Saturday, August 27, 2005

What Professors Care Most About

Since I was given responsibility for the Center for Teaching Excellence, I have co-hosted monthly lunches for our new “tenure track” faculty members. (A tenure track faculty member has the opportunity, after six years of rigorous evaluation, to win lifetime employment at a university). Next April, we will be holding a final dinner for these men and women to celebrate the completion of their first tenure year. Toward the end of the evening, we gather in a circle and I ask each new colleague to reflect on their past year and share an experience that was a high point that they remember.

Since we have been doing this for four years, I know what the overwhelming majority of the responses will be. They will describe an experience when an individual student or perhaps a class was awakened by the experience of learning something that the faculty member was teaching.

Professors don’t always communicate this very effectively. And sometimes the circumstances of a particular class makes this difficult. For example, they might, as a junior faculty member, be required to teach a required quantitative analysis class, to non majors at 8:30 in the morning.

But only rarely, is the spark fully extinguished.

University students should never forget this, because I know from many conversations over many years, what many of them, care most about.

There care most about learning from a Professor that inspires them.

Two months with Dr. G. and I'm running again

Some years ago, the doorbell of my home in Arlington rang. When I opened it a young woman stood outside. She introduced herself as Dr. Cheryl Gottesfeld. “I recently completed my degree in Chiropractic,” she explained “and am calling at homes in your neighborhood to see if this would be a good place to open my practice.” Not only had I never visited a Chiropractor, I had never even met one. (In my family, Chiropractors ranked just above witch doctors in the medical reputability hierarchy). But I was impressed with her self confidence, and said so. I took her card and said I would keep her in mind.

Two months later, following an afternoon of horseback riding, I got up for my early morning tennis game and found that my left leg was nearly paralyzed. When I visited my doctor at Kaiser Permanente (a Georgetown graduate) that afternoon she explained that the problem was with my back. “People your age who exercise frequently have back problems,” she explained. She suggested that I visit Kaiser’s physical therapist and take 12 Ibuprophen each day until the swelling went down and the pain subsided. “What about the lining of my stomach,” I asked. “That shouldn’t be a problem if you don’t take the Ibuprophen for too long, she responded.”

Dr. Gottesfeld’s card was on my desk and I gave her a call. She answered the phone – no secretary – and directed me to her tiny office. After studying X rays she began making adjustments and prescribed a regimen of exercises which I have followed for more than a decade – and no drugs. Because she had also studied sports medicine, she analyzed my tennis stroke and suggested modifications that would be less stressful on my back.

Within six weeks I was back on the tennis court, playing five or six days a week, though I have given up horseback riding. I have been her patient every since and recommend her to everyone. Senior Pete, one of my tennis partners says that if I am diagnosed with cancer, I will probably first check it out with Dr. Gottesfeld. He could be right.

“Dr. G.,” as many of her devoted patients call her, has pads of newsprint in her examining rooms on which her patients can write comments. She has not forgotten the importance of marketing. When I went last week for an adjustment – I play vigorous tennis, singles, and injuries still happen. – the following verse from a patient caught my eye.

Four years of drugs, MRIs and pain
Two months with Dr. G. and I’m running again.

Her visit to my door, years ago, was a gift of grace.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Taking Responsibility for the Whole and Creating Good Karma

As some readers know, Dormgrandpop has an additional responsibility at AU, in addition to being Dormgrandpop. He is Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, CTE. CTE is responsible facilitating the quality of teaching and learning at AU and for delivering a variety of technology support services – information technology, Blackboard, multimedia, video conferencing, audio and video to faculty students and staff. About 60 full and part-time staff are members of the CTE family. Tomorrow is staff orientation day. Since I will be speaking to the staff as a whole, I have been thinking about how best to introduce new staff members to our distinctive CTE culture and to reinforce that culture in our old staff members.

I wanted to share a bit of this with you – what I believe to be most important.

The first page of our orientation book is a letter signed by all nine CTE managers. I will be asking new staff members what they believe to be the most important sentence in that letter.

The answer is this:

We expect you to take responsibility for the whole of CTE, to bring passion to your work and to think “out of the box.

What do I mean by ‘taking responsibility for the whole.’ This is elaborated in a one page document entitled Serving the AU Community and Relating to One Another – CTE Priorities. Priority number 4 in that document reads.

