Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Book-less College Bookstore

I was in the mood for book buying when I walked into University Bookstore in Madison on Spring Break. I did not have a book in mind, but that was my typical modus on such trips. As I browse the aisles and sale tables, I wait for the book to call to me, rather than me searching for it. I do keep a list of titles on Amazon for Kindle reading and there are monthly book club book selections, but I don't access those lists when I walk into a real live bookstore. That would seem like cheating. The adventure in the bookstore is in the tracking, chase, discovery and capture of words.

I have two other bookstore shopping rules: one, I can only purchase one volume from a single store area (like 20th Century Austrian Nature Writing, or Wall Street Autobiographies from the One-Percent, or Fiction from Authors with the first name of Stephen and the last name of King). One selection from one area and I must move to another section of the store.

My second rule is that I must buy a book from every bookstore that I enter. As a reader and a writer, I think it is important to support the book business. When I buy from brick and mortar bookstores, I am also buying from the distributor, publisher, cover artist and designer, paper maker and ink supplier, editor, agent, writer, and most important, the local bookstore owner. A published book is a noble and honored collaborative profession and the reader and the bookstore are the final links in the chain.

As I said, I was in a book-buying mood when I walked up to the main floor of the University Bookstore, a favorite bookstore in past years, but instead of books, saw a sea of red and white clothing. Shelves, racks, displays, even the college-age cashiers and their managers displayed the latest UW Bucky-wear, dozens of variations of t-shirts, sweat shirts, hoodies, flip-flops, swim suits, long-sleeve and short sleeve polo shirts, running pants, running shorts, golf pants, and pajama bottoms. After wandering aimlessly in the jersey section looking for a printed word that was not silk screened in three-inch letters, I saw floor decals pointing the way toward books, new and used. Ahh, finally the main feature of a bookstore. The floor decal arrows led me down to a sad-looking, lifeless lower level with picked-over shelves labeled for college courses. Been there, done that, have the red and white diploma.

Just as I was about to leave red and white land, I saw a series of shelves sticking up behind a rack of red and white door posters. Across the store, back in the corner, the entire non-textbook inventory of books were crowded on a short stack of shelves not much larger than those I have at home. Even though the books looked at me hopefully looking for a home, I broke rule number two and did not make a purchase. I averted my eyes and walked out.

Fortunately, three other non-UW privately-owned bookstores were within an easy walk of the campus, so I returned from Madison with a bag of books to keep me a happy reader. But, thinking about the book-less University Bookstore, I recall a line from Mark Twain who said there is little difference between a person who cannot read and a person who will not read. Neither one, he said, is functionally literate. Both are rather sad. Along the same line of reasoning, when we surrender college bookstore shelf space to red and white paraphernalia, is that a sign of school pride or the warning of something else? If a college bookstore does not carry books, does it stop being a bookstore? And if it is not a bookstore, what does it become?

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Parrhesia: Hard Lessons in Unintimidated Speech

My GED Language Arts class project asked students to compare and contrast two inspirational black leaders from the 1960s: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. I used the exercise to add a little GED Social Studies context talking about civil rights timeline from antebellum amendments through the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Johnson in 1964. I also used that exercise to talk about the risks of free speech especially when that speech goes against established power.

I assumed students knew about Martin Luther King, Jr. and tried to fill in a little history of Malcom X through a short biographic video and an article from the February 2015 issue of Smithsonian Magazine by Cornel West adapted from his 2014 book, Black Prophetic Fire. Feb. 21 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcom X by a rival Muslim faction.

King is the better known of the two, "commodified" according to West. He called Malcom X in contrast a great example of the Greek word "parrhesia" in the black tradition. West uses the term from Plato's Apology, "where Socrates says, the cause of my unpopularity was my parrhesia, my fearless speech, my frank speech, my plain speech, my unintimidated speech. The hip hop generation talks about 'keeping it real.' Malcom was a real as it gets."

The class exercise was successful. Students learned about how to set up a compare-contrast essay for the GED test and a little American history was also learned. I was happy with the class and didn't think much more about it until I saw photos of candle-lit mourners from Bangladesh the next day.

It was reported that a Bangladeshi-born American blogger, known for criticism of Islamic fundamentalism, was hacked to death by machete-wielding attackers in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, on Thursday night, Feb. 26. Avijit Roy, 42, wrote a blog called Mukto-Mona (the title means "Free-Minded"). A group calling itself Ansar Bangla 7 claimed responsibility for the brutal killing in a Twitter post of all places, "Anti-Islamic blogger US-Bengali citizen Avijit Royt is assassinated in capital #Dhaka due to his crime against #Islam."

I thought that Roy's parrhesia was courageous to challenge a fundamentalist faction that places little value in human life. His assassination shames the memory of the Prophet who was much more ecumenical than these modern "followers" according to historical sources that I have read. But what do I know? I have no value. I am an unbeliever in their eyes.

