Not sure when I am coming back to Chicago . . . .
It is raining and I am stuck at home on this Saturday morning waiting for UPS to deliver my new Visa card sent to replace the one Amazon informed me has been stolen and used to purchase unspecified items sent to unknown addresses. This, following the discovery that I gifted my Kindle Paperwhite by leaving it on my nightstand at the Westin in Washington, DC, site of the latest Institute for New Presidents seminar, has left me appreciative of the miracle of UPS and USPS and FedEx to still transport physical goods in the age of digital delivery.
The time immediately before conferences and seminars in general leaves me feeling vaguely morose. I vividly recall sitting in a cramped fluorescently-lit dorm room in St. Charles, Illinois, site of the former Arthur Andersen Societé Cooperative worldwide training facility, on a Sunday evening before a week’s worth of classes, depressed. I have not been able to diagnose this depression, repeated on the eve of many conferences and classes in cities across the country. It is probably a mixture of separation anxiety, stress from travel, and the fear of the unknown. Once the meetings start, the anxiety lifts, and my mood is determined more by the quality of the conference than by the unsettling anticipation of it.
The Institute left me in a happy state, in spite of the travel challenges compounded by lost and stolen items and identities. The American Council of Education is sponsoring the inaugural class of what ought to be a regular event for new college and university presidents. I participated with about twenty of my colleagues from around the country in the second of three seminars. My colleague from Kennedy-King College has joined me in the seminars.
The last two days were educational, inspirational, and comforting. While I think often and hard about being Harold Washington’s (and now Wright’s) president, I think less often about being a President. The seminar provided an opportunity to meet with peers. The comfort comes from learning that many of the challenges are shared by others in similar situations. We are not so unique, and in turn, not so lonely. We are building a community of like-minded leaders, committed to preserving what is best in our respective institutions while managing the multitude of forces that crash against them. I appreciated the meals and coffee breaks, where colleagues shared stories of triumphs and challenges.
The inspiration came from two current presidents. Freeman Hrabowski, III, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who led an active-learning session on what it means to be a president. While committed to STEM education for minority students, he spoke passionately about his mother’s own discovery that the power of reading opens up new worlds, including the worlds of math and science, and how her own awakening of the differences between her own neighborhood and the homes of the rich white people she served lay in part in the engagement with books. When I grow up, I want to be Freeman Hrabowski. Or Mo Qayoumi, the president of San Jose State University. Both men exhibited a joy in their role that I hope to emulate. They shared great stories of leadership, driven by visions of what they wanted their institutions to achieve. I left their sessions with a deeper understanding of what it means to be a great president. The icing on the inspirational cake was provided by Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President Emeritus of George Washington University, who over twenty years transformed that institution, following a successful eight-year run at the University of Hartford.
Sprinkled throughout the seminar were educational sessions on the law of higher education, fundraising, group problem-solving, ethics, and the impact of the 2012 election. The seminar was an excellent lead-in to a couple of weeks off for me, my first extended vacation since taking the job. I look forward to returning in the New Year refreshed and renewed, ready for Wright and HWC. UPS has arrived, along with my new credit card. Back to Amazon for some book shopping.
Happy Holidays to all.
My hobby as an ironist was launched by Professor Wayne Booth’s “Rhetoric” class. We read Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and Professor Booth asked us to write an ironic essay of our own. I failed, confusing irony with sarcasm. The C- I earned on the paper woke me up to the difference. I strove afterwards to create highly tuned ironies.
Since coming to City Colleges, I have found myself becoming increasingly un-ironic. One reason is that irony is so difficult to pull off, especially when readers or listeners parse every word until speeches become more a series of fractional distillations than the rich stew of ideas originally intended. I have wondered if the loss of irony indicated a too-serious approach to the job.
Christy Wampoles’ article casts our ironic times in a larger frame. She asserts that
Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well-educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Although later in the article she says that “irony has served useful purposes, like providing a rhetorical outlet for unspoken societal tensions,” the argument is solidly against irony. In her conclusion, Ms. Wampole states:
. . . it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks. For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large. People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantalizing citizenry.
In light of Ms. Wampole’s article, I am re-crafting my liberal arts post for a later date.
Joe Queenan’s full-throated defense of books in this past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” set afloat a reverie during my walk to Mario’s. Queenan supplies an urgency to my quest to read more. I don’t want to just read more; I want to read more stuff with which I can connect. Books that move me, provoke me and enrich me. Infinite Jest passed the test. A Gate at the Stairs, despite its status as a PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, did not. I wonder why I failed to connect with an adolescent female coming of age while the powerful forehands of Hal Incandenza somehow managed to keep me enthralled for 1,079 pages (at least, until the end, when I admit to frustration and confusion.)
