Friday, November 22, 2013

"You meet a university."

After the obligatory statements about the welcome received on our campus, a recent guest speaker expressed his belief that universities have a personality, that "you meet a university" in much the same way as you meet a person.  I very much liked his phrasing...and he's right.

I wonder how enjoyable we are here at my university...and if that varies by department or residence hall or support function.  

I'd like for people to meet a caring, supportive, curious university.  One where we remember the value of each individual.  A university where we are all on the same team and collaborate in the honorable pursuit of learning, whether we offer food for thought, spiritual food, or comfort food.

I'd like our faculty and staff to treat one another and our students with the utmost respect, even in the face of differences of opinion, poor performance, or philosophical breaches.

I'm certain that we treat our invited guests well.  But I wonder about the anonymous student, the less-visible support staff, the adjunct faculty, and the many who drive or walk our campus for the beauty of the trees and the architecture.

People meet a business or a university in many ways and over varying periods of time. When I teach about organizational structure and change, we explore the reasons why a CEO in a major corporation often has a very different perspective than the people in his or her organization.  We talk about the value of multiple perspectives on product or service quality, the working environment, and the customer experience; we also talk about the risks of overlooking the differences in those perspectives.

It's possible to meet a university and walk away charmed.  It's also possible for the outcome to be very different.  We shape the outcome every day, in ways large and small...and what we are teaching every time someone meets our university may have more impact than everything else we do.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Older than dirt

It would be hard to miss the ubiquitous references, headlines, and links; it's all about grit. We've managed to uncover the essence of what makes people successful, whether in an academic setting or at work.  It's grit. It's not intelligence or creativity or grades that predict success.  It's grit.

And this is news?

Consider this:
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.  Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.  Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determine alone are omnipotent. The slogan "press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. (1)
Or this:
In Eastern's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle. (2)
Or any of the philosophies of education that espouse rigor, challenging material, high standards, and high expectations for students.

What frustrates me is not the focus on grit as the primary differentiator of success; I concur.  What seems wasteful to me is the research funding and mainstream attention given to something we already know. We should be refining the application of what we know and/or changing how we teach.

I suspect the new teaching would look an awful lot like what we've already done, perhaps more familiar to our parents and grandparents, because the only way to persistent through something challenging or hard is to be required to struggle with something challenging or hard.


Friday, November 15, 2013

The dark side

It is a truism that many of us spend time and energy (re)learning lessons we resist, whether the lessons are academic, professional, or personal. One of my recurring lessons is the value of darkness.  I'm not a fan of the dark, whether the dead of night or the dead of winter. And when considering the darker side of our natures, I often struggle to reconcile it with the better angels.

The evidence from the last two times I spent with my camera--another trip to the local cemetery I visit often (to be fair, I pass it to and from work, so it's not quite as morbid as it might sound) and a recent trip to New York City--suggests that I remain intrigued with the dark side.  Three of my favorite photographs include a window in the lobby of The American Museum of Natural History and the shadow cast while my daughter and I contemplated the Statue of Liberty.

As with many things in life, the dark side is easier to appreciate as art, with the perspective gained by distance.  But I think a full and well-lived life requires that we appreciate the darkness while we are surrounded by it or walking within it.  Even when the darkness is large enough to obscure the very place in which we are standing.

This is going to be a life-long course for some of us.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Our stories

The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty was from the Staten Island Ferry. I was in graduate school and the statue was in scaffolding for cleaning and refurbishing. The second time I saw her (also from the Staten Island Ferry), we were on a trip that simply didn't have her on the itinerary. The third time I saw her was from the ferry headed to Liberty Island.  This time, after standing in the long, slow security line, I was able to really see Lady Liberty.

The design and construction of the statue is enough to leave one marveling. The view of the harbor is the stuff of which posters, puzzles, and magnets are made. And the Statue of Liberty is for sale in various forms all over the island of Manhattan. But the meaning of the statue to those who saw her for the first time at the end of their long journey to a country I have always been fortunate enough to call home is what I brought home.

It was the letters.  The handwritten letters in the museum. The letters in a beautiful script, rarely used today, by men and women who saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time with families and strangers with whom they had spent a week or more (not including time to reach the port from which they left) traveling from the home they had always known to one they hoped would be better.

When I read in an elegant script one 80-year-old woman's account of the crossing, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time with her younger sister beside her, hearing the cries of joy from passengers who knew their destination was in sight, enduring the long and unpleasant processing at Ellis Island, making a home in a new country...and offering her $5 donation (because it was all she could afford) to help refurbish the Statue of Liberty, I cried.