In CTE, every staff member, from the Director to our most junior hourly worker is expected to do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, irrespective of their job descriptions. Even more, CTE staff members are expected to proactively and creatively seek out what needs to be done, without waiting to be told. How can I make a difference? How can strengthen the results we produce? How can I improve the quality of work life and the quality of human relationships in CTE? How can I create positive Karma? These are questions we must be asking ourselves every day.

What do mean by ‘creating positive Karma.’ Every CTE staff member is not only expected to know the answer to that question but to live the answer during every minute that they are representing CTE as a staff member. The answer is this:

We are creating positive Karma when every person – faculty, student, staff, administrator or unaffiliated drop-in – who enters a CTE space or comes in contact with a CTE professional, completes the interaction feeling more positively about CTE and more positively about themselves.

I will also be asking new CTE staff members: What is the phrase which, if I hear it or hear of it, from you, when you are representing CTE, is most likely to be the last phrase you utter as a CTE staff member. The answer is this:

That’s not my job.

Any questions?

Sunday, August 21, 2005

'Moving in' - gifts of love from parents to children

Before I moved into Anderson Hall, I spent the time immediately before the semester mostly at home preparing classes and making last minute changes to syllabi. But now, ‘home,’ most of the time is on campus. So I am immersed in that beginning-of-academic year transition “moving in”.

In fact, I voluntarily immersed myself fully by this Saturday morning serving continental breakfast in my apartment and distributing fresh strawberries, orange juice, donuts, sodas, crunch bars, etc. to parents, children and staff in the South side quad, Anderson and Letts.

This was a perfect vantage point to observe hundreds of new students – mostly first year – and their parents. The patience and good humor of most parents, as they participated in this rite of passage was moving. They waited in line patiently, unloaded endless bags and boxes, loaded them on AU’s balky carts and carted them, in seemingly endless trips up the elevator to rooms.

Throughout this trial of hard physical labor, in strange surroundings, in hot weather, in stressful circumstances, after a long trip I rarely saw a parent lose his or her temper. For the most part, they seemed to be enjoying the process or at least taking part with good grace. They had survived the college tours and the admissions process. They had written large tuition checks, filled up the car or SUV. The rooms were set up – more or less – and they were now off to Target or Walmart for additional shopping – and spending before making the return trip home.

During this process, I saw parents bestowing gifts of love, in the hundreds upon their children It was moving and a bit daunting.

I say ‘daunting’ because as an AU faculty member and administrator, I am responsible – and accountable - for delivering on the gifts of love, hopes and expectations of parents and children.

Being a university faculty member, faculty administrator or staff member is much more than a ‘job;’ which makes it more fulfilling, rewarding, and demanding.

Working at a university is a calling.

Friday, August 19, 2005

What does a faculty resident do?

This is a pretty long blog but may be interesting to some new AU students and/or parents. The point of it is not only knowing but doing. It will have served its purpose of some of you who are AU students feel motivated to take advantage of some services that the faculty resident provides.

It is the script of a DVD I made for members of AU’s Board of Trustees about life in a dorm. Possibly I may have posted it before, but it seems timely for ‘Welcome Week,’ which began today.


I regret that I cannot be with you personally. A long-standing conflict commitment that could not be moved made this impossible. But I hope in this brief video, to share residential life at AU, from a faculty resident perspective in way that a combines a recounting of experiences with visual images that you might otherwise not see. .

I first met with this Committee to speak about the Faculty Residence Experiment – now the Faculty Residence Program – at American University, in the Spring of 2002.

At the time, I had been living on campus for all of seven weeks. What drew me to what has now become known at the Faculty Resident’s Apartment, 101 Anderson Hall? Motivations included my own experiences as a Dartmouth College undergraduate; and a Student Confederation President’s public plea for closer faculty-student ties, outside of the classroom. There was one of President Ladner’s Fifteen points, calling for faculty-student engagement in a caring campus community. There was Vice President Gail Hanson’s often expressed vision of a more vital residential living learning experience at AU, similar to Residential Colleges at Cambridge, Oxford, Yale and a growing number of other Universities in the US and abroad. When I shared the idea with my two adult children, one an AU graduate, they said “go for it Dad.

