Questioning Things

“Whose needs are being served?”

I know I often bury the lead with my posts, but I thought I’d start this post differently. Instead of wading through some personal story which leads to the main idea, I’m offering this question right at the start.

“Whose needs are being served?”

I’m offering this question as a litmus test for questioning all sorts of things, but I’ll apply it to the work we do in schools and institutions of higher education. Like many industries today, education is faced a host of new initiatives and innovations to position itself for the future. Some colleges are closing their doors while others are consolidating with other campuses. My institution (thankfully) isn’t facing these challenges, but we’re still in the process of change. We’re currently revising our general education curriculum to better serve our students for the careers their likely to face after graduation. As a liberal arts institution, my university seeks to provide a broad-based education across science, technology, arts, humanities, and the social sciences. These diverse disciplines help students see the world through different lenses and can better prepare them to solve the complex problems and careers they’re likely to face after graduation.

That’s the plan at least. Our current general education model was approved almost fifteen years ago. And while it has gone through some minor revisions and tweaks over the years, I’m working with a group of faculty to propose significant changes to the general education curriculum. Although we’ve only been collaborating for the last six months to develop new models, the work actually stretches back several years through campus conversations, self-studies, external reviews, and more. It’s an arduous process that isn’t likely to wrap up in the near future.

As we’ve been working through the redevelopment process, it’s clear that people on campus have different perspectives on what a general education curriculum should encompass. Some believe that it should be really flexible. Others believe that it should be highly prescriptive. Some want to see the curriculum organized around skills and ways of being. Others want to see the requirements dedicated to specific academic disciplines.  As we discuss these different options and solutions, I believe it’s critical for us to regularly return to the litmus test I offered at the start of this post.

“Whose needs are being served?”

As we weigh innovative proposals and hear challenges to their merits, we need to make sure that we continue to serve our students and their needs. We may have different approaches for how serve our students, but we need to remember that it’s our charge.

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Process over Product?

A few weeks ago, I attended a week-long institute on General Education and Assessment organized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. My institution is in the midst of revising and updating their General Education program and the university assembled a team of faculty and administrators to attend this virtual institute. Ultimately, this team will develop a few different options and share them with our campus community before settling on a new General Education program that will go into effect a year or two down the road. Our group is really just at the beginning of our work. If this were a thousand-mile journey, our group and university would only be a dozen steps in. We have a long road (and a lot of work) ahead. Attending this institute was designed to be a kick start to our efforts.

In one of the sessions, an attendee commented that any reform effort needs to be mindful of campus culture and consider what the community values and how it operates. Sharing the famous quote from Peter Drucker, the attendee said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Without a moment of pause, the presenter responded, “You need to really focus on the process. Process eats product for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

I’ll admit that I’ve heard the Drucker quote a bunch of times and even used it in a few professional presentations. But the “process eats product” quote is a new one for me. As often happens, it’s been bouncing around my head the last week or two and I’ve shared in it a few conversations with colleagues. I know it’s not really that novel. The quote is just a repurposing of the “ends vs. means” and “journey vs. destination” debates.  The quote is an important reminder, though. The road you take is just as important and as where you go.

While this reminder is critical to our group’s General Education reform efforts, it is also important whenever some new initiative or change is undertaken. I would argue that it’s important in how we teach our classes, how we interact with our colleagues, and … well, you get the picture. Process is important stuff. So, how do we focus on process in the work we do? For me, it comes down to a few simple mantras.

  • Be transparent.
  • Be inclusive.
  • Be willing to listen.
  • Be open to change.

I know those may sound trite, but they should be guiding principles for any organization or individual who values collaboration. When we focus on process, we demonstrate that we value the people with whom we work. We can’t be so blinded by some desired outcome that we sacrifice our relationships with our colleagues or our core values to get there.

Revisiting Start with Thanks

A few years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Start with Thanks” where I unpacked my missteps with some colleagues. In the post, I wrote about how a group of faculty had collaborated to plan an event for students on campus and when the event was held, I forgot to thank them for their efforts. That oversight mistakenly communicated that their work wasn’t important. It also left their efforts unseen to the attendees. I wrote that post as a way to reflect on my mistakes and to offer a plan for doing better. In the post, I drew on an NPR interview with David DeSteno, the author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, where he discussed the long-term importance of saying “Thank You.”

In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.”

So, I wrote that initial post as a reminder to “start with thanks” and to communicate my gratitude to the people whose work, time and contributions I value.

