Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Better You in Five Years

Self-help lists are a dime a double dozen on the Internet. What do they boil down to? Eat right, get plenty of sleep and exercise each and every day. Right. Been there. Done that. Have the Bellin Run t-shirt -- in fact, I have drawer of Bellin Run t-shirts. But has this advice inspired me to create a new improved version of myself? How about you?

Then I came across a post from Drake Baer of Business Insider who asked a question on behalf of a 23-year-old physics student: “What can I do today to help out my future self in 2019?” Baer compiled the answers from a website called Quora and summarized the 20-something advice into 17 categories. I almost clicked through the post, but was pulled in by the first couple of suggestions. They were easy (see #17) and made a lot of sense even for someone who is a multiple of 20-something.

Now, I don't advocate starting all seventeen ideas right after you read this blog, but there are enough ideas here that if you can make one or two of them a habit (see #17, again) during the days of summer that are left to us you may achieve better personhood in five years. I am borrowing more or less direct from Baer's article so I am crediting the people who came up with the ideas. We do need to know who to award the t-shirts to.

Here are the seventeen ideas.

1 Pick up an athletic hobby that you can do over your lifetime. Coed rugby and mountain skateboarding will only last so long. On the other hand, a sedentary lifestyle will do awful things to you. David Cannon.

2. Write down key points of what you did each day. This may seem trivial and a bit middle-school journal-ish, but Harvard Business School research shows that taking as little as 15-minutes of written reflection at the end of the day can make you more productive. Stan Hayward.

3. Talk to one stranger every day. Strangers = opportunities. Opportunities = more opportunities. And, more +++ opportunities are better than fewer :-<<. Who you know (in other eras this was called networking) can accelerate your career, happiness and health. Ashraf Sobli.

4. Learn to listen well. People love to talk about themselves. Listening allows you to build #3 and gives you something to #2 about. Charles Tips.

5. Waste less time. Zig Ziglar (my quotation, not Baer's) points out that each of us have twenty-four hours each day. Lack of direction, not lack of time is the problem of those who waste time. Anonymous.

6. Find happiness in the process of accomplishing your dreams. Avoid a "deferred life plan." Find a way to do what you like to do today, or, like what you have to do. Attitude is always key. Dan Lowenthal.

7. Build strong friendships and be kind to people. See #3 and #4. That will also help #6. Edina Dizharevic.

8. Diversify your experiences. See #3. Dan Lowenthal.

9. Save money. Put a little bit away with each paycheck. Do it automatically so you don't miss it. This is called the miracle of compound interest. India L.J. Mitchell.

10. Drink with old people (see #3, #7, #8). They've been there, done that and have the t-shirts (see #4). Ben Hinks.

11. Start meditating. It trains your brain to be able to deal with the madness of each day (see #6). Anonymous.

12. Learn to work with shame and doubt. Those emotions probably mean your are stretching beyond your comfort zone (see #11). That's a good thing. Diego Mejia.

13. Go outside: hikes, walks, running, that new lifelong sport you are taking up (see #1), anything. Cognitive psychologists prescribe a little "wilderness bathing" to counteract depression and burnout. Non-cognitive sorts say you need a dose of fresh air to chase aways the blues. Stephen Steinberg.

14. Get to know people who are different from you (see #3, #4, #8, #10). You might even meet them during a #13. Judy Tyrer.

15. Date everything (see #2) — no, not that kind of “date.” Whether you're connecting with a person, taking notes during a meeting, or labeling takeout boxes in the fridge, knowing the date when something happened is useful in ways you can't predict. If it could be predicted, we might mention it here as incentive. Dee Vining.

16. Read novels. Fiction is emotional and cognitive stimulation. Novels train you to recognize, understand and model other people's experiences of life. It's almost as good as #3, #8, #10 and #14. It’s even up there with #1 and #13. Anuany Arunav.

17. Set minimum goals. Read 15 pages a day, do 20 push ups each morning (see #1-#16), floss a different tooth each day (???). Starting the habit, even a small habit, is key to changing your life.

Pick only one or two of the group to try for the rest of the summer but don't delay (#6). We’ll check back in five years. T-shirts to the finishers.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Success Myth: Pick a College, Any College

Flash quiz: What is the best strategy for a high school graduate? 1. Pick a college, any college. 2. Align your talents and strengths with career exploration and the relevant education and skills training you will need to get a job in your first preferred career choice.

