Recalculating Route



Because I don’t own a car, whenever I need to rent one I discover, all over again, the weird comfort of the NeverLost GPS.

I do have a few skills that operate at a fairly high level, but spatial orientation isn’t one of them. The idea of never being lost — or of being NeverLost ™ —  seems like a dream. (That word neverlost  is absurd. Is it a rock star’s California ranch? A classic of Edwardian children’s lit?)

When I drive, I use the GPS constantly, sometimes talking back to the voice of the Electronic Lady (“Can’t you be clearer? I already know that! No, it’s not a turn, it’s only a very slight bend. … ”), but mainly I’m grateful that there’s a satellite that knows how to get me to Exit 18.

And yet somehow I can’t — or won’t — always follow the Electronic Lady’s directions. When that happens she announces, with an impressive absence of judgmental tone, that she is “recalculating route.” I’ve done something that makes her plans for me quite impossible.

For a moment I am reminded that I haven’t just got myself lost, I’ve got the Electronic Lady lost, too, and now she’s drawing down that higher knowledge with which she will describe a new path to the destination. I hear “recalculating route” at least once every time I rent a car, and I realize it’s my favorite part of what the Electronic Lady has to say to me. Or maybe I just like getting safely lost.

It is easy to get lost in a class — easy for students, especially those for whom the material isn’t easy at all, but easy for the professor, too.

Sure, it’s possible to script a course so that being lost is an impossibility. But that’s the kind of course I’ve never taught, won’t, and probably can’t. As for scripts, if you’ve been watching Westworld, you know that scripts are external impositions, doomed to go wrong. I will not mention Dolores or Wyatt again.

Getting lost is the risk the teacher takes. There are better and less good ways of being lost and, pace Robert Frost, always more than two roads diverging in whatever yellow wood I’m trying to explore with my students.

I’ve come to a stage in teaching where I’m expecting to recalculate the route whenever we meet. Sure, there is the grudging reformulation of the class’s objectives on days when it’s clear that they haven’t done the reading, or when the student who was to give a class presentation was suddenly felled by a mysterious, quite temporary, and utterly nonthreatening malady.

So you recalculate route. You ad lib, you review materials, pull out the “For Emergency Use Only” pages in the notebook you carry, or turn whatever you have to work with into a teaching moment.

Not every recalculated route involves making the students run the classroom, at least for a while, but sometimes that’s what has to happen. Nobody promised that recalculating would be entirely on your own terms.

Some courses can be taught where everything has to operate flawlessly or the course fails. If you do teach that way, try taking a different exit, just once, and see if you don’t still wind up at a good destination, maybe even the destination you intended to begin with, only at a different entry point.

When you teach you’re the driver and the Electronic Lady at the same time, showing the map, announcing the landmarks and the turns, letting the carload know, as unjudgmentally as you can, that the route needs to be recalculated.

Getting a little lost in the classroom can be a good thing. It’s not quite like being with your robotic Hertz companion, but it’s an opportunity I’ve come to expect and even enjoy.


Follow me on Twitter @WmGermano, but I can’t promise where I might be leading you.


[[2Roads Flickr image by David Joly]]


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