Then a day later, another voice that courageously spoke with parrhesia was silenced. Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed late Friday, Feb. 27, on a bridge near the Kremlin, Red Square and the multi-colored domes of St. Basil's Cathedral, according to news accounts. Fired at least six shots from a passing car, four hit Nemtsov in the back. A woman he was walking with was not hurt. No one tweeted responsibility for that assassination.

At one time Nemtsov, only 55, was a powerful Kremlin insider. He served as deputy prime minister in the 1990s and might have been successor to then-President Boris Yeltsin, but fell out of favor during President Vladimir Putin's regime. He has been arrested for participating in antigovernment protests but until Friday was never silenced. Nemtsov and other opposition leaders were planning a march against government policies in Moscow on Sunday, March 1. That march, turned into a memorial, drew thousands of Russians. It remains to be seen what that display might mean to those now in power in the Kremlin.

Malcom, Martin, Avijit and Boris all knew that their words were dangerous. Their opponents were many, powerful and ruthless. All four could have stopped speaking out and lived, but all seemed to have, what West wrote of Malcom X and King, a "moral fire" that burned from within that forced them "to get it out, to cry out, to shout".

West wrote of the black experience in America for Smithsonian, but I can't imagine that he would mind if I extended his words to cover both the blogger from Bangladesh and the opposition politician from Russia. All those burning with the righteous fire of parrhesia might say, according to West: "We're just going to keep on pushing. Its a matter of what has integrity, of what is true, which is right, and what is worthy of those struggled and died for us." This week's class project sadly turned into a compare-contrast between those who have the fire to speak out and those who seek to silence that fire with violence.

Hard lessons learned, but I still have faith in parrhesia over ignorance and violence.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Trickle-Down Blue-Ribbon Innovation Doesn't

"Don't create a new group or organization within your company whose job is innovation."

Right away, I liked that dictum from Silicon Valley investor, Marc Andressen. It seemed like common sense to me. I have worked in all levels of management over the years and can't say that any one level has a monopoly on good ideas. Some dysfunctional levels shut themselves down in protest to mismanagement or lack of interest, and others may make good suggestions and are not listened to. In either case, woe to the organization who limits new ideas to a blue-ribbon task force. The Wall Street Journal editorial page column, "Notable & Quotable," (Feb 21-22) pulled Andressen's quote about the culture of innovation from his new free e-book, The Pmarca Blog Archives (select posts from 2007-2009) and a post about retaining good people:

"This (blue-ribbon group assigned to innovation) takes various forms, but it happens reasonably often when a big company gets into product trouble, and it's hugely damaging.

"Here's why:

"First, you send the terrible message to the rest of the organization that they're not supposed to innovate.

"Second, you send the terrible message to the rest of the organization that you think they're the B team.

"That's a one-two punch that will seriously screw things up.

"Instead, focus on boosting the innovation culture of the entire company...

"In general, the intangibles that keep great people are: the quality of the people they're working with, the interestingness level of their projects, and whether they are learning and growing (note: this assumes the company does want to retain its best people. Sometimes I wonder).

"The tangibles are: winning, and a high stock price (the value of the company to the stockholder).

Successful leaders, to quote self-help author Robert Collier, know that success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out. Perceptive leaders know that innovation from the front line of an organization is more likely to improve the company than a board room full of vice-presidents and their coat-holders. Sometimes the innovations are what we at the college call Big Hairy Audacious Ideas. But more often, they are just a minor improvement of a mundane process. Both are important; both need to be nurtured and celebrated.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Shoulda Woulda Coulda

A couple of days after the Packers lost in the NFC Championship game, a local sportswriter listed 16-plays that could have decided the game in our favor. A penalty here, a drop there, fake punts, missed assignments, downed interceptions, onside muffs and kept the Packers out of the Arizona Super Bowl. If we coulda had one of those plays back...

Rather than admit that Seattle played an inspired 60+ minutes of football to Green Bay's 56, it's more soothing to the Packer fan's psyche to imagine what should have happened if the football gods could have been kinder. Where was Vince when we needed him? Of course we forget about the questionable Dez Bryant catch/no-catch  call a week before. Ask the Cowboy fans about that. Since most teams are evenly matched, I suspect every team needs a little luck to advance in the playoffs.

After tonight's Super Bowl game, the second guessing migrates west from the Frozen Tundra to overcast Seattle who saw their team turn down a sure Marshawn Lynch short yardage touchdown in favor of a short pass over the middle. It seemed like a good idea, right up to the time the pass was intercepted by Patriot cornerback Malcolm Butler. Game over. Welcome to the post-game second-guessing.

