My John Henry Moment

The tale of John Henry is a kind of confusing one, in that it’s hard to draw a clear moral from it. The premise, for those who have forgotten or never heard of it, is that as machines are developed that can do the work of men, railroad owners began buying them and replacing people with steam-powered hammers. John Henry was this super-buff ex-slave railroad worker and when the railroad he worked for bought one of these machines, John Henry challenged the owner to a competition in order to save his and his colleagues’ jobs.. The machine would begin carving out a tunnel on one side of a hill and he would begin on the other side. The first one to reach the middle of the hill would be declared the winner and the dispute would be settled. It was humans versus machines and the stakes were high.

In my high school I found myself in a curiously parallel situation, though I felt as if I was the heartless technologist who was working to crush the human spirit with my cogs and wheels. Well, not quite so dramatically. The problem was designing the school’s class schedule. For years the teachers have spent the better part of the first week of school in meetings around a huge chalkboard trying to agree on when and how to arrange their different classes, with one teacher in charge of writing and erasing as conflicts arose. The frustration from my vantage point was that they were wasting time that could be used teaching and that technology could free them up to do what they were really there to do. In order to create the schedule manually, they would spend four hours filling in the beginning part of the week only to realize that they had placed all their easy-to-fit classes together and that there were irresolvable conflicts on Thursday and Friday that had to be renegotiated by either complex trades involving three or more teachers switching classes, or simply erasing whole afternoons’ worth of planning to start from an earlier point.

Enter aSc Timeline, a software program that was designed for schools to enter in their information and that would generate a conflict-free schedule in short order. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer who works in one of my schools told me about the software and I downloaded it and began trying to learn how to use it. We told our principal that we wanted to help with the schedule and I figured out how to enter in all the teachers’ classes and grades and taught the other volunteer how to use it. I was working in my other school the day she went to help with the schedule, so I arrived late to the meeting and she was surrounded by teachers adding conditions and requirements to the process. When the teachers did it themselves they could ensure that the schedules ended up the way that they wanted them, but the computer simply put together a random schedule. Some example conflicts were that the program put math classes on Fridays, which was not ideal because we lose so many class days on Fridays due to trainings and planning sessions mandated by the ministry of education. It had also been scheduling physical education classes at any time of the day, but the teachers wanted to only teach them in the late afternoons when the temperature was dropping. Teachers with multiple classes should not have to teach two different classes to the same group of kids twice in one day, and so on and so forth. I was at a loss for how to make the software jump through these hoops, but I told them that I would try to figure it out. They began working independently to do it the old-fashioned way while I spend my evening exploring the program and discovering ways to tweak the parameters and introduce specific requirements.The output file for our class schedule

On Thursday I showed up with my computer, having found a couple of new tricks to make the program do what I wanted it to do. I set up in the corner of the room and reviewed the schedules that it produced and finding conflicts, which I then addressed by adding parameters correcting the tendency. Meanwhile the other teachers were sitting at the tables and working to arrange their classes painstakingly on the chalkboard. They would get frustrated when a teacher would leave the room and essentially cripple the effort, because each teacher was the only one who knew their own schedule and the conflicts that they would have with a particular iteration. Some teachers needed certain things and accused other teachers of not being willing to give up convenient schedules earlier in the week to accommodate conflicts later in the week and all this time I was watching my computer screen as the program slowly built up variations on the schedule. With every new condition or parameter that I added it took more and more time for the program to come up with a solution.

In John Henry’s story, he works through the night without stop and only has to pick up new hammers when he wears them out one by one. The machine tunneling through the other side of the mountain breaks down several times and has to wait for repairs, but when it’s running it moves quickly. As the dawn begins to break the race draws close and the workers and businessmen peer into the dark cave to see who will emerge first.

I could almost hear the program taking up each of the more than 150 classes in turn and passing it through the twelve or fifteen conditions that I had placed for it and finding a spot for it only to have to re-do the whole process when a different class required that slot for better reasons. Finally, after about an hour of struggle both in the CPU and in the teacher’s lounge, I scanned a schedule and couldn’t find any obvious problems. I tentatively raised my hand, not wanting to declare success too early, but also wanting to put an end to the steady waste of time I perceived around me. I read the schedule out loud and each of the teachers wrote down their portion. They seemed quietly impressed but subtly disappointed that everything fit together so neatly without their hard work.

The computer had done in a matter of minutes, once I had mastered the process, what they needed hours to complete. I felt like I had won a quiet victory for efficiency that would free them up to use their time and talents more effectively, though I couldn’t help sensing that the teachers were feeling like they had less control over the process and that the way things should work was being disrupted. In contrast, back in the railroad metaphor, the climatic moment occurs when Henry bursts through the final layer of stone to beat the machine. His compatriots rush to celebrate, but he stumbles and collapses from exhaustion, never to stir again. He sacrifices himself to prove a point(the human spirit can triumph over machines) which soon becomes null as the machines continue to improve and inevitably replace workers despite Henry’s sacrifice.

My machine also produced an ambiguous end because once everyone had written their schedules, the two physical education teachers noticed something amiss. They told me that the two phy ed classes each week should not fall on consecutive days because the kids would be tired out from the day before. I bit my tongue as the urge to say how silly that was rose in my throat and told them that I would see what I could do. My victory was imperfect, but at least we had something that made a majority of the teachers happy and meant that we could start giving classes until I had something better.

In the end, my machine outperformed the teachers in the final stretch, though it proved not to be the miracle upset that I had hoped. I still have to train some of the teachers in how to use the program when I leave, but it appears that it does have the potential to save time. I’m glad that I wasn’t in the railroad owner’s position of proving that the teachers’ jobs were irrelevant in the modern age. In fact, I felt as if I were fighting for the teachers’ abilities to do their jobs. Thankfully there was no martyr in my story, only the death of a bit of wasted time.

*In case you’re reading my posts chronologically I should clarify that this post was written before my April 21st post and before my site change.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mom on May 4, 2012 at 8:25 am

    Clever analogy. I enjoyed the whole story. I admit I anticipated that the “social ends” and “power plays” inherent in the teachers’ strategy would loom larger as a “human group good” versus the lack thereof in the computer’s strategy. I can see, however, that the ol’ group process for scheduling probably didn’t give much necessary good stuff when I’m sure the teachers have many other times to engage together. I hope they can find a way to own the software for this purpose. I also thought, for a moment, when you said “in my high school” you were talking about good ol’ AF!


  2. Posted by Kathy Haskin on May 5, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Hi Andrew,

    Good use of story and juxtaposition of present story and past. I am just curious about where this school is that you are doing this computerization? I missed a part of your saga as to where you have ended up.


  3. Actually, it´s me who is confusing people by posting a post that I wrote over a month ago. This was in my previous site and previous school. I’ll give some details soon about my new site.


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