ikea instructions

If you’ve spent any time perusing web forums you’ve encountered the phrase “RTFM” which stands for “Read the fucking manual.” This invariably offends the initial poster who, rightfully (IMHO), points out that if the documentation was clearer they never would have taken the time to register for a web forum and post their question in the first place. The problem with most documentation is that it only makes sense if you already know the answer. People who write documentation have a hard time putting themselves in the mindset of the people for whom the documentation is actually written.

This is not a trivial insight. I once attended a seminar by Penny Eckert who described a working class high school girl in Detroit. The girl was very bright and everyone thought she should attend college, but when asked about it she told Penny: “Everyone says I should go to college, but I don’t know how to go to college.” (Or something like that, this was years ago and my memory is notoriously fuzzy on the details.)

I thought of this again while reading this NY Times Op-Ed on the difficulty elite colleges have “recruiting the talented rural poor.” The author, Claire Watkins, points out that the military do a much better job. What’s the difference?

But the most important thing the military did was walk kids and their families through the enlistment process.

In Eckert’s seminar she pointed out that middle class students have an entire community of practice surrounding college admissions. They talk about the best schools with their parents, they discuss SAT exams with their classmates, they visit schools and have friends in college who share their experiences, etc. Poorer students frequently lack any of this.

Sure, they could RTFM and learn about this on their own from books, websites, etc. They’re the “talented” students, right? But the reality is that much of this only makes sense if you already have been socialized into the process. If you are on the outside looking in it can be difficult to know where to even start. The military understands this. Why don’t Ivy League colleges? Or is it perhaps a form of willful ignorance, a way of maintaining the myth that schools offer equal opportunity while continuing to reproduce privilege?

It is also something college professors might wish to keep in mind. How many times have you scolded students for not reading the syllabus more carefully? I often find that no matter how many times I explain something, my students are more likely to trust what their classmates say about the syllabus than what I’ve told them. (I can’t say for sure, but I suspect this latter problem might be particularly evident in Taiwan where senior students are referred to as elder brothers and sisters.) In such cases it isn’t enough to simply explain the syllabus once, but also to make students feel comfortable asking seemingly “stupid” questions about the syllabus throughout the year. I admit I’m not as good about this as I should be, but I try not to be the teacher who tells students to RTFS…

UPDATE: From another NY Times piece: “The results are now in, and they suggest that basic information can substantially increase the number of low-income students who apply to, attend and graduate from top colleges.”

2 thoughts on “RTFM

  1. Great post. I taught new paramedics for 5 years before moving to a graduate TA position in Anth with all the debt and career-sim angst that is filling posts. It seems so much easier to be mad at undergrad ignorance. Spending that 120 seconds to go over something you think is as simple as the color blue makes all the difference. Disliking this task is understandable, and it wont get tenure, or a high paid job at an NGO…but it matters to them, even those students over 30, trust me. Someone held your hand, so return the favor.

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