My children listen to a lot of indie music (as opposed to mainstream pop – thank goodness!) and I pay attention to their commentary, sometimes sharing their feelings, sometimes not. One of the discussions that happened recently was on the subject of a particular group who “didn’t even write their own songs.” They were pretty much held in disdain. Part of this stems from having an older sister who not only sang a song as she walked down the aisle at her own wedding, but sang a piece she composed herself. I feel their critical review is a tad bit unwarranted, particularly in light of the fact that the most famous person sharing our surname achieved popular success BECAUSE he sang other people’s songs.
Since we were riding in the car at the time, my teacherly persona kicked in and it was time for a bit of musical education and appreciation to my captive audience. I explained that just because someone is a good writer and composer, that doesn’t make them a good performer. In fact, I intoned, excellence in writing and performance are more often mutually exclusive than not. I pointed to greats like Bob Dylan whose songs are better performed by ANYONE other than Dylan. I also remarked that Elvis Presley, as far as I know, never wrote a song in his life that appeared on the charts. Sure, there are exceptions like Johnny Cash and the indie artists they listen to, but as a general rule, there are excellent writers and there are excellent performers and they rarely overlap.
Now for the confession. It took me a LONG time to arrive at this advanced state of wisdom, and I am still having trouble with it on a few fronts, most notably as an instructional designer. Deep in my heart, I like to think of myself as an excellent instructor. I love the classroom (when I’m at the front of it, not when I’m in the seat – but then, don’t we ALL feel that way, really?) and I love teaching. I especially love teaching favorite subjects (although knowing what I’m talking about is only a “nice to have” rather than a hard and fast requirement) to eager learners. And not only do I love teaching, I love teachers. I get all warm and cozy whenever I’m surrounded by fellow educators.
But here is where my ID sensibility rears its ugly head. As an instructor, I have ALWAYS felt it was necessary to take the instructional material and tweak it or customize it to suit my personal preferences. For years, I felt a certain disdain for those who could “only” teach from the material and not only avoided innovation, but considered the training material sacrosanct and inviolable. They would look at me as if I had committed some heinous crime by modifying what was written in the Instructor Guide. It didn’t help my ego any when these same stick-in-the-mud by-the-book instructors would perform so brilliantly that they actually got applause at the end of class.
Over time, I realized it need not be thus. Probably the best exercise I had in disabusing myself of the notion that all instructors should be competent instructional designers as well was watching the 2004 movie version of The Merchant of Venice. Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons did not write the dialog, but they made it come alive in one of the most emotionally gripping presentations I’ve ever seen. And I realized that teaching was every bit the craft that singing and acting were. Those who are excellent teachers transcend the printed page and the words at hand to transport us beyond mere instruction into deep learning, comprehension, and appreciation.
Not only that, but the performance does nothing to improve or ruin the writing on the page. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare whether he is performed horribly by ill-directed high schoolers who don’t even know the definitions of the words they are using or turned into a cinematic extravaganza like Kenneth Branaugh’s Hamlet.
So what does this have to do with anything? I’m not sure. I am still personally driven to be both a good ID and a good teacher. I love standing in front of class, commanding the attention of rapt learners, satisfying their craving for knowledge. I am also a compulsive writer. I cannot stop. I MUST put words on paper (or in electrons) and commit them to the public for consumption and judgment. Usually this is in the form of training content. Increasingly, it is turning into eLearning content that uses fewer words, more images, and far more interaction than just writing.
And I wonder if maybe eLearning is the place where instructional design and instructional performance meet, where the analogous role of singer/songwriter finds its home.