My college freshman daughter and I recently viewed a documentary about El Salvador that was shown on campus.  It was for her Spanish class, she didn't want to go alone, and I didn't particularly want to go.  But I did.  And I was glad.  And afterward, my daughter told me that she enjoys history, but only when it's told as a good story.

History is always a good story, despite the fact that we often don't tell it well. Some would say that everything worth knowing is part of a story...and that it's the story we remember...that the story helps us make meaning of what we need to know, learn, and do.  And I have a reminder in my office of a story of gratitude written simply, from the heart, and accompanied by $5.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Going there to see here

There is a sidewalk on my campus that I only use about twice a month. Over the course of almost 10 years, I've observed the changing seasons, the changing students, and the ubiquitous construction.  I've pretty well seen what there is to see on that stretch of sidewalk. Or so I thought.

Last week, I saw the light.  Literally.  In fact, I saw two of them, flanking the entrance to a building.  And I realized that I had seen that light two months and 300 miles away, walking the streets of Memphis and capturing architectural details through the lens of my camera.  Why had I never seen that light in my own backyard?

As I pondered that question, I searched through 200 or so photos of architectural details (light fixtures, molding, brick patterns, ironwork, bridges and more, in true geek fashion) to find the one I remembered.  Memory being what it is, the lights are similar in design and material, though not identical. But had I not taken the photo there, I doubt that I would ever have noticed the light here.

Sometimes we can only see some parts of where we are by returning there from somewhere else. T.S. Eliot captures it best, perhaps, in "Little Gidding" from Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Minds traveling

Last week, we visited the clock tower on campus. A group of 19 freshmen and I walked through the corridors of a historic classroom and office building to see the original bell (from the bell tower located at the other end of the building), the history of the clock tower that had no clock for most of its life, and the mechanism that currently produces the Westminster Chimes heard each day between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The clock tower is both a working tower and a museum (albeit on a small scale) to honor history and tradition.  For me, it is a reminder of childhood days spent in Germany, where church bells and manicured cemeteries are ubiquitous. In fact, I found myself explaining to the students the unique sound of Westminster Chimes (yes, I was singing; there's really no other way) and searching for a connection that would resonate for most of them.  The one that worked? Mary Poppins.  The movie.  With The Palace of Westminster and Big Ben in the opening scenes.

When we returned to class, I offered a brief explanation of my fascination with pendulum clocks and the various chimes associated with Bavaria.  And I've been thinking for several days now about how each place I've traveled (Panama, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium, Holland, and the majority of the 50 U.S. States) has influenced my thinking, my preferences, my attitudes, my impact that reaches far beyond the actual time spent in traveling:

  • Cemeteries I visit and photograph: Germany.  
  • Tulip bulbs in my garden that herald Spring: Holland. 
  • The locks of the Panama Canal that fascinate me: Panama.
  • Quality chocolate : Switzerland, Belgium, France.
  • Classic movies I enjoy watching: Germany, Switzerland, France (Paris), the United Kingdom (London)
  • Trains I ride as often as I can: Europe

The list goes on, as I age, travel with my daughter (most recently London; next up New York City), and encourage students to look beyond the immediate to see the past as something other than a history text to endure, to experience the present unfolding both in their own community and in the communities of others, and to image the future differently because of those experiences.  Whether we travel by way of reading, by way of theory (Stephen Hawking is one of my favorite role models for mind travel), or by way of imagination, it's important that our minds travel.  

As a case in point, after class I did a bit of reading about Westminster Chimes and learned that they are also called Cambridge Chimes.  St. Mary the Great, located in central Cambridge, is the home of the chimes which have always been Westminster Chimes to me.  

Minds traveling are minds learning.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A synaptic jungle

When I'm juggling many things at once, unable (or unwilling...possibly, maybe) to let any of them fall, focusing my thoughts long enough to finish any one thing seems far harder. I like to think that I do my best work when I focus, but that would mean that I'm not doing my best work.  A bit of a conundrum.

Some of the disconnected thoughts about which I've made notes to write:

Why is it that each generation thinks itself the only source of significant invention or creation?  As though some cosmic vacuum allows current-generation brilliance to spring forth, absent any antecedent?  The two recent examples on my mind are abbreviated communication and voice recognition technology.

Twitter is the pinnacle of short-form abbreviation, challenging the witty and erudite to create brilliance in 140 characters (114, if you include a link).  And texting has created an entirely new way of (non)spelling and (non)punctuation.