In that first talk, I spoke of participating in resident assistant orientations, RA staff meetings, a floor program, and my first fire alarm evacuations. I had invited various AU administrators to my apartment for a meal and a tour of what was foreign territory for and hosted my first dinner for residents. I had described my experiences to curious, bemused colleagues at a Faculty Senate meeting. A flattering article had appeared in the Eagle and after 25 years living in Washington, I wondered about the expose that might mark the end of my honeymoon period, headlined “New Faculty Resident Disappoints.”

More that three years have passed. Innumerable South Side residents, and especially three cohorts of resident assistants have become my mentors, companions and friends. Gail Hanson’s tolerance, flexibility and encouragement, backstopped by the support of Julie Weber and her staff, have permitted the faculty resident’s role to grow organically. There has been space to learn about residence hall culture – or cultures - which was an unfamiliar even alien culture to me and most faculty colleagues. There has been time to seek out and exploit targets of opportunity that would enable me to connect with students, learn from them and make a difference in their lives.

What does a faculty resident do?

It seemed useful to begin by highlighting a few activities that provide opportunities engage with students and describe residential life to other campus communities. Then I want to describe what I see as 6 of the most important functions faculty resident can perform.

First – activities.

Because I like to cook, the faculty resident’s dinners may be the most rewarding and fun of all, so I have put these at the top of the list. On five or six Sunday night’s each semester I cook and serve a dinner for about ten students and often one or two faculty members Usually the cuisine is international, for example Sri Lankan curry, which provides an opportunity to talk about countries where I have worked and lived. Our last dinner of the year, served two weeks ago, is Peking Duck. Professor Joe Campbell, from whom you will be hearing later was among my first faculty dinner guests and I like to think that this experience, may have helped raise in his mind, the possibility of moving on campus. Over three years there have been several hundred student dinner guests (some repeat customers, of course, and perhaps 25 faculty members.

Two other activities also draw students, and in the case of the second parents, into my apartment for food and conversations. These are study break hours and continental breakfast on “moving in day” weekend in the fall and moving out day weekend in the Spring. Study break hours are held from 10:45 until midnight (or later) on the nights before final examinations each semester. They feature coffee, tea, Klondike Bars and other high energy snacks. Continental Breakfast, typically served from 8 until noon of moving out weekend if is a particular popular event with parents, providing a brief oasis of civility to which they can retreat from what can be an exhausting, stressful day.

The faculty residents weblog, is a new an popular way of communicating with students that initiated last fall, at the suggestion of the student assistant who helps with my dinners. Almost since it was initiated, dormgrandpop has been ranked as AU’s most number one blog by the student run competitor to AU’s portal, Daily Jolt. More about dormgrandpop later.

Another communication vehicle is the faculty resident’s bulletin board in the front lobby of Anderson Hall. We normally do about seven displays a year, including one for summer interns describing the sights and avidities of Washington. Some are standards, such as “welcome to AU and Anderson Hall” which goes up each fall and “dealing with stress” which publicizes messages from AU’s counseling and academic support centers in late November. Others are more topical such as a display on Tsunami relief and how students can help, posted in late January, and a display on my new book, Paradise Poisoned: Lessons About Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars, posted after the book’s release in April.

I also give two or three floor programs to groups of residents each semester, normally about 9 in the evening. Among this year’s topics were “Choosing the right courses”, “what to do when you have a bad teacher” and “Hooking up with a great mentor”. Sometimes I will also join in on floor programs given by others, including, interestingly, “sex milk and cookies”, the student lead program on sexuality, condom use and sexually transmitted diseases. I continue to attend resident staff meetings and host meetings and meals for faculty and staff in my apartment.


The functions I have described, and many more, are intrinsically valuable, but far more important because of the opportunities they provide for a faculty resident to learn from and contribute to students, often in one on one conversations. Here are ______ ways that I believe a faculty member can learn and contribute.

First is the faculty resident as mentor.