The Monday-morning call-in shows that follow a close defeat must be one of the early stages of sports fan grieving process. Even though our Packer flags have been hung up, cheeseheads shelved and autographed jerseys folded up until next year's training camp, NFC Championship plays run through our heads as we wonder, "What if." It's a predictable process beginning with anger and disbelief ending with acceptance and buying season tickets for next year.

That is part of the fan game. Thirty-one teams recap and argue key Shoulda Woulda Coulda plays after a season. Only one team tells the sideline reporter everything turned out just as they had foreseen. But success is fleeting. Those who lead the parade at Disney World have a cartoon character riding along side them whispering, "Not so high and mighty, Buckaroo..."

Sports has a way of turning the tables on even the most successful franchises and testing the mettle of its fan base. Just ask Cub fans. Long time fans know that the draft and training camp are not that far away. And then, just wait, just wait. Things will be a lot different next year.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

GED2014 Panic After Year One

Kristina, our front desk mainstay, quickly walked by the open classroom door and glanced in. A moment later, she retracked her steps and came into the classroom. Not a good sign.

"I've been looking for you." Also not a good sign. I had been talking with another instructor at the time. Our inservice days had just started so colleagues like us were reconnecting and getting up to speed on the schedule and needs for the new semester. Kristina had left her General Studies desk to find a GED instructor to be interviewed by a local television station. "The TV station wants to talk about how hard the new GED is." Uh-oh.

I knew there had been a number of national wire and magazine stories in the last week about the difficulty of the new GED test. The test had been in operation for the past 12-months and reports from GED classrooms highlighted gloom and doom among BE programs: lower attendance, less confidence in curriculum, and a dismal pass rate. According to some, the pass rate was 20-points less than the old test. Sure, the new test was probably two to three grade levels higher than the old test, and, sure, a student couldn't just walk in unprepared and expect to pass it. Few remembered that the typical student couldn't do that with the old test either.

During the television interview, our Chief Test Examiner explained that the Green Bay testing center had been one of the more successful centers in the state last year and so far this year we had more test takers than any other site, including the megalopolises of Madison and Milwaukee. Our passing rate was a healthy four passes out of five. From the instructional point of view, I pointed out that the new GED test mirrored the increase in rigor of high school program. The old GED test was written more than fifteen years ago -- of course it was easier. Why are there fewer students? We spent 18-months clearing the student files of potential GED test takers before the end of the old series in December 2013. Anyone who could complete the series, did. Student numbers will return.

To quote an MVP Quarterback, GED programs need to just "R-E-L-A-X."

The new test has forced our own GED team to completely revamp the curriculum and the way we deliver GED instruction. That's not a bad thing. We want our students to pass the new test at the same rate as those who passed the old test. What worked in the past, will not work now. Instructors knew that when we previewed the new test in the Fall of 2013. I can't speak for other programs, but our team took this as a challenge.

The past year has not been easy for anyone, but our new curriculum makes success more likely if students do choose to work with us in the classroom -- always a good choice. Because of the test change, our program is stronger, more creative and better prepared to help students not only pass the GED 2014 test series, but also to be successful in the college classroom beyond. As an Internet scribe promises, "I'm not telling you it's going to be easy. I'm telling you it's going to be worth it." And, it has been and will be.

I look forward to answering questions to the follow-up interview a year from now talking about our ground-breaking curriculum and incredible successes with GED students. Kristina, I'll let you know where I am at that morning.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Five Best Books of 2014

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:
West by Northwest book of the year.
Last January I began recording the books I read at the encouragement of number of book club friends.  The list measured my reading habits, and I thought it would be fun to use a post to review and reflect on the authors that I spent time with during 2014. My listmaking rules were simple: I included any book that I finished. I give most authors 100-pages to prove their words are worth my time before the book goes direct to the library donation pile. These partial reads (maybe another dozen) were not included in my list.

From the list of 32 books that I did complete, seventeen books were memorable. Fifteen lesser titles were interesting enough to pass my 100-page rule at the time but did not bring about lasting change in my life. Some, a half a year later, bring back no memories at all. The seventeen that did stick include such staples as Aldo Leopold ("A Sand County Almanac"), Edward Abbey ("The Monkey Wrench Gang"), Karen Armstrong ("The Spiral Staircase"), Neil Gamon ("Ocean At The End Of The Lane"), Raymond Chandler ("The Long Goodbye"), and Edgar Allen Poe (Collected Works). As you can tell, my reading choices span fiction and non-fiction, genres and years. A good read is a good read. Other authors on the 2014 list are less well known but no less enjoyable: Reza Aslan ("Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth"), Kate Atkinson ("Life After Life"), Andy Weir ("The Martian"), Diane Setterfield ("The Thirteenth Tale"), Tom Standage ("The Neptune Files"), and Sylvia Nassar ("A Beautiful Mind").