Yet, e.e. cummings (who lived from 1894 until 1962) eschewed punctuation throughout a lengthy literary life and in Twitter+64, Orville Wright announced the first successful powered December 1903.  Wright used a pay-per-character invention called the telegram:

Success four flights thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from Level with engine power alone average speed through air thirty one miles longest 57 seconds inform Press home Christmas.

And what about about sophisticated voice-recognition technology that allows the spoken word to be "translated" into the written word?  In a meeting (one of way too many) recently, one colleague word-smithed for another this way:
" parentheses for faculty who do not have access close parentheses period new sentence..."
With age and experience, we've breached the gap between anachronism and cutting-edge cool.  Those of us old enough to have dictated reports or other communication into an old-fashioned technology are the ones most capable of effectively using the new technology.  For voice recognition software to produce something other than comically-inaccurate renderings (pay close attention, sometime, to the closed captions on live news stories), the speaker needs several skills in short supply today: proper grammar, punctuation, and pronunciation (diction, to the elderly among us), plus the ability to translate all of those into spoken narrative "on the fly" as it were.

The paradox of new innovation.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Some days, the technology wins

Today is one of those days.  Actually, it's one of those weeks.  How much I appreciate technology when it works is exactly how much I am frustrated when it doesn't.  And here's the thing that should give us all pause: We are far too dependent upon technology for our day-to-day existence.

I'm not a Luddite, nor am I an innovator...not even an early adopter.  Technology of any form should, I believe, make my life easier or better in some way.  Some times it does.  I'd put the electric iron, air conditioning, telephones, and electricity squarely in the corner of Easier or Better in Some Way.  Computers and the attendant peripherals tap dance all over the line between Easier-Better and something best spelled with far fewer letters.  And as cell phones become more computer than phone, they, too, slip further from Easier-Better.

There was a time when we all knew the telephone numbers of our parents (or children, depending upon our age), neighbors, local businesses, and close friends.  Far too many of us don't know the work or cell phone numbers of our spouse or closest friends; when the cell phone stops working, we are frighteningly helpless.  As a friend of mine asks frequently, what will happen when someone unplugs the cord?

The source of my pique today is a recent issue with my home modem, which seems to have stopped working due to a storm-related power surge.  These things happen (though not, I might add, to my books, pens, or paper....just sayin') and the modem was still under warranty.  Installed the new modem and...the wireless router won't allow a connection. After close to an hour on the phone with the helpful (yes, they really were) people at A.T.&T., we reach the end of the support they can provide.  Only when I am left on my own to do the requisite research do I learn that the router has been "phased out" (that's Greek for "we are now making something else that costs a lot more") and is no longer supported.  Would have been nice to know that when I replaced the decrepit modem two months ago.  In order to have wireless access, I am now forced to buy another piece of technology.  All I get to decide is which piece and at what cost.

Lest you think I am overstating the case of our tech-dependency and helplessness, here's what happened when I previewed this post mid-way:
Today, the technology won.  We'll see how tomorrow goes.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"Self-expression over excellence, confidence over perfection."

I read and copied it (by hand) without attribution many years ago.  There's a sadness in my inability to attribute authorship to words powerful enough to write about some 15 or so years later.  A significant learning in the intervening years is the wisdom of always noting the source, whether a book, a lecture, a website, a speech, or a private conversation. If it's important enough to remember, it's important enough to remember the source.  Though I've tried, I've not yet been able to find the source (and, yes, help is welcome).

What I do remember is why I kept this quote for (re)discovery.  It captured much of what I wanted to convey to my now-grown daughter about the difference between striving for perfection (by some external standard) and accepting who we are. Striving to achieve the unrealistic goal of Perfect derails the very efforts that lead to excellence, as well as the efforts that lead to failure--the failure required for learning.

This doesn't excuse mediocre work or cutting corners or accepting less than our best effort.  What it does, however, is free us from the debilitating effects of chasing a perfection we will never reach.  It frees us from the tyranny of perfection, the tyranny that most often blossoms as procrastination.

Knowing we cannot reach perfection, we fail to reach at all.  Far better to start with an honest assessment and acceptance of who we are and what we know, then find the people and the opportunities to challenge us to personal excellence.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Eloquence (be)heard

I'm not an expert in technology.  I'm not.  Just ask anyone who is an expert, whether in hardware or software (including how to use either or both to accomplish specific tasks) and you'll hear a chorus of agreement. Not. An. Expert.

Now that we've established my credentials, read on.

After talking with a peer about a specific technology we both use and for which we are planning a short presentation for faculty, I was baffled when I received an email that said: "I want to thank you for our conversation Tuesday; I think I learned more during that time than in many many (name of technology) seminars all rolled into one!!!"