One night about 11 PM. I was returning to Anderson from my office. One of my RA friends caught me and asked if I could help out with personality conflict she was having with a faculty member. She felt that a personality conflict was threatening her success in the course and was fearful a bad grade would ruin her chances for graduate school. I connected her with the Associate Dean of her school, a close personal friend. On another occasion a student told me she had recently been chosen for Peace Corps Service in Africa and I was able to put her in touch with a network of returned peace Corps volunteers. A third student knocked on my door about 10 PM seeking help for assignment (probably due the next day) the required an interview with someone who had personally experienced the Viet-Nam war era. Fortuitously, I had been an active duty Naval Officer and my brother, a leading war protester. Last Thursday night at 11:30, I took a student to my apartment and helped him copy a term paper from AU’s computer network. He had forgotten that the Library’s all night computer lab closed after final exams completed

When a faculty member lives or has his office on campus, there are numerous activities for such formal and informal mentoring.

A second contribution might be termed the faculty resident as ombudsman.

About two years ago, topic of AU’s Health Center came up at a Sunday night dinner. Student views of the Center were almost universally negative and when I probed for details, one told us about a recent circumstance where she felt Health Center Staff members had treated her insensitively and unprofessionally. I coached her on an appropriate, constructive response (not writing) to President Ladner. Soon afterwards I arranged for the Health Center Director to visit Anderson for an informal discussion with students about their concerns. There have be numerous other instances, where it is been possible to coach students in seek constructive solutions to institutional problems that concerned them.

Bridge building is the way I would describe a third contribution.

In some ways, having a faculty administrator as faculty resident is not a great idea. The Center for Teaching Excellence, which I direct supports faculty in raising the quality of academic instruction, it helps socialize new faculty to our community and helps mentor them through the tenure process. In manages our on-line instructional system, Blackboard and trains faculty members in used. It manages information technology laboratories that provide services to thousands of student and faculty clients. It manages AU’s audiovisual services, supporting both classroom instruction and much more. I also teach in the school of international service and participate in a number of University-wide task forces and working groups. All of this means less time for one on one interactions with students, especially during daytime hours. But does provide numerous activities to communicate a student-centered perspective, from the vantage point of a 30 year AU veteran and senior faculty administrator in venues where this perspective is rarely heard. To cite just one example, not only did I discuss on campus living with members of the Middle States Accreditation team, but the entire team visited me in Anderson Hall, escorted by the Provost. Unfortunately a tight schedule did not allow them to stay for dinner.

Living on campus also provides an opportunity for a faculty resident to share his life as a practicing scholar with students.

I believe it is important for a faculty resident to be an active scholar and for students to be exposed to that side of a faculty member’s life. Students should have the opportunity to learn that that their faculty resident does more that cook gourmet dinners, hand out Klondike Bars, and make himself available for interviews and mentoring at odd hours. Many students seek role models who are active scholars and are intensely curious about that facet of faculty member’s lives. Sadly, students are rarely exposed to this in typical classroom settings, especially in first and second-year courses. My strategy bridging this gap is simply to have copies of my books present visibly, but not obtrusively in my apartment. Perhaps fortunately, a priority of mine has been to make technical subjects accessible to non technical audiences. Books I have written and to which I have contributed often have attractively designed covers and evocative titles: Groping in the Dark, the First Decade of Global Modeling; Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future; Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has Come, and the latest: Paradise Poisoned: Lessons about Conflict, Terrorism and Development From Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars. When a student visitor to my apartment, for a dinner, study break, mentoring session or office ours, picks up one of these books, it provides an opening to discuss my work and the life of a practicing scholar.

Equally important living on campus provides an opportunity for a faculty member to share his life with students when he is not functioning as practicing scholar, senior faculty administrator or “agent of the university”.

I believe it humanizes a faculty member, making stronger connections possible, for students to see him when he is living in the role of classroom teacher, practicing scholar or, in my case, administrator. Living on campus 24 hours each day, makes it impossible to avoid this kind of interaction. Many of the activities described above make these informal connections even more probable. My blog, dormgrandpop is another channel for making myself more accessible to students by sharing unofficial parts of my life with them. Postings range from the profound, to the spiritual, to the topical to the banal. This is typical of blogs. Tiles of some recent postings will give you the idea”

Five life changing books; and more


AU’s Coffee Controversy. Social Choice and Individual Values

Save our Teams: A time Empathy, Compassion and Civil Discourse

Back from Halfway Around the World (after a trip to Sri Lanka)

Vulnerability, Sri Lankans face a second tsunami

Love is patient, love is kind

A lesson in humility, and

The Joys of Cooking Peking Duck

A final contribution might be called “paving the way.”

