So I’m at EXL these two weeks, which is a symphony in three parts, though one played by an Eastern European radio symphony orchestra which is still being paid in Soviet era expired rubles, and unafraid to take it out on the music.
Running a camp is fraught with dangers and fears, especially one that’s small and focused and intense. “Will we get kids who can handle what we teach?” is first and foremost a worry; we explicitly teach a unique, advanced style; but rank idiots won’t do well with it, and so if we end up with a batch of them, we’re in trouble. There’s also the ever present chance that some unforeseen event will take out a day or two, and throw everything in disarray; normal life moves in a leisurely pace, but with only 11 instructional days, you don’t have much margin for curveballs at camp.
Then there are the wider pitfalls. Jonathan and I started this camp largely in reaction to a lot of the other things other camps do. We don’t teach down to kids; the stuff we teach is difficult material in a short period of time. I’ve seen most extemp camps teach current affairs, and present things like The Africa Lecture. We teach economics, nationalism, political parties, government structures, religions, etc. The kids have to make the links to current affairs on their own; and they do so, for the most part. It involves them having to think for themselves, but well, that’s the point.
We also don’t teach a cookie cutter style. Not every question is created equal, so not every answer format is equal to every question. It’s easy and cheap to try and get away with teaching students a single format and structure and measuring their success against the mastery of that formula. That usually has the kids sounding better and shinier at the end of their two weeks. However, at the end of the day, the wide variety of topics extemp teaches routinely demands a fresh approach. I find the better students break out of these formulas on their own eventually, but it’s better to start from a fresh perspective that structure and formulas are simply tools, and you use the hammer on the nails and the screwdriver on the screws, and not vice-versa.
That raises the bar somewhat. It’s not easy to teach approach, and it’s not easy to teach thinking; you can really only teach examples of other people thinking, and hope the idea catches on. But the kids this year are a very strong group, and they’re achieving in spades. I’m a little upset it’s almost over already, but that too is the nature of camps.
The nature of any walk of life, however, when you do as I do, is that inevitably people have computers, and equally inevitably they call me when this happens. It’s a dangerous skill, fluency in computers, since it is needed more than it is present. It’s very difficult to run a camp and teach and lecture and all that; but when my little free time is being impinged to fix printers and connect to Emerson College’s military-grade security on their wireless network, it leaves me with little time for introspection and consideration of things. That’s the danger of my field; it’s not like I can leave my skills at home and let it go; they come up everywhere and anywhere, and I’m not entirely allowed to be Just an Extemp Coach even on these two weeks, where ostensibly I’m taking vacation to do just that.
So I’m stealing a few moments this evening to recollect myself, and think, and reflect. We had a very good 17 kids at this camp, up from 10 the year before. They’ll have success and make us look very good, but ultimately I hope they end up making themselves look good most of all, thinking and challenging and speaking and doing exactly what our activity does best. It won’t be easy for any of them, even though they’re uniformly terribly bright students, but the difficult is worthwhile, even when it’s often short of the goal.
And you won’t hear a canned introduction among any of them.