I have no idea what I did.  So I asked my peer what was different about the "babbling" (my word, because that's pretty well how it felt) and received this reply:
My first impression is that the technical stuff wasn't the focus, rather, the focus was on interesting stuff we can do and (how) this technology can assist us.  It was--we can use this technology to make our teaching better. Also, it was a willingness to go outside the confines of (the technology) to achieve the goals we want to achieve in our teaching.
Then there was that confident, knowledgeable tone you have when we speak about this stuff. The sort of "of course you can do this" attitude didn't hurt either.
And here are vestiges of my first corporate job, where I found unexpected allies in the technology group of the insurance company where I worked.  Allies who offered solutions to problems I had and critiques (often accurate) of the other business problems they could have solved, had anyone bothered to ask. What intrigued me was how helpful I found the tech folks to be, how willing they were to share what they knew, and disenfranchised they seemed to feel. Even in our language, there was Technology and there was The Business, as though they were distinct factions, rather than intertwined and interdependent elements of mutual success.

Fast forward almost 30 years and the dialog is similar between Technology and The Faculty.  The vast majority of what I shared with my peer last week was shared with me by technology experts on campus. If I'm confident in the use of any technology, I owe much of my comfort to the people who've answered my questions, fixed the things I have (frequently) broken, laughed when I challenged them to explain it in terms that even I can understand, and generally provided solutions to my problems.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


I've been reading John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage and I can't help but notice the stark contrast between the United States Senators profiled for acts of political courage and the high-profile political shenanigans in any newspaper this week or month. 

What impresses me most about the courage of conviction  (or Kennedy's "grace under pressure," borrowed from Ernest Hemingway) is the willingness to stand.  To be clear and articulate about a well-reasoned position taken up only after much thought, analysis, and consideration of the common good. To know full well the political and personal costs. To be willing to pay the price.

Only history determines with accuracy whether a courageous stand was valid on the merits.  I can be courageous and right; I can be courageous and wrong.  In the midst of sincere and passionate advocates on both sides of any issue, time and distance are required to assess with any accuracy the decisions made and the positions taken. Sadly, the vituperative attacks on character and reputation are but one price to be paid, well in advance of any vindicating historical record.

What I am seeing today is comfortable courage, a courage of convenience. A courage that allows personal safety, careful scripting of commentary, and skillful manipulation of the press. It makes me wonder about the progress we've made.

Friday, June 21, 2013

In search of readers

Teachers have said, read, or heard it multiple times: good readers make good writers.  In fact, a quick search via Google yields about 46,800,000 results, all attempts to illustrate, explain, or build programs around the need for getting students to read and to write--whether more, a little, or at all.

This week, one of my classes (college seniors) is working on a written change management plan.  The students understand the concepts, can describe the organizations facing the change, and can answer my questions about the what, why, when, how, where, and who.  As a group, they struggle with writing.

I hear myself using phrases such as "narrative thread" and "tell the story" and "lead me to the conclusion," all of which make sense to readers. And I wonder if these phrases have any resonance for my students.

Somewhere during the week, I happened to actually see (as opposed to passing without noticing) one of the many stacks of books in my house.  I read.  A lot. Sometimes, I read mindless fiction (clay feet) but, far more often, I read texts that require my full attention. Authors who use metaphors I may not grasp immediately, words I rarely read or use (another trip to the OED, still my favorite dictionary), complex sentences that make me slow down or read twice (at least), concepts I don't understand, or premises with which I disagree.  Poetry, history, mythology, religion, political commentary, humor, biography, autobiography--whatever the genre, I've read it and I probably have it.

Fortunate enough to be raised by readers, taught by readers, and befriended by readers, I recognize good writing when I see it.  I may not be able to articulate why a particular phrase lingers well beyond the reading or what it is about a poem that beckons me to return (some of the best reading is well beyond the second or third go-round), but I know it when I read it.  Just as a catcher knows a good pitch, through a combination of experience, training, and practice, a reader knows a good writer.  And both good reading and good catching require work.

I don't have an easy answer for my students. Perhaps searching for an easy answer is, in fact, part of the problem.

Monday, June 17, 2013

"Just a reminder"

This is the message reminding me that Google Reader is going away. Did I mention that I am not happy about the demise of Google Reader? I think I did. And I may have written about my fondness for Reader. On more than one occasion.

I have been diligent in my research for a replacement for Reader. I have downloaded my data from Reader. And I have selected and downloaded a "replacement" (which is so far from adequate as to be undeserving of recognition by name) to Reader. I have also come to the sad conclusion that there is not an adequate substitute for the Reader I have made a part of my morning routine.