When I first moved into Anderson Hall and began speaking about it, the Faculty Resident Experiment was mostly viewed as a curiosity. The most frequent question I received was about fire alarm evacuations, which were notorious on the South side in academic year 2002-2003. My biggest concern was that the experiment, even if it succeeded, would be seen as depending on the idiosyncrasies – some might say eccentricities – of a particular individual.

But as the faculty resident survived and seemed to for one year, then two and then into a third years, I could feel that perceptions were changing. A growing number of faculty, mostly my dinner guests, began dipping their toes in the water with hypothetical questions about whether their might be other opportunities to live – or at least work in a resident.

As you know, there was one faculty member, my colleague Joe Campbell, who pursued this with patience, enthusiasm, creativity and characteristically high energy. When space opened up in McDowell Hall, Joe was not only willing but eager to move in. The faculty resident experiment had become the Faculty Resident Program. What is particularly exciting about Joe’s year in McDowell, as you will soon here is how he has capitalized on a very different set of assets and somewhat different North Side culture to create an ambitious, highly visible program, that breaks new ground in areas that might never have occurred to me.

Thus if I am to rank the contributions of my three plus years in residence, picking number one is easy. Along with Gail Hanson, Julie Weber and many others it is to have helped create a climate that encouraged a colleague of Joe Campbell’s caliber to commit himself to an “in residence program” with the great results that this has already produced. Moreover Joe, Gail, Julie and I believe that the Faculty Residence program, as it has evolved so far, is only a baby stop to ward the vision of a living learning campus community that President Lander envisioned so eloquently as one of his fifteen points. Giant steps lie ahead as you will hear. With your ideas, encouragement and support, we intend to take them.

Multiple identities

Life as a combination dormgrandpop, teaching center director, SIS faculty member and Sri Lankan scholar may be hectic, but it is rarely dull. Perhaps most interesting is the opportunity to move within different AU and Washington DC institutional cultures. And the cultures really are different, just like differences between Sri Lankan culture, Central London English culture (Central London is where I stop over when I travel to Asia), Hungarian culture, Hume, Virginia culture and French culture.

My day began at 5:00 when I dressed for my regular Friday 6 AM tennis game. I then returned to campus and greeted parents who were helping their freshperson daughters and sons move into Anderson Hall. Then to the office, just a short walk away, for my regular morning tour of CTE computing labs and touching base with the respective managers. Then to staff meetings on the Center’s budget, our orientation for about 50 CTE staff members, to be held next Friday, and our orientation for more than 50 new faculty members who will be joining AU for the first time, to be held on Monday. Then back to Anderson and in my dormgrandpop role, I redecorated the Faculty Resident’s Bulletin Board in the Anderson Hall lobby.

Switching to diplomatic garb and after a brief meeting with CTE’s event manager, I taxied to Sri Lanka’s embassy for a two hour memorial service honoring Sri Lanka’s recently assassinated foreign minister, Lakshman Kardigarmar. This moving event, with only about 30 staff and Washingtonians close to the Minster in attendance, included Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim prayers. The place of honor was given to the eight Buddhist priests who were in attendance and who sat quietly while other guests exchanged conversation, reminiscences and condolences. The Ambassador, his senior staff and a leading Sri Lankan lawyer knelt respectfully before them. I rode back with a diplomat friend of many years. She was US Ambassador in Sri Lanka more than a decade ago, during several of my long visits there.

And of course now I am at my computer, sharing experiences with whomever of you chooses to make contact in cyberspace.

My evening will be devoted to buying groceries for tomorrow morning’s event, when I serve continental breakfast in my apartment and the Letts-Anderson Quad to parents and arriving students, to help make the challenges of ‘moving in’ a bit less stressful. If it isn’t to late a will scrub parts of my living room rug which are showing leavings of many student visitors.

Then it’s off to my home in the country for a short weekend, doing the things one does, when there is time, in a country home – maintaining fence lines, cutting grass and reinvigorating oneself with beauty and tranquility of the Shenandoah foothills.

On Sunday morning, I walk the two miles or so to Leeds Church, often described in this blog and join that community in hymn singing, communion, ‘prayers of the people’ and coffee hour.

