Not Waving, but Drowning: A short story starring Tom Hanks

I know you’ve seen this movie.  You know, the one where there’s this guy stranded on a deserted island and time goes by.  At first, he doesn’t seem to know how to survive, but as his rescue starts to become increasingly more unlikely, he becomes increasingly more resourceful.  He learns to, you know, like harvest and consume the flaking sun-burned skin on the back of his eye lids as a source of protein, along with tree bark, his own finger nails, and eventually even the thin sheet metal from the wreckage of the plane that dumped him there in the first place.  (Hey, a guy’s gotta get his iron intake from somewhere if he ever plans to build muscle).  The pitiful man on the brink of isolation-induced psychosis is usually played by Tom Hanks, or someone else whom we just like so darn much that it breaks our heart to see him out there all alone in the middle of nowhere and perhaps never coming back.  (Although, lately, this role has found its way to the likes of Blake Lively and others of her stripe, and the dangerous island is replaced by a tiny rock and a Great White shark, for obvious reasons (i.e., teenage boys don’t want to look at Tom Hanks, and a whole island provides way too many options to maintain the microscopic attention spans of the types of people who came to see Blake Lively). Continue reading “Not Waving, but Drowning: A short story starring Tom Hanks”

The Truth about Privilege

parable

And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one.

After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them.  And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.  His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.  He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them.  His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.  Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed:  And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.  His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:  Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.  Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

Matthew 25:15, 19-28

Do you ever wonder where your talents lie?  We all have them, but what are we doing with them?  Are we reaching our full potential?  Have we become satisfied with living a four talent life when we have been given a five talent ability level?  This can easily happen without us even knowing it.  Those who become great are those who are not afraid of greatness.  I wonder if we are afraid of greatness.  Are we afraid to leave our comfort zone and venture out far enough to reach our true potential?  And if so, why?  Why are we not able to go out on the limb, even if we know that’s where all the fruit is, to paraphrase Mark Twain.  Contrarily, why are some found so frequently dangling from these limbs and subsequently, gluttonously gathering up all of the fruit?

Continue reading “The Truth about Privilege”

Students. Who are these people?

Are students really who we think they are?  Over my past 10 years of teaching, I’ve realized that my initial perceptions of students’ skills are often way off.  As I began teaching, I considered all of my youngest students to be very tech-savvy.  Makes sense right?  They are always on their phones, they seem to live connected at all times, they are never without technology, yet do they really understand the tools that they constantly use.  The answer, as I’ve come to realize, is so often “no”.

tech savvy college student

 

I often teach some classes that are composed almost entirely of high school students.  Shouldn’t these students be ready for anything tech?  Maybe they should because they’ve grown up with smart phones in their cribs, but I’ve discovered that there is very little that they can do with their tech tools besides access their favorite social media apps, play online virtual killing video games (which I encourage, because if they do it in the virtual realm, maybe they’ll never do it in real life), and waste hour after hour on Netflix and YouTube.  What can they do with these tech tools that is of real value? Continue reading “Students. Who are these people?”

Plunker or Pianist?

free tuition student debtIf you pay zero for something, does it have value?  Clint Ewell has done an amazing job at keeping us afloat during these tumultuous years and now that things are evening out in the economy (perhaps), Dr. Ewell wants to start a progressive program for providing education at YC for a select few students at no cost.  Clint has been so visionary in the past, I initially wanted to jump into this project and help; however, as I ponder the ramifications, I’m cautious.

 

During my junior summer of college, I worked for NAU’s forestry department.  They ran a week-long camp that sought to teach elementary school children about forest management and the environment.  It was a pet project of some very heavy hitters in one of NAU’s most respected programs, so the camp was well funded.  If families couldn’t pay the hefty camp tuition, often scholarships were procured and interested families paid nothing at all.  However, I noticed a trend.  The scholarshipped campers did not value their endowment.  They were often leaving the camp early, or not showing up at all.  They were extremely flaky, both the campers and their parents.  So, the camp director got a brilliant idea, she would charge, even the scholarshipped students, a “camp fee”.  As soon as she started charging the fee, the campers’ behavior changed.  Suddenly, they were fully committed.  Once they had some “skin in the game,” they started taking their involvement in the camp seriously.  It was the same exact product, but now they were paying for it as opposed to getting it for free, and suddenly we had greater participation. Continue reading “Plunker or Pianist?”

