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.