Val’s Blog - In Search of MacGuffin

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In the movie, 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock introduces us to a vaudeville performer, Mr. Memory, who has the plans of an advanced airplane engine committed to memory. Clearly, the plans are something of great concern and central to the plot. Upon reflection, however, although the plans seemed very important and provided an impetus forward from one scene to another, at the conclusion, we don’t know, or really care, what the plans were or how they were used. The secret plans were just there to propel us forward. Hitchcock often used a plot device referred to as a MacGuffin as a secret motivator in his movies.

Whether a coded message in a piece of music (The Lady Vanishes), or an apartment key (Dial M for Murder), a blackbird (The Maltese Falcon), a ring (The Lord of the Rings), or a rug that really ties the room together (The Big Lebowski), MacGuffins are in movies old and new.

If writing a mystery set in academia, Alfred Hitchcock might have used a specific assignment, grade, or diploma as a MacGuffin. These artifacts of education propel us forward along our educational pathway, but at some point, we begin to understand that there is a much deeper meaning to the educational process. The establishment of learning outcomes, measurements of learning, and physical certificates of success are an important part of higher education, but perhaps we should examine their worth more in terms of a useful MacGuffin than as an ultimate goal.

A memory from my graduate student days that always makes me smile is of an evening class with an esteemed professor who was known for his rather verbose presentations. Since this evening class met only twice per week, it resulted in long classes that ended rather late.

One evening, as the 9 o’clock ending time ticked closer, it became obvious that the professor was far from through with his 50-slide presentation. So, he talked faster, while interjecting occasionally that he still had a lot more to cover. The students, however, pre-programmed to begin packing so that they could leave as soon as the minute hand hit the 12, did not give any indication that they would stay seated until he had finished the last 10 or so of his slides. So, he talked even faster.

I looked around the room for eyes glinting at the irony of it all, but only saw students consumed by the task at hand of packing and exiting the room. I couldn’t believe that I was alone in my appreciation for the moment - the exquisiteness of being an actor in a comic irony. The topic of the evening had been about the Information Age and the perils of information overload.

Slide #50 was the MacGuffin in that classroom vignette. Reaching the end of the presentation became the ultimate goal. The fact that the audience had stopped listening, or that a professor talked in super-speed for no other purpose than transferring words from page to air, did not matter. What started as a MacGuffin for guiding progress through the nightly lecture shifted to an end in and of itself.

That is the MacGuffin trap. What might be a clever device to move us toward our goals can become a trap if we become obsessed with the MacGuffin instead of appreciating the value of the journey. The thing we strive for is never a thing that satisfies us because there is no singular “thing” that brings us complete fulfillment.

We all want a reason for doing something and generally want an end in mind before we start a journey. When there are a lot of unknowns and when the world around us seems to be changing so fast that we can’t see our end goal clearly, it can paralyze us from moving forward. We’ve all seen multiple articles talking about preparing for jobs that don’t yet exist, or conversely, jobs that will become obsolete and cease to exist. Does it make sense to move forward when our goal may disappear before we get there?

I was at a talk by Jared Spool (@jmspool), a researcher/writer in usability and software development, where he talked about a study he conducted to evaluate successful companies that existed in rapidly-changing environments. He realized that effective leaders who work in fields where there is a lot of change essentially plant a flag in the sand. That is, they create a vision for where they and their coworkers should go. They make sure that everyone can see that flag. However, the flag can, and will, be moved. Everyone knows that. The point is for everyone to know where the flag is at any given time and to all move in that direction. (The talk was many years ago, so hopefully, I’m not taking too many liberties with his message.)

I have used this metaphor with the people who work with me. They have suggested that I actually put the flag on a float, in the ocean... in the middle of a hurricane. But, y’know, they do tend to exaggerate. Nevertheless, a rapidly-changing world and workplace is difficult, and sometimes it is very hard to keep focused on a goal that will propel us forward together. It is essential that everyone can see the flag and have a common understanding of their shared mission.

The flag, however, is a MacGuffin. You don’t have to get to that flag, but it is important to try to get to the flag. It provides a sense of purpose and a direction to start your journey and it is a motivator when you get discouraged. The successes and failures you have along the way may very well change your direction, but the flag in the sand can conveniently be shifted in front of you to give you the motivation to continue.

The MacGuffin is just a reason - a reason for being, a reason for moving forward, a reason for engaging, a reason for stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone. Beyond the MacGuffin, there is always a deeper, human story. The thrill of discovery, the joy of developing relationships, the satisfaction of understanding new concepts, the exhilaration of pushing one’s self to new levels of accomplishment - and these are the real successes in our life. We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that the award, the high grade, the diploma, or the cool job title are the ultimate goal, but those are just the MacGuffins that help us discover our own success and happiness.

Sidebar: I mentioned usability above. If you’re interested in that field, learn more about Kent State’s Online Master’s Degree in User Experience Design by visiting

Valerie Kelly is Associate Vice President of the Office of Continuing & Distance Education. She is responsible for the oversight, strategic innovation, and faculty/student support for Kent State Online programs and courses including Continuing Education credit and non-credit workshops/certificates and conferences.
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