Monday, January 30, 2006

Please embarrass me!

I sometimes characterize myself as effective – I’m pretty good at getting things done – but not efficient – I am often in my office until 10:00 PM or later, finishing off my “to do” list. By the end of a long day, my work can get a bit sloppy as I am rushing to complete something and not checking it carefully.

Last Monday night, I was completing CTE’s weekly Management Group Agenda and the Agenda for the retreat we completed on Friday. About this time – near 10 PM - I was sending the documents out as an email attachment – or so I thought. But I failed to attach the retreat agenda, though completing it had been one of my priorities for the evening. I didn’t realize this until I checked with CTE's efficient and gifted Assistant Director on the morning of the retreat when we finally remedied the omission.

When I apologized for the oversight, one of my colleagues responded, “I thought there was something strange about your Monday message, but I didn’t want to embarrass you by raising the matter.

Happily we are well schooled in our retreat process and things went smoothly, despite my stumbling. But I was reminded of my “bad news” mantra:

Bad news is the news a leader most needs to know and, often, finds it hardest to get.

Don't hesitate to give me bad news.... please!

Family doings – my father’s 95th birthday

Dormgrandpop readers will know something of my father, who remains physically strong, witty and wise as he enters his 96th year. My brother and his wife drove him to DC. They spent the day sightseeing and then spent the evening and a leisurely breakfast with us in the country. The breakfast menu was plentiful high cholestoral - the sort of Sunday breakfast feast on which we thrived as children.

A 95th birthday celebration with a parent who is alive, well and in good health is a rare gift – and one to be treasured.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Forgive our feverish ways

Last week, I seemed to be living in a perpetual state of outrage, expressed in my blogs on “The Boys of Baraka” and “Taking Responsibility for a Polluting Power Plant’ and several more that I couldn’t find time to write. A degree of outrage is health both for those who experience it and the society in which they (we) live. But if one lives in a perpetual outraged state, one can become overwrought… can become stretched taught like the spring on and old screen door that has lost its resiliency.

Sunday morning in Leeds Church, we used the liturgy of the Burmese Anglican Church (very reminiscent of the liturgy of the Anglican Church of Sri Lanka where I often attend the cathedral, close to where I live). Leeds as adopted the Diocese of Tengu, in Burma-Myanmar. Congregants, like most Burmese are suffering severe repression at the hands of a government that I would characterize not only as immoral, but evil.

But one of the hymns chosen reminded me to maintain a sense of balance, remembering that I do not control the world or fully understand God’s purposes. Quakers call this the Whittier hymn. I consider myself a Quaker, though I now often attend Anglican/Episcopal services. George Fox might be turning in his grave, but he did appreciate non conformity and seeking one’s own truth. The full text of the “Whittier Hymn” follows.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways!
Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence, praise;
in deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
beside the Syrian sea,
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us, like them, without a word,
rise up and follow thee;
rise up and follow thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
where Jesus knelt to share with thee
the silence of eternity
interpreted by love!
interpreted by love!

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease;
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
the beauty of thy peace;
the beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm;
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm;
O still, small voice of calm.

Words: John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Taking personal responsibility for a polluting power plant - or not

Alexandria Virginia’s coal fired Mirant power generation plant has now been in the news for some weeks. Apparently, residents in the surrounding area have expressed concern for months about high levels of pollution generated by the plant. But the plant’s owners made little, if any effort, to respond to these concerns, even when they included a strong letter from Virginia’s the Governor Mark Warner. According to web postings the conflict between the Mirant Corporation executives and the residents impacted by their decisions has been long and bitter. Finally Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality ordered the plant shut down.

Last week US Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, overruled the Virginia Department order, citing a concern with maintaining a reliable supply of electricity to Washington DC. But he, along with the Chief Executive Officer of the Mirant Corporation missed an opportunity to take responsibility for their decision rather than externalizing that responsibility to Alexandria residents. I am reminded of proposals for “shortening the loop” between decision makers and the environmental harm they create that surfaced when I first taught a course called Politics and the Environment in 1970.