Isn’t Dodecahedral a Shape?: In Search of the New Well-rounded Student

When I told my friend at the gym that I just “gotta get in shape,” he said, “We look good man.  We are in shape.”  I took one look at us in the gym mirror, marveling at my lanky, bereft of muscle frame and his more rotund physique and I rolled my eyes at him.  We we’re anything BUT “in-shape”.  “Hey man, ROUND is a shape!” he said.

more active than a tree

Isn’t it interesting that when it comes to our physical fitness, the shape that we try to avoid at all costs is round, but when it comes to our mental fitness, round is exactly the shape we shoot for.  We want to be “Well rounded” to be precise.  Why is the arbitrarily preferred shape of an educated person inherently round?

Like many of you, I attended Dr. Nacoste’s lectures on Thursday and Friday of last week.  His over-arching point was that in today’s diverse society, we cannot hide behind stereotypes anymore, because we are “all in the room”.  We have examples around us, at all times, of people from diverse backgrounds and these folks cannot, will not, and should not be placed in a tidy little box.  We are all different.  Let’s not get anxious about it, let’s celebrate the rich uniqueness of every individual, regardless of background, sex, gender, social class, etc.  We must include people and expand definitions.  If we aren’t willing to do that here, in higher education, where will it ever happen? Continue reading “Isn’t Dodecahedral a Shape?: In Search of the New Well-rounded Student”

Polenta Helps the Meeting Go Down!

wasted timeWhen I started in academia my thesis supervisor told me, “a meeting has to be pretty darn good to outdo no meeting at all.”  This blog is about teaching and learning, but today I’m talking about what distracts us from teaching and learning—meetings.  One of my favorite meetings each year is my Languages Articulation Task Force meeting.  This is literally a meeting in which all of the language department heads from all of the community colleges and universities across the state of Arizona get together with the commission to debate key and essential topics that are vitally important to language education in higher ed.  What candent topics do we debate with all of these great minds gathered together in one place?  Continue reading “Polenta Helps the Meeting Go Down!”

Is Your Course a Radiant Showroom or a Gloomy Warehouse?

 

IMAG0874

Not long ago, we found ourselves locked out of our offices in building three.  In an effort to protect everyone from the impending threat of active shooters, we have locked most doors and restricted access to areas of most YC buildings down to one or two doors that permit public access.  For building three, this means that students have an even more difficult time finding their targeted faculty for office hours.  For me, this means that for the first time in years of having a YC faculty card, now I would actually need to start bringing it to work.  The card serves a double function—to confirm identity and to unlock electronically locked doors.

Of course, this change, like all major changes, required a paradigm shift.  If I wanted to access what I used to access, I needed to come up with a new method that works.  Well this is my method:

I started carrying my YC Faculty card in my wallet for the first time in my career.  Then, with my lanky frame, access once again became a small matter.  My goal to have easy and effective access to my office was once again obtainable after careful consideration and minor changes to my behavior, for me anyway.  My solution doesn’t work for everyone:

Continue reading “Is Your Course a Radiant Showroom or a Gloomy Warehouse?”

In Search of Middle Management: An Allegory

Ronny works for Trite University Burger (TUB) and he hates his job.  He starts out flipping university burgers for minimum wage, but unlike some of his colleagues, he aspires to so much more than a tenure-track cook position.  From day one on the job, Ronny pays close attention to his managers.  What do they do?  How do they act?  What do they say?  What kinds of things happen around the restaurant when the regional manager comes around?  And especially, how does the regional manager react to those changes?  After all, someone has to hire the managers, right? Continue reading “In Search of Middle Management: An Allegory”

Are Things Getting Better? Are they really?

