Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What teen agers (and students) are looking for and need

During my early morning time of quiet and reflection I have been reading Anne Lamott’s marvelous book ‘Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.’ I found the following passage, which describes “...what teen-agers are looking for and need” to be a clear, powerful statement of my own experience living with and getting to know AU students, expressed far better than I could express it.

“ They need adults who have stayed alive and vital, adults they wouldn’t mind growing up to be. And they need total acceptance of who they are, from adults they trust, and to be welcomed in whatever condition life has left them - needy, walled off. They want guides, adults who know how to act like adults, but with a kid’s heart. They want people who will sit with them and talk about the big questions, even if they don’t have the answers; adults who won’t correct their feelings or pretend not to be afraid. They are looking for adventure, experience, pilgrimages and thrills. And they want a home they can return to, where things are stable and welcoming.”

Friday, August 24, 2007

Met and greet - the last weekday before classes begin

American university is becoming energized with new students and with events that herald the coming year. I thought some might be interested in my day’s schedule.

5 AM - Arise. Reading. Review the day’s schedule. Answer emails. Briefing on Audiovisual jobs for the day at 6:30. Identified a scheduling problem with a talk to be given later in the day and left voice-mails intended to resolve the problem.

9 AM - To office. Begin preparations for todays events. Check emails.

10 AM - Meeting with Dean of Academic Affairs, along with his and my principal staff members about the the Orientation for New Faculty Colleagues that we co-hosted on Monday for about 80 new faculty. Reviewed the schedule of a very successful even and made some minor adjustments to be incorporated in next year’s event.

11 AM - Convocation. Listened to speeches by the Vice President for Campus Life, the Student Government President, AU’s President Elect and the “Scholar Teacher of the Year.” These events are also a time to touch base with individuals whom I might not contact otherwise in the normal course of business but with whom face-to-face contact can be helpful.

12:15 - Gave a “fireside chat” to about twenty-five graduate students attending the SIS Orientation (called the SIS portal). This is a two-day event. I talked about the importance of linking an MA degree to career objectives, about some of my experiences in Sri Lanka, about my research and about areas of the world where the students and had both traveled.

1:45 - Met with CTE’s Assistant Director about a problem involving a staff member and a faculty member.

2:00 - Met with AU’s new Librarian to begin mapping out joint programs involving the Center for Teaching Excellence and the Library for the coming year.

3:15 - Followed up with a another staff member on the problem mentioned above.

3:30 - Met with CTE’s Assistant Director for our weekly review of budget expenditures (in this case we had not met last week because of scheduling conflicts, so our discussions needed to be more detailed. I believe that the disciplined budgeting and spending is an important key to effective management, so a detailed reviewing of the budget , expenditure by expenditure, is a regular weekly priority.

4:30 Was introduced to the new staff members of CTE’s “New Media Center” and made a brief speech.

4:45 Arrived late at the SIS “Opening of the School” event. Was, along with other faculty, introduced by the Dean.

5:30 At the reception after the event, spoke with the head of AU’s University College about a new “learning communities” program, with the head of the SIS Undergraduate Council about ideas for involving students and faculty more actively outside of the classroom, with the SIS Associate Dean about a technology problem and with three of the students whom I had met earlier during the ‘fireside chat” event.

6:15 Attended the “Great American Barbecue” but did not eat. Spoke with a number of administrators with whom I do business and who were participating in the event; also with a number of students.

6:45 Held a brief conversation with a colleague in the SIS International Development Program and her assistant who were moving into a new office.

7:00 Began catching up on the day’s accumulation of emails and other deferred tasks, including the writing of two blog postings.

A three hour journey spanning fifty years

Last Tuesday and Wednesday, I visited my father, age 96 in the assisted living community where he resides. I left to return to Washington about 7:30PM. Dinner is served at 6 PM. By 7:30, as a drove away, the community was mostly quiet. When I returned to AU, a little before 10, the “Quad” in front of Anderson Hall and the roadway leading up to it were thronged with students. No classes tomorrow and it was a beautiful evening. At first I thought there might have been a fire alarm evaluation (and I was not on hand to distribute candy), but no, students told me they were just “hanging out.” A number of students were also congregating around taxis that had been called to take them to the bright lights of Georgetown.

On Tuesday, accompanied by my father, I had met briefly with the Director of Residential Care of his community. At the end of an email I wrote her that evening, I felt moved to append the following reflection, based on my experience traveling between two very different worlds.

“...There was no reason for me to take your office time by sharing my own
professional circumstances, but to make a point, I will share that one
responsibility is faculty member in residence in an 1800 student
(mostly first and second year) residence hall complex.  Thus, my
three hour journey this evening spanned, in sense, 50 years -  from a
community of median age 90 to a community of median age 20.  Reflecting on this gave me new respect for your profession and role.  

