Thursday, May 31, 2007

Qualities of a good mentor

My incomparable faculty-resident and administrative assistant, Althea, will soon be leaving CTA to spend a year in China. This evening we walked the 20 minutes to one of Washington DC’s relatively undiscovered treasures, de Carlo’s Restaurant, for a celebratory farewell dinner. Over a typically great meal, we spent more than two hours in conversation over a broad range of topics. On our walk back, Althea asked me to identify the qualities of a good mentor. I came up with two.

First, a good mentor always places the interests of his or her students, as s/he sees them first. This is true even if ‘superiors' (Deans or other administrators) see those interests as conflicting with institutional interests.

Second, a good mentor always seeks to have the student achieve maximum potential, according the student’s own leadings and intellectual interests. The goal is not to create an intellectual clone of himself or herself.

These principles served me well during my nine years as School of International Service Director of Doctoral Studies and, with modest adaptations, have proved also viable in my new role as mentor to AU’s young faculty members.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What were middle aged and old people like when they were young?

Since I teach at a university and live in a dorm, my most frequent companions – and those whom I see every day − are young. Many – not all – are energized, hopeful, idealistic, beautiful. They see a world full of possibilities.

This morning my companions were different. I have spent three hours in the Salt Lake City Delta Airlines First Class lounge with contemporaries or near contemporaries. Most look tired and many seem unhappy. Overheard cell conversations provide windows on intimate details of professional and personal lives. (Why do people assume that by picking up a cell, even if in a crowded public space, they are magically assured the privacy of an executive office or bedroom?) Common sentiments I heard were arrogance, resentment, distress, and cynicism. There was so little joyfulness in these conversations. This particular group has sufficient means to afford a first class air ticket. For how many has a substantial income brought joy and satisfaction with life.

Soon, I will be back in environment in which the young predominate. I want to cry out to them. Don’t, I beg of you, choose one of the paths that most around me, this morning, seem to have trod!

Visiting grandchildren

Even though my blog pen-name is ‘dormgrandpop,’ I am not a traditional grandfather. Possibly this is because my family had little tradition of “family.” But, despite this, I have been blessed with wonderful children, a stepchild, and, now, grandchildren. This morning, as the sun rises over National Airport, I am waiting to travel to Salt Lake City for a visit with the grandchildren, who have grown considerably since our last contact. There are four of them, ranging in age from sixteen to about two (time to enter birthdays in my Blackberry). Two are adopted, one from China (Hong Kong) and one from India (Bangalore). With students I found that taking time and listening are the best ways to make connections. I should imagine that this works for grandchildren, as well.

Making reservations to Colombo

May 24 – Posted later
On Wednesday I called my travel agent to make reservations for my summer trip to Sri Lanka. I try to spend at least four weeks in Sri Lanka each summer. I write, teach, meet with friends and drink in the country and its people. I wish my stays could be longer, but other obligations and commitments, other choices I have made, preclude that. I am reminded of a poet Robert Frost passage, “the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep…”

Regular ‘dormgrandpop’ readers know that Sri Lanka is like a second home to me. I never dreamed of this when I made my first visit in June 1987, almost exactly twenty years ago. Since then I have made more than twenty trips – one year there were three. It is a troubled country which lurches erratically between periods of uneasy truce and violence. Now it is once again in a violent phase. The militant Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) have created a small air force and bombed the international airport. The government, for the sixth or seventh time, is opting for a military solution, which is no more likely to succeed than President George W Bush's intervention in Iraq.

I spent twenty years writing a book about Sri Lanka’s civil wars. My goal was to gain a deep understanding of why conflict escalated in Sri Lanka, why it persists and what could be learned that might benefit other nations. I believe I do understand. This understanding, communicated as best I could in my book, has not ended the conflict. The carefully crafted ‘lessons’ that I offered have not been learned, let alone followed, at least not yet.

What keeps drawing me back to Sri Lanka? There is no real explanation. It is like falling in love. When I am there, I feel good about myself. For some reason, it is a place where it is natural for me to be. When I die, I shall ask that my remains be cremated and thrown in to the ocean surf, from the sea wall of Colombo’s Galle Face Green.

Post graduation message - find a job that you love

Written May 24. Posted later.
Not long ago I received an email from a colleague who worked with me in the Center for Teaching Excellence but then moved on the accept a higher paying position. I had written to express concern about a problem I encountered when doing business with the company she now works for. I called it to attention because I believe bad news is the most important news a manager needs to know and because in this case, I could offer a simple ‘fix’ that would solve the problem, please customers and save money. Her response saddened me. The problem was known, but would take at least a year to fix. I never recommend [my company] to my friends, she continued, “It has faced so many problems that turnover has been high. Most of those who remain are just discouraged.”

A few days later I was counseling a very intelligent young IT professional who had just been admitted to Law School. She was uncertain whether to enroll because so many lawyers, in mid career and afterwards seemed trapped and unhappy in their careers. I agreed. I have spoken with so many attorneys who feel the same. They have sought me out in their fifties because they were considering a career change. They were earning a big salary, but getting little satisfaction out of life.

