Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Looking ahead - a note to an aging friend

Thanksgiving is a time when memories of my father are particularly vivid. Until two years ago, I would drive up to his small apartment in an assisted living facility and then we would drive back to my weekend home in the country for the holiday. Though I don’t much enjoy driving in heavy holiday traffic, we always enjoyed these - and other - long drives together. The other day I received a brief email from a man who became my father’s closest friend in his last four or five years. (One thing about very old age I came to realize, is that all of your lifelong friends have died). When I visited, the three of us would always take lunch together. Fred lived an active life and was a senior business executive whose passion was glider piloting. Now he is mostly confined to a self-powered wheel chair. He said that he missed our lunches together and hoped I would stop by. My response, a bit of a personal update and reflection, follows. Writing to him lead me to think about what my own retirement projects might be.

Dear Fred,

It was good to hear from you and I will share your message with Kaitland, Amanda and Jeffrey. If I am driving up to see Kaitland, I will certainly plan to stop by. Unfortunately, I have not come that way recently. On the first of July, I stepped down as Director of American University's Academic IT organization, the Center for Teaching Excellence, and began a one year sabbatical. I traveled both in Europe and in Asia, visiting Belgium, Hungary, Sri Lanka and Singapore. In the Spring, I will be a visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, before I return to full-time teaching and research in the Fall. Were I to stop by the Cumberland dining room, I could show you my new electronic device, an iPhone. Probably one or more of your children and grandchildren have one of these and you should get them to help you check it out. I have also been taking my studies of Buddhism more seriously (Since Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation, this has been one of my priorities for many years as an academic subject.) You might enjoy reading the Dhammapada, which was one of Buddha's early teachings. I am not looking forward to retirement, but one thing I will look forward to is more time to devote to Buddhist studies. I am thinking of learning Pali, which is the language in which Buddha preached and in which his many preachings were first transcribed.

Retirement is not here yet, however, and so I must get back to my 'to do' list, which includes, first of all, scrubbing my kitchen floor. Last night, I served standing rib roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to 39 hungry students and things are now a bit of a mess. According to Buddha, scrubbing floors can be viewed as simply another form of spiritual practice.

Do continue to write, from time to time, and keep me up to date on your interests and projects. If I fall down as a correspondent, you can always catch up with me on my blog, or on my Facebook site, AU Dormgrandpop. Incidentally, if you are not on Facebook, I recommend it as a good way to keep up with family and friends.

Thanks again for writing.



Thursday, November 19, 2009

Invitation to the Fourth Faculty Resident's Dinner5

Probably this will be of interest only to AU students, though other readers would be welcome, with an email advance notice. There will be one more dinner before I am off to spend six months in Singapore.;









Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Finding a great mentor - practical tips

The following is based on notes I prepared for a 'floor program' I gave in AU's Anderson Hal last Wednesday night and from reflections on the discussion that followed.

Finding a faculty mentor is an opportunity that a relatively small residential college such as American University offers. Classes often have no more than 20 or 30 students, sometimes they are even smaller. Faculty members are required to hold at least six ‘office hours’ each week, though not all do so. Yet a surprisingly small number of students actually succeed in finding a mentor - an individual who (to use a common dictionary definition) “serves as a trusted friend, counselor and teacher” who will “help them advance their careers, enhance their careers and build their networks.”

The experience shared by an AU senior with younger residents at a program I gave the other evening in the topic of finding a good mentor is typical. “I was sitting on a porch in Kenya,” he told us, “and was facing the prospect of seeking faculty recommendations for graduate school applications. I realized there was not one faculty member who really knew me well. I finally picked two faculty members who taught classes in which I had done well. They did agree to write letters for recommendation for me. But I realized that in three years at AU I had not found a faculty member who was a real mentor.”

Students may not be successful in finding mentors, however when asked, they have a pretty good idea of what an ideal mentor might look like if they had one. When we brainstormed this topic, here are some the descriptive words that students participating in our discussion used: “patient,” “knows how to get things done,” “innovative,” “approachable,” “interested in you,” “supportive,” “well connected.”

One problem students face in identifying potential mentors is that they lack a clear idea of which faculty members are likely to be the most promising candidates. Often, they don’t really grasp that the faculty members in front of their classrooms have very different, career circumstances, relationships to the university and discretionary resources of time and energy available for possible mentoring roles.

