Sunday, May 24, 2009

My mentors and what I have learned from them

Some years ago, I began collecting pictures of the most important mentors in my life. When I became Director of American University’s Center for Teaching Excellence, I posted them in my office. Each day, they look down on me as I meet and work with faculty members, administrators, students and CTE staff members. Since I will be disassembling my office before long, making way for my successor, I am looking up at them more often. I though it would be a useful exercise to capture what each of them contributed to me in a phrase. My exploration of this topic will span several postings since I have been blessed with a number of mentors. A single posting would be too long. This is Part I.

[1] My father, John Richardson. My father was a world-class tennis player who then became a highly successful attorney in New York City. He enjoyed his work because of the interesting intellectual challenges it posed and the interesting people he met. His work was never a passion, however, as mine has been. He exemplified the importance of keeping the different parts of ones life in balance (a model I have been loath to follow). As Dormgrandpop readers know, he lived a full and vigorous life through his 96th birthday. He taught me how one can accommodate the infirmities of the aging process with grace and love one’s children without attachment.
[2] My mother, Rita Richardson. Before marrying into a rather traditional, somewhat Victorian family, my mother lived an adventurous life as one of Trans World Airlines first “Stewardesses.” She accommodated to the more circumscribed role of stay-at home-mom with some difficulty, but compensated by pouring her creative energies into her eldest and, for ten years, her only son [me]. She was a brilliant conversationalist who, in a different era might have presided over one of the great salons in enlightenment France. She taught me the the importance of integrating whatever one learns into day to day life as a living, present reality.
[3] Donella Meadows. Dana Meadows is perhaps best known as principal author of The Limits to Growth, recipient of a Pew scholars award and a MacArthur Genius Grant. We collaborated on several projects and books, though only one of them, Groping in the Dark: The First Decade of Global Modeling, bears both of our names. Dana was a surpassingly gifted public intellectual, who used her brilliant mind and communication skills to make the idea of sustainable development, for the good of all humankind, widely accessible and comprehensible. She taught me how it is possible to live a life that exemplifies unflinching commitment to one’s ethical principles.
[4] Elizabeth Harper Neeld. Elizabeth Neeld is one of the best teachers of writing I know. Following the tragic death of her husband, she resigned from a prestigious tenured professorship to pursue a more uncertain career as a writer. She and I collaborated on the complex project that produced the book Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has Come. Her book, Seven Choices: Finding New Life After Loss Shatters Your World provided solace to survivors and family members whose lives were impacted by the September 11 attack. Elizabeth taught me how important it is to be clear about one’s intentions and then to have those intentions be a source for living one’s life.

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No ‘20 minutes per patient’ rule - another reason I like being a professor

After more than twenty years with my health maintenance organization, Kaiser Permanente I was finally able to find a ‘personal physician’ who did not either leave the organization or get transferred after one or two visits. She recognizes me as an individual and has some contextual knowledge of my medical history. She is congenial, professional and seems to enjoy her work. This is a breakthrough. I was coming to believe that the concept of “your doctor” existed only in slick TV commercials of drug companies, Kaiser Permanente marketing brochures, rural hamlets large enough to sustain one or two physicians, and negative ads funded by private insurers opposing government intervention on behalf American’s 40 plus million citizens without health insurance.

At my last visit, I asked her if there was a time specified by Kaiser management for each patient visit. ‘Twenty minutes,’ she said. ‘It used to be only fifteen, but we were able to lobby with management to increase it to twenty. This works very well for patients who are in relatively good health such as yourself. For older patients with multiple health problems and/or who have difficulty communicating, it can be difficult. Then we sometimes get behind schedule.”

This set me to thinking about one of the perquisites that sets the profession of university professor apart from most others - discretion. As economic pressures mount and calls for ‘assessment’ from voices outside academic institutions grow louder, the number of institutions who are able to offer professors significant discretion is shrinking. But at American University, at least for faculty teaching within its nationally ranked programs, considerable discretion is still the norm.

It is not that faculty members don’t put in long hours. I advise young faculty whom I counsel in my role as Director, Center for Teaching Excellence that they should plan on a 70 hour work week, or more, if they expect to successfully compete for tenure. In other words, the demands on their time will be at least as great as for aspiring top-tier young professionals in law, medicine, accounting, and financial services.

But there can be a difference between how professors and those other professionals spend their time. In other postings, I have written about the discretion we have to choose the research questions we investigate. Here I want to reflect on the discretion we have to spend relatively unconstrained ‘face time’ with our students. This is particularly true with MA and Doctoral students, but it extends to undergraduates as well - and even to students who have completed their degrees. If a student stops by my apartment for help with an academic or personal problem, or simply to discuss an issue of mutual interest, I can take the time to be with them. If a former student stops by to seek a letter of recommendation or to discuss professional options, I can make myself available to help. I can show a student’s parents from Asia, visiting America for the first time, the beauty of rural northwestern Virginia where my wife and I have our home. I can take time to help a gifted undergraduate who is struggling to negotiate AU’s sometimes complex and unforgiving bureaucracy. None of these instances are hypothetical, they - and many more - transpired within the last two weeks. On no occasion did I have to enter the time spent on a spreadsheet or prepare an invoice detailing ‘billable hours.’