Yet I still have a desire to re-read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Professor Wayne Booth taught me to love Austen’s rhetoric during my sophomore class with him. Each time I see the book on my bookshelf, it rests in silent rebuke to a vow I made to myself after one of Professor Booth’s lectures. He said that to truly understand any book, one needs to read it at least three times – the first to get an overview of plot and character, the second to understand the author’s rhetorical intent, and the third to integrate the author’s point of view into one’s own world view. Frank McKee, a formidable high school English teacher, lived this idyll, spending each summer at the Jersey shore, tending bar at night and re-reading James Joyce’s Ulysses on the beach each day. I promised myself that after the age of 50, I would only re-read those books I had read up until then, to gain wisdom. A year past my self-imposed deadline, I am fractured between my wish to read more and to read more deeply.
Queenan’s essay stands in counterpoint to a recent Five Books interview with Jessica Pressman, on electronic literature. Pressman argues that technology is altering the way we read. Hyperlinks enable us to alter the reading experience so that we are both consuming and creating content. Reading digitally moves from a solitary experience controlled by the author with the consent of the reader, into an interactive experience in which any given author is just a contributor to a collection of texts the reader composes. Queenan’s response:
Electronic books are ideal for people who value the information contained in them, or who have vision problems, or who have clutter issues, or who don’t want other people to see that they are reading books about parallel universes where nine-eyed sea serpents and blind marsupials join forces with deaf Valkyries to rescue high-strung albino virgins from the clutches of hermaphrodite centaurs, but they are useless for people engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books. Books that we can touch; books that we can smell; books that we can depend on. Books that make us believe, for however short a time, that we shall all live happily ever after.
Queenan captures the essence of what is compelling about reading books. The work required to read books of substance often rewards the reader with intense emotion or self-realization. John Updike’s Rabbit, Run left me gasping for breath twenty years ago when I, a young father, read about Harry Angstrom’s dissolute choices. The contemporaneity of Harry’s and my experience prompted another reading vow, this time to read each Rabbit book when Harry and my ages intersected. Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire elicited such intense emotions that I rose to her defense in one of the few Amazon reviews I have written. The book seems to polarize readers; for some reason, I found it a treasure. Similarly, I cannot imagine how anyone cannot be wracked by sobs as I was during the green mamba scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The scene does not stand on its own. Only a close read up to and through the chapter rewards the reader with the capacity to feel the unimaginable loss.
I cannot imagine that hypertextual reading will provide readers with the same level of emotional depth and understanding. Not because I don’t think it will happen for others, but because I lack the capacity to think beyond a mode of reading that has served up until now. Only recently have I been able to grant myself permission to not finish a book once started. During an NPR book segment, the interviewer asked the guest if she ever failed to finish a book. The interviewee replied almost with scorn. “Of course! Life is too short to stick with a book you don’t connect with.” I felt the weight of hundreds of books lifted off my shoulders. I am not yet comfortable with the idea of hyperlinking from text to text, never completing any of them but creating my own meta-book.
I see faculty wrestling with the same issues. We are pressured, in an effort to deliver lower-cost texts to our students and to respond to a view that the world is moving to a hyperconnected future, to move to electronic platforms. The fear is that in supporting the move to digital delivery, we will only encourage and enable the shortened attention spans and lack of close reading that seems to us, without concrete evidence, to harm our students. Perhaps it is a lack of imagination on our parts. The MacArthur Foundation, for one, is placing big bets on digital platforms as a means to educate and engage students.
I wonder, though, if students today ever feel the joy I felt as a boy during rainy afternoons when my mother’s nagging to go play outside ceased and I could without guilt lie on my bed, lost in my book, transported to other times and other worlds. I wonder if new platforms and modes of reading will deliver the same joys. Our ability to answer this question is critical, for we will only help students to become life-long learners if we can teach them the satisfaction resulting from a transformative engagement with a text that some of us felt when Arthur Dimmesdale tore off his cloak to reveal his own shame. Perhaps the triumph of Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins will move them. Or the sheer terror induced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbinders in Suspense.
Thank you, Joe Queenan, for helping me to engage in a Proustian remembrance of books past, and for prompting me to think about the implications for our students. Now, it is time to go back to my book.
With registration over, I finally had time to put a dent in my 600+ item RSS feed. I hit a Lifehacker trifecta. (Lifehacker is a web site that provides “Tips, tricks, and downloads for getting things done.” The founding editor is Gina Trapani, whose personal mission is to “build apps that try to change the world—or just make life easier.”)
Article number one in the daily trifecta is entitled, “Want to Be a Great Leader? Start Reading.” Follow the link if you want to read John Coleman’s take on how “deep, broad reading habits are often a defining characteristic of great leaders, and can catalyze insight, innovation, empathy, and personal effectiveness.” Do I hear cheering from our Humanities and English departments?