And so I find myself teaching a course this semester in organizational change, talking about the reasons why people resist change, encouraging students to remember that a compelling vision plus WIFM (what's in it for me?) will appeal to the early adopters and the early majority...and I confess to a wee bit of hypocrisy. I am futilely resisting the inevitability of this particular change. And should any of my students wonder about my humanity, this is just a reminder.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's rarely the one we think

Sometime within the last few weeks, I had one of those days...the days when everyone wants something and there's not much left to give them. By the afternoon, I found myself wandering through another cemetery, composing and taking photographs.  This time, all I had with me was my cell phone, which is far from perfect on a sunny day.  In fact, many of the shots I composed in my head disappeared the moment I tried to look through the viewfinder, leaving me with a shoot-and-hope perspective that somehow seemed appropriate for the day.

Today, when I finally had the chance to download and study the photographs, I was pleasantly surprised.  Some I liked a great deal; others, not so much.

The intention, for me, is not to work overly hard at composition, but to trust the urge to capture a particular image.  Since I have, over the course of my lifetime, visited countless cemeteries in various locations (including multiple countries and continents), I tend to trust the urge.  If something is unusual or shadows catch my eye or I am intrigued, I take a photograph. Sometimes they turn out well; sometimes, well, they don't.

But what I noticed today, and not for the first time, is that the photograph I am most pleased with is rarely the one I worked the hardest to compose or capture.  In photography, as in life, what captivates us most (if we are honest) is rarely the one we think, plan, or intend.  That favorite pair of shoes we bought on a whim, the book we struggled to get all the way through and then could never forget, the friend we found buried beneath the initial's rarely the one we think it will be.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Speaking of work

It's time to deal with the paper pile and the sticky notes, all of which are important enough to keep...but none of which are urgent enough to deal with in a timely manner.  The reminders of things I've done (the orange note and the green note) are the easy ones.  That leaves me with a reminder of the structure for a course in Blackboard, a reminder to practice gratitude (that one needs to stay...), a song I heard online that captivated me enough to search for the name and artist, several business cards of people I (still) need to contact, a random note that no longer makes any sense, and the pile to which I need to pay some respect.  

The random notes are gone, the actions I needed to take are taken, and I unearthed a beautiful tribute to an author and his latest book. When the book review contains phrases such as "for me, my friends are always the age they were when I met them" and "the gift of writing sentences that exactly reproduce what we feel and think in the moment we feel and think it," the review itself is worth printing and tucking away to (re)discover.

I am now headed to the bookstore.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Love and work

I asked a colleague today if he remembered loving his work...if he could remember a time when he looked forward to coming to work and enjoyed it enough to wonder why it was called work.  Though he could remember a time, it was long ago.  We commiserated about the short-lived gift of loving our work.

It's on my mind this summer, as my daughter describes her first summer job with phrases such as "Every day is a Saturday" and "I love being here" and "I can't believe they pay me to do this." She's one of the lucky ones who followed her heart to a job that seems in every way a perfect fit for her skills, her temperament, and her personality.  It warms my heart to hear and see this idyllic match between someone I love and the work that she loves.

And as I ponder the role of parenting and education, I wonder where individuals and institutions find the balance between economic viability (earning enough to support oneself and, perhaps, a family) and nurturing a soul.  I often tell my students that no amount of money makes miserable, life-draining, soul-deteriorating work palatable.  They rarely listen, surrounded as they are by salary surveys, advertising campaigns, and a consumerism mentality.

The gift of loving our work may not have to be short-lived.  But there are few enough who seem to know how to nurture and sustain the gift (assuming they find it at all) as to make one wonder how they continue to hear their drummer on that less trodden path.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Community and connection

What has happened when education makes us less aware, less tolerant, or more ethnocentric? What are we doing wrong?

These are the questions raised in recent conversations with people in my community, people who are leaders, philanthropists, business owners, and parents.  People who are concerned about food insecurity, poverty, health (and health care) in our midst.  People who wonder why education seems to make so many of us less concerned, less willing to help, and less aware.

My response at the time was that we have, perhaps, forgotten the purpose and value of education.  I've given it a bit of thought over the past few days and I have no better answer, though I have found others with more eloquence:
At their core, schools should prepare people to be constructive citizens. A part of that is the building of a common base of civic, cultural, social and political knowledge.  (The Jackson Herald in an editorial.)
Public schools are an instrument of democracy to the extent that they maintain a vital connection with families and their community. (Education historian, Diane Ravitch in her blog.)
Perhaps it matters to be competitive in a global environment, but not at the expense of being connected and constructive citizens of the community around us.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Red letter days

Our learning management system (LMS) was upgraded over the weekend, with two immediately noticeable results: (1) new tools and features to keep me busy and (2) red warning messages informing me that work I spent hours putting into the LMS is problematic.  The work is problematic for the LMS...which translates to problematic for me.