How different the impact of Secretary Bodman’s proposal would have been had it included a statement that he was immediately renting a home in the pollution impacted area and would be moving there, along with his wife and children and that he had directed Mirant’s Chief Executive to make a similar move. “I will remain there, personally experiencing the consequences of my decision” until the problem is resolved,” his hypothetical statement emphasized."

All to rarely do we see political leaders to take personal responsibility for their decisions, thought they may weep crocodile tears of sympathy for those adversely impacted. And we, the citizens in a democracy, do not hold them accountable. In the case of the Mirant plant, Secretary Bodman could change things and set an example, but probably he won’t.

Too bad.

Friday, January 20, 2006

"Boys of Baraka" - Posing a moral dilemma

Boys of Baraka is the name of a film that was reviewed on NPR this morning. Here is a brief synopsis from the website of the 48th International San Francisco Film Festival:

Boys of Baraka, The

Directed by Heidi Ewing Rachel Grady 

Mavis Jackson tells her Black male Baltimore high school audience that they have three options by the time they reach age 18: “An orange jumpsuit and bracelets, a black suit in a brown box or a black cap and gown.” Eighty percent of Baltimore’s African American boys drop out of high school, with 50 percent of them ending up in jail. From this at-risk group each year Jackson selects 20 boys to attend the Baraka School in the bush country of Kenya. The boys may as well have been sent to Mars. They’re subjected to early-morning calisthenics, long walkabouts and encounters with elephants and hedgehogs as well as native Africans. No TV, Game Boys or junk food. On the other hand, there are no shootings or police helicopters, and the only screams in the night are from hyenas. Despite acts of rebellion that range from the hilarious to the disquieting, the boys undergo a profound transformation. This exhilarating film documents two years in the lives of some inner-city kids faced with the only break they may ever get.

Though this is not the film’s major theme, the reviewer highlighted a moral dilemma it raises. ‘Eighty per-cent of Baltimore’s African American boys drop out of high school, with 50 per-cent of them ending up in jail. Why is it necessary for these boys to travel to Kenya to get a decent education. Is there no place in the US where this could be provided. Who is being held accountable for the quality of schools in Baltimore and other areas. Who is holding those charged with administering and teaching you men in the State of Maryland accountable.

In my book Paradise Poisoned I call attention to the plight of young men, militant movements prime recruits, in developing areas. I argue that as matters of practicality and cost effectiveness, the well being of young men should be a top development priority (and it is not). Obviously this is a problem that is not unique to nations such as Sri Lanka.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Celebrating effective teaching at AU

Last Friday AU held its annual teaching conference for faculty, named after to gifted teacher who inspired to conference, as well as our Center for Teaching Excellence. I wish every parent and student could have been a ‘fly on the wall’ to hear nearly 250 faculty members, including our President and Provost, discuss their love of teaching and share their ideas on how to teach better.

I said in my opening remarks, at probably no other higher education institution in the world are 250 faculty members voluntarily gathered, in the second week in January, to discuss and celebrate effective teaching.

Assisted suicide?

A news item on NPR caught my attention this morning. California executed 77 year old man who was blind, partially deaf and confined to a wheelchair. He had been incarcerated on death row for more than 20 years.

I don’t know the case well enough to know how the gentleman felt about dying, but suppose he wanted to die. What kind of conflict would this have created for men such as former Attorney General John Ashcroft who were strong death penalty advocates by opposed Oregon’s death in dying law. Perhaps there is a solution for those seeking ‘death with dignity.’ They have only to dispatch some unworthy citizen first, perhaps in Texas. Then right to die opponents, who are also capital punishment advocates, might become their partners.

Perhaps the lethal chamber in a Texas or California penitentiary would not meet the test of ‘death with dignity’ but there is at least food for thought in this paradox

How was your holiday?