I am in the midst of interviewing candidates for a number of positions at the College, so I was intrigued by “The Hardest Job Interview Questions – And How to Ace Them.” A close reader will find the link that lists the toughest companies for which to interview. Tops on the list is McKinsey. I hear that our Reinvention team is using a modified McKinsey-style interview for team lead candidates. Could CCC make the list in the future? My favorite of the tough questions is “What questions do you have for me?” The question unearths candidates who want to understand if the position is a good fit for them, and vice versa. A question back at me about how this role fits in our overall strategy, or how we will measure the outcomes, shows thoughtfulness. Many squander the opportunity.
The last piece is entitled, “My Paleo Media Diet.” Given I spent a fair amount of time during registration away from my computer, phone or iPad, the author’s comments about the productivity of being disconnected hit home.
I recently had the good fortune to attend a seminar for new presidents. The presidents came from a diverse set of institutions across the country. The discussions with fellow presidents enlightened and encouraged me. Presidents shared many funny or challenging stories of their early days at their institutions. The entire time I listened, I kept thinking what great material this would make for readers of Don’s Desk. We had a rule at the seminar, however, that what was said in the room stayed in the room.
I aspire to foster transparency in my leadership of the College. This often runs head long into the need to be discrete.
My wife and I have a similar challenge in our discussions. Given the nature of her past and current positions, she has information that would be highly inappropriate for me to share with anyone. We have solved this nicely by her not telling me anything, and me not listening to her. I don’t believe this solution transfers to my leadership of the College.
I admit that I was surprised by the level of transparency demanded by our faculty. In one of my early discussions with faculty council, I found my comments reported on the Harold Lounge shortly afterward. I don’t fault the faculty council for posting the remarks. I didn’t say anything I wouldn’t say openly. The context of some remarks, however, was important. It made me more mindful that I need to put my remarks into an proper context. What I intend to be ironic does not necessarily translate to the Lounge when reported verbatim. And while some have criticized my humor to be so dry it desiccates, it still comes off better in person than in print.
Similarly, the recent search process demanded a level of transparency on the process, but discretion about the candidates and our discussions of their strengths and weaknesses. Some faculty demanded greater transparency. With due respect to the candidates, I was not willing to share.
I am searching for the right balance. I am guided by a few principles. The first is the front page rule – am I comfortable with this comment appearing on the front page of the New York Times (or more likely, The Herald)? Second, what is my intent in sharing the information? Pure intentions support more information sharing. Reporting results of a high-level meeting to make myself look good is not pure. Sharing information that directly affects how someone can do their job is pure. Finally, would the information, if shared, hurt someone else? This includes both those great stories told in confidence at a seminar and open, honest discussions about a job interviewer’s performance in an interview.
I welcome suggestions from readers on where I ought to be more transparent, or on where more transparency would help the college.
I have struggled recently with the value of fiction. In conversations with friends, we note that as we age, non-fiction appeals to us more. Non-fiction is pragmatic. It wrestles with real-world problems. It informs our daily lives with facts and guidance and useful stuff. Biographies of people who have lived lives that mattered hold particular appeal. These histories provide context and understanding. For example, I have made note in remarks at the college of Taylor Branch’s trilogy America in the King Years (I am two-thirds of the way through). The first volume illuminates the early 20th century debates about the role of vocational and liberal arts education for African-Americans that has an immediacy in our discussions about College to Careers. Non-fiction appears to have a hold on me that fiction held when I was younger. Is this a natural evolution in taste, an inevitable by-product of aging, or a symptom of the type and quality of what I am reading?
Two articles from my Sunday morning reading of The New York Times added more fuel to the fires of my internal debate. (Who knew this topic had such a hold on me?) Jhumpa Lahiri writes in “My Life’s Sentences,” “In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page.” I remember the joy of reading a passage that seemed to stick a fist into my chest and squeeze my heart, stopping my breath and causing blood rush to my head as new ways of looking at the world flooded my brain. One passage in particular, from Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale, helped me thirty years ago navigate from the teeming insanity of adolescence into early adulthood. I cite it here, drawing from a favorite site of mine, Goodreads:
“To be mad is to feel with excruciating intensity the sadness and joy of a time which has not arrived or has already been. And to protect their delicate vision of that other time, madmen will justify their condition with touching loyalty, and surround it with a thousand distractive schemes. These schemes, in turn, drive them deeper and deeper into the darkness and light (which is their mortification and their reward), and confront them with a choice. They may either slacken and fall back, accepting the relief of a rational view and the approval of others, or they may push on, and, by falling, arise. When and if by their unforgivable stubbornness they finally burst through to worlds upon worlds of motionless light, they are no longer called afflicted or insane. They are called saints.”
Reading that passage today transports me back to that time in my life when imaginable futures seemed so real and attainable and yet laughable to elders. I did harbor a secret hope that I could be a saint.