At first I ran alongside him with my hands steadying the cold metal bars.  But, all too soon, I realized he was ready for me just to let go, so I did.  Whoosh!  He flew past me and out on his own in one desperate grab at independence.  My five-year-old had learned to ride a bike.

We were proud of him.  He flew all around the empty church parking lot for about an hour until his little legs were tired and we had to load up the bike and head home.  He pedaled so hard for so long, not really getting the hang of stopping yet, that he had cramps that night.  He was thrilled about his new ability and he told everyone he came across for the next week or so.  However, in those ensuing weeks, suddenly I realized that my son wasn’t jumping back on the bike.  I pressed him about it.

“Hey, muchacho, how come you’re not riding your bike anymore?”

“I forgot how to” he said.

“Really?  You did so great on it the last time.”

“I know, but I can’t do it anymore.  I tried and I always fall off.”

This seemed strange to me.  I braced myself for another trip over to the church parking lot and another training session, not a thought I relished, but I was willing to do it in order to allow my son to feel the thrill of the wind in his face again.  So, I grabbed his bike and made preparations.  However, as I did, I noticed something strange.  His bike seat was raised up way too high.  Probably a product of his older brother trying to ride his bike.  I knew that with the seat up that high, my son would have a hard time reaching the pedals and getting on and off the bike.  I lowered the seat to the proper height and had my son give it a whirl in our tiny driveway.  Just like before, he took off without any problems.

My son didn’t need more training on his bike.  He knew what to do.  What was the issue then?  His problem was his equipment.  In education, often we want to solve all of our students’ problems with better training and/or teaching.  “If I just teach them this principle better, they’ll get it.  Or, if I just teach them how to navigate the course better, they won’t have so many questions about what’s due all the time.  They’ll get it.”  We tell ourselves these things all the time, but we seldom stop to think that maybe the seat is just too high for them.  Our students don’t need more training, they just need better equipment.  For example, they need a more intuitive Canvas interface.  Or, maybe they need a better textbook, or workbook.  Or maybe they just need a better way to access the resources that are already made available to them.  How much better might our students perform, not if we teach better, but if our courses were just designed a little bit better or our Canvas shells were set up a little more intuitively?  Maybe there’s no problem with our teaching at all, but there’s an inherent problem with the sequencing, pacing, or sheer amount of content in the course?

Often, today, we change the design of products and practices that work well, just to be ever-changing and never anachronistic.  However, these changes for change sake often adversely affect performance and efficiency.  We constantly dilute ourselves into thinking that things are ever “getting better,” but are they?  Often “improved versions” of textbooks insert multiple images and graphics that really serve to split a students’ attention and provide enough seductive details to distract the student from the learning target.  Are we really getting better and better, or just more and more “fancy looking”?

Maybe I’m just trying to justify the fact that I’m getting older and that I can’t keep up with tech changes, but I don’t think so.  Take our new email client for example.  The UI is riddled with problems.  Well, I should preface this with the fact that I now reluctantly use the web interface instead of the Outlook computer program that comes standard on our YC machines.  Why?  Because when I boot up the program, all of my folders from the older version are gone.  Why?  No idea, but they are.  However, I boot up the web version, all of my folder that I’ve painstaking created and organized and winnowed down over the course of 9 years are all there as they should be, so, I use the web interface.  Multiple problems there though.

  • The “like” button—Seriously? There’s a “like” button for email?  Isn’t that an oxymoron.  (Except for what Leslie sends me, those are actually pretty funny).
  • “Reply All” is the default—This has led to many many replies to a group that probably shouldn’t have been replied to as a group (Al, I’m looking at you).
  • “BBC”—This is really hard to find and very small, yet we use it often, very poor design.
  • Weblinks—When you add a link, it creates this weird image/preview thing that you have to cancel. It disrupts the flow of the email and is totally superfluous.  An attempt to look fancy but with zero real functionality.

