Monday, October 13, 2014

Feedback and fruitcake

The first round of peer evaluations are in.  Eleven undergraduate students and one graduate student have provided quantitative and qualitative feedback to classmates who are partners in maintaining (and, ideally, improving) a retail business for class credit. The challenges?  Giving useful feedback, learning to receive feedback, and preparing for the day when both giving and receiving feedback will affect raises, bonuses, promotions, and corporate survival.

The students have the same challenges as the upper-level managers with whom I've worked: Who said that about me? That's just wrong; I'm not that way at all.  Why would someone say that?  How can I respond to feedback that is inconsistent with other feedback? Do I try to change my behavior? If so, how much do I change and which feedback do I use?  How do I rationalize quantitative feedback that says I'm a superstar with qualitative comments that tell me I have lots of room for improvement?

My goal is to help them understand that feedback is (trite though it sounds) a gift.  It's an indication of how others view your actions, though it's far from being an unbiased statement of fact. It's an awareness that not everyone loves you, likes you, approves of you, or even has a clue about you.

More than anything else, feedback from peers is a call for rigorous self-assessment. It is the opportunity to determine whether and what you will change...or not change.  It is the sometimes painful realization that motivation can be both misunderstood and harshly judged.  As with the ubiquitious holiday fruitcake, few people really enjoy feedback, despite the tradition of giving and receiving.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Creativity in a box

Conventional wisdom is that the more we learn, the less we know.  It's not that learning makes us stupid (at least not by design), but that a broader understanding of the world in which we live or a deeper understanding of a given subject shines a harsh and unforgiving light on simple solutions and easy answers. Thus, the longer I teach, the more questions I have:

  • How can creativity be taught or explored within a traditional academic course bound by a traditional academic calendar?
  • If research indicates that knowledge and facts have little bearing on the decisions we make--that, in fact, passion and existing beliefs have far greater bearing--what is the role of education?
  • Do taxpayers understand or care about the reality that tax dollars support the academic practice of providing guaranteed salaries for tenured academics and the increasing size (and salaries) of administrative oversight?
  • Have we constructed (or allowed the construction of) political and educational systems that are, for all practical purposes, mostly divorced from the people they are charged with representing and educating?
  • Within the boxes of our making, how do so many people still manage to find beauty around them, value in a life well lived, and purpose in brief existence?
Perhaps the last question is the necessary but not sufficient condition for grappling with the others.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Freedom vs. responsibility

There is a raging debate among the faculty on my campus.  Coalitions are forming, email debate is at an all-time high, and tempers are flaring.  The committee that provided a recommendation is being challenged in sidewalk conversations, meeting sidebars, and faculty lounges.  The topic?  Faculty responsibilities when students have excused absences from class.

Yes, you are reading that correctly.  The faculty at large is up in arms over fair and equitable treatment of students who miss classes, with the emphasis on those students who have university-sanctioned or other legitimate reasons for their absence.  To be perfectly clear, the concern is not whether we are being fair or how to be fair, but over whether faculty can be held to any consistent expectations regarding their behavior and their policies in the classroom.

The recent hullabaloo is over a proposed addition to existing policies and, in the process of voicing strong objections to the proposed addition, most faculty are taking issue not with the proposal, but with the existing and unchanged policies.  As these policies have been in place since (according to faculty who've been here far longer than I) 1999 and are publicly available online, this puzzles me.

What I have learned from observing this process is that most faculty (regardless of how many years they have been teaching or whether or not they are tenured, tenure-track, or the all-encompassing-and-convenient other) are unaware that (1) the university has a written attendance policy, (2) the university has a policy regarding university-sanctioned absences, and (3) none of this is about academic freedom.

What alarms me is the lack of understanding by people who hold the privileged status of tenure about the nature and the limits of their privilege.  We are a publicly-funded university. Our state board of education determines the number of hours required for a degree, the funding allocated to our institution, and policies about the number of classroom hours required for an online versus a face-to-face class.  Everyone who teaches for the university is expected to adhere to policies regarding travel, expenditures, and the academic calendar.