If you, or the graduate, are not sure of the answer, watch this excellent 9-minute video from Citrus College, a community college in the Los Angeles, California, suburb of Glendora. The video is written and narrated by Kevin Fleming and directed and animated by Brian Marsh.

Success in the New Economy: how prospective college students can gain a competitive advantage:

OK, now that you have watched it, you can probably answer the first question. Can you answer a few more?

  1. What percentage of recent high school graduates enroll in higher education: 22%, 44%, 66% or 88%?
  2. What fraction of new university graduates are underemployed: 12.5%, 25%, 50% or 75%?
  3. Comparing the job market of 1960 with 2018, what percent of jobs in 2018 will require a four-year university degree?
  4. Comparing the job market of 1960 with 2018, what percent of jobs in 2018 will require a one-year certificate or two-year associate degree?
  5. What is the ratio of jobs in the economy in 1950 that required a graduate degree compared to a bachelors degree compared to a one-year certificate or two-year degree.
  6. What is the ratio of jobs in the economy in 1990 that required a graduate degree compared to a bachelors degree compared to a one-year certificate or two-year degree.
  7. What is the ratio of jobs in the economy in 2030 that will require a graduate degree compared to a bachelors degree compared to a one-year certificate or two-year degree.
  8. (T/F) "Getting a bachelors degree in Business is always better than getting an industry-based credential as an Electrician."
  9. Community colleges are in an ideal position to provide (PICK ONE: 40%, 50%, 60% or 70%) of tomorrow's workforce with the education they need.
  10. What two items will be the new currency for the new economy?
ANSWERS: In the video, of course. And, a passing grade is 80%.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Disadvantage of Auto-Cloud Backup

I was not paying attention to my knitting, as my grandmother might have said.

I was updating a school to-do list in Evernote on my phone: assignment due dates, ideas for new classes, websites that I copied but not had gotten around to viewing yet, and so on. The digital detritus of a modern working guy. The "Cloud" ties the Evernote app into my phone, iPad, home PC and Mac and the various desktops at school offices and labs. I have categories for school, home, and garden; a quote list (I write them down as I see them); a daily to-do list; a list of books I want to read and I list of books I have read during the current year.

At this time of the year, the school list has been pared down to essentials: to-dos I want to complete during the summer and to-dos I want to take up in the fall. Still, there were more than two-dozen items on the note. I was rushed one night, multitasking, and made one too many clicks. The entire file was highlighted (select-all is always a dangerous choice) in a pale blue box with one click, and the next quick key stroke replaced the entire list with the single letter, "r".

Gone. Everything. Was. Gone.

I looked around for the salvation of an "Undo" icon -- no icon. I knew if I closed the file, the information (as little as there was) would be uploaded to the Cloud (handy automatic feature that) and the lower case "r" would replace two years of ideas. And, no, there had been no print-out backup. Instead, I fired up another machine in another room and signed into Evernote from there. As I suspected, the earlier file had not yet been updated across the system (the first computer file was still open), so I forced a sync with the Cloud to keep the file from the second machine rather than the r-file. The sync was complete. All was saved, sort of.

What I had were two competing files with the same name on two different machines. Eventually there was going to be a problem. Rather than hope for the best, never a good idea when working with technology, I renamed the second school file as "School 2014-15" and re-synced. Again, successful. So I had the original school file and the second, renamed file.

I turned back to the phone and when I clicked off the file screen, as I suspected, the "r-file" was uploaded as "School" and populated all devices. The Cloud is very thorough. But, I had my original work, other than some rushed tweaking, under the name of the new file, "School 2014-15." I also had the file, "School" with a lone "r" in it. I think I will keep it as a reminder for a while

Losing the original file would not have been the end of the world. I would have eventually recreated the items. But, an absent-minded slip of attention and errant keystroke would have cost me time and anxiety. In an earlier generation, I would have said this was a lesson about backing up, but it's not really -- backing up is an automatic process today. Instead this a story about slowing down, paying attention to your knitting, and then when digital disaster strikes, trying to stay calm and keep on computing.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chiseled Words and Broken Footsteps

The statue-less statue of Arsinoe II (285-246 B.C.) stood out from the 75 other more-or-less intact objects in a Chicago Art Institute exhibit titled, "When the Greeks Ruled Egypt,"sponsored by the Jaharis Family Foundation, Inc. One foot of the statue was formally posed ahead of the other in a typical Egyptian portrait stance. The rest of it was broken off at the top of the foot.