The very next article I read provided the context and scientific basis for an argument that fiction may have a neurological effect on improving our social interactions. Annie Murphy Paul writes in her piece, “Your Brain on Fiction,” that ”individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.” A week ago Friday, I was at a meeting where I had the opportunity to talk to Chief Human Resource officers from several Fortune 500 companies. When I asked them what they wanted from our graduates, they responded almost uniformly that they wanted candidates who could operate well on a team, who had a broader understanding of the world, and who had a social and emotional intelligence that enabled them to work in a changing and challenging environment. In workforce circles, these are called non-cognitive skills, described by James Heckman as “aspects of character” that include “traits such as personality, health, mental health, perseverance, time preference, risk aversion, self-esteem, self-control, preference for leisure, conscientiousness, and motivation.” Some of these traits are developed, according to Murphy Paul’s article, by fiction.
I reflexively defend the value of the liberal arts as a product of a liberal arts education and as believer in the value of a world beyond my equally beloved economic analyses of the rational actor. As I said, my faith in fiction has been flagging as decrepitude and pragmatism creep into my daily life. This morning’s reading has reminded me of the joy a well-written passage can awake in me. It has also given me the scientific ammunition that is increasingly important in defending the value of those parts of our mission served by literature – so much so that I will return to reading Infinite Jest with renewed enthusiasm and joy.
My Sunday reading uncovered this little gem from the Taipei Times. It seems that academic freedom may have a shorter leash in Taipei. I also wonder if Professor Wu wasn’t set up – Professor Geaun managed to produce a recorded copy of their conversation as evidence for his allegations.
Professor handed 10 days in jail after insulting colleagueBy Yang Kuo-wen / Staff Reporter
Taiwan National University (NTU) Department of Agricultural Economics professor Wu Pei-ing (吳珮瑛), aged 53, was handed a final sentence of 10 days in prison or a fine by the High Court on Thursday for calling a fellow professor “worthless.”
At 8am on March 3 last year, when Wu was speaking with department head Hsu Shih-hsun (徐世勳), fellow professor Jerome Geaun (官俊榮) approached her and said he felt compelled to “severely protest” that she was speaking too loudly. He asked Wu to lower her voice.
Wu at first said “Keep out of matters that don’t concern you,” but Geaun insisted that she keep her voice down, prompting Wu to say: “Go report it to the police, to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) for noise pollution, OK?”
While Hsu attempted to mediate the dispute, Wu said to Geaun: “Who do you think you are? You’re a worthless nobody,” despite a previous warning from Geaun’s that her comments came very close to a personal insult.
Geaun later sued Wu for libel and defamation of character, using a recording of their conversation as evidence.
During the trial, Wu denied that she had publicly insulted Geaun, saying that she only said: “Who do you think you are?” when he interrupted her conversation with Hsu.
Wu’s lawyer also argued that the office of the department head was not a public place while questioning the veracity of the evidence.
The High Court ruled that Wu was guilty of publicly insulting Geaun for calling him “worthless” because the department head’s office allows free access to faculty and students, and a teaching assistant, surnamed Hsu (許), was present at the time of the dispute, and also testified during the case.
Wu appealed the decision, but the court ruled that because an out of court settlement could not be reached, Wu should serve 10 days in jail or pay a fine of NT$100,000 (US$3,390), with the ruling suspended for up to 2 years.
Wu declined to comment on the High Court’s ruling.
Translated by Jake Chung, Staff Writer
At the risk of losing the small number of readers I have managed to attract to this blog, I wanted to share a great piece from Lifehacker, “How to Boost Your Reading Comprehension by Reading Smarter and More Conscientiously.” The piece recommends winnowing your information sources down to a few select ones while maintaining a diversity of opinion on topics about which you are passionate. The hypothesis is that with fewer sources on which to concentrate, your level of engagement with what you are reading will increase.
I find myself feverishly plowing through my Google Reader RSS feeds using Reeder or Gruml, checking Flipboard, News360, and SkyGrid, logging into newsmap.jp, catching up on Chicago news at the Chicago News Cooperative, and touching base with the Tribune, Sun-Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, while squeezing in a frantic leafing through the Economist on a weekly basis. Add to those the email alerts I receive from Good Magazine, Politico, PEN, Education Week, and the Chronicle, and I have to admit feeling overwhelmed, over-read, and under-comprehended.
The Lifehacker piece gave new meaning to the term “information junkie.” The frantic iPhone thumb-flips in pursuit of that discrete bit of information that will provide me with divine insight has become an activity by itself, with the quality of the information or my comprehension of the issues surrounding it superficial. I am not sure if I can commit to giving up sources, but I realize that without doing so, I may be giving up true understanding. If I can make the commitment, at least my thumb may thank me.
This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege – my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I love. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got a hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
- George Bernard Shaw
I look forward to the new year working with all members of our team who aspire to “burn as brightly as possible.”