A Constellation of Sorts

I often think about ancient astronomers, staring at the night sky and looking at the thousands and thousands of stars above. I think about how the creative ones would assemble these celestial bodies that were separated by millions of miles and tell of the grand things they could see in the sky. A ram. A crab. A lion. While the stars are real physical objects, the constellations emerged from the astronomers’ imaginations, gathered for and from the stories they were telling.

I sometimes like to think of my blogging as constellation building. Some of my blog posts are ones where I’m working through an idea or a concept I’ve come across. Others are ones where I’m telling a story about an interaction with a colleague or a student with the hopes of learning and growing from its retelling here. But there are also the “constellation ones,” those posts where I’m assembling disparate quotes, statistics, ideas or theories and bringing them together to form something through my own imagination. And that was my intent with this post. I have a bunch of quotes that have been buzzing in my head for the last week or so. I’m sure if I worked at it, they would converge into some creative object (maybe a crab or a lion?) that I could share here.

But instead, I’ll leave the meaning making and constellation building to you, dear reader. Some of these quotes (stars?) are ones you may have seen before, especially if you read this blog regularly. Others may be new. Regardless, ponder their connections and how they can help to guide you as you navigate the weeks ahead.

“What are you leaving behind? For me, the solution is children and art. I’ve got four kids. So far as I can tell, I’ve raised them well, and I’ve not broken any of them, and they get to go off into the world. Then there are the other children you leave behind because you affected them. You made something that touched or changed them. I’m one of the children of C.S. Lewis. I may be a grumpy and rebellious child of C.S. Lewis, but I am a child of C. S. Lewis. I’m a child of Tolkien. I’m a child of Zelazny. I’m a child of E. Nesbit. P. L. Travers. These are the people who got me at a young age. I love it when I get readers at a young age. So it’s all children and art. That’s what it is.

-Neil Gaiman, in a recent interview with the New York Times Magazine

The biggest act we can perform for another is sacrifice: where we surrender something important for someone else, where we take a risk for someone else. The step below that is generosity: where we surrender some share of our time or resources for another. Kindness is entry-level caring: kindness is just the temporary suspension of indifference.

The Biblical story of the Good Samaritan is a story about kindness. The Good Samaritan finds an injured man by the side of the road, stops, bandages him up, and takes him on the back of his donkey to a nearby inn. Where he gives him to the innkeeper, with some money to pay for his care. The Good Samaritan doesn’t fight off a band of hoodlums, single-handedly. Or sneak the injured man past an enemy checkpoint. He’s kind. Not brave.”

-Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History podcast

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

-Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.

It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

-Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Lessons from Abroad

I recently returned from a trip overseas with my family and some friends. We spent a total of fifteen days in Europe, almost equally divided between Sweden and Holland. This week, I thought I’d spend a little time reflecting on my travels. Since this trip wasn’t work related, my observations and reflections are not going to be directly related to teaching and learning.

1. Despite being almost 250 years old, the United States is still so young.
Stockholm was founded in 1252. Amsterdam was founded in 1275. While neither city has many buildings still standing from the early days of their formation, it wasn’t uncommon to walk past buildings that were older than the United States. In Stockholm, we visited the Vasa Museum which houses a fully intact ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. The sunken ship was discovered in the 1950s and salvaged in the 1960s. Also, while in Stockholm, we passed the location of the Stockholm Bloodbath of 1517 where King Christian orchestrated an elaborate dinner party that led to the execution of almost 100 of his political opponents. Just being around so many historic locations and objects helped to put current events into greater context.

2. I don’t walk enough.
Over the course of fifteen days, I walked over 100 miles, averaging more than seven miles per day. While I’m an avid biker and exercise regularly, my Apple Watch never records that level of activity on my daily strolls across campus or in my neighborhood. This trip definitely demonstrated that I’m capable of walking more than I currently do.

3. America needs better public transportation.
While staying in Stockholm and Amsterdam, we mainly relied on public transportation to get around. Both cities have robust transit systems that allow people to travel around easily and inexpensively. For example, while staying in Holland, my family took a train from Amsterdam to Utrecht for about $20 round trip. Between the trains, buses, trams, and subways available in both cities, we never needed a car. I don’t know if someone could travel to the United States and have that same level of access, though.