Faculty discussion, debate, and disagreement about policy are signs of an engaged and thoughtful faculty. Using the argument of academic freedom to be exempt from those policies is not one of those signs.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


A recent article expounding the virtues of a life-sized maze--complete with photo and description of the maze--was captioned by a reference to a labyrinth.  That represents both sloppy journalism and sloppy thinking, a confusion of two things with some common characteristics but very different functions

The recent public press about grade inflation (which essentially means an increasing percentage of the "higher" letter grades) suggests that the increase in grades must mean a lowering of standards.  Perhaps it does.  But before I am willing to argue whether standards are slipping, I would like to see us stop conflating student ability (which is represented by various measures whose scores or results are normally distributed, thus, the ubiquitous normal curve) with student performance against a clear and measurable set of standards.

If the standards are clear for a course and most students are able by the end of the semester to reach those standards, does that necessarily mean the course standards are too low?  Could it mean, in fact, that the instructor is among the best and able to take a range of students with varying abilities and get most of them to the standard by the end of the course?

Our thinking about the goals and objectives of education is not just semantics. Sometimes it's confusion or conflation or both.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Thinking about Africa

Last week, I spent time with 25 participants in the Young African Leaders Initiative. Trust me when I say I was truly humbled to be conversing with the group, as every one of them is equally or more skilled in facilitation.  They are well educated, well read, and well spoken.

While waiting for the entire group to return from lunch, I reviewed the schedule for their experience here and saw a detailed, packed agenda of sessions, events, and activities.  When I saw it, I understood why the early arrivals seemed tired.

A week later, what the group said to me has caused me to wonder (again) about the tendency of academic institutions to do what we've always done, rather than what might work better.  If I understood what these young leaders were saying, they know the challenges they are facing in Africa, they largely know what they need to do, and the realities of their lives make it difficult to plan, think, and act for the longer term. They describe Africa as in "a constant state of emergency."  The need for quick action competes with the need for thoughtful building of coalitions to achieve the goals for their communities, organizations, states, and continent.

These leaders are here in the United States for six weeks.  And I am still wondering after my brief interactions with them whether the academic "challenge" for these leaders is best served by the appearance of rigor in the schedule, the topics, and the presenters.  One wonders whether the academic challenge is how to use the six weeks (while they are at least physically removed from the crises) to collaborate on meaningful deliverables that reflect their diverse perspectives--deliverables (action plans, proposals, budgets, training plans, etc.) that have been created by the collective, allowing these leaders to model collaboration, return with useful next steps, and develop the network they will need to draw upon when the next crisis threatens.

The schedule might look less scholarly, but the outcomes might be more lasting.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

It's all connected

Grand Central Terminal.  It embodies history, architecture, advocacy, politics, fiction, romance, astronomy, art, travel, industry.  It's more than metaphor for how everything is connected.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend the Best Teachers Summer Institute, made all the more enjoyable by the proximity to New York City.  And I found myself standing quietly inside Grand Central, watching the bustle, hearing bits and pieces of conversation, and cataloging all the dots that intersected in that space and time.

For me, the dots began with childhood impressions of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who advocated for the preservation of Grand Central, intersected a work of fiction (and the love who introduced me to it) featuring Grand Central, and included the quiet moments in the midst of a busy terminal surrounded by strangers with whom I had no and every connection.

One of the gifts of time is the breadth of perspective that allows us to see more clearly from a distance. And it's odd to be a better teacher now than in my earlier years, largely due to breadth and distance that allow invisible webs of connection to be seen...or at least felt.

Perhaps not being able to articulate very well (in the classroom) how everything is connected to everything matters less than being willing to stand quietly in the midst of it all.  That, I can do.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Gone to the next adventure

The morning was cool for June and a bit cloudy.  Before I finished my rounds at the local farmers' market, the clouds turned darker bringing the first of several small showers.  Undeterred, I made the planned trip to the national cemetery and to spend some quiet time walking and remembering.

The most poignant part of the cemetery for me is seeing the headstones marked only with Unknown U. S. Soldier.  I always wonder about families somewhere whose loved ones are buried here.  Unknown. Unnamed.  Whether sentiment or reality, I think my best photographs from the national cemetery have been taken while surrounded by these unknown soldiers.

But today, for the first time, I saw a headstone that stopped me in my tracks. Surrounded by headstones with epitaphs for beloved wives (those who chose to be buried here are memorialized on the reverse side of the soldier's headstone) is a headstone with the words Gone to the Next Adventure. It's perfect. It captures everything about living life to the fullest, accepting transience, and embracing the chance to learn here before moving on. And a relationship that honored not just this adventure but also the next one.