From those seventeen, I was able to select my personal five best books of the year. My favs tend to be non-fiction rather than fiction which follows my reading preference for history, science, nature and education/psych theory. Truth, I usually find, is often stranger and more entertaining than fiction.

5. "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" (2012) by Stephen L. Carter. I have read many Lincoln and Civil War biographies and was interested in this alternate theory of what would have happened if Lincoln had survived John Wilkes Booth's attack.  Carter presented the defense of Lincoln's extreme actions during the war and subsequent Reconstruction in the form of a legal brief by a defense team defending the President. The plot and characters stretched credibility, and the ending disappointed, but the legal and historical discussion was quite interesting. It all could have happened. Or most of it.

4. "Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House" (2013) by Peter Baker is another defense of an administration against critics, but this did happen. I don't usually read recent political histories since they often seem superficial or have an obvious agenda. The President came off a little better than the Vice-President in this book but I never felt like I was being bludgeoned by bias. The excellent detailed onslaught of reporting by Baker bombarded me, a former journalist, with feelings of "shock" and "awe." The writing was unpretentious and narrative entertaining. You could not make up these characters.

3. "Thordarson and Rock Island" (2013) by Richard Purinton is a locally published collection of letters and local history that I bought at Peninsula Bookseller in Fish Creek. Chester Hjortur Thordarson was a Chicago inventor and businessman, and a proud Icelandic descendant who bought most of Rock Island, just off Washington Island in Door County's northern tip. Purinton tells Thordarson's story through decades of correspondence. With very little commentary, the letters carry the narrative and reveal the complex personality of Thordarson, his friends, family and foes, and his dreams of his Door County retreat. The use of letters tells the story through the pen of Thordarson rather than the author -- an interesting technique.

2. "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation" (2013) continues Michael Pollan's immersive exploration of the world around us. I have been a fan of Pollan's since "Second Nature" (1991) and "A Place of My Own" (1997). "Cooked" continues Pollan's new-journalism exploration of how we use food prepared through baking, barbecuing, brewing and booyah. Stories, information and inspiration keep each of the four sections of the book readable and entertaining. It's technical information with a spoonful of sugar.

1. My top read of the year is: "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success" (2006) by Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. I was introduced to this text while taking a course in an alternative strategy to teaching math -- I would say Common Core, but don't want to scare readers. Dweck is an optimist who preaches that everyone can improve by adopting a Growth Mindset rather than a Fixed Mindset. A Growth Mindset person is always looking for new ideas, new techniques, new ways of doing things, new ideas to adapt to a changing world. She provides examples, exercises and encouragement to change not only the way you do things, but the way you view and interact with the world.

You are what you read and this is what I have been during the last year. I look forward to new volumes and pages in the year ahead. Pardon me while I go to my reading chair, for as the quip goes, "So many books, so little time."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Friends and Family Graduation Plan

One of my favorite moments during a graduation is toward the end of the ceremony. It's after the speakers have spoken, the graduates have shaken the hands of dignitaries and faculty, and after tassels have been moved from the right to the left signifying graduate status. The President of the College asks the graduates to stand, turn and face their audience of friends and family and applaud those people who have made it possible for them to be where they are.

Anyone who has gone back to school -- especially those who have gone back after a long time away -- knows that that moment gives you goose bumps. Up to then, the spotlight has been on the graduate. That's the point of the ceremony, really. The community celebration of academic achievement is an ancient tradition that purposely ties the current crop of graduates to a long line of other graduates through the robes and regalia, the solemn march to "Pomp and Circumstance", and even the particular order of speakers and dignitaries. It's as if each school has a secret ritual sequence that cannot be disturbed or altered without invalidating the post-secondary credential.

Up to that point, the focus has been on the front of the auditorium where the graduates and dignitaries sit. Now, at the behest of the President of the College, attention shifts to the balconies, the seats along the aisles and even those standing in the back waiting to present the new graduates with roses, helium balloon bouquets and graduation baskets of goodies. Very few students complete a certificate, diploma or degree without help and support from those who stand behind them.

These are the people who have supported the students day in and day out through semesters of classroom work, in long hours of study, though moments of self-doubt, and now, in this final celebration of academic success. These are the people who offered to babysit, who drove the student to class when the car didn't start, who loaned them a few dollars to cover the cost of books and supplies for the semester. These are the people who pushed, pulled and persuaded grads to see the work through to this completion.

These are the people who believed, with the grads, in a better life beyond the status quo. This shared belief is what George Eliot described in the quote, "It is never too late to be what you ought to be." When the President asks grads to applaud fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends, family and neighbors, graduates often cheer, wave their caps and strain to see over the shoulders of classmates to catch a glimpse of the people who have been most important to them. Giving friends and family credit at this moment seems both right and just, and long overdue.