
  • How did other people who came to this space react to this thing?
  • What were the people like who built it or ended up using it to solve problems and complete necessary work?

I guess I’ve been wired at looking at things historically. I figured, I am guessing, that in order to really know something well it would be helpful to know where it came from, how it works, and what the future holds for it.

This thinking I believe is a direct reflection of the way I was taught about music in college. Take any piece, and to understand it and conceptualize what it is you had to almost take it apart and put it back together again. Who performed it? What purpose did it serve? Who was the one who created it? How was it received? How was it put together? And what has been done more recently around the performance of this work?

I too reflect on the way I approached a recent guide on using Acrobat Professional DC from Adobe. I started with a reflection. On why the software was created, how old it is, and what features have been added over time. Then I turned to how to actually perform different tasks with the software. Finally, I provided a vision for how the software could help others.

As interesting as that story was, or the role the ENIAC played in helping the military crunch equations, it doesn’t really come to life until you can experience it, or so I think. Editing an Acrobat form today is better than it was 15 years ago. I can appreciate the new way fields are presented on the sidebar of the application now after knowing in the past they were hidden behind dialog boxes. I can’t go back in time and help put that old computer together, but looking at it up close, it meant something. And with music, listening to, say, Bach’s Goldberg Variations is one way of knowing the music. Reading about it helps. But to really know it, you have to perform it.

Having been trained as a musician has been a rewarding experience as I became an educator, even if what I was teaching wasn’t music.

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