Sunday, July 19, 2015

Are You a Walk-on in a Red Shirt?

Ever feel like a walk-on in life? Like you were put in place just to open the doors for the main characters around you who do important things while you just stand there and hold a clipboard. If that's your experience, then you are living the life of a Red Shirt.

Science Fiction writer John Scalzi reimagined the brief, pointless and deadly life of Red Shirt crew members in his very funny 2012 novel, Red Shirts. In the classic Star Trek universe, hierarchy and episode longevity are determined by the color of your uniform: command is gold, science and medical is blue and operations, engineering and security are red. The joke among fans is that extras appearing in a "red shirt" were cannon fodder for the sake of cheap dramatic action, often killed before the first commercial break. The main characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty), on the other hand, always, miraculously, survive. If you think about it, this is the same formula for most television shows: the main characters survive while the extras are, well, extra. In some shows, the extras are the Walking Dead.

In Scalzi's book, experienced Red Shirt members of the starship become aware how mortality tables are slanted against their kind and hide in storage lockers, under cafeteria tables, and HVAC access tunnels when away teams are formed by the main characters. If you stay out of sight and off Away Teams, you survive. If, on the other hand, you call attention to yourself, you are doomed, and if you actually have a backstory, "you're probably going to have an entire episode devoted to your death." I suppose that's better than being eaten by sand worms after the opening credits, but still, a life lived hiding in an access tunnel is not much of a life even in a television show.

Not surprisingly, when Scalzi's characters become existentially aware, they decide they want to have more significance to their lives than the canned leavings of a rushed script writer. The novel starts off cute and clever, a fanzine exercise, and then asks questions that we might ask of ourselves especially if we are drifting through our own lives: am I a Red Shirt or am I a main character? We are, of course, main characters in our own story, but can we sustain a larger Narrative around us? One might call that a purpose. One Red Shirt in Scalzi's novel, admits, "I was never meant to do anything special, was I? I really was an extra. A placeholder character..."

That insignificance doesn't sit well with the characters of the book who have figured out by now that they are placeholders in a fictional television show (I'm not going into how that is done -- enjoy the book), and they are not happy with that discovery. Everyone, they decide, needs to write his or her own stories based on their own choices, which they do. They learn that fictional lives can become real just as real lives can become, tragically, fiction. Everyone, even Red Shirts in a 1960s television show, deserves a purpose in life.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Who Finds Tech-Awesome Employees?

Right now, HR must be crazy busy. I know this because when school starts in the fall there is always a long, long line of new employees who get introduced by our college president and are given lime-green "Tech-Awesome" t-shirts at the annual Welcome Back Breakfast. The new folks have to come from somewhere.

Year after year, our hiring process has been in good hands: my friends in HR are nothing if not methodical. They believe, like self-help author Robert Collier, that success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out. With little fanfare or recognition, HR associates help departments hire staff while at the same time they keep and manage job descriptions, stay current on employment law and practice, update and publicize new term salary and benefit packages, rule on personnel questions and have dozens of other "duties as assigned" that a non-HR person like me sleeps better not knowing about.

But hiring those newbies: that's the future of our institution, that's where HR makes its mark. The school relies on qualified, motivated, creative, honest, trustworthy and hard-working employees to put flesh and blood onto the strategic scaffolding built by leadership-conducted listening sessions. An excellent HR department is able to consistently find quality people to fill empty slots across the college caused by retirements, reassignments, resignations and new programs

Last year, for example, my department had to replace two long-time faculty members who retired. With the help of HR, the two positions were posted, electronic applications and resumes were collected and interviews scheduled. Then HR helped write the interview questions and chaired the interview panel to make sure we didn't ask something dumb (and illegal). After we selected our top candidates, HR checked references, made offers, answered questions and arranged for start dates and training. We ended up with two excellent new teammates. This process takes a lot of time.  Now, multiply this process times 50, 60 or 100 times for departments across the school. That's my working definition of a crazy busy summer.

If I were charged with building a college from scratch, I would start by hiring a top notch HR department like the one we have. Without it, all the data collection, strategic plans, creative curriculum, guidelines and hopes would collapse under its own non-implemented dead weight. You need a roster of top people to create, manage and  maintain excellence. And, I'm not just talking about hiring brilliant and inspirational faculty -- though we have a lot of them. Leadership, support and technical staff also need to be the best in order to continue to move ahead as a Leader College. Those Tech-Awesome t-shirts need to find happy new hands every August.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

After 35 years, Summa Cum Book Club

This week, our book club ended its year with a discussion of the venerable Chinese classic, Tao Te Ching (2012), in an excellent translation by Derek Lin. The 2500 year-old book of lessons was an unlikely though not unusual choice for us. Through 35 years, club members have mixed classics with the contemporary.  We have curious and eclectic tastes.

The book club, dubbed the Summa Book Club by founding members who translated the word tongue-in-cheek from Latin to mean the "highest," begins with a summer potluck at which we choose the dates and books for our monthly Monday meetings. A couple or single (we have both) takes turns hosting the group once or twice (September to June) and prepares a short discussion along within light munchies, wine, beer and soda. It's been a good group to be a part of. My wife and I, late-comers joining in 1992, have nurtured lasting friendships formed through commonly read pages and chapters. You really get to know someone when you hear them passionately debate character motives in The Merchant of Venice.

The advantage of a regular book club is it pressures (in a nice way) members to read selections that we would not normally read (Ulysses by James Joyce springs to mind). We trust the literary judgement of fellow members -- most of the time (everyone agrees The Aquarian Conspiracy was an epic miss; the wisdom of Mary, Queen of Scots is still debated ten years later). We read the book in time for the meeting because we don't want to diss the selections of other members, and we all like to contribute -- not a lot of shy people in this group.

