Everything Everywhere All at Once

Contemporary movies dazzle us with their depictions of the multiverse of choices pursued by their protagonists. Evelyn, the confused and exhausted central character of Everything Everywhere All at Once, struggles to cope with a father, son, daughter, and IRS agent who are playing multiple roles in vastly different universes. She wants them to tell her what to do or, better still, just stop popping up and derailing the potential solutions she thinks she’s found. But in the end, scriptwriters can only call upon their audience’ s good graces for a limited amount of time. The writers drew the action to a close through a meta-narrative in which Evelyn learns to accept the shortcomings of others and recognize her limited power to affect their decisions. Reconciliation and forgiveness triumph in her narrative.

Howard in Xian, China, 2008

I watched this movie while working on re-designing my two spring seminars. Seeing my choices through the lens of potential narrative threads in a universe of possibilities opened my eyes to why the redesign was so difficult. Scriptwriters and directors crafting the expensive films for the many franchises can put superheroes in perilous positions and then extract them by offering portals to parallel universes. They seem unencumbered by a requirement for narrative coherence. But of course, they are.

All the nonsense must ultimately make sense because audiences still want a story. In a simplistic sense, they want to know who the winners and losers are. If the writers leave a few of the threads dangling, that’s okay, because the audience sees that as a signal for what’s to come in a sequel. Nonetheless, the story does need a meta-narrative.

In the sociology course I am redesigning on teaching, I have a limited amount of time to get my story across. But I consider myself fortunate because unlike Hollywood producers, I’m not limited to around 120 minutes. I have the students for two and a half hours per week for an entire term. In the past, the multitude of possibilities opened by having so much time would’ve paralyzed me with indecision. What to put in and what to leave out? But over the past few years, as I’ve embraced the “backward course design” approach to creating courses, I’ve learned that I can skim much of the multiverse, rather than giving it a starring role. My job is to figure out where I want to end up and then create a structure that gets me there.

In the teaching course, this means creating a quite simple initial outline, based on backward design principles: I teach that instructors must identify a core set of course goals and learning objectives, decide how they will assess whether the goals have been achieved, and then choose an evidence-based set of instructional techniques that will allow them to achieve their goals. Everything else will placed inside these three core sections of the course. Simplicity itself!

What is the alternative? Formerly, in the alternative universe I occupied as a beginning instructor, I let myself be governed by the textbooks I chose, the things I knew how to do, borrowing from other people’s syllabi, and so forth. It was a jumbled mess. Everything, everywhere, all at once.

Just like Evelyn, as I gained experience, I grew comfortable with the notion that some things had to abandoned. There were some things I simply couldn’t accomplish in the time allotted without closing off alternative lines of inquiry. And, like the scriptwriters animating Evelyn’s character, I also learned to capitalize on the contrast between the competing options with no obvious resolution, such as metric grading versus mastery grading.

Framing principal issues in the course as a matter of instructors’ decisions, I left the choices up to my students, knowing that they would be motivated to pursue this on their own. They would seek out more information about how to make their own choices. For example, choosing a mastery approach to assessment drastically simplifies the kinds of examinations instructors give.

I’m now working on the undergraduate class which, paradoxically, is proving much harder to re-design than the graduate class, because there are many more possible narratives to the story. Like Evelyn, I’ll need to make some hard choices. Unlike her, however, I’m not just the narrator of my own story, but also the designer.