If all goes as planned, I’ll be finding a new travel-related path today, as I head towards Buffalo, NY, to attend the first-ever conference of the Digital Classics Association. The SXSW Edu group will be reuniting for a rather unconventional “poster/demo” session on Friday afternoon – a session whose specific requirements have changed a few times over the past few weeks. First it was a poster session; then it was a “poster/demo” session; then there was talk of tables, which would have required free-standing posters; then came the current plan, with posters on easels, tables available for computers, handouts, and such. Late yesterday afternoon, I went out to buy the requisite poster board, and part of our Wednesday evening was devoted to the final design and assembly of the poster itself. Our original – perfect? – plan for Wednesday had already changed several times, as One Thing And Another came up for the current owners of the houses we’d hoped to visit. Nobody wanted to leave the house anyway. It wasn’t until after 5:00 that I changed into “real” clothes and headed out to buy the posterboard, a task I’d originally planned for the morning.
I think the last time I made a “real” poster like this – as opposed to the posters in my classroom, or the simple hand-made ones that teachers sometimes make as a “product” for Professional Development sessions – was almost thirty years ago, the last time I participatde in a high-school science fair. I remember the topic clearly – it was about learning styles, since I’d already realized I was interested in education – and I also have clear memories of the sessions, the look and feel of the university building where the fair was held, the restaurant we visited for lunch, the argument with two friends about which restaurant it should be. And I clearly, vividly remember the detail work of typing (and retyping, and helping my mother retype) the various tables of data, and of assembling the poster itself with the cutting-edge technology of the mid-1980’s.
In important ways, times have changed! Thirty years ago I sat hunched over a table, ruler in hand, making sure that the guidelines were square before I painstakingly glued or stenciled letters for the title. Today, a machine then unimaginable sits on my lap, painlessly calculating the precise placement of each letter, with more font and color choices than anyone in 1985 could have dreamed of. (“What’s a font?” they would have asked, unless they worked in publishing.) But the underlying purpose of this poster isn’t muc different from that of its predecessor: to present findings, to attract an audience, to start conversations. The audience is quite different – no professional judges tomorrow, no concerned high-school students competing for rare, precious certificates and ribbons – but the processes and products aren’t dissimilar.
Back in 1985, I was still a strong believer in perfection, and I wanted that poster to be as perfect as possible. Of course, total perfection was impossible, so at some point I just wanted the poster done. My initial love and excitement for the topic (which has continued to fascinate me) very nearly turned to hatred as I struggled to make a perfect poster, a perfect report, a perfect set of charts and graphs.
One of the problems with 20th-century perfection – and with the perfectionism it breeds – is the way it breeds anger, hatred, and that desire to just get it over with. “What exactly do I have to do?” U and M kept asking me. “It’s too hard to read and understand the rubric; just tell me exactly what I have to do to get, like, a B or a high C.” For them, the early quest for perfection had quickly soured into an impossible dream, leaving them with a sad, half-expressed longing for good enough and OK. For a while, they bitterly resented me, because I won’t – can’t – tell them exactly what to do to make a “good enough” project. I can show them the process and the criteria we’ll use to evaluate the work; we can look at samples together and evaluate them together; but in the end, no one but you, the learner, can decide “exactly” what needs to be done.
We talked a lot about perfection and perfectionism in the Google+ thread about yesterday’s post. Both Annabelle and Diana pointed out the folly of binary thinking – of perfect and awful as the only possible options – especially in a world of joyful community. Mark shared a wonderful vision of what real-life, passion-driven testing could be and should be. Debbie shared a profound quote that changed my view of what perfect means. And Emily put it this way:
The best stories come out of imperfection. Those “Oh my goodness…do you remember the time that the dog ate the steak and we ended up having hot dogs for dinner?” stories. That’s where the laughter in life comes from!
And that’s where the community in life comes from too. Rarely is a community built off of perfection. Rather, we bring our imperfect pieces to the puzzle and learn to work with them. We accept them, and build around them. We even improve them as a community. Right?
As we build joyful learning communities – and as we share our learning with each other, in stories we write or posters we painstakingly assemble – it’s good to know that sterile perfection is both impossible and unimportant. But what will we need to do today – each day – to help Ms. X, Mr. Y, and the Ms. X and Mr. Y inside each of us let go of the impossible perfect and embrace the joyful journey?