Most human beings spend most of their lives at work. Not everyone has options but the young women and men with whom I mostly work, do. I can think of no more important decision for a young person that choosing work that is a calling rather than “just a job.” I taught my first university class in the fall of 1963. Most days, I am still eager to the office and engage with the work of American University. When I walk across our campus I am thankful – every day – for the privilege of a rewarding calling and such a beautiful setting in which to live and work.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

A beautiful day for a graduation

Today is graduation day at American University and we have been blessed with a beautiful one. I have been attending graduations for more than three decades, but I still find them special. They are a time to say ‘adieu’ to students and to briefly connect with parents. Now I am a dorm resident, there are graduating seniors with whom I have been friends and neighbors for four years. It has been my privilege to watch them change from uncertain, incompletely defined teen-agers attending our first “floor meetings” to (for the most part) poised, self-confident young adults. Our lives have been closelyintermingled, sometimes intensely but, for the most part, our paths will not cross again.

Graduation always brings to mind a passage from my colleague, collaborator and dear friend, the late Donella Meadows.. She titled it “life and death on a farm.”

“You don’t have to live on a farm very long before you come to terms with life and death, with all the Novembers when you kill last spring’s lambs and start next spring’s lambs. It is not that you become hard or unfeeling; rather you become accepting. You see life and death as a cycle or a continuum. You see that deaths are necessary for the balance of the farm, so that the ratios of rams and ewes and sheep and pastures will be right. You know that there will be beautiful meat to feed people, that not only the soil but all of nature turns death into new life, that in spite of all the death in the world, life persists. The whole process takes on a mysterious beauty and dignity. November, with its pervasive death isn’t the exciting high of April when the lambs are born and the daffodils bloom, but it’s the serene time of preparation for April; April couldn’t happen without it.”

The metaphor is not precise, of course. Students are moving to a next phase of life, not being taken to the slaughterhouse (unless ‘real life’ is that). But the process of renewal graduations presage is essential for the survival of educational institutions. Faculty members too, including dormgrandpop of course, must eventually leave the scene to make way for new energy and creativity. And these annual rituals do have elements of mystery, as well as beauty and dignity.

I must leave these reflections. It is time to don my academic robes for AU Commencement 2007.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Farewell to Dr. Doolittle, Hughes Hall's Faculty Resident

I often say that it is possible to accomplish anything at American University. One needs only a clear vision, focus, persistence, a positive attitude, and the patience of Job. But this does not mean that new projects follow an uninterrupted upward trajectory. There can be leaps forward, but progress can be in fits as well as starts. Nothing illustrates this better than one of my major priorities, once called the Faculty Residence Experiment, but now legitimately titled the Faculty Residence Program.

In many ways this was the Program’s most successful year. It began with preparation of a superb manual, prepared by a consultant to AU’s Vice-President for Campus Life. This helped institutionalize the program. It set forth guidelines and chronicled experiences of the two faculty members with residence hall apartments and the two with residence hall offices. In October, the Style Channel visited AU for a surprise makeover of the Anderson Hall first floor lounge, The makeover was featured on “My Celebrity Home” and was repeated at least six times, with several airings in prime time.

The new lounge attracted a reporter from the Associated Press who spent several hours at a Dormgrandpop-hosted Anderson Hall dinner. His story ran in more than 150 newspapers and on numerous Internet sites. For part of one hectic day it was the most accessed story on Yahoo News. This led to local prime time news segments on Fox and NBC news. AU even made it onto the news quiz show “Wait wait, don’t tell me.” At AU’s annual teaching conference, I highlighted the faculty residence program and prospects for expanding it to include a resident in a newly renovated facility, Nebraska Hall, to a gathering of more than 300 faculty members.

For the moment, this was the high point. Shortly after giving my address, I learned that the residence program in Hughes Hall would not be continuing, though the prospect of a faculty resident in Nebraska was still a live one. Last Wednesday, “Dr. Doolittle” the faculty resident in Hughes Hall moved out of his second floor apartment for good. The space will be filled by Resident Director, who is a Division of Campus Life staff member.

I view this as a setback, of course. But I believe it is a temporary blip on a generally upward trajectory. We must not forget that the decision to locate a faculty resident apartment in Nebraska Hall is a significant forward step. Nearly five years of bridge-building between the distinct faculty and Campus Life cultures have made a difference, with noticeable strengthening of communication, empathy and good will on both sides.

This demonstrates, as I have said, that it is possible to accomplish anything that is really worthwhile at American University. Though Dr. Doolittle’s residence did not lead to a lasting faculty presence in Hughes Hall, he provided an valuable alternative model of what a faculty resident can be and accomplish. His many contributions to residential students did make a difference, were greatly appreciated and will not be forgotten.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Contemplating Blackberry withdrawal

Contemplating Blackberry withdrawal
(A posting written last weekend)
Even though I would have preferred to stay longer in Hume, this was one of those special spring days when it was good to be on the road. I packed up early so I wouldn’t be rushed. I opened up the sunroof and vents on my still serviceable 1986 Honda Civic, tuned my ipod to a many-track Beach Boys album, plugged it in to my stereo speakers, turned up the volume and headed down the miles of country road that connect with route 66 East, enrooted to Washington DC. My Honda is definitely not a muscle or sports car, but it was easy to empathize with the guy in “My Little Deuce Coup” and the young lady in “She’ll have Fun, Fun, Fun ‘till her Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away.”

About a third of the way through my trip, I realized that my Blackberry, which is now also my cell phone, was not in its usual place – for the rest of the trip I had to contemplate a week without portable internet connectivity – Blackberry withdrawal. Because I am at AU, I thought I could manage. I would simply carry my Mac Powerbook everywhere, giving me calendar access. I get relatively few phone calls, so I thought I could make it.

It turned out that had packed the Berry in my backpack, but it was good to know that I have not become a complete addict.