Students at AU will be taught by adjunct faculty, instructors on term-limited contracts (particularly language and college writing instructors), ‘temporary faculty’ on term-limited contracts, faculty on ‘continuing contracts‘ but not eligible for tenure, ‘tenure-track‘ faculty, tenured associate professors and tenured full professors. At AU, in contrast to many research universities, some undergraduate classes are taught by tenured full professors - I taught undergraduate classes in quantitative research methods for many years - but a goodly number are not.

Faculty members who are not tenured or on tenure track are less good candidates for a mentor, because there is no assurance they will be around when a student needs them especially during their critical senior year.

Tenure-track faculty are also less good candidates though they are younger and often seem more approachable, because meeting the research requirements to gain tenure must be their first priority. An open tenure-track position at AU is likely to have 300 or more applicants. The position of ‘junior faculty’ aspiring to tenure is very similar to the position of associates at a top Washington or New York law firm seeking to gain ‘Partner‘ status. They should expect 70 hour work weeks to be routine and 90 hour work weeks to fairly regular occurrences. Even after winning a tenure-track position, about thirty per-cent will, for one reason or another, not make the grade or leave the university for other reasons. At some universities, the attrition is much higher.

It is my view that tenured associate and full professors are students’ best candidates to be potential mentors. Their recommendation letters, if written well, will also be the most credible. They will have more widely known professional reputation. But how are you to begin building that all-important relationship? You should not expect faculty members to take the initiative. You will mostly be disappointed if you do . The most important principle to bear in mind is this: TO FIND A GOOD MENTOR, ONE MUST BE A GOOD MENTEE. A good mentee is a student whom a faculty member finds intrinsically interesting, most often because the student shares some of the faculty member’s research interests and has something interesting to contribute to them.

The good news is that when seeking a mentor, you need not limit - in fact should not limit - your search to faculty members from whom you are taking classes. Here is the process I recommend.

  1. Devote a bit of thought to areas in which you might be might be interested. These can be quite broad. For example as an undergraduate, I was interested in medieval history and, later, in broad theories about the rise and fall of civilizations. As you take classes, and especially as you encounter new subjects, try to be self-conscious about what engages your interest and what does not.
  2. Go to the web sites of departments in areas you think might interest you and begin reading the biographies of faculty members. Pay particular attention to the biographies of more senior faculty, those holding the rank of associate and full professor, and in addition to their biographies, pay particular attention to the areas they are researching and their recent publications. Identify one or more of these faculty members as possible mentor-candidates.
  3. For the candidates you have identified, read one or more of their publications, especially their recent publications. This assumes their creative work is publication, but applies to other areas as well. If a candidate mentor is a musician, listen to their compositions or recordings. If a candidate mentor is a film-maker, watch one of their recent productions, etc. You will note that the faculty members creative work may not necessarily be related to the classes they are teaching.
  4. Find out where the candidate-mentor or mentors office(s) is/are located and the times of his or her office hours. Stop by or, if necessary, make an appointment. Resisting any feelings of shyness or inadequacy, initiate a conversation about the faculty member’s research interest and see where it leads. Often -not always - you will be amazed at the faculty member’s receptivity and response. Think about it. Everyone likes to talk about their own interests and share them with an individual who seems genuinely interested. Faculty members are no different.
  5. If you seem to make a connection, engage further with the faculty member’s research interests and arrange follow up meetings. This is usually sufficient to create the momentum of a good relationship.

Here are four little-appreciated secrets about faculty members that may help you in your quest for a mentor.

  1. A career experience that faculty members find most rewarding; that really turns them on is when a student learns something in area of that the faculty member cares about. This observation comes from years of experience mentoring young faculty members at American University and from conversations with faculty members at many universities over the years.
  2. A corollary is that faculty members are at least as interested in finding great mentees as students are interested in finding great mentors. A great mentee can be invaluable. Several have played pivotal roles in my book projects and other research. They have been the source of creative new ideas that have furthered my work. We have co-authored papers together, often with the mentee as lead author. I have found them international travel opportunities and funding. In some cases, we have become lifelong friends and, yes, I have spent hours writing them great letters of recommendation. Other faculty members will recount similar experiences.
  3. In many instances - not all - faculty members are as shy and insecure about interacting with students, outside of a classroom setting, as students are shy and insecure about interacting with faculty members. Recognize that what you may interpret as arrogance, disinterest or standoffishness may just be the same shyness and insecurity that you, yourself, are feeling. Commit yourself to breaking down these barriers.
  4. The faculty members whom you approach with expressions of interest and questions based on having familiarized yourself with their research will be amazed, since this almost never happens. Again, this is the voice of experience speaking. I consider myself to be among the more approachable of AU faculty members. After all, I live in Anderson Hall. Yet in years of teaching probably no more 20 students have sought me out for a conversation about my research.