4. Smartphones have made traveling internationally so much easier.
With the wide variety of apps available for international travelers, going overseas has really never been easier. When shopping for groceries in Stockholm, I pulled up Google Translate to be able to read the labels on several products. When planning our trips around the cities, we used apps like 9292 and Google Maps to navigate from place to place. I don’t speak Swedish or Dutch but despite the language barrier, most people we encountered were really helpful and kind. But the apps helped us be a little more independent and figure things out on our own.

5. I need to travel again soon.
This trip was mainly prompted by a study abroad trip that my daughter had planned to attend this summer. When her university canceled the trip in February, my wife and I decided to step in and try to plan a similar outing for her and our family. While the trip was an educational journey for my daughter, I’ve caught the travel bug myself and can’t wait to plan our next trip.

Planning for the Interregnum

A week or two ago, my podcasting partner, Scott McDonald, used the word “interregnum” in an episode we were recording about online learning. In the episode, Scott discussed how the shift to online learning and remote lessons and meetings during had a huge impact on social connections between students and faculty on campus. While most of us remember how hard it was to foster deep, meaningful conversations in asynchronous discussion boards or during Zoom classes, Scott chose to examine another area of face-to-face learning environments. Midway through our discussion, Scott explains:

“These opportunities for informal interactions that we get in regular classrooms that is much harder in environments like Zoom and more asynchronous environments… There’s no bumping into people in the hallway. There’s no talking to people before or after class. So, you have to recognize that those things are actually important. Those interregnums.”

If you listen to the episode, you’ll hear that I’m clearly flummoxed by hearing this (new to me) word. So, I looked it up.

interregnum (noun) – in-tə-ˈreg-nəm
1. the time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes
2. a period during which the normal functions of government or control are suspended
3. a lapse or pause in a continuous series

In Scott’s use of the word, he’s describing the stuff that happens between the planned activities like meetings and classes. You’re walking to class and bunch into a student and strike up a conversation. Or a student chooses to stick around after class to ask a few questions. Those types of interactions happen in the interregnum, which is harder to design for in online learning environments. When a class (or meeting) starts at 9 AM, people usually show up at 9 AM. If the class (or meeting) ends at 11:30 AM, people promptly log off then.

So, what is an online teacher to do? How does one “plan for the interregnum” when the “interregnum” happens when we’re not online together?

Thinking about this, I realized the suggestions I’d offer are ones that I’ve offered before on this blog. If you’ve a regular reader, you know I’ve talked about the need for fostering social presence in online classes for years. During the pandemic, I wrote a post about how to make Zoom a little more social. If you’re working in an asynchronous environment, check out this post from 2013. While neither post discusses the “interregnum” specifically, I think the strategies can help a motivated instructor better support online students’ need for social connection.

But if you want to hear me and Scott discuss this stuff more deeply, check out the episode “If the future’s online..” which will be available on Wednesday July 27, 2022 on the Science In-Between webpage or wherever you access podcasts.

The Elephant in the Room

Note: I’m taking a few weeks off to travel and spend some time with the family. In the absence, I’m replaying some of my favorite posts from the last year or two. This week’s rerun was originally posted in February 2021. Enjoy!

There’s a parable that’s been shared in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts that goes something like this:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.” – Wikipedia

While the story is about perceptions and perspectives, it’s also a lesson about how each of our viewpoints may be limited in scope, even through our best intentions. While we may see something one way, another person may it very differently. Based on our limited perspectives and the information we have, our descriptions may be accurate. But truth can be a complicated animal.

I was reminded of the elephant story recently. I was attending a presentation led by an administrator from another institution. In the presentation, the speaker discussed the pressing challenges facing education today. While he spoke broadly about K-12 education, he also outlined the significant issues facing colleges and universities in the coming years. He talked about how higher education as an industry needed to be aware of “consumers’ return on investment” and be conscious of the experiences of “the end user.” He discussed making sure that our “credentialing” reflected “workplace-ready skills” and that institutions of higher education needed to provide the “highest quality for the lowest cost.”