I hope my time as a mother, daughter, sister, friend, lover, or teacher has some positive impact on others; I know for certain these roles have taught me much and provided more adventure than I have often (too often, perhaps) been willing to embrace.  But I love the thought of a next great adventure and rushing to embrace it when this adventure concludes.


Other cemetery visits:
My cup runneth over 
It's rarely the one we think
The dark side

Friday, May 9, 2014

A still and quiet moment

The longer you teach, the more students touch your life. They make an imprint, graduate, and move into the next chapter of their own lives. Each beginning is fresh and new to the graduate, a time of pride for the family, and a moment of reflection for the faculty who are privileged to teach.

It's so easy to get lost in the number of papers or projects to grade, the grades to be submitted, the flurry of deadlines to meet, or the dance of grade disappointment.  What matters to me in this particular moment, however, is a different tally, the one that represents the reason we do what we do.

This semester's teaching tally is two undergraduate classes (34 students), two graduate classes (36 students), and two Honors theses.  And from that teaching, twenty-one graduate students receiving degrees tomorrow (a third of whom have traveled from Panama) and another 10 or so undergraduate students who've allowed me to guide them through running a retail business or writing a thesis or both.

While the students may not know how much they have challenged me to think, stretch, laugh, and risk, I am a better teacher for their brief sojourn here. So in this still and quiet moment before the Honors ceremony, the Graduate School graduation party, and the pomp and ceremony of commencement, I am thankful for the silent brush of butterfly wings on heartstrings.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Whether or not you see it...

On a chilly and foggy morning, the invisible suddenly becomes noticeable.  It isn't really invisible, you see, but easily overlooked until circumstances make it impossible to miss. In this particular case, what suddenly becomes visible is the almost-magical carpet of webs spun nightly along the ground, between plants, across grasses, and at the top of the most unimaginable spindles.

What makes the sight so breathtaking is knowing that the webs are always there; we just don't see them.

Much as fish don't see water and the prejudiced are sure they aren't, many things in life are invisible due to attitude, upbringing, rank, privilege, status, nationality, or a plethora of blinders, blind spots, and blindfolds. It's so difficult to see what's right in front of us that the wise intentionally seek different perspectives in the knowledge that collective sight is sharper and less obtuse than individual sight.

And the foolish among us?  They seek the bland homogeneity of agreement, convinced that the number of people who see it (or don't) is the litmus test of "truth."

Saturday, April 12, 2014


This year, the Panama Canal has been in operation for 100 years, including the Miraflores locks. One of three sets of locks along the canal, the Miraflores locks are the most proximate to Panama City, making them both the most visited and the most recognized.

I've spent the last four days teaching classes as part of an Executive MBA program in Panama.   As is so often the case, I could never have predicted that I would be marking a personal milestone in Panama City in the same year that the canal celebrates a centennial.

Over the past week I have tasted authentic empanadas, marveled at bunion trees, walked for miles (with both sunburn and blisters as silent witness), photographed the marvel that is Panama City, developed relationships, and wondered about the life we plan versus the life we live.

For as long as I can remember, I have seen photographs of Panama, including the locks, the trees, and the first house in which I remember living.  I'm not sure how to describe revisiting all of these many years later, mindful of the importance of this place to my parents, the distance I have traveled personally since leaving Panama, and the profession which made celebrating this milestone possible. Though it may take a while to find the words, I am thankful for the experience.

The Panama Canal celebrates 100 years. I am celebrating my small part.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Relationship "failures"

Conventional wisdom has it that relationships (or lack thereof) consume more thought and reflection as we age and/or as we are reminded of our mortality through illness or death.  Our television and social media habits seem consumed with relationships--situation comedies, "reality" T.V., and dramas where the interactions among the detectives, sales representatives, doctors, attorneys, or other variety of co-worker are as important if not more important than the outcome of the specific case or incident.  And classic literature, whether prose, poetry, or play, is, essentially, a study in the nature and complexity of relationships.

And yet, in higher education, how often do we take the time to examine what constitutes failure or success in relationships?  How do we know we've failed? How do we define relationship "failure"? What did we learn from those interactions we deem to be other than a success?   And perhaps the most important question: Why does it matter?

If our emphasis is entirely a sense of urgency to accomplish whatever the objective(s) may be or how many countable things (dollars, sales, awards, grade points, tweets, houses, toys, etc.) we can acquire, why focus any attention in our education or in our lives to the relationships that will matter the most when those very lives are brought into sharp focus?