I am not sure how the idea of reading about a faculty members research interests first came to me, but can remember when I first acted on it. My history of civilization professor at Dartmouth College was John R. Williams. He was a quiet, reserved man and not a spellbinding lecturer, but in one of his lectures he spoke about his interest in Pope Gregory VII. I found an article he had written on the subject, read it and went to his office, during office hours, for a discussion. I can still remember our first conversation, which I approached with considerable trepidation. I followed up with additional discussions and in a more advanced class, wrote papers on the medieval papacy and the relationship between feudal and ecclesiastical institutions. This process of engagement began a friendship that lasted until his death. Professor Williams became my honors program tutor in the philosophy of history, rereading works that he had not considered in years so we could talk about them together. In weekly meetings during my junior and senior years, we discussed the writings of Toynbee, Spengler, Hegel, Gibbon, and many other philosophers more focusing on the question, ‘What explains the rise and fall of great civilizations?” He supervised my thesis on the growth of central government institutions in 12th, 13th and 14th century France. He insisted that I read original texts in Latin and French. I improved my proficiency in these languages partly to please him and live up to his expectations. (A mentoring relationship can be mutually reinforcing). The thesis, along with his recommendation, were instrumental in winning me a full fellowship for doctoral study in political science at the University of Minnesota.

Over the years I have been blessed with many mentors. Their pictures graced one wall of my faculty office in Hurst Hall and will again when I move into the new School of International Service building. If you ask a mentor ‘how best can I express my thanks for all you have done?” they will often say, ‘express your thanks by giving to others what I have given you.’ This posting is one small way of expressing my thanks to the many mentors who have made a difference in my life.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, November 15, 2009

How do cultures cope with widesread, serious and overwhelming loss?

I recently received a ‘newsletter’ from old friends with whom I collaborated on the book, ‘Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future,’ many years ago. They come in the mail two or three times each year. My friends might have changed the format of their newsletters to email or a blog, but, even though they are environmentalists, they have remained with the printed word. This means that their communications are less frequent than those transmitted by other members of my network. One consequence is that I always read the entire missive, either immediately or later.

Here is a reflection from the newsletter on the current heath care debate and social inequities that draws on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross insights about the stages of coping with loss. They write:

[Kubler-Ross] talks about the coping mechanisms, first denial, then ANGER, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance - diagnosed... when played out in he personal lives of people both dying themselves or losing loved ones. What if this diagnosis... is also the diagnosis, the template for understanding how cultures go through a time of coping with widespread and serious and overwhelming loss.

Despite the Kubler-Ross diagnosis of the source of all tht anger, we contemplate with a heavy heart the truth-distorting debate about health-care reform and the terrible demonizing of President Obama. How can seniors be so pleased with their government-sponsored Medicare coverage and yet fulminate against a ‘government run’ health-care option? How can people who have health care not care about people who do not? And about those whose bad luck with illness reduces them to insolvency? We find such callousness to others both sad and heart-rending.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Why ‘free markets’ often are not really free. The ‘systems trap’ of success to the successful.

I am reading a powerful and evocative short book, entitled Systems Thinking. It was authored by the late Donella Meadows, a close friend and collaborator of many years. It was edited by Dana’s former research assistant, Diana Wright and published posthumously after her death.

The current debate over health brings to mind a ‘systems trap’ Dana identifies (one of several) that she calls ‘Success to the Successful - Competitive Exclusion.’ Dana writes: (p. 127,128)

‘Using accumulated wealth, privilege, special access or inside information to create more wealthy, privilege, access or information are examples of [this archetype]’ This system trap is found whenever the winners of a competition receive, as part of the reward, the means to compete even more effectively in the future. That’s a reinforcing feedback loop, which rapidly divides a system into winners who go on winning and losers who go on losing.” The business executives about whom I wrote last evening are among the beneficiaries of this trap. Here are some other examples:

In most societies the poorest children receive the words education in the worst schools, if they are able to go to school at all. With few marketable skills, they qualify for only low paying jobs, perpetuating their poverty.