How adaptable we human beings can be. How interesting, varied and challenging life can be.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A breath of fresh air

Over the last two weeks I have been enmeshed completing the administrative and bureaucratic requirements necessary to complete a reorganization of the Center for Teaching Excellence. (I am the Center’s Director in addition to be a Professor in the School of International Service).

It is time consuming, painstaking, exacting, important work. Often the success of a middle manager in an institution (that’s where I am situated) depends on his willingness to make such work a priority and carry it through successfully. Whether or not his staff – those to whom he is most responsible – are adequately compensated and given scope to work effectively may depend – indeed does depend – on his skills in this important arena. These skills include those of the anthropologist – understanding institutional cultures, the accountant – meeting requirements with meticulous attention to detail and the temperament of a Buddhist Arahant – accepting what comes with equanimity.

For a few minutes today, however I was reprieved from this task. I got to attend and speak at Resident Assistant orientation, There were old friends to greet and new RAs to meet, some of whom will have become old friends by the end of the year. It was an invigorating reminder of why I do the work I do and for whom I do it.

In other words, it was a breath of fresh area.

A Good Man is Dead

Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister, celebrated his 73 birthday not long ago. He first became Foreign Minister in 1994 – and spoke at American University on his first trip abroad in an official capacity. He knew his career was drawing to a close. Lately his conversations and talks have become more philosophical and reflective.

On Friday night he completed a speech at the Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike Conference Center and decided to go to his home, rather than his official residence, to he could end the day with a swim in his pool. It was just a few blocks away. He has been proud of his swimming prowess, boasting that he often swims 1,000 meters a day. The nights are beautiful, quiet and cool in the suburb where he lives, called Cinnamon Gardens. Huge ancient tulip trees create archways over the quiet streets and help to cool the air.

He completed his swim, climbed out of the pool, perhaps looked to see if the moon was visible through the leafy branches in the night sky… and he was felled by a fusillade of shots from a sniper, hidden in a nearby house. Within an hour, he was dead.

Lakshman Kadirgamar will not live to see his grandchildren mature or be able to reminisce about his days in power with scholars like me. He joins four other Sri Lankan politicians I have known whose lives ended violently.

A good man is dead. I grieve for him and for his country.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Never too Late to Learn Something New

Now that summer is drawing to a close, my tennis partners and I are getting back to a regular routine – ‘the Dean’ on Tuesday mornings and Senior Pete on Friday mornings at 6 AM. Senior Pete and I play indoors at the Arlington Y Tennis Club, and the Dean and I mostly play out doors.

We are reluctant to have rain interrupt our play and so we have developed a new game for rainy days. One is permitted to let the ball bounce twice. Since we are both steady players, rallies can be quite long as we scurry and splash about the court, taking full advantage of the two bounce rule. Spectators would what in earth is going on, but there are rarely any spectators. Cold does not keep us off the court either, we have played in 20 degree mornings or colder, but when it snows, we have to stop. We haven’t figured out a snow game, as yet.

Senior Pete, like me, studied mathematics and is of theoretical bent, so our games are punctuated with theorizing and analysis, drawing on such esoteric topics as recursive function theory. He also invents complex games that we analyze and periodically adjust the rules to make them more equal or achieve some goal. Again, material from mathematics and theoretical physics may enter our deliberations. We have been doing the same at net drill game, with periodic modifications, for several years.

This morning, Senior Pete recounted a post Wimbledon interview with Venus Williams who won the championship after being down match point in the finals. “What were you thinking about,” the interviewer asked as you faced that match point.

“Keeping my head down” Venus replied.

In many years of tennis I had never received that pointer. I tried it and it worked. I was up on Senior Pete when we had to leave for work - which rarely happens.

It is never too late to learn something new.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Zen of Laundering and Ironing

A few months ago, I decided to stop taking my trousers and shirts to the cleaners for washing, and ironing. The financial savings are not insignificant; however I have discovered another benefit. Ironing and folding laundry provide an opportunity for Zen like meditation. The focus of a Zen exercise can be almost anything, so why not a perfectly ironed shirt or Khurta and set of chinos.

And besides, later in the morning, I can wear the results of my handiwork.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Managerial Travails and Thoughts on Dealing with Them

The quotation that follows has been posted outside the door of whatever office I occupied for many years. This Wednesday I reproduced it as the ‘thought for the day’ from our weekly management group meeting. It is paraphrased from Machiavelli’s The Prince:

It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.

