Sunday, December 30, 2007

This year's Christmas Newsletter

Dear Family and Friends

In introducing last year’s newsletter, I wrote that I would use my blog, as a point of departure; that this makes a yearly recapitulation easier, but also lengthier. I wrote that one of my wife Emily’s distinctive traits - and strengths - is her independence, which manifests itself in independent holiday communications as well as many other facets of a rich and rewarding life.

This year’s format will be much the same. Those who are interested can always read more from my blog directly, including new musings that are posted from time to time. For those uninterested, there is always the ‘delete’ key.

01-15. Recalling great teachers that shaped our lives. Teaching continues to be a major professional commitment, though I now spend more time “teaching” the nine managers and more than 60 full and part-time staffers who comprise the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) family. This posting was about a panel discussion by AU alumni trustees, given at our annual teaching conference, In it, they and I reflected on mentors that helped shape our lives. Introducing the subject, I spoke of mentors who inspired me, who changed my thinking, and one who - literally - saved my life. “The best way to thank a a great mentor is by seeking to be one” is a passage that comes to mind.

02-05. Communicating across generations. An Associated Press features reporter and I spent about three hours together while I cooked a “Sunday night dinner” served about 30 students in our Style Network decorated lounge and (with help from some diners) cleaned up. One question he posed “isn’t it difficult to communicate across two do you do it?” Stuck with me. I was reminded of advice given by a counselor whose help I sought in repairing a troubled primary relationship. ‘The secret of successful relationships,’ she told me, ‘is no expectations.’

03-17, How was your break? “Breaks” are part of a university calendar’s rhythm. When we return, “how was your break?” is a common conversation topic. “...Spring break destinations always amaze me, because there are so many foreign destinations – Capetown, London, Istanbul, Hong Kong – long, challenging journeys for a ten day holiday, but they have become commonplace for students. American University students at least, belie the insularity often attributed to Americans. They go everywhere − and often for amazing feats of service rather than just vacations.

04-18. A busy day - one of many. This was simply a recapitulation of one day in the life of a professor/faculty administrator/faculty resident. It began with my AV events briefing at 5:45 and ended after midnight. “Back from tennis before ten, I prepared for the day and took a long call from my daughter. Then there were meetings at 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00. The 4 PM meeting lead to drafting a long note regarding AV support for a conference to be held tomorrow. Then it was time to rush to a nearby specialty grocery, to purchase supplies for tomorrow’s lunch in my apartment. My dissertation advisor of many years ago, is visiting with his wife. At 6:30 there was office hours in the dorm. I was getting pretty exhausted so I took a short break between eight and eight-thirty. At eight thirty was the meeting I described in another blog, about the tragic events at Virginia Tech. When I came back to my apartment, two systems analysis students were waiting and our meeting lasted until nearly 11:30. Then was the time I began writing this blog and others. It will be after 1 A.M. before my work is done.

05-24 Post graduation message - find a job that you love. Graduation is a time for advice giving. This was my reflection. “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.”

07-04 In praise of parents. This was written over the summer as parents and prospective students were visiting campus for orientation. But it could have been written at many other times of the year, as well. “For me, seeing students with their parents is one of the high points of being a faculty member and living on campus. It is so interesting to look for similarities and differences that define a young person, mother and father. What I think of most is the commitment and sacrifice, on the part of most parents, that the arrival of a student at AU represents. And the task is not yet complete. The parents whom I have greeted will be back again – for ‘moving in,” “parents weekend” and again and again and again, until graduation. Students may not appreciate all of this now. They are preoccupied with adapting to a new environment, meeting new challenges, and negotiating the difficult transition from child to independent adult. But taking time out to praise parents is something we should all do more often.

08-08 Will Sri Lankans’ basic honesty survive economic hardships. I made a month-long trip to Sri Lanka in July, working intensively to help the International Center for Ethnic Studies, which I serve as a director, with a leadership transition. This blog was motivated by a transaction with the young watch repair man who occupies a small kiosk in the working class Colombo district of Borella, near where I live. 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 who 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. ... [However] 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.

