Sunlit Water

May 7, 2009

Guiding Thoughts

Filed under: Personal — by teofilo @ 11:44 pm

I’ve been doing this job for several months now, and I feel like I’ve pretty much got the hang of it.  The past month, in which I’ve actually been paid for the same work I was doing before for free (or close to it), has involved considerably more varied and interesting work, but the core functions of the job have remained the same.  This has been nice, in some ways, because it has allowed me to become truly proficient at something I mostly enjoy.  It’s also been a bit difficult, however, because the job definitely gets monotonous and there are some aspects of it that go against my natural inclinations.

Overall, it’s been a great experience all around, and I feel lucky to be in this situation at this point in my life.  Giving tours is an interesting sort of thing to do, and it can be very enjoyable.  It’s similar in a lot of ways to the sort of lecturing that academics do, and I’ve followed recent conversations about pedagogy at academic blogs with interest.  The same issues about keeping people’s attention and maintaining authority that are present in the classroom are there on the tour as well.  There are some significant differences, however, some of which make the job easier than teaching and some of which make it harder.

The biggest thing making it easier is the lack of any sort of evaluation.  I tell people things, and I’d like for them to remember them, but it doesn’t actually matter to me professionally if they do or not.  I don’t give tests or assignments, and I don’t have to grade anything.  In this respect, my job is like teaching if it only consisted of lecturing.  It definitely cuts down on the amount of work involved, and it makes the lecturing process much easier than it might be if the audience were concerned about what will be on the test.

Along those same lines, another nice thing about this job is that people are here because they want to be, so I rarely have to deal with unmovitated or recalcitrant people on my tours.  There are occasional instances of someone who isn’t really interested in being there, but since people are free to come and go as they please such people tend to wander off at some point.  This is possibly in contrast to some other parks, where certain sites are only accessible by guided tour.  Here, people can do everything self-guided, so the people who do go on the guided tours tend to overwhelmingly be the kind of people who prefer guided tours.  This makes them very easy to deal with.

The downside of all this is mostly the monotony.  This is a rather small park, so there’s only one site that we give regular tours of, so the job basically involves giving the exact same lecture every single day for months on end.  If there is sufficient staffing there can be room for additional tours and other shifts, and I’ve been lucky lately in having had a lot more variety in my days than I had for the first few months, but those first few months, when I was new, got pretty dull after a while.  On the plus side, I became very familiar with the site in question.  Also, once things began to slow down in the winter we stopped doing regular tours, so I began to spend all my time in the visitor center.  That had its own problems, of course.

Another aspect of the monotony, which variety in shifts doesn’t address as much, is that people tend to ask the same questions over and over.  Again, this has allowed me to become very skilled at answering those questions, and I have canned but generally satisfying answers to the most common ones.  For a while I was getting really tired of having to say the same things over and over, both in giving the tours or answering the common questions, but the key thing to remember in dealing with this issue is that while I’ve been saying this stuff for what seems like an eternity, to the visitor taking the tour or asking the question it’s all new.  I’ve been getting better about keeping that in mind.

In addition to the aspects of the job that are most obvious, and that I suspect everyone who does it deals with similarly, there are other things that have a more idiosyncratic effect on me personally given my personality.  I’m very shy and reclusive by nature, so having a job like this that involves constant contact with the public is challenging for me.  I think it’s been enormously helpful in giving me experience dealing with people, and the public speaking experience I’ve gained here is likely to be the most useful aspect of this job for my long-term professional development.

It is really difficult, though.  Every day involves so many interactions with people that I really feel drained at the end of the day and I need some time alone to recuperate.  This is in marked contrast to most of my colleagues, who tend to be outgoing, extroverted types who thrive on the social interactions that the job involves.  It’s hardly surprising that a job like this would attract people like that, and in a lot of ways I’m really the unusual case here.  One additional difficulty for me given this situation is that it can be really difficult for me to deal with my coworkers as well as the visitors.  This is particularly a problem on weekdays when there are more people working, and was more of a problem when there were fewer visitors around.  At least with visitors there’s an element of novelty to the interactions.

I do like my coworkers, so it’s nothing against them personally, but I can easily be overwhelmed by all the activity around me during the day.  Another key difference between me and most of my coworkers is that they’re volunteers, mostly retired folks looking for something interesting to do, and so I’m both in a very different place in my life and coming at this from a very different perspective.  For me this is a job.  If I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t.  There’s no way in hell I’m going to be doing something like this when I retire.