Striking an appropriate balance between ‘following the rules’ and ‘producing results’ is a challenge managers in large organizations inevitably face. Inevitably an organization will be populated with many individuals who view their primary function as ‘following the rules’ and compelling others to do so. Individuals with such predispositions may gravitate to such professions as accountant, department of human resources staff member, librarian, public safety officer and secondary school assistant principal.

The functions of such professions are essential. In recent publications, I argue that public safety officers must be regarded as key players in international development. If accountants had been following the rules and compelling others to do so, the Enron and Worldcom debacles might have been avoided. Human Resources professionals in an organization can be guarantors of equitable treatment for all.

But no organization succeeds by simply following the rules (even assuming that was possible). Peter J.D. Wiles brilliant classic, The Political Economy of Communism provides a richly textured analysis of why this is so. Of course rules and those who enforce them are intended to facilitate the production of results. When rule making, rule enforcement and the mission of an organization are aligned this can be so. Indeed, there is a profession of “Rule Making” that claims expertise in this arena. But on not infrequently, rules and those whose primary mission is rule enforcement, impede rather than facilitating. Hence a common dilemma of the manager and grist for an extensive literature produced by managers, retired managers and management theorists.

A favorite parable of mine, taught to every prospective US Navy officer, is the story of British Admiral Horatio Nelson at the battle of Copenhagen. Nelson led a squadron into the harbor where the Danish fleet was anchored. As the battle raged and smoke from broadside after broadside obscured the scene, Nelson’s superior became concerned and hoisted the recall signal. When the flag lieutenant call this to his commander’s attention, Nelson raised a telescope to his blind eye and responded “I see no recall.” The Battle of Copenhagen, a great British naval victory is part of the Nelson legend.

But what is the lesson that I – and others – struggling with the daily travails of management should draw from it?

Creating a House - and Making it a Home

Creating a House – and Making it a Home

I had read about ‘Habitat for Humanity,’ mostly thanks to former President Jimmy Carter, but not personally experienced it, before yesterday.

Eleven years ago, when the new Pastor of Leeds Church joined the congregation, she challenged members to practice social responsibility no only by writing checks, but by undertaking projects. These projects, she suggested, should be good works that would also bring the congregation together as a community. Building a habitat home became such a project, spanning several years, and a daunting commitment that was chronicled in reports at Sunday services, vestry meetings, planning meetings, fund-raising reports and much more. My own involvement was minimal – as a weekend commuter and workaholic, I lack the balance in my life, so far, that make participation in such a project feasible. Writing a check and helping to celebrate the project’s completion was all that I did.

More than seventy five of us gathered yesterday afternoon on a one acre plot, beside a country road near Marshall, Virginia, to celebrate. The house, itself, is a modest two story rectangle, with a traditional front porch, a peaked roof and yellow trim. There are four small bedrooms plus a kitchen-living area and laundry room. This is much less spacious than the typical Faquier County home, but will probably seem ample for a family of five – a single mother and two children – whose home has been a two bedroom trailer.

The celebration had many elements of a typical country gathering – a multigenerational crowd, new kittens being displayed by children, trucks and sport utility vehicles parked along the road, animals in a neighboring pasture, the ubiquitous food and refreshment table, screened from the afternoon sun by a blue plastic tarpaulin, improvised as a tent.

But the ritual was new to me. The family, the Habitat representative, three robed pastors including the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, sundry project workers – all volunteers – the Leeds Chapel choir and the family gathered on the porch. Hymns were sung, prayers were said, project leaders were acknowledged, simple gifts were given. Then the family and pastors walked through the house, blessing each room with a prayer that was appropriate to its function, while those of us gathered outside, repeated the blessing. The Christian Bible, like other religious texts, has an appropriate passage for pretty much everything. The final step in the ritual was a ceremonial presentation of the keys to the family by a Habitat representative. A house became, ‘officially’ a home.

What is ‘community?’ Anthropological and other academic discourses fill many feet of library shelves with contesting responses to the question. For three hours yesterday afternoon, about seventy five Faquier county residents, including me, experienced community as a tangible physical and spiritual reality.