And, since Green Bay is home to a number of private and public colleges, we have access to outside speakers who are more than happy to talk with an engaged, reasonably intelligent group of readers about a favorite subject and author. Just this past January, for example, we invited a local retired educator who is a leader in the international Dietrich Bonhoeffer organization to talk about the Eric Metaxis biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010). It's good to nurture local literary talent as well as friendships.

My wife and I often contribute science fiction book recommendations to the group, one of our particular interests, and successfully recommended Philip K. Dick's, Man in the High Castle, during our first hosted discussion in January of 1993. Our other choices have ranged from On Writing by Stephen King, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote to Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putman. I can recall these books because one of our members, a diligent, retired and venerable newspaper editor, keeps an historical record of our books and dates. After twenty or thirty years, the list is useful so we don't repeat ourselves -- "My Antonia? No, we read that in 2004." The group tends toward non-fiction (Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel) and biographies (An American Caesar by William Manchester), religious (Paradise Lost by John Milton) and literary (Flannery O'Connor short stories). Popular fiction is always popular such as The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and Cold Mountain by Charles Fraser. Other books are recommended on a whim (The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and You Only Grow Old Once by Dr. Seuss). They are all worthy.

Now that the 2014-2015 books have been shelved, it's time to select books for the next year. Already, we have a book bag and Kindle list filled with selections that we will bring to the potluck and will narrow them down to one or two recommendations after seeing the choices of other members. And, since a large percentage of group are journalism or English majors, we all think it is important that a summa booklist of a Summa Book Club has book titles representing all 26 letters of the alphabet. We are missing a few letters. So if you know of books that start with the letters "Q", "V" and "X", please pass along the titles. The potluck is in August.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

GED 2015 Graduation: It Makes a Difference

I was uneasy about the GED graduation last week. Last year, more than 400 GED and HSED students completed the credential and almost 50 attended the June celebration. That graduate to stage ratio is typical for us. Ten to fifteen percent of our students usually take the time to return to cross the stage in cap and gown and with big, big smiles on their faces. Other graduates have moved on with their lives.

The graduating class last year was impressive because it included the final graduates of the pre-GED 2014 era added to those who had just completed the new GED set of tests. Since then, the number of GED students has dropped not just with us but in GED classroom across the country. States report that successful completers (those who have passed all four new GED tests) are only eight percent of the totals from earlier years. Our school has done better than most, we are at 20-25 percent of previous years, but we are still down, a lot.

As we prepped for this year's GED graduation, an initial count listed only four or five students out of more than 90 graduates had ordered caps and gowns for the ceremony. So rather than have 40-50 graduates crowd the commons, like last year, we would have only a fraction of that number. There might be more dignitaries on the stage than graduates in the seats -- not a good promotion for our program.

I thought we might downsize the ceremony to make the drop in numbers less conspicuous. Maybe we could have grads lunch with the President and Vice-President of Learning at the college instead. Maybe we could use a large lecture room for the ceremony instead of the more public commons area where it was usually held. Maybe we skip the ceremony entirely this year. Still a decision was made by leadership to carry on with the ceremony exactly as it had been done in the past. As I walked down the stairs to the assembly area, I was worried.

I shouldn't have been. I should have been thinking about starfish.

Every year, new employees are initiated to the culture of our college through the inspirational story by Loren Eisley about the starfish, the girl and the beach walker. One version goes like this:

An old man was walking on the beach one morning after a storm. In the distance, he could see someone moving like a dancer. As he came closer, he saw that it was a young woman picking up starfish and gently throwing them into the ocean.

“Young lady, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?” 

“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die, “she said.

“But young lady, do you not realize that there are many miles of beach and thousands of starfish? You cannot possible make a difference.”

The young lady listened politely, then bent down, picked up another starfish and threw it into the sea.

“It made a difference for that one."

I did stop worrying when I saw a group of three of my HSED students, Josh, Kay-Lynn and Indigo, who I had worked with all spring -- I was pleased to see all of them, and their families. These three stuck together in the classroom, urged each other on and continued their fellowship right up to the graduation stage. Each of them overcame personal and academic obstacles to make it to this night. The ceremony made a difference to them.

Other GED and HSED graduates were milling about as in any other year: checking in, taking their robes out of the plastic bags, and using bobby pins to keep the mortar board (hat) on straight. Rather than worry about the number of fellow graduates around them (fifteen did attend the ceremony), their biggest worry of the night was whether the tassel should be on the right side or the left as they marched in (right side at first, graduation is official when the tassel is moved to the left).

At 6 p.m., the NWTC band (led by our college president, Dr. Jeff Rafn) started "Pomp and Circumstance" and the procession moved from the side hall way to the commons area. Just as in other years, the audience was a mix of young and old, bursting with pride as they watched their special graduates parade in for the GED or HSED credential. The student speaker was inspirational. Awarding the diplomas and the handshakes brought forth cheers and shouts for the graduates. No one noticed that the crowd was smaller than last year. The smiles, tears, cheers, cell phone photos and celebratory balloons, flowers and stuffed toys were focused on the accomplishments at hand and huge step that the graduates had made to complete their high school credential. This would make a difference.

Sometimes, I get too caught up in the business of education: what our numbers are, how can we increase our success rate, did we meet grant requirements, which texts need to be matched with what curriculum. Sometimes, I lose track of what I am really hired to do. That is to make a difference to as many of our students as I can. While I and the rest of my team work hard to be insanely successful in the work we do, we realize deep-down that we can't help everyone. What we can do is make a difference to those students on our section of the beach. I need to remember to take the time to celebrate for them and for myself.

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.