I could go much further, but suffice it to say, the new UI is poorly designed indeed.  How much further could we go in what we do here at YC if we had better design?  Would we suffer less attrition if our courses were designed in a more intuitive way?  What if Canvas were inherently more user friendly and easier for us to design with?  For example, how many of you truly understand the difference between the “front page” and the “home page” and how to set them?  Do we truly know what our students are seeing when we update grades, announcements, assignments and what notifications they have access to?  Canvas is fancy and has lots of features, but unless we truly understand what features are standard, mandatory, optional from our end and from the viewer’s end, are these feature then useful?  Or, even, are they impediments?

design-of-everyday-things

A book that every Canvas user should read is titled, The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman.  The book talks about design as our one competitive evolutionary edge in the universe and that with smarter design, nothing can stop us.  He lists tons and tons of examples of how we deal with poor design every single day.  He highlights the fact, most frequently, that all good designs are intuitive and not superfluous.  The classic example of non-intuitive and very superfluous design is today’s television remote.  We should be able to do all that we need and want to do without the use of a hefty instruction manual.  Yet, I’m willing to bet that nearly all of us have a TV remote control that is filled with buttons that we’ve never used, nor do we know how to use them—superfluous and not intuitive.  Bad design.  Canvas is the same way—there are lots of features that we don’t know how to use and that we don’t know how students are using.

tv-remoteThe iPhone was so very popular from the beginning because of how well it was designed.  The very young and the very old could pick it up and immediately know what to do.  We knew how to use it intuitively because it screamed at us to tap buttons and more buttons and then more buttons to find what we were looking for.  That’s good design.

Canvas has some amazing features, and much of the interface is amazing, certainly an improvement over Blackboard, but it does fall more heavily into the category of superfluous features, perhaps, than Blackboard, even if it is more intuitive.

I guess my point is, just because it’s newer and fancier looking, it might not be “better” as they would lead you to believe.  I think that MS Vista is the huge case in point on that one.  Another example:  I’ve been very frustrated with my new projector in the room I teach in most often.  The PTSS folks came and installed it and promised “much greater fidelity”.  Great!  I guess that’s nice, didn’t ask for greater fidelity, things were okay, but sure, if the picture is clearer, I won’t turn that away.  However, if I knew all the other features that I would be sacrificing for a little sharper picture, I would have begged them to keep the old projector.  I used to use the projector and doc camera “freeze” button extensively.  This would allow me to freeze the document camera and then pull up something on the computer screen for use directly after the doc camera.  I also will freeze the screen and access Class Dojo which allows me to give class participation points for groups and individuals who are doing excellent work.  Well, with the new projector, all of the “freeze” functionality and multi-tasking that had become essential to my way of conducting class is now “not available”.  When I asked “why?  Can’t this new laser projector do it?  The old cheap LCD projector could”.  The answer came, “I think it can do it, but because that feature has not been widely asked for, we haven’t taken the time to figure out how to activate it on all machines across the board.”

Sweet!  So I have a slightly sharper picture (which I didn’t ask for) and four features (which I did ask for) that I’d like to have, but are now gone because I’m the only one wanting them.  Sounds like a fair trade off to me.

Projectors, email, LM systems, are they getting better?  I’m not sure.  Every “solution” is someone else’s problem.  I’m aware of that, I guess a lot of solutions lately are proving problematic to me, but I can’t help but think that great design could be a solution for everyone.

If you like this post, I’ll send it to you in an email where you can now “like” it.  Thank you.

Love Sweet Love

love-sweet-loveIn 1835, some men were sitting on a fence talking about the news of the day when a small boy, looking very excited, ran up to them.  “The Johnson farmhouse burned down last night” he exclaimed.  All of the men began expressing their feelings of sorrow for the Johnson family.  One man decidedly jumped off the fence and said, taking out his pocketbook, “I feel bad to the amount of $5.  How badly do you feel?”

This semester, tragedy struck the behavioral sciences department.  Al Garbagnati, long-time YC die hard, fell and broke his pelvis.  Some of us expressed how badly we felt about the situation (guilty), others of us took out our pocketbooks immediately.  Nichole Wilson wrote a big fat check.  Nichole immediately offered to take ALL, I repeat, ALL of Professor Garbagnati’s classes.  Mark Shelley also, feeling for Al’s situation, also pitched in.  Turns out, Al had such a loyal cadre of fans willing to come to his aid in a time of need, that his classes went forward without skipping a beat.  I think of myself, and some other colleagues of mine around the campus.  Would anyone step up like that for me?  Have I built bridges between myself and my colleagues, or have I burned them?  Because, there’s one thing I know, eventually Murphy and his law come knocking on all of our doors.