I have to admit my initial reactions to this speaker’s take on education was mostly one of disdain. Not that I didn’t agree with his perspectives or anything. It was just so foreign to how I viewed this awesome, communal enterprise of teaching and learning. While I tend to focus more on the interactions and transformations that happen through our educational efforts, this administrator was viewing education as a business transaction. From his point of view, education was an industry where a consumer purchases a product. And while I tend to focus on concepts like building learning communities or fostering critical thinking, he was talking about education strictly as a commercial venture. To him, higher education is a transactional experience, like a person buying a toaster. And our job as educators was to make the best and most affordable toaster we can.

I realize that I may be overly cynical with his perspective. Administrators deal with the day-to-day financial aspects of our institutions and have to see things from a much more comprehensive point of view. While educators are working with students in their classes, administrators are charged with sustaining the long-term economic viability of our institutions. And while our work may be different, they are interconnected. Like the elephant’s tail is connected to its body which is connected to its head, the magical stuff that happens inside the classroom is inextricably connected to the work being done by administrators who focus on the economics of our institutions. Returning to the elephant parable, it’s like I’m the blind man feeling the head of the elephant while they’re the ones holding on to a much different part. And though our perceptions may be very different, they’re both accurate.

I’m just glad that I’m holding on to the part I am. Some of the other parts stink.

Clarity is Kind

Note: I’m taking a few weeks off to travel and spend some time with the family. In the absence, I’m replaying some of my favorite posts from the last year or two. This week’s rerun was originally posted in April 2021. Enjoy!

I can give pretty direct feedback on student work. While I consistently provide “Glows and Grows” to students to balance areas of strength with areas for growth, I find that students often bristle with how directly I communicate the feedback I provide. I preach “leading with empathy” but often forget how candid I can be when offering suggestions for improvement. In fact, one former student communicated my directness in a post on Rate My Professor:

Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging…. His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.

Needless to say, that student didn’t rate me very highly in terms of instructor quality.

To my own defense, I’m honestly not motivated by hurting anyone’s feelings. I don’t use putdowns in my feedback or call my students names or anything. I also don’t see myself as one of those people who elevates his own ego by diminishing others. Instead, I subscribe to the Brené Brown mantra: “Clarity is kind.” Applied to my teaching, I try to provide clear, focused feedback for improvement. In my mind, that kind of feedback will better support students’ growth and success. It can often be difficult for my students to hear, but it’s in their best interest.  But my students don’t always see that as being very kind.

But sometimes, the “clarity is kind” practice can lead to unintended outcomes. This semester, I’ve been working with a group of graduate students in one of our doctoral classes. After providing feedback on revisions of their papers, one student joked about how challenging it was for her to read the feedback I gave. “You don’t pull any punches,” she said. “And that can sting.”

Once again, I tried to explain my motivations and how I was focused on her growth. This time, I even brought in an  assurance that I regularly share with my son and daughter: “I’m on your side, 100% of the time. You just might not always know it.”

Flash forward to this weekend. This student gave a presentation at a research conference that some of my colleagues had organized. She was sharing work that she had completed in our class this semester and she did a great job. After the presentation, I met with her briefly to communicate my praise for her awesome work. “You rocked it,” I said. And I could see a grin beginning to emerge, and then she paused. “Are you serious?” she asked, before correcting herself. “Of course, you’re serious. You wouldn’t really hesitate to tell me otherwise.” I laughed, but I knew she was right.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about Paul Hollywood, a judge on the Great British Baking Show. When bakers meet his high standards, he offers a handshake as a form of praise. The handshake is only meaningful because he holds high standards and communicates clear feedback for growth.  While I don’t see myself as being nearly as cool as Paul Hollywood, I’d like to think that I’ve laid a similar foundation so that my praise is meaningful when it is offered.

That might make me unkind. It might make me blunt and unconventional. But I’m not really worried about any of that.

Did I mention that my student rocked her presentation? That’s enough for me.