The Chaotic Kitchen

Though the description on the job posting was pretty clear, the first thing I did when I found out I got an interview for this instructional designer position was get on YouTube and search “instructional design.” I happened to choose the “Introduction to Instructional Design” options made for business people, and got a little concerned because be-suited professional-types were sitting under fluorescent lights using corporate buzzwords/phrases like “synergy” and “maximizing productivity” and so forth.  Wikipedia offered a nebulous description of the field, making it sound more like the undertaking of philosophers stretched out on fainting couches, chain-smoking and pondering the nature of “learn.”

Then I actually arrived in the office and spoke with the real-life ID team. They each have specialties and strengths and can speak expertly about pedagogies, programming languages, user interfaces, and apps that, yes, maximize productivity. It has not been a linear learning experience for me – the starting point is clear (“I know nothing”) but there is no end point, only my ever-increasing awareness that adaptability, flexibility, ingenuity, and a love for things with screens are essential.

I was initially frustrated that there was no now-you’re-an-instructional-designer checklist, and by the fear that I would feel forever behind because I don’t, in fact, speak any programming languages and I have a hard time remembering acronyms. (There are a lot of acronyms. I was in the army for a few years and they had a lot of acronyms. I didn’t like it very much there and I’m thinking my brain is pretending not to notice, looking away and whistling, when I encounter any more.) Then I realized I was missing the point entirely about the ingredients for a successful instructional designer. The point is that there can’t be a checklist. If there were a checklist, than anybody could be a good instructional designer, and I don’t think just anybody could be a good instructional designer.

My teaching background is primarily teaching college composition to freshmen. One of the more useful resources I encountered when formulating my own pedagogy was Ann Berthoff’s “Learning the Uses of Chaos.” Berthoff discusses the composing process of writing, pointing out that it “is not like cooking a particular dish…it is not sequential or ‘linear’; it is not measurement, followed by amalgamation and transformation.” It is the chaos, the nebulousness of the uncertain, that actually forms the “hinges of thought” that help us rediscover “the power of language to generate the sources of meaning.”

The analogy for me, looking at Berthoff’s sense of the value of chaos in the composition process and my own poking around in the cupboards of instructional design, the cupboards full of unlabeled jars and weird artisanal chutneys, is that in the realm of innovation and meaning-making, sometimes it’s more helpful not to know exactly what’s going on.

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