Friday, August 19, 2011

The wrong tool

The other day I pulled up the old carpeting on the staircase, to replace it with a new runner. I was faced with the unpleasant task of removing a couple hundred carpet staples that had been firmly anchored for many years. After 90 minutes using a pair of needle-nosed pliers I'd succeeded in clearing 3 of the 15 steps. My back was sore, my hand was raw through the glove, and my spirit was low. I packed it in for the night. I was clearly using the wrong tool. The next day I went to the hardware store and got myself a tack puller. It's a simple tool that looks like a bent, flat-headed screwdriver with a notch cut in the blade. I cleared the remaining 12 steps in less time than it took me to do the first three.

Any good tradesman knows and uses the right tool for each job. I'm not a tradesman, just a somewhat handy do-it-yourselfer, so it takes me a bit longer to figure out when I'm not using the right tool. Some of us never learn, and seem to insist on using the wrong tools time and time again. Take the pick-up truck, for example. If you live on a farm, it's a pretty indispensable tool, something you may use every day for weeks on end. It's hard to imagine farm life without one. Pick-up trucks are also handy for a lot of other applications. But off the farm, they're a bit like a pair of pliers: they can be used for a variety of purposes, but more often than not, they're not the best vehicle for the task at hand. Some tradespeople need and use a pick-up truck everyday, but a lot of them seem to drive one for show, or because it's habitus (a fancy way of saying it's something you're expected to do if you run in certain circles). The of course, there's some who drive gleaming Rams and Chevys with chrome wheels and a bed without a scratch on it, all hat and no cattle.

For suburbanites, there's the SUV. Few people ever use one for the purpose it was designed, and I've only ever met one or two who I could truly say actually needed one. When I lived in Seattle I had a friend who was the most outdoorsy person I ever met. He had once hitched a cargo flight to the highlands of New Guinea, bought a dugout canoe and paddled himself over the course of many days to the ocean. He designed "challenge walls" for a living - i.e. giant walls with ropes and climbing routes meant to challenge would-be climbers of all abilities. He drove a diesel Jetta, and argued there were few trailheads in Washington state he couldn't reach in it. If he didn't see the need for one... you get the picture.

When making decisions about going someplace, the best option if distance allows is by foot or by bike. It's cheap, it has minimal environmental impact and, most importantly, you are healthier for having done so (assuming you haven't been hit by an SUV). Where self-propelled doesn't suit, public transport is next best. If a personal motor vehicle is essential, small and fuel efficient suffices for most of us - our bodies won't be any fitter, but our pocketbooks will. Tradesmen often rent or share expensive, infrequently-used tools, and that's how the rest of us should treat trucks and SUVs - if you really need one, rent it, don't own it. The right tool for the right task.

Academic institutions also have a tendency to use poor tools for the job at hand. I could list many examples, but here's one: teaching support software. uOttawa uses something called Blackboard Vista, which seems to have a monopoly on the market, despite having a circa 2001 feel to it. With it, as a teacher I can create course specific intra-net websites, and there's a set of basic tools I can use to post lecture notes, create discussion boards and so on. For most professors, it probably does most of the basic things they need to do (and there's still profs out there who still don't use it at all, and they drive their students batty (and I don't blame the students)). But Blackboard Vista is like a pair of pliers (an old one at that), and when there's something more specialized you need to do, it's often not the best tool. For example, when my colleague and I decided to go to electronic submissions for our large first-year classes, we simply bypassed Blackboard altogether, and had students e-mail us their work. We then used iPads loaded with a $10 app called iAnnotate to mark and return their assignments. Had we used Blackboard Vista with Microsoft Word, I'd still be reading papers from April.

The wrong tool, whether it's a pair of pliers, an SUV, or a teaching support software, is inefficient, costly, and wasteful. The difference is that when I use pliers instead of a tack puller, I'm the one who suffers.

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