People with low income and few assets are not able to borrow from most banks. Therefore, either then can’t invest in capital improvements, or they must go to local moneylenders who charge exorbitant rates. Even when when interest rates are reasonable the poor pay them and the rich collect them.

land is held so unevenly in many parts of the world that most farmers are tenants on someone else’s land. They must pay part of their crops to the landowner for the privilege of working the land and so never are able to by lland of their own. The landowner uses the income from tenants to buy more land.

Dana does not write about health care, but it seems pretty clear that many those who are the leading charge against health care reform, using their wealth and position are not numbered among the 47 million Americans who lack health insurance, a national disgrace. This includes of course, many - not all - members of Congress. No member of Congress, of course, lacks health insurance coverage. That would be unthinkable. Like many - not all - high-level business executives they view themselves as members of a high caste elite, that is not governed by the circumstances, nor constrained by the moral precepts with which ordinary folk (the low caste and untouchables) must deal.

AN ADDITONAL THOUGHT: This blog later evoked a reflection on how to write in a way that will change people’s minds. This is something I discuss in my ‘International Development’ course. It is a challenge that reformers and spiritual leaders face. The blog I wrote was a reflection of outrage and anger, but if its goal was to transform those whom I targeted as complicit in injustice, it almost certainly did not achieve its goal. The great spiritual leaders often write that such transformations must begin with connection, forgiveness and empathy. Among leaders now living, Nelson Mandela may exemplify this best.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Monday, November 09, 2009

America's caste system - a reflection on executive compensation

When I drive back to Washington, from my home in the country, I pass the barricaded parking areas and shuttered buildings of what were once State of Virginia rest stops for travelers on Route 66. Both of these facilities were closed to help meet deficits in the State budget. For some reason, passing by these facilities, which made ordinary traveler’s lives more pleasant in small ways always brings the topic of executive compensation to mind.

For me a poster child of obscene levels of executive compensation is former General Motors Chief Executive Rick Wagoner. This evening, I researched how Mr. Wagoner is doing on the internet. A Fox news posting (Fox News is not unsympathetic to the business community and free enterprise) noted Mr. Wagoner’s accomplishments in an article headlined “Former GM CEO Rick Wagoner Gets $10M Retirement Package." It noted that when Wagoner became CEO, GM shares were valued at $92. Recently, with GM in Bankruptcy, trading in GM shares was suspended with the value at $1.15 per share. According to Fox, GM has issued statements that its stock has, essentially no value. It noted that during the past four years, ‘GM racked up $40 billion in losses.’

Fox News sympathized with Mr. Wagoner’s plight. It noted that during his 32 years with the company he earned only $62.3 million $38.7 million for his services as Chief Executive, leading GM into bankruptcy. It noted that in contrast to the $400 million received by the Chairman of Exxon Mobil, the $161.5 million earned by the Chairman of Merill Lynch, culminating a disastrous tenure, and the $140 million awarded to Michael Ovitz after a brief tour as Disney President, Wagonner’s compensation was modest indeed and, according to an ‘executive compensation specialist,’ not at all out of line. The fact that this occurred when GM slashed previously guaranteed benefits for most of its retirees was not viewed as a problem.

For those, such as myself, who have spent many years researching in South Asia, especially India and Sri Lanka, the explanation is simple. Compensation in ‘free market’ America as become part of a caste system. Corporate Executives such as Wagoner, Stan O’Neil of Merill Lynch, Disney’s Ovitz and many others simply view themselves as a different species of human beings, governed by different rules and guided by different moral precepts and entitlements. The are the Brahmins, those they employ are low caste or untouchable. Their 'needs' are described using an entirely different discourse.

Except when I drive past shuttered rest stops on route 66 I think little about this immoral system and the ill-gotten financial gains it has produced for a privileged upper caste few. But I do wonder how they are spending the munificence that deprived-stockholders, employees or, in some cases, the US taxpayers have unwillingly (or unwittingly) bestowed on them. Are they spending it on expensive vacations and $10,000 watches, first class travel, and $100 plus bottles of wine for dinner. Or have they, perhaps, established scholarship funds for the children of fired employees or contributed to the creation of social businesses such as Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunis described his recent book, A World Without Poverty.

If they are looking for a worthy target for some surplus cash, perhaps they could consider creating a special fund to open the closed rest stops on Route 66, for the benefit of the less privileged lower caste Americans - teachers, truck drivers, commuters and ordinary tourists - who miss them.

Labels: , , ,