Friday, August 29, 2008

'Ice Cream Social' - a uncomplicated pleasure of residential living

On wednesday night, from 8 to 9 p.m., we had an ‘ice cream social’ in Anderson Hall. The Resident Director’s  goal was uncomplicated - to have fun and encourage residents in our large and somewhat sterile building to connect with  residents who live on other floors. 

We handed out chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream on the first floor.  When residents left our lounge, brightly colored posters  directed them to other floors where toppings were available.  There was chocolate sauce served on one floor, strawberry on another, butterscotch on another, chocolate sprinkles on another, gummy bears on another - and so forth.  Dormgrandpop, Anderson’s Resident Director, the South Side Area Director, and a couple of other staff scooped and served vigorously, while briefly chatting with a never-ending line of young men and women for more than an hour.  Our delighted residents, more than 250 of them filled their bowls, thanked us,  and headed off to see what other floors had to offer.  Gallons and gallons of ice cream were consumed.   

If distance education were the only mode of instruction, residential living experiences such as this - and many more - would be lost.

A good time was had by all.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Last sunday night at AU - a tale of three staff members

Early sunday afternoon I was finishing a report for American University’s new Provost, due monday.  I checked my email and there was a note, sent at 10 AM from one of CTE’s Associate Directors and one of my closest colleagues.  She had promised to edit the report.  She was worried I had forwarded it by Lotus Notes, AU’s email system and it had not gotten through.  This time, I reassured her by telephone, the problem was my chronic optimism about the time it takes me to finish any piece of quality work, not a technology breakdown.  Two hours later, my draft of the report was finally complete and forwarded.

At 9 PM, back at AU, I attended a ‘floor meeting’ with the Anderson first floor residents who are my most immediate neighbors.  Most floors have about 80 residents, not ideal for building community.  ‘Anderson One North,’ however, has only about 25 residents, which provides a much better opportunity to do so.  We each introduced ourselves, told ‘something interesting about ourselves and listened to some ‘policies’ from the Resident Assistant and Resident Director. We then  discussed problems that had come up during Welcome Week.  

Several residents mentioned difficulties encountered with wireless internet connectivity.  AU was a pioneer in providing wireless connectivity to its students.  The system has been steadily improved, but can, like any technology, experience sporadic unreliability.   Because I work closely with Office of Information Technology staff members, I promised to look into the matter.  Returning to my apartment about 10:30, I dispatched an email to the AU manager responsible for wireless technology, a friend of many years, describing the problem.

Among my other emails, was one from the Associate Dean of our School of International Service, another old friend, former doctoral student and colleague.  She had encountered a problem with an Audiovisual setup earlier in the day and wanted to inform me about it.  I explained that CTE’s AV group was temporarily short staffed, apologized for the incident and promised I would do my best to avoid a reoccurrence.

Not long after sending my response - it was now after 11 - I received a reply from the wireless manager.  He explained the problem, and the remedies he had implemented He promised to get back to be with additional details in the morning.  While I was reading his email, I received another from the Associate Dean, thanking me for my response. She praised my staff member for his civility and forbearance in the face of ‘overwhelming obligations.” By now , it was 11:30.  I decided my creativity had reached a low ebb.  It was time to retire.

Refreshed from a night’s sleep, I returned to the office about 9 AM monday morning and was greeted by my colleague, the Associate Director, who was already on the job.  She assured me the fully edited document was waiting in my emailbox.  As I downloaded it, I noted the time of her message - 12:15 AM.  

There is conventional wisdom in some management circles about why and how people do their work.  It is  embodied in administrative regulations, job descriptions and the practices of ‘human resources’ departments.  The conventional wisdom is that human beings are primarily motivated by  ‘compensation’ and guided in what they do by ‘job descriptions.’  This view is so pervasive that it may, for many employees, be accurate.   Indeed the motivations it assumes may be shaped by those very assumptions, embodied in structures, procedures and rules..

But last evening, at American University, it was my privilege to collaborate with three colleagues whose actions were guided by very different motivations.  Their commitment was to produce results, not just to ‘do their job.’  They viewed their AU employment not as ‘a job,’ but as a calling.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Another year of service for a 22 year 'old friend'

My red Honda Civic hatchback is 22 years old.  There is a rule of thumb for comparing a dog’s age and that of a human being.  One human year = 7 dog years, according to If there is a comparable rule of thumb for cars, mine must be older than I am. 