Now, a practically destroyed 3,000 year-old statue is not unusual, but these footsteps on an inscribed rectangular base, seemed especially poignant. When the statue was carved, the Greeks were at their height of power: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. beginning a 300-year era of Greek-installed Pharaohs. Fascinated by Egyptian practices for immortality, the Greek rulers adapted and amended Egyptian customs especially those promising an afterlife. Who wouldn't want to live forever? According to the museum description of this item, Ptolemy II (309-246 B.C.) "introduced new features into Egypt's traditional religious practices, including the posthumous deification of his sister-wife, Arsinoe II. He decreed that she was to be worshipped in temples throughout Egypt." Immortality by executive fiat.

But the life of a goddess only lasts as long as her disciples and, while some pantheons have been long-lived, none have yet achieved immortality. The Greek-installed Pharaohs of the Ptolemaic Period were replaced by Roman rulers, as were Greek temples with Roman temples and Greek gods with Roman gods. After that, Rome fell to others who fell to still others during subsequent historical epochs. During the chaos that followed, the statue and the memory of Arsinoe II was shattered, buried, and forgotten.

Forgotten? Not quite yet though her memory was not preserved by scripted rituals and carefully constructed chants for the dead. The powerful who relied only on such fantasies lie forgotten beneath the shifting sands of time. Immortality in this case was bestowed by the hammer and chisel of an unknown artist who carved the statue and double-inscribed (just to be safe) Arsinoe II's name in both Greek letters and Egyptian hieroglyphics in its base. Literacy not libations, art not artifice bridged those 2500 years.

This is probably not the immortality that was promised to Ptolemy II by his minions. The mighty pharaoh would not be pleased that he and his sister-wife were of only passing interest to middle school tour groups texting each other in a side exhibit hall in Chicago. What could the young know about the ageless yearning for immortality? To offset their disrespect, I stood quietly before the chiseled words and broken footsteps and wondered.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Seventy GED Students "Walk"

Seventy GED/HSED students "walked" on Wednesday. I don't mean "walked" in a bad way as if the students stormed out of a classroom as a programmed flash mob. I mean "walked" as in "proudly," "momentously," and "at long last" parading across a graduation stage, receiving ovations from college leadership and faculty, and soaking in the tears and cheers of family and friends.

Before the annual GED/HSED graduation at the school, graduates in caps and tassels, royal blue gowns and gold honor cords waited nervously in the Executive Dining room a few doors down from the stage entry. I visited with students I knew, as did other faculty, reminiscing with them and posing for photos. I was very happy to see five of my students from Oconto Falls and three from Shawano make the trip to Green Bay for the ceremony. Most students don't. The 70 students who lined up were just a fraction of more than 400 students who completed the GED/HSED series during the past year. That's too bad. All of the completers did the work. I wish more would allow themselves to enjoy this moment of triumph.

They should not take their GED/HSED accomplishment lightly. Given strong representation on Wednesday by college trustees, the college president and vice-president of learning, other vps and leadership, the college certainly takes their graduation seriously. We all know this credential represents an academic milestone for students who had -- to be perfectly honest -- failed the first time around. Each student had his or her own reasons why they dropped out of high school. On Wednesday, those reasons were not really important. What was important and what all of us were celebrating, was that they did come back to school, studied hard, balanced work and family with school, and, finally, finally, achieved their high school credential.

Marathoner, journalist and author, Amby Burfoot, spoke of such dogged perseverance when he wrote, "To get to the finish line, you'll have to try lots of different paths." There was one common goal that all these students achieved as they walked across the stage, a GED/HSED credential, but there were as many different paths to that common goal as there were students who were doing the "walking." These are the first few steps that they will take toward another marathon journey, lifelong learning, but no need to worry about that right now. The graduates have proven that they can succeed when they do the work. On Wednesday, it was time for them to hold their head high and proudly walk.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

UWGB's Academic Forgiveness

For many freshmen, college is just too much: non-curricular temptations at college trump home-grown common sense, and others who do put in time on classwork realize that shaky study skills that eeked them through high school are no match for the rigor of the college classroom. Sure, most schools have early-warning signals in place and many are helped by that, but for too many unprepared incoming students, the first semesters of college spiral down from poor grades, to academic probation, and to the embarrassment of dismissal.

