Friday, April 22, 2011

Being in a position of authority - a note to my International Development class

Dear International Development Class Members,

One of the things I particularly appreciate about members of this class is your tolerance of my mistakes, confusing communications and oversights. The most recent example is my leaving two names off the oral presentation list. I don’t seek to justify these shortcomings - far from it - but they - along with your gracious responses - do illustrate principles of effective governance that I presented last class session. The principles are also relevant to effective management and effective development, I believe. They are these:

[1] Mistakes, oversights, confusing communications, misunderstandings, etc. are likely to occur in any process where human beings are involved.

[2] Those in "positions of authority” need to be realistic in acknowledging their own shortcomings. They need to create an affirming - even loving - organizational culture where those subject to their authority feel comfortable in pointing out mistakes and shortcomings, including their own. The communications will be most effective if given with civility, grace and forbearance.

[3] Those subject to authority also need to feel empowered to communicating about areas where improvement is possible.

[4] Where shortcomings are identified, on the part of those “in authority” and those subject to it, they need to be acknowledged and corrected. Lessons need to be learned from the experience and put to good use.

[5] The organizational culture these principles creates fosters an environment that encourages creativity and risk taking that can be mutually affirming - even joyful.

[6] None of the above is inconsistent with setting high standards and demanding high levels of performance. In fact, precisely the opposite is the case.

Friday, April 15, 2011

My 'Last Lecture' at American University

Since I soon will be officially retiring from AU, this spring is a time of “last [.....]” events. Yesterday morning, I led what will very likely be my last American University class. (I taught my first university class in September 1963 and my first at AU in September 1975.)

There is a growing “last lecture” tradition at Universities, including a memorable last lecture by a terminally ill Carnegie Mellon computer science professor, available on youtube. However mine was not intended to be memorable. In fact, the students in SIS 337, “International Development” didn’t even know it was probably my “last lecture” at AU.

Like many we have held this semester, much of our class session was a richly textured discussion of fundamental issues facing those who may choose to commit themselves to “international development?” “What visions and values should guide such a life?,” we asked ourselves. “What ‘models’ seem to work best? What skills should one master to contribute most effectively?” Our wide ranging conversation included examples from rural Mexico, from Bolivia, from Singapore, from Nairobi, and of course, from Singapore and Sri Lanka. We explored the contrasting implications of planning-oriented models of governance (such as Singapore and China) and democratic models (such as the United States and Scandinavian alternatives). We discussed the role of the Japanese Imperial family and the British Royal family in governance. We considered the moral and development dilemmas raised by the protagonist figure of John, the “savage” in Aldous Huxley’s classic, Brave New World.

Each week, I ask students to write short (2 pp. or less) “reaction papers” in which they reflect on assigned readings from the context of personal values, concerns and experiences. We almost always conclude the class by displaying excerpts from some on our viewing screen and discussing them. This week’s reaction paper, from AU undergraduate Rachel Hoffmann, seemed particularly apt as a conclusion for our class, the semester and my teaching career at American University.

Linking all of these ideas together, I think that youth can be the most empowered group and the most influential in making change. Sometimes I feel as though my ideas are squashed by the wiser, more experienced generations. But I think youth are those who often start the biggest social movements and are most outraged by inequalities because at times it affects them most. I think terrorism and aggression based on social inequalities can be combated by empowering the youth and getting them involved in development projects…. Most of all, allowing for youth to have a voice and say their opinions and share ideas across cultures will allow for a better understanding of the issues, and will hopefully lead to a better solution.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The research experience: pursuing one's passions in the face of "tough and struggling" challenges

This semester, I am making a swan song reappearance as School of International Service Director of Doctoral Studies. I held this position previously, from about 1989 through 1999. We are presently in the midst of the “conversion” process, which is admissions jargon for “converting” students admitted to our doctoral program into enrolled students. As part of the “conversion” process, I write personally to all accepted students who do not immediately respond positively to our offer (we are, of course, competing with top schools for virtually all of our Ph.D. students.) I discuss the distinctive culture of our program, the opportunities it provides and the names and backgrounds of individual faculty members with whom the student might work. Not infrequently, our dialogue continues through several iterations. Were I continuing as Director of Doctoral studies, as in the past, it might continue over a decade, or even much longer. Some of my relationships with former doctoral students span more than 30 years.

Here is an exchange with a prospect from Singapore - each exchange of course needs to be framed in the appropriate cultural context. A Sri Lankan, Hungarian, Brazilian or Malaysian student could receive the same message, but it would be phrased differently. In response to my initial reaching out, the student characterized the process of deciding where to pursue her degree as a “tough and struggling thing.” My response was as follows:

Like reaching the decision of where to pursue a Ph.D. degree, the process of pursuing the degree itself can be, to use your words, “tough and struggling.” However in my experience, that process, too, can be deeply fulfilling and not without its moments of great joy. Overall, it has much in common with the most important challenge that doctoral students face, crafting their first major ‘contribution to knowledge,’ the dissertation. Many years have passed since I completed my dissertation and then held it in hand as my first published book. That was a joyful moment, preceded by many tough and and struggling ones. Each subsequent book – there have been a few – has encompassed similarly tough, struggling and joyful moments. The sum total has been rewarding and fulfilling. I believe you have made the right choice in embarking on a life path that begins with completion of a Doctor of Philosophy Degree.”

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