At least in the US, the passing of a pet is often a child’s first experience with death.  In other parts of the world, of course, things are different.  A child’s first death experience is often the loss of a brother, sister, friend, neighbor or parent.  In Sri Lanka, five of my friends have been killed either  by assassins or the police.  

Anyhow my Honda just  passed safety inspection for another year.  A bright orange sticker on the windshield  certifies that it can be driven safely, at least until August 31, 2009. This is a remarkable testimonial to the quality of workmanship for which Honda Motors is known. Disciplined maintenance and good luck have helped too, I suppose. 

Top executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler whine about the competitive disadvantage they face when up against Honda and Toyota.  My own views, based on sad experiences with GM vehicles over the years (including a very recent truck purchase), is that if American manufacturers built better quality cars and trucks, more people would buy them.

I am thinking about a new vehicle, though what I have heard about the sleaziness of the car-selling business is a bit daunting.  The Honda Element is my first choice - it would enable me to carry my bicycle without mounting a rack.  I keep hoping Honda will bring out a hybrid version.

Occasionally, I seek advice from friends about new car options.  But when I do so in the presence of my Honda Civic, it seems disloyal.  I speak very softly, even apologetically.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

'Moving In" Saturday at AU

Saturday was the first ‘moving in day’ preceding the Fall Semester. This year, because of an unusually large entering class - the largest ever - AU restricted moving in on the first few days to first year students only. By the end of the weekend, 48 per-cent of all students who will be living on campus had moved in.

If you have never participated in or seen this event - many AU faculty members have not - it is difficult to envision. Event before the residence halls open, a long line of cars, small trucks and SUV’s have queued up. Public safety officers are on hand to guide traffic flow and direct vehicles to parking spaces. “University Mattresses” salespersons are peddling their wares in the center of the ‘Quad” between Anderson and Letts, our two largest residence halls. Blue shorted residence hall staff members were standing behind the reception desk and in the Housing and Dining Offices to process admissions and solve problems. Sometimes it seems chaotic, but the chaos is organized.

My role is a modest one. On Friday evening, I purchased 12 pounds of strawberries. 16 quarts of orange juice, 12 quarts of lemonade, 100 popsicles, 10 12 packs of doughnuts, 8 pounds of cheese, three 12 packs of ice tea, 3 cartons of crackers, three pineapples and more. Throughout the morning, and until my larder was bare, I donned an orange apron, an oversized name-tag that said ‘Faculty Resident” and handed out food. For those waiting at the desk, there was a table laden with fruit, donuts juice and coffee. For those waiting for admission in cars and in the quad, I circulated about with strawberries, freshly cut pineapple chunks, glasses of orange juice and lemonade and, later in the day popsicles. “Isn’t that sweet” was the most common reaction when I showed up outside the widow of a waiting car, filed with parents, a student, perhaps a sibling and lots of belongings, with my tray of lemonade or bowl of strawberries.

By 2 PM my larder was bare and, sadly, I had to close up shop. Next year I may have to double my food order. In other years the crush was over by after mid-day, but not this year. It continued on into the evening. 

Each year, I am impressed again by everyone’s good humor. Many families have driven long distances and are experiencing a major life transition. Virtually all  seemed to show patience, consideration and love for one another in what can be a stressful time. This year, unseasonably cool Washington weather helped. On a morning when the Russians were invading Georgia and there were a host of other unresolved problems in the world, moving in day at AU was a time when one could renew hope in the fundamental resilience and goodness of the human spirit.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Center for Teaching Excellence's Distinctive Culture

At the beginning of each academic term, the Center for Teaching Excellence publishes its newsletter, Arete (which is the Greek word for ‘excellence’). Much of the front page is devoted to my column, ‘...From the Director’. Over the years I have written about CTE graduate fellows and the role they play, about CTE as a ‘democratic organization’ about the potential of American University’s recently inaugurated President to lead our institution ‘from good to great’ and much more. CTE has experienced remarkable growth since I became Director in January, 2002. In my column I described what i believe has been a critical success ingredient contributing to that growth. Here is what I wrote:


CTE will celebrate its 10th Anniversary during the 2008-2009 academic year. Landmark anniversaries are times for celebration and stock-taking. In the past ten years, CTE has evolved and changed unimaginably. But a theme that emerges from pages of founding Director Jack Child’s very first Annual Report remains: CTE’s mission is to facilitate mutually affirming, empowering relationships between learning, teaching and technology at American University.

