I have colleagues who invoke “Best Practices” the way that evangelical Christians quote the Bible: God has spoken. During these conversations, I am tempted to say in a serious voice, “Best Practices dictate that teaching writing should include loud music in a public place and synchronized dancing. In short, a flash mob.” I mean, if Best Practices are really going to be the end-all of pedagogy, I want them to be cool.
I had a revelation about Best Practices during a discussion with my students about a similar concept: universal design solutions. We were reading Cradle to Cradle, a book which challenges industry to become more sustainable through ecologically smart design and which raises questions about what architects call universal design solutions. Braungart and McDonough weren’t talking about students. They were talking about household products like detergent. Here’s how a universal design solution works: in order to market the same detergent across the country, the industry designs it to work effectively anywhere, regardless of water quality, no matter what is being washed. That means if I’m washing out my tea mug at a sink with soft water, I use the same detergent as someone 500 miles away washing a greasy pan in hard water. The ecologically devastating result is that I dump harsh chemicals, which were never necessary in the first place, into the waste stream and eventually the water supply, harming aquatic life for no good reason.
Braungart and McDonough summed it up this way: “To achieve their universal design solutions, manufacturers design for the worst-case scenario: they design a product for the worst possible circumstance, so that it will always operate with the same efficacy.” (30) One of my students summed it up this way: “If you care about ecology, universal design solutions suck.”