Because we have amazing technical support, my red warning messages were tackled quickly. The support folks tried telling me to just stop changing things (since the messages only popped up when I attempted edits), but that's challenging for inveterate tweakers. We found the issue, I'm free to tweak, and the red is gone.

But my response to seeing those serious-looking red messages gave me pause.  Red has long been the color of choice for educators and editors, creating a knee-jerk response that seems at odds with the use of red to signify days or events of import.  How did the color red come to mean danger, importance, celebration, and failure, all at the same time? And whose idea was it to take a color initially reserved for "particularly important or significant information" and associate it with poor work or, worse yet, with feedback?  

As an educator who is currently taking one course and teaching two others, I am both giving and receiving feedback, assignments, and grades.  Learning really should feel more like a red letter day than it usually does...and I am far more aware of the importance of every piece of the academic environment, from tone of voice in a verbal exchange to use of salutation in a written message. 

I want my interactions with students to be significant, to be red letter days in the best possible sense of the word.  And that means taking the time to view everything (syllabus, LMS content, email...) as an opportunity to create meaning and significance.  Here's to red letter days that celebrate the failures that engender learning.

Monday, April 15, 2013

"You...completed the privilege of playing"

In the midst of wrapping up one semester and planning for another (as the teacher) and starting a semester (as the student), an article about Coach Frosty Westering made me stop and write.

Though Westering left coaching in 2003 and "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" last Friday, his legacy is one of honoring the losses and well as the wins, making time to savor what matters in life, and singing.  Yes, singing:
During warmups for the NCAA Division III national championship in December 1999, right there on the field in Virginia, his players sang "The Twelve Days of Christmas," then proceeded to win 42-13.
Can you imagine warming up on the other side, then losing 42-13 to that?
Coach Westering instilled in his players the relative importance in life of losing.  Losing means you had the privilege of playing, a privilege that "could not occur without opponents." 

It might be easy to dismiss all of this as the Pollyanna attitude of an average coach, if not for the fact that Westering holds a record for most coaching wins and ranks ninth in wins among all college football coaches.

 Win or lose; succeed or fail.  One defines the other and how we handle both defines us.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Details matter

We've been talking about design this week, as part of the larger discussion about innovation.  It seems to me that details matter, whether in design, in customer service, or in life.  The artist takes note of the details, as a matter of pride in her work.

In the wood running board of a 1937 Packard Town Car or the wood spokes of an early 1920's Ford wheel, there is the attention to detail that is the hallmark of an artist, a craftsman, a designer.  Long before Apple, there was design...and the attendant attention to details.

How often do we forget the importance of the details...the ones that delight and enrich...the ones that we may be sacrificing for efficiency and productivity?  

In the rush to finish, to move on, to get ahead, are we aware how often we lose sight of the things that matter to our customers, our students, our friends, our children...ourselves?  

Slow down.  Take time to notice the details, especially those that have been relegated to the past. You may be surprised how much there is to discover in the beauty of the details.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Tenure as sunk costs

After writing about sunk costs, I stumbled upon the best possible example of a disruptive innovation for higher education: abolishing tenure.  The merits of tenure are fodder for many a heated discussion, but the sheer mechanics of unwinding a tenure-based system are likely to keep many universities from seeing with a clear eye.

There is probably no better example of sunk costs.

Serendipity lives.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The siren song of sunk costs

What we've already invested can keep us trapped, even when we know the textbook definition of sunk costs.  An education system that prizes achievement (success, perhaps) over learning may be a contributing factor, though no small part is the lifelong dialectic of permanence versus change.  

Years ago, while consulting with an oil and gas company of globally recognized name, I asked about a process that did not seem to work well.  The response I received from a successful middle manager was, essentially, this:  "Yes, it is flawed and we know it doesn't work well.  But we're comfortable with it and have no plans to change it, because we can implement this process quickly."

Using a flawed, but speedy process makes absolutely no sense.  And yet, it's what many of us do multiple times each day.  We keep doing something the way we know, rather than the best or better way, because we have so much invested; the sunk costs (whether financial or emotional) keep us from thinking clearly and charting a course to what would work far better.

