Wayne Graham: Leader of Lemmings

Last week from 2-4pm we jumped into a new field with the assistance of Wayne Graham. The same Wayne that has designed many of our exercises was stuffed into a corduroy jacket with leather elbow-patches and asked to do something very difficult: teach the Praxis group how to implement Rails. I want to take this opportunity to describe the challenges set before an instructor attempting to get our group up to speed.
First, lets set up the immediate context before our last lesson. The time designated to teach something new is two hours per week. Building up what Wayne and others have called our “muscle memories” takes place during the hours before our next meeting, usually on Monday and Tuesday. As Praxis fellows come and go during the course of their other responsibilities, we eventually arrive at a semblance of even proficiency on the previous lesson about 15 minutes before we begin a new set of challenges at 4:00.
Now eleven of us are in a room staring at Wayne’s first slide like it’s an RCA television. Professional DH programmers, researchers and developers, English graduate students and a token architectural historian each plug in their laptops and gear up for a lesson that is new for at least nine of us. Then the fun begins for Wayne.
Roughly every seven words of Wayne’s lesson he has to stop for a question. Twice per slide, Wayne must ask “Is everyone here?” while holding up a hand to a line of code. The answer is very rarely affirmative.
Beginning with the second slide, it becomes clear that the PC users, Mac users and Unix user have unique challenges that hamstring attempts to keep us all going at the same pace. As I sit on my Toshiba netbook, I have to admit this is not the best tool for the job. Most of us will be working with at least VIM and Git Bash open while programming in Ruby on Rails. Add to this several essential tabs open in a web browser to test our changes to the code online. For us PC users, we also had to have a command prompt open because there are a host of permission and directory issues that came up during this process. While performing all of these tasks on a netbook, I am reminded of these weirdos that attempt to write the declaration of independence on a grain of rice, or paint the Sistine chapel on a post-it note.
So while Wayne is walking us through the process of installing rails, setting up our servers, making changes in VIM, committing changes in GIT, and testing the changes in our browser, some are following like dutiful lemmings. We happily jump off the cliff thinking “Wayne is our leader, he obviously wants us at the bottom of this gorge for a reason… weeee!” Others of us feel like we wore the wrong shoes and become jealous of the other lemmings that seem better suited for the jump. Still others want to know where we are now, and how we define “cliff.” At various times, some of us are distractedly wondering if we left the server on. While Lemming-leader Wayne is herding these unruly lemmings, the remaining lemmings just keep trying to touch the third rail with our tongues.
I don’t have to tell our group that this is difficult stuff to learn. We should also understand that it is equally difficult to convince a group of naturally inquisitive people to have the patience to “wait and see.” Hopefully we can make the next lesson a little easier on Wayne and ourselves by doing some preemptive strikes on our laptops before we start. Finally, we will have a lot better idea of what cliff diving feels like when we are in mid air, rather than asking Wayne all about it back in lemming-town.

Ed was a 2011-12 Scholars' Lab Fellow and Praxis Fellow, and is a PhD candidate in the McIntire Department of Art.

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