If that post was written as a reminder, this post is being offered as a revision. While I feel like I’ve been pretty successful at remembering to “start with thanks” and acknowledge the contributions of my colleagues, I’m reconsidering how best to express my gratitude. I’ve been reading a book titled How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation (Kegan & Lehay, 2001). As the title suggests, the authors introduce different “languages” and discuss how we often don’t communicate in the most supportive ways. While the first four chapters are dedicated to the “internal languages” we use with ourselves, chapter 5 focuses on gratitude and the “language of ongoing regard” we express to others. I have to admit that this chapter has really shake me to my core. It has also prompted me to reflect on how I communicate my gratitude with my friends, my family, and my coworkers.  Here’s why.

According to the authors, I’ve been doing it all wrong. And maybe you have, too.

Let me provide an example. Over the last few months, a group of colleagues, community members, and I got together to plan a large community event. I was asked to give some introductory remarks where I channeled my “start with thanks” mantra and thanked the planning committee. Here’s what I said.

“I want to thank the planning committee for their hard work and dedication in planning this event. While I’m standing up here, they’re the ones whose commitment and efforts made this event happen. Thanks.”

According to Kegan and Lahey, that offering of praise and gratitude falls short of “ongoing regard” because I haven’t fully expressed my appreciation or admiration for their work. They write:

Ongoing regard has two faces, one of appreciation and the other of admiration… When we are expressing appreciation, we let the other person know that we have received something we value. We feel we have been given something – not necessarily a material something- that we are happy to have, or feel benefited by having. When we express admiration, it less about something value entering our sphere and more about our taking up temporary residence in the other’s sphere. We imaginatively inhabit the other’s world and find ourselves instructed, inspired, or in some way enhanced by the other’s actions or choices.” (pg. 94)

To do better, I need to revise how I communicate my ongoing regard by including three elements: being direct, being specific, being nonattributive.

Being Direct
When communicating gratitude, I need to thank the person (or persons) directly and not place them in an eavesdropper role where they’re hearing my thanks offered to others. In my thank-yous, I need to avoid using third-person pronouns (they, she, he, etc.) and use more second-person pronouns (you, your, etc.). While that change in language may seem minor, it changes so much of how the communication appears. “Being direct” means the expression of gratitude is less of a performance for others, but a genuine recognition of the admiration and appreciation of the one being thanked.

Being Specific
Like the first element, “being specific” appears pretty straightforward, but has larger implications for how we communicate gratitude. To embrace a “language of ongoing regard,” I must identify specifically what I appreciate and what I admire.

Being Nonattributive
This element was the hardest for me to get my head around. To express a “language of ongoing regard,” I have to avoid identifying other people’s attributes but focus on my own experiences. What did I witness or experience that I want to acknowledge? I have to avoid characterizations and generalizations about the person and focus on the activity. The authors’ rationale for this one is pretty compelling. They write:

If we characterize people, even if we do so quite positively, we actually engage, however unintentionally, in the rather presumptuous activity of entitling ourselves to say who and how the other is. We entitle ourselves to confer upon people the sources of their worthiness.” (p. 99)

Rather than focus on what I see as the person’s attributes, a better approach is to focus on the actual admirable work that I witness and want to recognize.

So, while I’m still working on “starting with thanks” to acknowledge the amazing work of my colleagues and collaborators, I’m finding that I need to revise how I offer my gratitude in ways that are “less subject to formulaic insincerity” and more fully communicates my recognition and admiration of their work.

Working on Work

Classes started this week and faculty and students have returned to campus. After fifteen or sixteen months of online and remote instruction, the hallways and classrooms are abuzz with conversations, lessons, and activities. While everyone is wearing masks according to the university guidelines, I’m finding it weird to interact with people in the face-to-face world again. After more than year of communicating with people primarily through Zoom, these face-to-face interactions are offering an odd mix of the familiar and the novel. And that combination is honestly causing me some personal dissonance.

My dissonance is magnified by news articles, podcasts, and posts I’ve seen which are challenging our traditional views of work. After a year of working online, lots of people are questioning what work looks like after the dust settles on this pandemic. Take this opinion article that appeared in the New York Times last week. Priya Parker is the author of the Art of Gathering and the host of the Together Apart podcast. In her Times article, Parker writes:

After the pandemic hit, we began to sense what we can do even better virtually (the use of chats, breakout rooms and polling), as well as the limitations of not being in the same physical space (lively unmuted brainstorming, complicated coordination, spontaneity). With millions of hours of virtual meetings under our collective belts now, we can pose a question too rarely asked of workplaces: What is worthy of our collective time, and how should it be structured?