So, what happens next? These students move on without college. Life does continue. But after some years, they realize they really do need a degree credential to move forward. Unfortunately, their previous record drags them down even though they may have now learned the life lessons that would allow them to be successful in college if they had a second chance. A low GPA on the transcript can cause all kinds of problems: re-qualifying for program entry, applying for scholarships and loans, and interviewing for program internships. It takes a lot of positive credits to overcome a bad start.

Since 2010, the University of Wisconsin--Green Bay has quietly established an alternative proposal: Academic Forgiveness. I read about the program in the June 2014 issue of the UWGB alumni/community magazine, Inside 360. The basics of the program are if a student has been out of school for at least three years and if the student struggled "because of health issues, motivation, too much on their plates, or something else," the student is given a fresh academic start when he or she re-enrolls. The student keeps whatever credits were earned on the first go-around, but the GPA altimeter is reset at 0.00.

Darrel Renier, director of academic advising at the college, reports the program has been effective. As of the beginning of the last school year (2013-14), Renier said, "We've had 62 requests for forgiveness, and the new average GPA for these students has been a 3.43." That's a huge jump for students who had not been able to maintain a 2.00 GPA in earlier semesters.

The Academic Forgiveness program recognizes that not every student is ready for college at the same time right out of high school. Age is a notoriously poor indicator of post-secondary maturity because some students need a little more seasoning and motivation before they allow themselves to be successful. Kudos to UWGB for eliminating the GPA barrier for returning students and for focusing on what is most important to all of us: student success not the grades.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Reflection: Balancing Our Good to Great Stuff

The Achieving the Dream conference speakers, putting an academic spin on the Jim Collins management classic, Good to Great (2001), explained how pockets of innovation within an organization can lead to larger, organization-wide change, if a culture of intentional institutional redesign has been established. Too opaque? OK, let's quote Collins directly:

"Visionary companies make some of their best moves by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and -- quite literally -- accident. What looks in retrospect like brilliant foresight and preplanning was often the result of 'Let's just try a lot of stuff and keep what works.'"

In order to promote such a change culture, you need data to identify and evaluate innovative "stuff," leadership willing to allow stuff to bubble up from below, formal and informal communication promulgating and supporting stuff, and time for reflection about stuff... time for reflection?

The community college audience at the workshop sat a little straighter at this last requirement. Reflection? Didn't Collins, the guru of greatness now not later, say, "A culture of discipline ... is a principle of greatness." Doesn't this drive toward discipline imply moving, moving, moving? 24/7? Who, we asked ourselves while checking the room number for the next session, has time for reflection?

Apparently we should. The speakers said our rush toward innovation has to be balanced with reflection on the data, the goals, and the "stuff." While action to initiate change is encouraged, action for the sake of action becomes unanchored, and possibly counter-productive without planned moments of reflection. We as instructors know that students need moments of reflection to move new information from short term memory to long-term habits. You can't teach, teach, teach without pauses for learning. That's part of any sensible lesson plan. Why would we expect any less for our colleges?

Fortunately for most colleges, the traditional school calendar provides scheduled moments for reflection. Right now, our school has begun a two-week break between the Spring Term and Summer Term. The hallways are quiet without the flow of students walking between classes. Final papers are collected, grades recorded, and schedules set up for the next session. Christian colleges might use the down time to conduct spiritual retreats for staff, faculty, and leadership. That's a great idea to move reflection from an exterior process to an inner core change. Unfortunately, public colleges can't go that route, though they do strongly encourage us --wink wink nudge nudge -- to take time to plan and recharge.

During semester breaks, we need to consciously and methodically step back from classroom activities, regroup our resources, and refocus our thoughts on our shared and personal mission of student success. In a word, it's time to reflect. Quiet still moments of reflection balance the busyness of the innovative stuff we try during the semester. During reflection, the daily detritus is swept clear from our pathways, vistas are opened, and, to quote a fourth-century consultant, Chang Tsu, "the whole universe surrenders." He must have been a teacher reflecting on stuff too.