AU is filled with life and energy once again. It is quiet and peaceful, but a bit sad without students around. The windows of Anderson Hall, excepting mine, are cold and dark. When you ask returnees ‘How was your holiday?’ Almost everyone will reply, “great!” Probably this is not true in every case. I know that I loved my parents but was often glad to return to the greater independence of college.

In the olden days (that’s when I was an undergraduate) we had a horrific schedule. Christmas holidays came before the end of the semester. We returned to frigid Hanover, NH with term papers yet to be completed and finals yet to be taken. Of course, we had planned to study over the holidays, but rarely did. January was ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Letter that Made my Heart Glad

Not long ago I – finally – sent a copy of my book, Paradise Poisoned, to my dissertation advisor, Bob Holt. Holt is an internationally recognized, widely published scholar in the field of comparative politics and was an exceptionally supportive mentor.

Today I received a reply. Bob wrote:

"Thanks so much for your book. It’s a marvelous work! It’s got everything: thorough knowledge of the literature, impeccable field research, solid and appropriate analysis, carefully considered and powerful generalizations – and on top of it all, beautifully written. How proud I am of students like you. It makes it all worthwhile."

Moral Human Beings Living in an Immoral Society

The Priest who preached at Leeds Church this Sunday was a stand-in, though we know her well. She is member of a family that has lived the area for generations. Her sermon, which used the title of Reinhold Neibuhr’s classic, Moral Man and Immoral Society was one of those powerful statements from the pulpit that unsettles the conscience. She reminded us of Christ’s message to his disciples, which a recent Harpers article (by McKibben) summarized thus:

“in the days before his crucifixion, when Jesus summed up his messages for his disciples, he said the way you could tell the righteous from the damned was by whether they fed hungry, slaked the thirsty, closed the naked, welcomed the stranger and visited the prisoner…”

Our priest used America’s two tiered health care system as an example of social immorality: one level of health care, perhaps the best in the world, for the insured and the well to do. An utterly different system for the poor – or no health care at all. Those among us who are well to do I (which included most congregation members, including me) tolerate this immorality because we know that if the poor received better health care, the quality of our health care would probably decline. But we don’t acknowledge this immorality squarely. Rather, we rationalize, dissemble or look the other way.

Most of us would - and do - perform individual acts of compassion and kindness. But we tolerate social immorality. That was the point of Neibuhr’s book and her sermon.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Telephone someone who has made a difference in your life

Earlier today, I called a former mentor who is one of the leading scholars in two of my fields, computer modeling and international relations. I first read his work when I was a graduate student. Later we collaborated in global modeling activities, each supporting the other in events that one or the other of us organized. His letters of recommendation helped me to win tenure and promotion to full professor, more than twenty years ago. At one memorable modeling conference, with limited accommodations, in New Hampshire, we were roommates for nearly a week – a never-to-be-forgotten experience for me. Perhaps more of the really creative, cutting-edge scholars in international relations (I am not claiming membership in this group) count him as mentor than any other individual

Now he is 90 years old. I had not spoken to him for more that a year and called to check his address so I could send a copy of my latest book. When I asked what he was working on – he always has had a project – the reply was “well…mostly on staying alive.” Not only is he retired but most of his colleagues are retired. His mobility is limited, making travel difficult. As with my father, virtually all the men and women with whom he shared the early years of his life are dead.

If there is a teacher or other mentor, particularly an older one, who has made a difference in your life, give them a call from time to time and tell them how much their contributions have meant to you.

How to win at College

The last issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine included an article by graduate Cal Newport, based on his book How to Win at College: Suprising Secrets for Success from the Country’s Top Students, It is based on a number of interviews with very successful students. The book is available from for less than $10 and looks like it is worth the price. I will write more after I have read it. Here are the 10 ‘rules’ Newport presented in his article.

