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You Don’t Have to Be a Genius

On a recent visit to Kansas City to see my parents, they take me with them to the Apple Store. We’ve become rather devout Mac users and go to the house of worship every so often. The store is small but busy. No one loiters for long, unless you count me, camping out at a MacBook to reply to a few emails (that day’s daily writing).

Take away the clutter of bustling customers, and you’d be left in a room with a simple design. There are many tables, each large enough to fit about six computer workstations. At the end farthest from the door, there’s a counter that serves as the store’s Genius Bar, where customers ask questions and technicians–yes, the Geniuses–attempt to answer them.

The Genius Bar is home base, but Geniuses are scattered throughout the store, easy to spot in bright-colored t-shirts. As I click through my email and type a few replies, I realize something unusual is going on in this public, commercial setting. The Geniuses attend to the customers, neither bowing to them nor revealing thinly veiled resentment for being asked for assistance. They seem interested in the customers’ concerns, and the customers make reasonable requests.

Hardcore selling is not happening here, but the parties in question are negotiating. The power differential is decidedly less lopsided than in the tech support horror stories I’ve heard. None of the Geniuses rolls her or his eyes condescendingly as a demoralized customer asks earnestly how to open a laptop. Rather, each Genius-customer pair I observe seems to be having a civilized conversation. I don’t hover so close or so long to see any of these conversations through to the end, but they all move along to reasonable solutions. No one throws confetti. But no one storms off in a huff, either.

Learning takes place, and not just for the customers. I assume that’s part of the plan. Customers and geniuses bring expertise to their interactions. Although it should be no surprise that the Geniuses know what they’re doing, the customers know their stuff, too. One session that I do watch involves a customer trying to add photos to a book she’s laying out with her Mac. She needs advanced-level help. The Genius asks many questions, inviting the customer to establish her expectations and, beyond that, to guide the session as much as she wants.

I understand why I’m drawn in by this activity while experiencing déjà vu. I run academic support services at a university. My staff and I are no Geniuses, but we try to do what they do. We attempt to meet students “where they are” and to help them learn what they need to learn so they can do what they need to do. Our best work happens when students open up about what they expect and know. In those situations, I learn a lot about how I learn and how I write. If things are going well, my daily work allows me to reflect, learn, and grow.

That doesn’t always happen, of course, and I’m guessing the same is true for the Geniuses. I may have just caught them on a good day. There’s a strange mix of education and customer service in this kind of work, so consistency is difficult. But I doubt Apple would devote resources to this if it didn’t work pretty well.

And how comforting it would be for anyone trying to learn anything to have access to a bona fide Genius. I love the term Genius to describe an educator. At once, it conveys a sense of humor and a grain of truth. But beware. In the search for answers, questions often raise more questions. Which can be helpful. Frustrating. And just brilliant.

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