Perhaps we are too busy being successful in other areas to give relationships much attention. Perhaps that doesn't really matter, as long as our students get good grades, good jobs, and a good lifestyle.  Does it really matter if we get along with our colleagues, work well within our department, support our team, or take the time to put people at least on par with work?

Turns out that it may matter to employers.  And that we may need to help our students see and understand their relationship failures, something Google calls "intellectual humility." 

Without humility, you are unable to learn. It is why research shows that many graduates from hotshot business schools plateau. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure."  [How to Get a Job at Google.  The New York Times.  February 22, 2014.]

This may be a bit of a challenge in traditional higher education, where the emphasis on research, publication, and tenure may have left the mentors and teachers ill-equipped to mentor and teach. In my own college, for example, there is a strong commitment to using business simulations to prepare both our undergraduate and our graduate students for the world of business and the making of good business decisions.  

If one thinks about that for even a few minutes, one wonders why we would prefer a teaching method devoid of the relationship dynamics upon which future success will depend. And don't even begin to explain how the teams in which we place students for the purpose of completing simulations replicate future relationships in the workplace. They don't. Never again are our students likely to be with surrounded by equally bright co-workers focused on a single task that they all know how to address with the least possible work for the greatest possible common and equal benefit.  Legally and ethically, that is.

Perhaps the relationship failures (or lack of attention to them) in higher education start somewhere in the formation and preparation for an academic career.  One does wonder.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lives and loves of others

My reading of late has been by or about Alice Steinbach, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Harry Gordon Selfridge, and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. And as I read, time collapses, bends, folds in on itself.  I am reminded of the predictable cycles (crises, some might say) through which all must navigate, as well as the transitory nature of life that seems long only for the first three decades or so.  After that, the speed with which we realize life's realities is matched or exceeded only by the speed of life itself. 

The changes and twists in our own lives are part of why we read about the lives of others.  To remind ourselves, perhaps, that we are not so different from others.  And to mine the short life of another (regardless of how long in years) for the wisdom to transform our own.  Life is a funny thing, understood by many of us far better at a distance or in the rear view mirror.

One of the things I fail to remember with any consistency is that nature--specifically the collaboration of gardener and garden to learn and honor the seasons--is where I find respite. Steinbach researched, wrote and traveled. Millay wrote and lived her poetry. Selfridge created the luxury experience we know today as shopping.  And Jackie Kennedy Onassis? She remained true through several recreations of self to her belief that "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much."

And as a reminder of the speed of change, photos from my garden. Yesterday and today. Twenty-four hours. My role as a gardener is to collaborate rather than control, to enjoy the beauty in the moment, and to remember my relatively small role.  This, perhaps, is the best reason to read about the lives and loves of others.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Tweet potato chips

If you'll pardon the unintended double entendre, there's a point to be made here. Seriously.  There is a plethora of research (trust me...or Google it) suggesting that the brain's response to foods high in fat and carbohydrates is to keep eating those foods even when we are full, not hungry, or know we shouldn't.  Thus, we are likely to have difficulty eating just one potato chip, regardless of who manufactures it.

Ditto with tweets.

I am again checking in with Twitter, trying to be open minded, and willing to embrace this tool if I can figure out how to manage (or ignore?) the barrage that seems part and parcel of the Twitter-verse.  There are individuals whose lives seem limited to the interstices of their tweets. How much of that can possibly be worth my time?

On the scale of technology comfort and expertise (assuming one exists; if not, it should), Twitter is at the not-all-that-comfortable and wow-I-feel-silly end of the continuum for me. The good news is that it reminds me how it feels to be a learner, a novice, a student.  The bad news is that I'm not climbing this particular learning curve very gracefully.

In discussions of Twitter as a teaching tool, there are teachers who use it to hone foreign language skills (the premise being that a 140-characters limit removes some of the anxiety of writing in a second language), encourage in-class debate at a speed and increased participation not offered by the traditional raising of the hand, and craft narrative stories 140 characters at a time.  (Some of the best resources I've found are at the end of this post.)

But without a strategy or focus for Twitter, it quickly becomes an exercise in trying not to eat the entire bag of chips, with a key difference being that the bag of tweets never empties, despite the rate of consumption.

Perhaps my Achilles tendency is Twitter-specific.