My role as faculty resident, senior
professor and mentor might, like yours, be termed "resident care."
But my young charges, despite often turbulent lives, are on an upward
trajectory.  The lives of your charges, like my father, are becoming
increasingly circumscribed.  Your mission, I am presuming,  is to
create a context of civility, compassion, dignity and grace in these
difficult circumstances.

This mission, it it seems to me, is by far the more difficult one, and
I deeply respect the commitment that has lead to you undertake it. "

I remain grateful for the opportunity to share the lives of AU students that living in Anderson Hall provides. And I do believe that the task of a faculty resident is much the easier one.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Assessing a succesful 'moving in' Saturday

In working with students and their parents, one-on-one contacts are the most important, However we are always seeking numbers (the technical term is ‘metrics’) that can be used, albeit imperfectly, to assess our effectiveness and communicate it to others. Yesterday, I participated in the best “moving in” saturday I have experienced in my five years as a faculty resident. Here are some metrics that could be used to assess my participation:

64 donuts, plain, frosted and cinnamon
2 pounds of mild cheddar cheese
2 pounds of swiss cheese
about 4 pounds of assorted candy (normally distributed during fire alarm evacuations)
7 liters of lemonade
16 quarts of orange juice
60 klondike bars
7 pounds of strawberries
3 pineapples
12 cans of Mountain Dew
12 Cans of Diet coke

This was the amount of food and drink I handed out to new students, returning students parents and staff between 8 AM and 2 PM on Saturday moving in day. By 2 PM, my larder was bare.

I say it was “the best” because everyone seemed in such good humor, during what can be a very stressful time. I saw no one lose their temper. Everyone conducted themselves with civility and good humor. Sadly my ability to dialogue with new students and parents was somewhat hampered by the fact that, due to allergies or something, I could only speak in whispers I wore a name tag with large red letters that said DON’T MIND MY WHISPERS - TEMPORARY LOSS OF VOICE. Nobody seemed to mind.

Hopefully this successful moving in Saturday will be a harbinger of a great year ahead for the South Side residence halls and American University.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Let us stop being distant in our support and understanding of what each other is passionate about

I came upon the following passage about working in an organizaton this morning that seemed worth sharing. It is from an "advice on participation" from some Quaker meeting, the name of which I didn't record. Since Quakers make may decisions in committees and, in principle, one dissident member can block a decision or action of the entire group, thinking about how one participates in an organizaiton and deals with the conflics that inevitably arise is an important matter. The passage follows.

"We need to pay attention to those who have passionate concerns and invest deeply and creatively in their callings. We need to listen to what they are doing, why they are doing it, what they are passionate about - and see if it touches our own sense of call. Let’s pay attention to those who can effectively get things done. We need to lift up the natural organizers who can make things happen, who are natural leaders. We need to give them room to operate and trust in their natural skill. At the same time, let’s be hones with one another - truly honest. Let’s open up and share. Let’s see if there are true points of commonality. Let’s stop being distant in our support and understanding of what each other is passionate about. Let’s admit that there are conflicts and face them. It may be hard, but how can we have community if we don’t struggle with its barriers. And let’s lift our eyes, focus our vision and see if there is a mission calling. Let’s ask ourselves, what is the vision of this organization? Why do we exist? What drew us together in the first place?” What is unique about us? Is that uniqueness worth sharing? Is it worth investing our time and energy into it? Is it worth the risk?"

Friday, August 10, 2007

Early morning reflections on unconditional love

I ‘m pretty good about overcoming jet lag, Melatonin helps. But for a few days after returning from Sri Lanka - the trip can take more than 24 continuous hours - I do awake early in the morning, sometimes clear headed, sometimes worrying, focused on some problem or idea.

This morning, it has been ‘unconditional love.’ Many years ago I had a deep relationship with someone which both of us experienced as “love,” though it was rarely unconditional. We used to speak often about love. Later, as we were breaking up, she wrote me that we had been more in love with the idea of love, than with each other. Some years afterwards, she died suddenly.

Anyhow, here is part of what she wrote me in one memorable letter, that I have saved treasured and reflected on over the years.

“It doesn’t matter what I do, just how I do it.

“My effect in the world isn’t papers and projects and budgets; it isn’t even harvests – it’s how people feel and are when they are around me....

“Love is receiving someone in a space of total trust, openness, good will, acceptance.

“I can take each person I know and rank them on a scale which is the degree of openness and love with which I receive them – the amount of careful attention I am willing to give them, the ability I have to be with them. Notice that the quality lies in me, not them.