So, while the campus is stirring again, there seems to be this unspoken collective questioning of “Do we need to be here? Could this be online?” Thankfully, Parker offers some guidance. Parker references an article written by Rae Ringel that appeared in the Harvard Business Review last July. In the title of her article, Ringel asks the question directly “When do we actually need to meet in person?” To guide our decision making, Ringel offers a series of questions we should consider before scheduling a face-to-face meeting. Of the questions, the one that stands out to me is when Ringel asks: “Are my meeting goals relationship-based or task-based?” Digging deeper into these contrasting goals, Ringel writes:

Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person. People should be given difficult feedback face-to-face. Challenging group conversations should also take place in person, where destructive and distracting parallel side chats can’t overshadow the central discussion.

I’m sure after a year away from our colleagues, many of us could benefit from spending some time “strengthening or repairing connections.” Beyond focusing on the goals of the meeting, though, Ringel also includes a question which helps individuals evaluate the complexity of the meeting’s objectives. To Ringel, complexity includes “emotional complexity, the range of interdependence, or the need for intervention.” Like relationship-based goals, Ringel recommends that meetings that focus on really complex objectives should usually occur in person. Ringel also includes a graphical tool to assist with deciding how the meeting should be offered.

While examining the goals and objectives of a meeting is important to consider when deciding whether to meet online or face-to-face, Ringel also challenges us to evaluate how inclusive our meetings will be. An in-person meeting requires that people are actually able to travel to the site to participate. This requirement may create a burden on working parents or people who have sick family members or other responsibilities that may limit their participation. I think the pandemic has opened a lot of eyes to the personal challenges with which some of our colleagues have to deal. And we should definitely consider these as we move forward in this (hopefully) post-pandemic world.

As I’m wrestling with the nature of our work moving forward, another quote has been bouncing around in my head for the last week. It’s from an unrelated podcast on “How to Forgive.” In the episode, Elizabeth Bruenig says that she grew up in an environment where “my virtues could flourish, and my vices could be contained.” And maybe that should be another guideline as we move forward. I know virtues and vices aren’t things we typically discuss when talk about work, but I’m betting we could identify a bunch of “workplace vices” and “workplace virtues.” Let’s choose modalities that contain our “workplace vices” and help our “workplace virtues” flourish. I know it’s not a simple metric, but what about this last year has been easy? Moving forward isn’t going to be simple either.

With Gratitude

Last week, Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.  At this time of year, it’s traditional for people to give thanks for their blessings. Rather than outline my gratitude for the joys I’ve experienced, I thought I’d offer a list of some areas to which I’m thankful.

  1.  My friends and family.  I usually focus on professional aspects on this blog. During this time of the year, however, I’m reminded how important it is to have thoughtful, supportive people in my life. I love each of you more than written words can ever express. Thanks!
  2. My colleagues. Despite being in education for over twenty years, I find that I still learn something new everyday.  I try to surround myself with intelligent individuals who think deeply about teaching and learning and push me to consider new ways to reach my students and to approach my work.  I especially appreciate those colleagues who email me with articles to read on Mondays and Tuesdays knowing that I’ll be thinking of something to share on this blog. Even though I know you’re secretly (or not so secretly) trying to seed my writing here, I really appreciate your support.  Thanks!
  3. My job.  Teaching is hard work. Teaching others to teach can be even harder. At times, I’m humbled by the difficulty of teacher education and professional development. But when I see a new teacher who really gets it or a colleague who implements some new teaching strategies, I forget about the challenges and focus only on the success.  At the end of the day, It’s rewarding to realize that I’m at a great institution doing work that really matters.  Finding a home professionally is so important. Thanks!
  4. This blog.  I know this sounds kind silly but this blog has been such a huge influence on my professional life. This month marks the ninth anniversary for the 8 Blog.  Over the last nine years, almost 98,000 people have visited one of the 478 posts I’ve written.  Visitors have left over 618 comments and 1376 people have chosen to subscribe to my musings.  When I started this blog, I really never thought that it would have that sort of reach. I wanted a vehicle to force me to write more regularly so I could hone my writing skills. I never expected that it would have any widespread readership or that visitors would choose to share my work.  This has been tremendously inspiring. Thank you.
  5. You.  If you’ve chosen to read until this point in this post, please realize that I’m thankful for you being here.  I don’t make any advertising revenue from this blog and my writings do not emerge from any corporate influences.  These are simply my thoughts, ideas and wonderings offered free of charge.  Thanks for being here and I hope to catch you back here reading another post down the road.  Thanks.