It is said of men at war that they are not fighting for their country, nor the ideology of their chosen side.  Rather, when it comes right down to it, men are always fighting for the man next to them.  We are always fighting for one word, LOVE.  We fight due to the love that we have for our fellow soldiers.  Nichole and Mark are fighting this year for the love they have for their fallen comrade.

Love motivates us.  We feel for Al a keen love, because he engenders that love in us through his quirky personality and willingness to love us back.  (And, let’s face it, for his endearing luddite tendencies and ridiculously awesome beard).  Everyone loves Al, as we all know.  How does love manifest itself in our teaching?  If we truly love our students, (as Terry Lovell would remind all of us, in the proper way, not in an HR debacle sort of way), how differently would we see what we do?

I often talk with a YC colleague about how hard our job can be at times.  Each semester we take students from zero knowledge to a great amount of knowledge in a very short amount of time.  How do we do it semester-in and semester-out?  It takes love.  Each semester we work so hard to help them “get it”, then, just a few weeks later, how are we rewarded for our efforts?  We get a whole new crop of students with which you have to start the process all over again.  It feels exhausting to begin each semester knowing about all of the questions, one-on-one tutoring time, praying, and office hours that the next 16 weeks will entail.  However, as I get to know the students my love for them grows.  And, especially when I see a student who really wants to “get it” come in for help, I find it simple to invest my time and energy, once again, into that student.  Is it exhausting?  Yes.  But my desire to help my students is directly positively correlated with my love for them.  Unfortunately though, the opposite is also true.  Say I have, for example, an athlete (not saying it’s always an athlete, but often it is), that rarely shows up for class then gets to the end of the semester and starts asking all sorts of questions.  You know the stripe.  “How can I pass this class?”  “Can I turn this assignment in late?”  “Can I get partial credit for this?”  “What do I have to do for the final project?”

This student is at a distinct self-imposed disadvantage.  I’m very reluctant to get out my pocketbook for this student.  Why?  Because I don’t love this student.  I have to know you, at least a little bit, in order to love you.  I don’t know this athlete because he’s spent all semester doing what he loves most.  Not his school work, but his sport.  I have very little sympathy for students whom I don’t love.  I usually put them off and tell them to read my standards in the syllabus (which might cause them to read the syllabus for the first time all semester).  Cruel, right?  Well, love is a two way street.

If students haven’t shown love for me and my class, it’s difficult to reciprocate love for them in their hour of need.  People are willing to write big fat checks of love for Al, because he has shown love for them, year-in and year-out.  Love can’t foment if it’s one sided, and it’s like Rome—not built in a day (or one really good extra credit assignment)!

I’d argue that we will only thrive in environments where love flows abundantly.  We all teach what we teach because of our love for the discipline.  That love has motivated us.  Probably, along the way, our great love for the discipline has reciprocated great love from our teachers and mentors toward us.  This love simply served to augment our love for what we do.  Eventually this love has brought us here, to higher education, to continue to foster this love in others.

But, we would do well to examine our love.  Are we expressing love for our colleagues who teach other disciplines and have different opinions than we have?  Are we expressing love for our disciplines by continuing to learn about them and research in them?  Are we expressing love for our College by serving therein?  And, maybe most importantly are we showing love to our students, even the challenging ones?

If we want love, and human nature tells us that we all do, we have to give love.  There’s no way around that rule.  And you can’t just take out your pocketbook and write one fat check once-and-for-all and then wait for love to come back to you.  We get love back one five-dollar bill at a time, day by day, week by week, semester by semester.

Even if our semesters change to 8 weeks.  If that happens though, change your handouts of love to $2.50.  There’s only so much love to go around!