Sunday, January 15, 2012

Outsourcing the submssion of recommendation letters: an IT innovation that I hate

Please understand that I favor the submission of recommendations on line. It saves time and, for faculty members working overseas (assuming they have reliable internet service) can simplify the submission process.

What I hate is the arrogance of the firms to which this process has been outsourced. Like many IT “customer service” organizations they have designed their process to mesh with their needs (and to some degree the needs of their clients). The opacity and complexity of one set of instructions was so impenetrable that after completing the process, I wrote to a senior administrator of the unit to whom I was submitting a recommendation. He was kind enough to respond and was candid: “the system is designed to meet the needs of the clients (i.e. the schools receiving recommendations) not those submitting them.”

The latest indignity, which I encountered in writing a recommendation this evening, was a lengthy “license agreement” type disclaimer, comprising several paragraphs of legalese. License agreements in general have completely perverted the concept of a contract as an agreement between two more or less equal consenting parties. This “agreement” informed me than unless I agreed to sign, my recommendation would not be considered. Given a commitment to support my students applications, what recourse did I have?

I still consider the task of writing recommendation letters to be one of the most rewarding obligations of faculty members. As an IT literate faculty member, who equips himself with the latest high-end MacBook Pro laptop, this newly automated process poses few – indeed no – terrors. It is only the user-unfriendliness of the online recommendation software packages, that would seem to reflect arrogance and insensitivity on the part of the firms that have created them, that I hate.

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Singapore retrospective - a "foreigners" view

6 January 2012
Clark Quay, located on a canal almost exclusively used for tourist cruise barges, remains one of my favorite Singapore spots. Four years ago, I made my first trip to the island in many, many years. My plane arrived early and when I arrived at a modest hotel in “Little India” that I had chosen from the Internet, my room was not available. After checking my luggage, I picked Clark Quay as a destination on my first Singapore exploration.

It was a good choice. There were few people about and I was able to sit quietly in this beautiful setting for an hour or more, reflecting and envisioning how I might learn and contribute. Then I walked to a nearby waterside café for a coffee and breakfast. Later, there would be further explorations before embarking on a trip that I had envisioned for many years, but never before made it a priority to take – a train journey from Singapore’s Tanjong Pagar station – now no longer in use – to Kuala Lumpur.

My circumstances are so different, this afternoon, as I sit enjoying a Tiger Beer in an outdoor Italian restaurant adjacent to the Quay. Singapore has my encompassing professional priority for more than two years. After arriving for a repeat six-month extended stay devoted to teaching and research, I have just completed my second session of travails with Singapore’s Employment Pass Office, located adjacent to the Quay. On my last extended stay, process of arranging from an Employment Pass was completed with impressive efficiency. This time there have been (to use a Sri Lankan expression) a number of “small problems” requiring resolution. No doubt these are the product of good intentions on the part of the individuals involved. My travails – the details do not matter – have provided a useful reminder that even in a country with an efficient government that I both greatly admire and view as a model, regulatory procedures can be complex and difficult to negotiate. One place this is most likely to become manifest is the domain of foreign employment and immigration. Deciding how to relate to “aliens” is a challenge in any culture. Foreign immigration and employment are often points of friction and potential regulatory impasse (particularly in the US, of course).

As I sip my Tiger Beer, with ice, before returning to my apartment and to my work with Singapore’s National University, I can reflect on how far I have come since that first early morning visit to Clark Quay, sitting on the edge of the canal. And today’s visit to the Employment Pass Office reminded me that despite my productive work in and about Singapore, I am still, of course, very much “a foreigner.” As in my own country, the cordiality “foreigners” experience is both authentic, and not without its limits, simultaneously. There is still much for me to learn about this society and much to do. My search for a deep understanding of Singapore’s culture, society and institutions - and for an unqualified welcome here is only beginning.