CTE has evolved and grown by providing value-added to our clients - faculty and students primarily but also other AU Community Members. I believe a critical success ingredient is what we call, “the CTE culture.” It has enabled us to respond to new challenges, undertake new functions and build strong, collegial relationships throughout the AU community. It will be a source of resilience in the face of challenges the future poses. What is the essence of CTE’s culture? Here is what I have gleaned from many discussions in meetings, annual retreats and ‘around the water cooler.’

In CTE we believe that commitment to innovative teaching and learning must be the driving force for applying technology in all aspects of the educational process. To play its appropriate role, technology must be useful and accessible. Communications from those who purvey technology must be respectful, clear and empowering.

In CTE we believe that good stewardship to faculty students and other members of the AU community is the overriding priority. When an AU community member seeks us out, we never tell them their need is ‘not our job.’ If we cannot directly respond to a concern, it is our responsibility to connect the client with someone who can. In an era where ‘customer service’ seems to be at the bottom of many organizations’ priority lists, we intend to be an exception.

In CTE, we believe an affirming, empowering, work environment that fosters innovation, creativity and risk taking is the foundation of good stewardship. We primarily view ourselves as educators, mentors and colleagues, not as ‘managers’ and ‘staff’ and ‘part-time workers. We care about each other’s well being and have fun together. CTE’s part-time student staff members are integral to our organization and play pivotal roles. They are major sources of energy, creativity, innovation and self-renewal.

In CTE we believe in celebrating our successes and acknowledging those who make them possible, especially community members who are not part of CTE. We tell the truth about our failures, take responsibility for them and move on. We are especially committed to truth telling in our relationships with each other. We know that trial, experimentation and error - especially error - are essential to fulfilling our mission.

Monday, August 04, 2008

When children follow a parent's profession

In less that two weeks, new students will be moving into Anderson and other AU residence halls. For many, this may be the first independent step on a path leading to long-term gainful employment, a ‘career,; perhaps even a calling. Choosing a career can be a daunting task for young men and women, especially in the context of American culture, which values freedom of choice so highly.

For children in South Asian families, the choice is often easier, which is not necessarily so say that the outcome is better. Yesterday evening, I attended a party celebrating the birth of a grandson to a Sri Lankan family with whom I have been friends for more than 20 years. The young man who is the child’s father is an attorney, working for a non-profit organization. The child’s paternal grandfather, too, is an attorney. He spent most of a prestigious career at the World Bank. The family has two other daughters. Both are attorneys, though one no longer practices - she was unable to do so in her adopted home, Malaysia, and has become an art dealer. The child’s mother is a pediatrician and his maternal grandfather, too, is a pediatrician. The family is from South India. Father and daughter practice together which, the father told me, has contributed to a more efficient office and allowed him to begin transitioning to retirement. It was his daughter's choice to join his practice, he emphasized. Her sister is a pediatrician; their mother is a scientist specializing in cancer research.

This is a common pattern in South Asia and leads one to ask whether or not the two sets of parents imposed a career choice on their children. I have no doubt that these highly educated, professionals expected their children to choose professional careers and were pleased when they chose the law and medicine. But was the children’s choice dictated by parental pressure? Or was it simply that children experienced their fathers living rewarding lives and chose to profit from their examples? Obviously the answer is more complex than ‘either - or.’

This train of thought leads me to reflections on my own family. My father was a highly successful attorney, my mother a stay at home mom. Had she been born a generation later, however, she might have become a university professor - that career was not generally open to gifted young women born in 1913. She became a nurse, then an airline ‘stewardess’ as way stations on the path to being a full-time wife and mother. But she was a talented artist and possessed one of the most creative intellects of anyone I have known. Our home was was filled with history books and history lived as part of my mother’s daily conversations. My bedtime stories were about Napoleon, the Empress Maria Theresa and her family, Catherine the Great and her Prime Minister, Potemkin.

There was no overt pressure in my family to become an attorney and neither my siblings nor I chose that path. Three of us chose education. My eldest sister is a 4th grade teacher, my brother is associate dean of a business school and I, of course, am Dormgrandpop. My younger sister combined being a full-time mom, with part-time careers as a tennis professional and artist.