This is one of many places in life and in work where the risk of failure is high--not because we've already failed, but because we refuse to ignore the siren song that lures us to stay where we are and feed the sunk costs.  If failure is inevitable in a life of exploration and learning, perhaps we need traveling companions who do not allow us to succumb to the sirens.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pretty sure there's an "I" in irrational

So, it's official.  The Google Reader I've come to trust as a daily companion is going away. And the problem with trying something that "never caught on as a mainstream customer experience" is that I liked it.  A lot. And now I have to change. I'm a big proponent of change. But not this change.

Part of what makes change and innovation (which are, essentially, synonymous) so interesting is the emotional attachments we make to the way things are, unless we are the one wanting the change.  Allow me to become disenchanted with my RSS reader and choose another one?  Great.  Shut down the RSS reader I like and make me choose another one?  Not great at all.

The humor here is that the outcome is exactly the same.  I get to experiment with ways of aggregating the things I like to play with try something new.  And I'm irrationally unhappy about it, mostly because the timing was not of my choosing.

The biggest obstacle to successful change is active resistance, sometimes for very good reasons.  When we can do something faster or better the way we do it now (as opposed to the better, faster new way), it's extremely difficult to make near-term choices we do not like or want for the promise of longer-term improvement.  Its' why most of us don't change bad habits we know we need to change.

Never let it be said that people who understand change and the importance of change to both learning and innovation are more rational than anyone else when on the receiving end of a change we do not want.

I'm going  to miss that reader.

Friday, March 8, 2013


I planted bulbs last fall, as a personal refusal to go gentle into that season I enjoy least.  I distinctly remember planting tulips and I might have planted jonquils.  I had no recollection at all of planting what I found today.  I consider these lovelies to be the joys of a bad memory.

After reveling in the sheer delight of finding crocus in multiple places (who knew?), I wondered about the metaphors of planting...planting without expectation, planting with no guarantee of success, planting far removed from the joy of the harvest.  It's what educators, innovators, and parents (among others) do--we plant.  It may not be seeds or bulbs, but it most definitely is ideas, hopes, challenges, and, if we are lucky, a bit of knowledge.

I wonder whether education puts too much emphasis on the pretty and not enough on the gritty.  End-of-year test scores, grades, and student ratings of professors all seem to be missing the mark in a rather short-sighted way and they lack the intrinsic value of projects, portfolios, or prototypes.   The gritty part of working through a problem, developing a project, creating a design--and, equally, in failing to solve, develop, or create--is where the learning happens.  The interaction with an educator as coach, collaborator, or guide (rather than as lecturer) offers opportunities that are, at best, only hinted by numbers, rankings, and anonymous feedback.

If we focus on the shortest, though most visible, part of any process, we are missing most of it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"Write like no one's reading."

Tonight was the last class of Comedy College.  And, as with the first night, the most important lessons weren't about comedy at all; they were about authenticity, listening, and letting go of the self-judgment that blocks spontaneity.  The more we assess and measure ourselves, the less we are able to listen to our improv partner.  Worrying about how we will be perceived by others causes us to stop, think, and lose the connection with the moment.

Before I went to class tonight, I was catching up on some reading (while eating pizza) and stumbled upon the phrase "Write like no one's reading," which means that, as a writer, I "write what someone like me would like to read" without concern about how others (who are not like me) might respond.

Being true to the moment in improv is very much like being true to a standard in writing. The audience observes--but the audience does not determine--the outcome. Paradoxically, authenticity on the stage and on the page require letting go of concern about the audience.  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Expert risk takers

Decisions not to pursue a course of action unless we are reasonably certain of success. Taking the safe path.  Calculating the odds.  Weighing the alternatives and choosing with care.  One really can't argue with any of these.  On the other hand, there would be no air travel, vaccines, tall buildings, or world records if everyone calculated, weighed, and chose safely.

Why is there not room for both in my workplace, my class, my family...and my life?  And what is the role of education?  What about the role of learning?

I recently watched Erin McKean talk about lexicography (that seems a safe enough topic) and was struck by her assertion that "paper is the enemy of words"...that the book-shaped repository for words is self-limiting.  What makes these statements powerful is that Erin McKean is a lexicographer who loves books and words with a passion I admire. Able to embrace both the historical paper dictionary and the limitless online dictionary, McKean provides both reassurance and challenge:
There will still be paper dictionaries.  When cars became the dominant mode of transportation, we didn't round up all the horses and shoot them.
Exploring alternatives does not necessarily eliminate the historical voice.  What if embracing both the limits and the limitless allows more people into the conversation?  If encouraging risk is important, perhaps the challenge is being open to the who, what, when, why, and how questions that all curious and creative people ask.  They just ask them differently...or refuse the accept the old answers.