1. Care about your grades, ignore your GPA.
2. Annotate your daily ‘to do’ list – label every item with the specific times you plan to accomplish it. (I am going to use this tip myself).
3. Drop classes every semester. Newport counsels seeking out student feedback for every class, sign up for one or more classes than you actually plan to take. Attend the classes for the first week and drop the ones you like least. Don’t stick with bad classes, he urges.
4. Find a secret study space. (This was a secret of my success in college. My junior and senior year, I lived alone and could use my room for study – and I had two other secret spaces that were almost always available and always quiet.
5. Jump into research as soon as possible.
6. Do one thing better than anyone else you know.
7. Always go to class.
8. Start long-term assignments the day they are assigned. Don’t procrastinate!
9. Don’t do all your reading. Newport acknowledges the reality that it is impossible to do all the reading assigned for every class and offers an excellent strategy for dealing with this dilemma.
10. Maximize your summers. Treat them as a period when you are freed from the time constraints of classes to fully maximize your passions. You should begin the summer planning process during Christmas break.

There is a pretty good summary of more points as part of the ‘look inside’ feature on the website.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Can an old dog (or Professor) learn new tricks?

Regular Dormgrandpop readers (I flatter myself that there might be some) will note this as a first entry since 19 December. The principal reason is my decision, made some weeks ago, to have my regular three year technology upgrade be a change not only to a new and faster computer but to new personal computer culture. For years, I had been admiring my most ‘with it’ friends and younger AU faculty members somewhat ostentatiously porting their sleek Mac laptops, with the ‘Apple’ logo prominently displayed on the cover, everywhere. Though my high-end Toshiba had rendered valuable service for nearly four years and logged – literally – several hundred thousand miles, I have always been offended by the ugliness and clunkiness of the several Windows operating systems I have used. Nor have I forgotten apparent duplicity of Microsoft’s corporate leadership, revealed to me in confidence by a compassionate customer service representative, when they allegedly opted to cover up a flaw in a download that destroyed my hard disk and that of many other early Windows 98 users. (When I called this to the attention of Bill Gates and 18 senior managers immediately below him, in personal letters (not emails) the response was silence. That was my last attempt to penetrate the arrogance and customer unfriendliness of Microsoft Inc.’s corporate culture, but I have not forgotten).

The emergence of a ‘virtual PC’ capability, permitting Windows to run under Apple’s OS10 operating system made the shift more feasible. As a key player in AU’s academic technology scene, I do feel compelled to have access to Windows, in order to assist the vast majority of faculty and students who are still Windows users. Micorsoft’s 95 plus per-cent market share is a reality. Now this is – or when I become more proficient – will be possible.

But I do not use the world ‘cultural change’ lightly, Moving to this new computing environment might like be a bit like a business person, who had functioned with modest success in East Germany for years, suddenly having to cope with West Germany’s free market economy. There are new discourses and new ways of doing things to be learned and it is not easy. I started using my first Windows PC in 1981 or 1982 (the very first PCXT with its 10 MB hard disk). Synapses developed through daily use of the Windows 98 Operating System and its successor have had nearly a decade to solidify.

I am creeping up the learning curve slowly but steadily. Adapting AU’s somewhat archaic Lotus Notes software to my new computer, internet access from my weekend home and printing appear to be the major obstacles so far. Transferring modeling software, desktop publishing software and familiarizing myself with how the Blackboard online instructional software functions in a Mac environment are still peaks to be surmounted. There have been many acculturation hours expended in the past two weeks and there will be many more in the weeks ahead. Forty years of hands on IT experience does has its benefits. One approaches transitions of this sort with realism – and patience.

But in due course, I will be comfortable in my new world, with a new range of synoptic paths in place. Like one who can shift between contending epistemologies, I will have two information technologies in my tool kit. I will be master rather than servant. For someone of my advancing years, periodic major changes such as this are not only beneficial, but essential. They keep new blood, and new ideas, coursing more freely through the brain.

My best New Year's wishes to all.