08-28 What teen agers want and need. This great quote is from Anne Lamott’s marvelous book, ‘Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.’ “ 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.”

09-15. Making complex technical material accessible. This was written at the annual meetings of The Balaton Group, in Hungary, where I experienced some great and not-so-great presentations of complex technical material. “Joan Holmes, Executive Director of the Hunger Project once told a group of us, ‘if fifth graders can understand it, anyone will understand it.” Joan was a former fifth grade teacher. The Hunger Project’s Book, ‘Ending Hunger: and Idea Whose Time Has Come,” which was an expression of the late Donella Meadows’ vision of what a book should be, expressed that point-of-view. A co-authored book ‘Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling attempted to share the most important messages of complex computer models accessibly. The emergence of ‘social networking’ forms of communication poses new communication challenges, but powerful new opportunities for outreach. What should be communicated? How should it be communicated? To what ends? Via what media? We cannot ignore these questions. We cannot shrink from the challenges they pose. We must be courageous, which does not mean we should not be ‘realistic,.’

11-01 Making mummies. This posting described a lighter moment at one of the weekly staff meetings of Anderson Hall Resident Assistants that I attend regularly. “...But staff meetings are not all serious. We also have “ice breakers” which are intended to build community and help us get to know each other better. A quick one is “up and down.” We go around the conference table and each staff member recounts something good and bad that happened to them in the previous week. “Shout outs” provide an opportunity to complement a colleague who did something great the previous week. One week we were asked to describe something unusual about ourselves that others would not be likely to know. My contribution was that three close acquaintances of mine in Sri Lanka had been political assassination victims, two by gunfire and one by a suicide bomber. “Making mummies” was this week’s “icebreaker”. We divided up into teams of about four. Each team was given a large industrial role of toilet paper. The task was to wrap one of our members, like a mummy, so that nothing but the paper would show in about seven minutes. This was a fairly typical “team building” exercise in which members seek to work with one another, performing a complex task and then reflect on what they learned from the experience. My team won ! and we learned three useful lessons. First the oldest and putatively the “wisest:” member of the team may not have the best advice. My plan for completing the task, produced disastrous results. The second message was that a failing strategy should quickly be abandoned and replaced by something that is working. Happily, the two other team members (apart from the prospective mummy) quickly abandoned my plan and worked out a far more effective strategy between them. The third message was that encouragement is important. I quickly switched my role to that of cheerleader, reporting that they were catching up with and then surpassing the other teams, while I helped with minor patches on the project. The two team members who did most of the work said that my enthusiastic encouragement did make a difference. I don’t think they were just being kind.”

12-02. Forgiveness. This morning, I was reading from a pamphlet of daily devotional readings, Forward Day By Day, that is distributed by the Episcopal Church to its congregations. Each reading begins with a brief passage from the Christian Bible. A commentary follows. This morning’s passage was from the fifteenth chapter of Luke, verses 11-32, the parable of ‘The Prodigal Son.’ The concluding paragraph of the commentary called to mind one of my own shortcomings. I know that forgiving is important, not for the individual forgiven, but for one’s own mental and spiritual health. But deep inside, I often find it difficult, especially when I have been the object of harsh treatment by people whom I love and wish to be close to. I printed out a copy of the paragraph and posted it over my work-table as a reminder. The paragraph follows:
FORGIVENESS: I’d rather stay sheltered in my Father’s arms. My heart is too small and my arms are too heavy to be the one offering such grace. And yet we are called daily to plan ways of welcome, to be as merciful and generous as the Father, to follow our Lord into the paths of reconciliation - and ultimate rejoicing.

(I omitted the last item, which is a lengthy quotation from my Decmeber 24th posting.)

My very best wishes to all readers - if any - for the new year.




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