Vonnegut’s phrasing there in Cat’s Cradle always delights me. It captures the whimsy and wonder of serendipity in shaping our lives, and not just in travel, either. So many times, I have found my way simply by stumbling into something new— and then following-up.
I certainly stumbled into my line of work in a sequence of unusual suggestions arriving as if from the cosmos. After my post-college wanderings, I came back to Austin, intent on settling down to make my “dent in the universe.” Bouncing around on the sofa circuit of friends’ houses with my cash reserves dwindling, I wrote some theater reviews for the weekly newspaper, the Austin Sun, but that only paid me all of $12. I needed a job quick.
Tooling down South Lamar one day, I picked up a hitchhiker, Neil. He said he needed to go way south to where he worked. When I mentioned I was looking a job, he said, “You ought to come out to the Brown Schools — they’re always hiring.”
Within a month of dropping Neil off that day, I would start working there at the Brown Schools Ranch Treatment Center. Although I did quit once and stayed away a year before returning, I would continue to work there for the next 15 years.
Glad I stumbled across you that day, Neil.
Working in direct care with psychiatric patients paid the bills (barely), but I still longed to make movies or videos.
I started doing access productions at ACTV for fun and practice, but I wanted to make video part of my paying work as well. I finally persuaded the Ranch to invest in video equipment, albeit at the consumer level, for use in staff training. Between the part-time video duties at the Ranch and my ACTV productions, my plan to turn my obsession into my profession was starting to pay off.
When I attended a well-publicized meeting for access producers, some of the ACTV staff suggested I become a producer representative on the Board of Directors. That’s how I originally stumbled onto the ACTV Board.
After leading my fellow board members though a set of team-building exercises at a board retreat, I then found myself invited to become President of the Board.
Within a few weeks, we were embroiled in the “Cable War of ’87” and I found myself learning and practicing a whole set of heretofore unknown strengths and skills negotiating the perilous political process to protect public access TV in Austin.
That’s not something I would have chosen to do, but it proved to be an invaluable experience, certainly something I’m glad I’m stumbled into.
Meanwhile, I had learned more about other uses for non-broadcast video, such as training videos made in-house by companies large and small. The Austin chapter of the International Television Association (ITVA) offered monthly networking meetings and informational workshops. I met other people using video in niche industries.
And that’s where I first heard about instructional design, a methodology of preparing and presenting training or instruction designed to enhance the learning process.
Once again, I had stumbled onto a previously unknown, unseen opportunity. Everything I heard about instructional design made perfect sense from my experience in preparing and presenting training for our staff.
Applying the techniques confirmed the value of the approach, and then I learned of first one friend, then another, who had earned an advanced degree in the discipline. I returned to UT for graduate school to learn the chops to start my work as an instructional designer.
While studying at UT, I learned of an incredible internship opportunity with one of the premier interactive video groups in Austin. I jumped at the chance but my timing proved bad: the parent company filed for bankruptcy before I could even start my internship. My timing was doubly bad, as by then, it was too far into the semester to add any classes, so I had to scramble to find a different internship to stay on track for my degree.
That made me stumble into a field of study I most likely would have avoided entirely if left on my own: evaluation. The Texas Memorial Museum had received a grant to expand their interactive exhibit the Vanishing Species of Texas into a full curriculum for the Vanishing Species of the Southwest. The grant targeted educating Native American students with the intent of increasing their interest in learning more about the sciences. Of course, the grant also required substantiation of the effect through valid evaluation methods.
Traditional testing, though, would utterly fail in this population, though — that much we already knew from research. Native populations perform poorly on standard tests, so they are a false measure of their knowledge. My task was to research evaluation theory, most specifically Evaluating with Validity (Ernest House, 1980), which offered alternative views on how to evaluate learning, and challenged evaluators to examine their methods.
I was hooked. My master’s report focused on mixed-methodology evaluation of interactive multimedia for education and learning.
In an interesting twist, the Smithsonian Institute invited my faculty advisor to serve on a committee evaluating Biosphere II.
Aware of issues concerning the “pseudo-science” of the project, she asked my advice before accepting. I summarized key elements of a fair evaluation agreement, and she later thanked me of that input.
Then there’s the time I found myself stumbling into love — but that’s another story.
It’s long been said that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. That’s certainly been the case for me. So be ready — dancing lessons now in session.