Despite all these issues, there are also a lot of aspects of the job that suit my personality quite well.  The main thing I like, and this may not necessarily reflect very well on me, is being taken seriously as an authority figure.  When people ask me questions they listen to the answers and accept me as a reliable source on the topics in question.  This tends the case even when the questions are somewhat challenging or even slightly hostile.  I think the amount of deference I get has increased a bit since I’ve been wearing the actual Park Service uniform rather than the volunteer garb, but that’s a difficult thing to measure.  In any case, one thing I’ve really discovered about myself in this job is that I really have a need to be in control.  I like doing my tours because I’m in charge and I make the decisions about how to structure the tour and answer questions.  When I first started here I tagged along on various other people’s tours to learn how they did them, and that was definitely a valuable experience, but by the time I’d been on several I started to get pretty frustrated about how they were handling things.  Not that they were handling them badly, by any means, but I just couldn’t keep from thinking about how I would do things differently.  This comes up when I’m working the front desk at the visitor center, too.  If I’m working with someone else and they’re doing their little orientation speech for a visitor I often have to go back into the office because I just can’t stand being there and watching them do it differently from how I would.

Related to this is the fact that, somewhat ironically, I hate going on tours myself, for similar reasons.  One thing I’ve learned in the course of doing this job is that there are basically two types of park visitors: those who want a lot of guidance and orientation, and those who want to do everything on their own.  I’m very much the second kind myself, so I’m pretty sympathetic to their perspective, and my typical way of handling the initial contact at the front desk is oriented toward that sort of visitor.  I take the entrance fee or swipe the park pass, give them an entrance permit and a map, and that’s it.  If it looks like they might want to ask additional questions, I’ll tell them to feel free to ask me anything they’d like, and they generally will, but often they’ll just walk away without further interaction.  This is in contrast to how I’ve noticed most people who work the desk, here and at other parks, do things.  They tend to make every effort to give every visitor a full orientation, which the visitors who come seeking guidance really appreciate.  This is hardly surprising, since as I’ve mentioned most of the people who do these jobs do them because they like talking to people.  The visitors who want to do things themselves tend to be a bit frustrated with this, however, and I don’t blame them.  As a result, I see my technique as catering to a group of visitors whose preferences don’t often get taken into account in these situations.  It’s true that my way isn’t preferable for the visitors who prefer more guidance, but they get their way plenty.  If they really want to have their questions answered, they can, and they are typically not shy about asking them.

That’s about all I can think of to say about the job at this point, but I’m sure I’ll have more reflections later.  Over all, it’s an occasionally frustrating but generally rewarding thing to do, and I’m very happy to have the opportunity to do it.

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2 Comments »

  1. Various questions/comments:

    1. What pedagogy sites? I’d be interested to take a look.

    2. You mentioned the monotony of getting the same questions over and over, and how you have to keep in mind that for the visitors it’s all new. My choir director once said something that goes along these lines: no matter how much you’ve rehearsed a piece or how often you’ve sung it, it’s important to perform it as well as you can every time you do so, because there will always be someone in the audience who is hearing the piece for the first time. The corollary is that there will always be someone in the audience who will be hearing this piece for the last time. It’s important to make it count–every time. Same with how you deal with those questions.

    3. How you feel when watching your colleagues give tours or do orientation? That’s EXACTLY how it feels for me to watch one of my colleagues teach. Every now and then I luck out and get delighted at what I’m seeing, but mostly it’s frustrating. But, going along with what you said about being the latter kind of visitor, teachers tend to teach the way that they like to learn (which for me means I like to lecture because that’s how I prefer to learn). The best teachers are keenly aware of this and make efforts to incorporate other methods. You may be the self-guided type, but it’s important to read your visitors and figure out what type they are and orient them accordingly (I think you do this, even if you didn’t say that you do). Many a time have I not known what questions to ask and been lucky to get off hand information from staff about something that ended up making a difference.

    4. I find the bit about your need to be in control/an authority figure fascinating. I’d like to understand this better.

    5. I like reading your reflections of the job. 🙂

    Comment by Meredith — June 28, 2009 @ 12:42 am |Reply

  2. Not really pedagogy sites per se, but basically some of the sites in my blogroll. They’re written by academics, so while pedagogy isn’t the main focus it does come up from time to time. This one and this one in particular.

    Comment by teofilo — June 28, 2009 @ 5:06 pm |Reply


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