I am not advocating foolish or ill-advised risk in the classroom or in life.  Rather, I am wondering why we ceased to provide the solid foundation of knowledge that allows room for experimentation, risk (failure?), discovery, and innovation. It's the experts who seem to make the best risk-takers.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Failing to learn

Failure is a recurring theme in much of my reading, of late.  Oddly enough, the reading I've been doing is about creativity and innovation.  About our education system.  And about the connection between learning and failing.

Though it may more accurately be the fear of failure, rather than failure itself, that is the antithesis of creativity, the technicality seems less important than the recognition that much effort is expended in the avoidance of failure.  This is odd to me, as the most important lessons are generally those that involve failure.

Failing to learn.  By refusing to fail?  Or by understanding the importance of failure?

One of the gifts of age is having enough failures to harvest.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

You don't have to like it

There's a lot being written (and read) about education, technology, and change.   When you brush aside the details and posturing, most of what is being written is about how technology is changing education in ways that we won't be able to undo any time soon.  And when I think about the changes, I think about a Jerry Lewis movie from 1960.

Cinderfella is not a particularly good movie taken as whole cloth, but it has some delightful pieces.  One of those is Count Basie's music and Count Basie himself.  Another is Jerry Lewis' humor, including the physicality rarely seen in comedy today.  And the reason I think of this movie when I think about changes in education is where Basie's music and Lewis' comedy meet.

Near the end of the movie, Jerry Lewis dances with Anna Maria Alberghetti.  If you've never seen the movie (which is highly likely), it will suffice to say that the dance is that romantic moment in a romantic comedy when the magic happens. Dancing to The Count Basie Orchestra directed by Count Basie (you actually get to see the Count and his orchestra), there is a moment when Lewis brings Alberghetti to a standstill, carefully arranges a fold in her lovely gown just so, motions for her to stand where she is, then dances an exuberant and absurdly comic jig around her.  Twice.  And THAT is the moment that captures what is happening in education.

The force and magnitude of the changes being wrought in education are of the size and scale of both the printing press and the technology that has all but replaced the printing industry.  And, much as we may love the status quo, expecting it to stay the way it is while we dance our respective jigs around it is about as silly as the comedy for which Jerry Lewis is known.

The changes are already happening.  And whether we like them or not is less relevant than whether we will be active participants or passive resisters.  I'll let you in on a little secret here:  I'm not a big fan of sweeping change, especially when I like something just the way it is.  But I like even less having the change(s) decided and imposed by others.

I'm learning new dance steps and finding new partners.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

At what cost humor?

I just searched the inbox of a rarely-used email address in the hope (faint though it was) that I might find an email from CD Baby.  I found it:  

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow.
A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. 
Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. 
We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved "Bon Voyage!" to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Wednesday, October 24th. 
I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as "Customer of the Year." We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!! 
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Derek Sivers, president, CD Baby
the little store with the best new independent music

Notice the date.  October 24.  That's October 24, 2007.

How often does a company send a "your product has shipped" email that customers remember?  For five years?  And what made me remember this one?  It warmed my felt made me laugh.  It made me want to teach my very own cd baby to laugh, to love, and to write well.

A perfect blend of information, humor, and quirkiness made such an impression that I have referenced this email in conversations and in classes for over five years.  I've been providing free marketing for an innovative small business.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The value of slowing down

We move at a pace that (too) often takes us right past the important things in life...without even realizing that we've missed them.  Technology has become both our access to anytime, anywhere connectivity and our figurative ball and chain.  I'd forgotten how important it is to disconnect with The World and reconnect with my world--the inner sanctum of who I am (or aspire to be) and who matters to me.

For the first time in years, I took a vacation that did not include checking email or staying connected via technology.  My daughter and I spent time enjoying London and one another, taking the time to focus on the things that matter.

One of my favorite photos from our trip is the doorway of the home of the resident physician at the Tower of London.  There are similar photographs available via an internet search, but this one is special because of who took it (my daughter), the conversation we were having when I asked her to take the photograph, and where we went right after the photograph was taken.

The Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula is located a few steps away from the blue doorway, an ironic juxtaposition of the preservation and destruction of human life.  The quiet moments spent inside the chapel touched me deeply as we listened to a Yeoman Warder who worships each Sunday in the chapel.  To Yeoman Warder Steve, the Chapel is hallowed ground both as a memorial to those who died nearby and as a place of personal worship.  Hallowed ground.  Only by slowing down...