“Some people in my world are objects, which I have a fixed concept about and am not at all open to any information to the contrary. I can change who they are just by opening myself to them.”

I have found this to be true, but it can be difficult. Opening my self, in some degree to relative or complete strangers is something I now do quite well. And I am able to totally open myself, sometimes, to people whom I think genuinely love and respect me; whom I trust not to sneer or put me down for my meanderings, anxieties and uncertainties. The big challenge is opening myself to those whom I see as evil, or who have insulted me, or not “gotten who I am,” or, paradoxically, whose respect and love I fear I will lose by being authentically who I am, or who may impose a burden on my by seeking more than I can give.

What my friend told me, years ago, really does work. I have experienced it. I have found that It is possible to change who another human being is or perhaps discover who they are, or perhaps simply change my perception of who they are by opening myself to them. It seems as if it should be easy, but it isn’t. And Gandhi’s life, among others, teaches us that it can be painful and perilous.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Will Sri Lankans' basic honesty survive economic hardship?

Something I like most about Sri Lanka is the basic honesty of its people, especially poor people. A good example, one of many, is the watch repairman who occupies a small covered kiosk in the working-class district of Colombo near where I live. The kiosk is tiny. Here is hardly room for its young proprietor to sit down.

I came there one morning with two watches that needed battery replacement. I had brought them from the US, where that kind of service is either unavailable or expensive. In about twenty minutes the job was done. It included not only battery replacement, but a meticulous cleaning of both watches. The cost, including the replacement batteries was 200 Sri Lankan rupees - about $1.90.

This is but one among numerous examples of honest dealing by strangers whose income is very modest and whose living conditions are harsh, by developed-world standards. Others include the newspaper seller, the lunch packet salesperson, the store clerk, the tri-shaw (tuk tuk) driver, the bus conductor. These women and men are meticulous about charging modestly for services rendered and counting out the correct change. The only Sri Lankans I have met who regularly connive and attempt to cheat are a few of those working in tourist areas who deal regularly with foreigners.

I have a concern. Many Sri Lankans are facing severe economic hardships. A costly war has dragged on for more than twenty years. Inflation is estimated to be twenty-five per-cent, though official figures are far lower. Some political leaders have adopted the common tactic of whipping up nationalist sentiment to intimidate political opponents and divert attention from economic realities. Concerns have been expressed that the Central Bank, whose staff was once known for high professional standards is ‘cooking the books.’ Newspaper reports and local gossip tell stories of political, leaders whose primary goal appears to be retaining power and using public office for political gain. These problems are not unique to Sri Lanka, of course. America too, as I have written in other blogs, has political leaders who use public office for political gain, who spew divisive rhetoric as a tactic for clinging to power and whose actions make it clear that there is one “the rule of law” standard for themselves but another for everyone else.

An environment of economic hardship and political corruption, coupled with a widening gap between rich and poor, can over time, corrode the integrity of all but the hardiest. Why should one be honest, the poor are likely to ask, when it is becoming impossible to provide for one’s family and the future of one’s children looks bleak? I fear the erosion of generally high standards of honesty that now characterize most Sri Lankans – and most Americans.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

How was your trip to Sri Lanka?

“Are you having fun?” a US friend asked me via email on one of the last days of my month long stay in Sri Lanka. The words “arduous,” “intense,” “joyful,” and “self reflective” are those that come to mind, this morning.

My task in Colombo was to ease the transition to a vibrant, passionately committed new leader of the center where I serve as a board member, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Her selection ended a full or partial leadership vacuum spanning several years, and marked the transition to a new leadership generation. She was the first non-Sri Lankan to be chosen for a leadership position

Her appointment evoked many reactions. One, not unsurprisingly was sabotage. My counselor, Peggy Treadwell, defines sabotage as the actions of individuals in an organization who experience a visceral reaction to the uncertainties and anxieties that change poses. They manifest that reaction through resistance and attacks directed at the change agent. That the change may be in their own self-interest makes no difference.

When I first came to American University committed to building an exciting new organization at the nexus of information technology, management science and public affairs, I experienced sabotage. Over a three year period, it destroyed my organization and nearly destroyed me. Thus I could empathize with the anguish the new ICES leader was experiencing and vowed to do what I could to support her. I did my best, but must wonder if it was good enough.

Thirty-years later I have learned something about fighting sabotage. With the help of may, I have fought off the saboteurs and built an organization that produces great results while affirming empowering those who work within it. But such experiences are not easily transferable, in the space of a month, where ones only powers are the powers to persuade, empathize and exemplify.

How was my trip? The words arduous, intense, joyful and self-reflective are those that come to mind.