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"Dear family and friends..." - Dormgrandpop's holiday newsletter

Dear Family and Friends,

When writing end-of-year newsletters my recent practice has been to read over my Dormgrandpop entries for the year and compile a list of topics. Then I sought to summarize the year’s events for me and – more briefly – for family members. This year, my letter is being written late, and with the benefit of reading those of other friends first. Reading these conversational missives, simply summarizing family and events often interspersed with a few pictures, made my previous ones seem a bit pretentious; probably boring. They have become this year’s template.

My four grandchildren are now 6,8 15 and 20. In the fall my 15 year old grandson and I spent four days together Washington DC, which I wrote about in a blog, “Non-Judgmental Listening.” More recently, we gathered at son Bradford’s classically beautiful newly purchased historic home in Kentucky. My granddaughters and I devoted time to an activity I can recommend to other grandparents – “writing books” together. They told their stories, and I recorded them on my iPhone. As our partnership progressed, over a long weekend, both began to do their own writing, just seeking spelling assistance for difficult words. This is a great activity for grandfatherly listening and learning. Bradford continues his passionate pursuit of business growth, with priority given to new ventures in China, India and Southeast Asia, as President of Shaklee International. When we met on our first night in Kentucky, we spent nearly five hours in animated conversation, catching up with one another, discussing our lives, the world’s problems and the respective opportunities/challenges we both face.

While in Kentucky I also had a lengthy visit with my stepson, who now is pursuing his horse-breeding/care-giving business on a magnificent 500-acre farm that he rents near Lexington. I always look forward to our rare times together and the window into a very different, rewarding life-path they provide. Sadly, my oldest grandson could not be with us. His present calling combines college and work as a ski instructor in the west where the family lived for a number of years. Dormgrandpop readers may remember the description of his beautiful high school graduation ceremony that I attended two years ago.

Dormgrandpop readers will also know of my daughter’s activities from my recent blog about her “Holidazzle” project. Along with other members of an active artisan community, she has raised funds for a new Art and Music Center in Safety Harbor, Florida. Her landscape gardening business is successful enough that she has to turn away customers. During an all-too-short Florida visit, we had long talks, I bonded with her new dog “Tinglie,” a miniature Daschund rescued from an animal shelter, participated in a parade hyping a fund raiser for the new art center, and at the fund raiser, urged visitors to add links, for a one-dollar donation, to “the world’s longest holographic bracelet chain.” Since, as far as we know, there are no other such chains, we are hoping this will be enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records. When last I checked, nearly 2,000 visitors had attended the event.

My wife continued to pursue her passions of horseback riding, university teaching, and maintaining the beautiful country home that is her base of operations for these activities. No doubt she will have shared news of her rich lifestyle and remarkable achievements, with those whom she thought might be interested. Like, my daughter, she provides a valuable role model of an individual who is skilled at pursuing her passions and surrounding herself with a nurturing, loving and supportive community.

For me, this has been a transitional year filled with completions and new beginnings. Following my mother’s dictum of “leaving the stage while the audience was still applauding,” I retired from American University. The degree to which others were “still applauding” is for others to judge. Sadly, this necessitated that I give up my AU Anderson Hall apartment that had been my second home for nearly ten years. In making this move, I was empowered by the example of my father who, as he lived into his mid-nineties, survived the life-changes that aging inevitably entails, with grace and good humor. Hopefully, I can emulate his example. I was fortunate to find a beautiful new apartment to purchase within five minutes walk of American University’s campus and to receive an exciting offer at the National University of Singapore, combining teaching system dynamics modeling at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy with leadership of the “System Dynamics Initiative” at the University’s Global Asia Institute.

The opportunity to move to Singapore full time, which certainly would have been a possibility, was a tempting but would have unbalanced my life at a time when I need to be giving greater priority to family than in the past. Singapore, is after all, about as far from Washington DC and from wife, children and grandchildren as any place could be. However, as in the past, residing in several worlds, simultaneously, appears to be my karma (the product of the causes and conditions that define my life). As I look to the future, with optimism but also an awareness of life’s vicissitudes. It would seem that I may still have promises to keep – and miles to go before I sleep.

Thanks to all for beautiful end-of-year messages and your patience in staying connected with a not very reliable correspondent. May you be fulfilled and blessed in the New Year



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