Whether or not the discretion my generation of professors have been privileged to enjoy will survive the growing commodification of higher education I cannot say. In large degree it will depend on whether or not those of us who have been granted this privilege are seen to be using it wisely, with integrity, professionalism and effectiveness. It will depend whether the current generation of students - future parents, political leaders, boards of trustees and university managers remember instances when a professor took time to connect with them, listen to their concerns and offer compassionate professional guidance that made a difference in their lives.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Why gender discrimination should end - an insight from Faculty Resident's Study Breaks

During final examination periods, I host faculty resident’s study breaks from 10:45 until midnight. There is fresh fruit, fresh coffee, hot water for tea (both caffeinated and herbal), hot chocolate mix, juice, soft drinks (Mountain Dew is the most popular) a selection of cookies, candy (from the supply I use for fire alarm evacuations), and a refrigerator well stocked with ice cream bars. Prominently posted signs describe the norms of this event for newcomers: “it is ok to grab a snack and run;” “help yourself to ice cream from the refrigerator;” “feel free to take something back to your roommate.” Some visitors do grab a snack and run, but many more stay for conversations, with me and each other, on a variety of topics. Now that my alternating sunday night dinners have become so large, 25 to as many as 50 guests are the norm, study breaks provide one of the best opportunities for wide ranging conversations with students that I particularly enjoyed.

One night last week, the topic was intercollegiate rowing. A young woman whom I had not met before spoke about competing in high school and, now, in her first year at AU. When I told her that I rowed at Dartmouth, we shared experiences of training and competitions. Both us had raced on Philadelphia’s Schukill River, Boston’s Charles River and Annapolis's Severn River. We compared the modern training methods she used with the more primitive ones that had had been the norm at Dartmouth (‘if it doesn’t hurt it isn’t doing you any good’ was our coach’s motto.) At both institutions rowing was a ‘Club Sport” which meant that we paid our own way. She described the challenges of rowing in DC’s Anacostia river, which is often strewn with debris and malodorous with industrial and human waste discharges. Shortly before midnight she left, saying that she had to be up and 4:30 AM for practice.

This young woman was typical of AU’s female athletes, a group of students that particularly impress me. Most are articulate and strong academically. They carry themselves with poise and self confidence. They are responsible, active members of our community. At Commencement, a young woman was honored as AU’s top undergraduate student. Not only did she have a near perfect grade-point average, she had an an exemplary community service record. She also played on AU’s Rugby team.

For the opportunities these young women have been given, we can be thankful to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, now know as the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in honor of its principal author. Patsy Mink, whom I knew as a friend when I was active in politics, fought racial and gender discrimination throughout her long, path-breaking professional career.

Gender discrimination is still a fact of life, most egregiously in countries of the Middle East and Africa. Its residue persists in the US Congress, in business and even at enlightened institutions like American University. (At AU, the President, Provost, every Vice President but one and every Dean but one are male.) In Afghanistan under the Taliban, to cite the worst example, we saw the lengths to which men are willing to go, if unrestrained, to protect their gender-based power. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’ reminds us that Taliban-like repression of women is at least a hypothetical possibility, even in the United States or another western nation.

When the young women with whom I spoke and others like her are of an age to assume leadership roles in politics, business and at major universities, I hope to see a continuation of recent trends rather than the reversals many men secretly favor. Were politics, business and university administrations, throughout the world dominated by women, as they are now dominated by men, I believe the world would be a better place in which to live for all of us.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

Reflections on a young man's fall from grace

This morning, a close friend called to share the news that his son, whom I shall call Charles, had been reported for smoking pot. Charles attends a school with a strict honor code and has had an outstanding career with top grades. He is student body president, participant in many activities, an active mentor of younger students and recipient of awards for character and leadership. As a result of this offense he has been stripped of his presidency and awards. Apparently, he will be permitted to graduate. This evening, I wrote him the following note.

Dear Charles,

Your dad called this morning and shared the news of your recent fall from grace. Without excusing the bad judgement that precipitated your present circumstances, let me assure you that no young man of intelligence, character and creativity escapes such lapses during teen-age and subsequent years. Perhaps your dad shared with you his own pre-high-school graduation scenario - when he was stripped of his student presidency and awards for under-age public drinking. It was the first thing that came to mind when he called. I also reflected on some of the really dumb - and in one instance life threatening - judgement lapses I inflicted upon myself in my late teens and early twenties.

Parents know these will happen. That they will not have long-term irrevocable consequences or result in the death of a beloved child of promise is a responsible parent’s daily prayer. A graduation, a college admission, and other milestones along the path of becoming a mature human being are signs that the prayers have been answered, so far.

A budding scholar of your erudition must be familiar with the cycle that classic Greek tragedies follow -- ate (the sin of pride), leading inevitably to hubris (the tragic flaw), leading inevitably to nemesis (the tragic consequences flowing from the tragic flaw). You are presently enduring the nemesis phase, but hopefully faring better than Hamlet or Othello.

Your mom and dad may have told you that I am looking forward to visiting Cleveland for your graduation. Now that I am stepping down from consuming managerial responsibilities, I shall be seeking out opportunities spend more time with you and your family. I am glad to have this opportunity to celebrate a life that has been lived well and contributed much, albeit not without the experiences of hubris and nemesis that all engaged human beings encounter.

My love to you, your siblings and parents.


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