Educators sometimes use the term “helicopter parents” for this parental generation because they seem constantly to be hovering over their children. The depth of their caring, as I have written earlier postings, will be particular evident in two weeks - on ‘moving in day.’ Like every generation of parents, they are torn between giving their children freedom of choice and ensuring that they make the right choices. The ‘right choices,’ are often seen as paths that parents followed themselves, or paths they wished they had followed, but didn’t. Some parents, too, seem genuinely committed to having children follow their own lights, wherever they may lead.

Perhaps the best ‘career guidance’ a parent can provide is to live their own ‘careers’ - and lives - with authenticity and passion. Their great gift can be to fully include children in the process, mostly providing guidance by the example of a life well lived.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A transcendent experience

I am writing this on my laptop sitting, alone, under a dark, starlit sky. My venue is the terrace of a country home where I am spending the weekend. It is as beautiful a setting as one could imagine - not spectacular, but secluded and tranquil. The house is surrounded by rolling hills and looks out over fenced paddocks, with no other houses in sight. A few stars are visible, but no moon. The sky is black. Sounds of crickets and katydids fill the night. I have just finished a good dinner - a steak of range fed beef, a fresh tomato from the local IGA market and a glass of red wine.

For the past two hours I have been listening to an unedited Speaking of Faith podcast in which host Krista Tippett interviewed the late African American spiritualist, Joe Carter. The interview, an intermingling of conversation and Carter’s singing was long, but I wished it could have been even longer. My impression is that Krista Tipett and her staff felt the same.

(Note: to AU students, Krista will dung a video conference presentation for students enrolled in University College, this fall)

There is one interchange I particularly remember, because I often hear it from Nancy, an elderly African-American Aramark housekeeping staff member whom I often see in the early morning, and sometimes later on campus. Nancy is 79 years old and has raised 12 children, all adopted. When I ask her how she is doing, she often responds, “I am blessed.” Joe Carter spoke of elderly African American women he knew, who carried spirituals in their memories and who would say him when he asked how they were doing, “I am blessed,”

Joe Carter died, at a too young age, more than a year ago. But, thanks to Krista Tippitt, he has left us an informal, yet transcendent expression of his life’s work and its deep meaning. As I listened to the the concluding minutes of the interview, I experienced a deep sadness that Joe Carter’s voice has been stilled - and thanks that I could re-experience it when I chose, electronically.

On song Carter sang could have been his epitaph, and I would hope it could be mine, as well.

Let the work that I’ve done, speak for me.
Let the work that I’ve done, speak for me.
When I come to the end of the road and I lay down my heavy load
Let the work that I’ve done, speak for me.

The remaining verses in the same format are
Let the life that I’ve lived speak for me...
Let the prayers that I’ve prayed speak for me...
Let the love that I’ve shared speak for me....

A second song was

Soon I will be done
With the troubles of the world
I’m going home
To live with God

Sitting here in the night stillness, I could echo the sentiments of my friend Nancy, and of the grandmothers who were Joe Carter’s teachers, “I am blessed.”

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Friday, August 01, 2008

Early morning greetings to friends in 'a small village'

Yesterday morning I set out at 6:30 to continue my twenty year tennis competition with ‘the Dean.’ He was arriving at Dulles Airport on the ‘red eye’ from San Francisco, but still didn’t want to miss our weekly match. Walking through the lobby of Anderson Hall I exchanged greetings with the Desk Receptionist, a student friend and ‘Nancy,’ an elderly women who works with Aramark Housekeeping Services. Outside, two members of the landscaping crew were beginning their work and we shared brief comments on weather prospects for the day ahead. I waved at driver in the AU Shuttle Bus passing by and greeted ‘Don’ , AU’s electrician who was beginning his morning rounds. Two other acquaintances from Physical Plant Operations turned the corner into their parking lot and we waved to each other. Our paths would probably cross again, one or more times during the day. Walking up the parking garage ramp, I encountered ‘Chris,’ the AU locksmith. We shook hands and exchanged greetings.

In a walk of less than fifteen minutes, at 6:30 in the morning I had encountered and connected with ten or more casual friends and acquaintances. In some cases our relationship spans more than a decade; in many,, more than five years. The experience is much similar to walking down the main street of a small town in rural America, where one lived for many years. The good feelings of community and connectedness are the same. American University can be like that if one chooses.

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