Teaching with Twitter: 5 Resources for Getting Started
A Primer for EdTech: Tools for K-12 and Higher Ed. Teachers
Inside Higher Ed: Teaching with Twitter
The Guardian: Can Twitter Open Up a New Space for Learning, Teaching and Thinking?
A Point of View: Why I Don't Tweet

And for the really adventurous: Twitter Vs. Zombies: New Media Literacy and the Virtual Flash Mob

Monday, February 17, 2014

A million pounds of scrap metal

The conversation went something like this:
"We found close to 80 tires on 140 acres. And the scrap metal?  At the most recent price of eleven cents per pound....let's just say that's a whole lot of Coke cans."   
"Four old truck trailers--and another two in a separate location made of aluminum (which were used to store feed for cattle)--plus a silo full of corn (even mildewed) was $10,000 worth of corn."
"It's extraordinary to see someone's life come down to scrap metal"
How often do our lives amount to scrap metal? The things we didn't prize, didn't take the time to count, or assumed weren't worth the effort may be of more value than we realize.

A million pounds of scrap metal make a difference, even though it may not be the difference we intended.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Details are the devil

Details matter, whether in education, research, parenting, or sports.  And because details matter, they trouble the diligent in pursuit of excellence or in pursuit of completion, on less lofty days.

Today was devoted almost entirely to completing the blended course required for my certification of mastery in blended course design.  The deadline (Tuesday) for submission to the certifying agency is self-imposed, though prudent, given that the course is to be taught in April.

I am being reminded that the challenge of a well-designed course is in the be-deviling details of aligning the course objectives to each teaching unit and to every measure of what I teach in each week, each class, and each assignment...the details of a lecture versus a reading versus an in-class exercise or activity.

I'm convinced that many of the questions students ask about assignments, course expectations, and grading are more indicative of a lack of good course design than of student laziness, inattention, or boredom.  To my chagrin and delight (depending on my level of preparation), I have found that clear expectations, well-written directions (for assignments), and carefully planned lessons both decrease student questions and increase the likelihood of student participation--even when the assignments are not graded.  When assignments are planned well, it's easier for students to do them well.

Students from freshmen through graduate school will do their best to comply with course requirements if they are clear, well planned, and designed for learning.

It's not magic, nor is it manipulation.  It's taking the time (a lot of it) and the thoughtful planning (even more than the time) to design a course from which students will learn, in which they can be successful, and during which they see relevance to their lives.  That's what makes the difference.

The more attention I give to course design, the more I enjoy teaching and the more my students seem to enjoy learning.  The challenge is the time required to attend to the details, the details that differentiate lectures developed years ago to be delivered on auto-pilot from courses that invite students into a collaboration of learning.

It's been a long day and I'm tired.  But the details are coalescing into a course I will be happy to teach...and for which I will be prepared enough to focus on the students and what they need and want to learn.  The more I focus on the devilish details in the planning, the more I can focus on my students in the delivery.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

What I've learned about course design

Recently, as part of a continuing education certification, I was required to (re)design a face-to-face course for delivery as a blended course.  Same content, same student classification (MBA candidates) would think this would be easy, right?  Just substituting some online delivery for some of the classes; it's a piece of cake.

Here's what I learned in the process:

  1. I'm a collector and a hoarder of educational "stuff."  This includes but is not limited to textbooks, popular books, scholarly articles, news articles, assignments used by others (with their permission), ideas I've read about, get the picture.
  2. As a result of my collect-and-hoard habit, I have far more content for any given semester than I can ever use.  Which means I need to prioritize and make difficult choices.
  3. I don't like eliminating any of my precious hoard, all of which is gold(en) and some of which has to be platinum.  This would be true of most academics, despite my tongue-in-check self-characterization.
  4. None of that is about the students.  None. At all.  
  5. Starting with the students and what they should know or be able to do because of my course (outcomes)--the starting point for all design--is far harder, 
  6. The process of course design has an elegant simplicity, once I get past the hard part of articulating student outcomes, and provides an organizing schema that makes sense to me and, far more importantly, to my students.
  7. It's easy to do this backwards.  (Worth repeating.)
  8. Assessment can be a learning opportunity, not just a testing or evaluating checkpoint.
  9. Less is ultimately more.  (With credit to Robert Browning's lovely "Andrea del Sarto.")
  10. The better designed my course is, the more I am able to be spontaneous, timely, and embrace the delightfully unexpected.

One of the quiet truths of academia is that most professors are never taught to design any of the courses they teach. They teach as they were taught...or as they wish to learn.  See numbers 1-4 above.