17 August 2013

On too much practice...

The state, even now, of one of the code-breaking huts;
see also here and here.

A few days ago, an old friend and I spent an engrossing few hours at Bletchley Park, the home of the WW2 codebreakers. It must be ten years since I last visited. Then it was decaying and dilapidated, struggling to open just at weekends (as I recall), limping along with the support of an increasingly ageing band of volunteers. Now it has Lottery funding (although clearly not enough), is the fastest growing visitor attraction in the country (we are told), but still has a feel of the great secret of the war. Indeed, it was its secrecy for thirty years which allowed it to descend into its former state.

Entry is £15, but that is a year's pass for unlimited visits, and given the promise that the bulk of the restoration will be accomplished by mid-2014, it's a good deal. You do need to return again and again. And that's not counting the National Museum of Computing, home of the "Colossus"--arguably (of course) the first semi-programmable computer in the world, designed and constructed by Post Office engineers, in utmost secrecy of course, so ENIAC and MULTIVAC stole its thunder across the pond...

And being able to look into Alan Turing's office is strange, just like Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island. It's too much to call such places "sacred", but there is a distinct quality to them. The easy word is "iconic", but that is seriously devalued.

However! There are now 54 guides taking tours round the site. We tagged along with an engaging and enthusiastic and experienced and knowledgeable guy--no longer of course are the guides veterans of the site, but he had a lot of background including some kind of service in intelligence.

And he had a fund of stories and anecdotes. He'd told them many times, and there were so many more competing for him to tell them, they tumbled over themselves...

He continually referred to his experience as a guide; he didn't beat us with it, but noted, "We're supposed to spend no more than twelve minutes in here, but I can stretch it to seventeen without delaying my friend behind..." "One old lady in a wheelchair, came with her children and grandchildren, she was 91. The guide  could see from the way she looked around she had been here before, so he asked her. She said 'I was in J25'... She had worked on the Japanese ciphers, and 60 years on, her family had no idea she had ever learnt Japanese..."*

Of course, being me, with my teaching observation hat never far from my head, I was critical. As we moved from the first location, I commented to G., "He's done this too many times before!" I meant that polished parts were overwhelming the whole; the overall task of orienting us to the site and what happened here lost out to a succession of anecdotes and jokes; "Three Americans here? OK, I'll not use those jokes!" After a brief show-of-hands survey of the group--good practice, of course. And a rather tedious running joke about saying "interrogate" whenever he meant "interview", and then picking himself up on it.

But I don't want simply to carp. As usual, I began to see that he was confronted with several decisions about how to proceed.

One of his first questions of the group was, "Any Europeans here? Other than British, of course?" He quickly found out that there were a few Germans, and he was respectful throughout (he probably would have been so regardless of the composition of the group). But the nationality questions became perfunctory after that.

What was going on? Clearly, despite his jovial manner, it was not all about the jokes (although it may have been about the cultural references--having found there were a couple of Poles in the group he went out of his way to be complimentary about the bravery of the Poles in the RAF during the war, and to name 303  Squadron, a nice touch). He had his twelve minutes to get the measure of a group of about twenty people from a variety of backgrounds, and to fill in enough of the back-story of the site for them to make sense of it.

And of course he couldn't do it. No-one could. Although private tours can be specially organised for visitors who have particular technical interests, there is only self-selection for the majority of visitors. So it appears that his spiel must have undergone a similar process of evolution to that of a stand-up comedian. Consciously or not, he has done it scores of times, perhaps hundreds, and he will have noted which stories go down well and which don't, and filtered them on that basis. It's basically a classic behaviourist setup--you could say that he gets reinforcement  via smiles and laughter and continuing attention for telling some of them, and less for others.

But that privileges what the audience like from moment to moment at the cost of the overall framework or arc of the task, which is primarily about orientation--a word he did use in the introduction. And the downside was that the overall presentation rather fell apart. It might have been my lack of attention, but I'm sure some stories were started but never finished, and he digressed sometimes and never returned to the main theme. (A few people did drop out while we were in transit between locations--but I was not diligent enough to conduct exit interviews.)

We did get a very brief introduction to codes and code-breaking in history, and he showed us a picture of an Enigma machine and gabbled an explanation of how it works, and he repeated the claim that Bletchley Park shortened WW2 by two years; but it didn't join up. A real pity.

I'm not criticising for the sake of it--it just reminded me of how easy it is, when you are repeating the same material so many times, to lose sight of the wood for the trees, and in particular to lose much of a sense of how your audience experiences it. He did invite questions, and two or three people did speak to him at the end, but that could not make up for what got missed out.

And yet... there are other ways to get the information, and who am I to say that he had not made the optimum selection of material? Slowing down his delivery, linking the points--all could be achieved only at the cost of some other material.

Comparisons are limited, but while he was not a patch on this lecture, he was in a different league from this other guide.

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