Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Facsimiles

If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; But if you really make them think, they'll hate you.
Don Marquis
US humorist (1878 - 1937)
I’m part of a dying breed – faculty in a former life who have since moved on to become learning technology administrators. As dodo-heads go, my lot is not so bad; there are certain groups within the broader population who treat me and my brethren with much respect, sometimes even reverence. I was with such a group last week at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute. This post is about the experience there and how it fits into the bigger picture of things that are happening at the moment.

We are in the midst of the post competence era. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the Bush White House can rightly claim naming rights for this new epoch that we find ourselves in. And thanks to the likes of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, for making it clear that the Bushies make the same mistakes over and over again, due to a combination of extreme hubris and an abiding cronyism.

Given the religiosity of the President and the right wing neocons with whom he is aligned, one might conjecture that we are witnessing the just desserts for the essentially Philistine crew working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But let’s put that conjecture on the back burner because, sad to say, it seems something else is amiss, and that something else is happening outside the world of national politics. Consider, for example, the auto industry. This story about the debacle at Ford for having acquired a variety of high end auto companies: Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo to name a few, only to find them hard to maintain and with sales that have not come close to the rosy forecasts that Bill Ford anticipated when he bought the companies in the first place, shares none of the pious rhetoric we associate with announcements from the White House on Iraq, Al Qaeda, Catrina, you name it. Yet there are some striking similarities between the two. Both emblemize the taking of dramatic action when a more cautious alternative was available, with the decision justified by an overly optimistic view of the future. Both were driven by a 60,000 foot view of reality, only much later when the initial optimism provided to be incorrect to be forced to reckon with more low-to-the-ground concerns. And both have led their respective constituencies to a precipice.
“What has really evolved here is that the scenario has changed so dramatically,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. “Because of that change, you’re looking at things in a far more pragmatic way, with the thought that if you screw up in labor negotiations, or you screw up in product development, the company may go down.”


When I was a kid I watched the movie version of Li’l Abner with the famous line “What’s good for General Bullmoose…” and, of course, that was a mild satire of “What’s good for General Motors…” Satire doesn’t get written unless the object is worth poking fun at. GM is not what is used to be. And many of our other institutions seem to be in the same boat, some of them closer to home. The Times Magazine is running an essay contest for College students. “Fine,” you’re likely to say. But check out the theme for this thing – “College as America used to understand it is coming to an end.” And read the essay by Rick Perlstein to “introduce” students to the topic. It’s all very depressing. That’s precisely because it seems so accurate.

I’ve got this feeling that we’re reliving the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s all compressed into one (note that Nixon was a significant part of all three decades; how’s that for paranoia?) and whereas 30 years ago after much anguish and torment we experienced a rebirth of sorts, that road has already been traveled down and it sure seems as if it can’t be crossed again. We’re trying, but we’re barely treading water.

Here’s another dimension of the problem. Bush gets blame for callous indifference in the lack of management of relocating citizens of New Orleans after the Catrina debacle --- no arguments from this quarter on that score. But the reality is that Bush inherited the levee system that was in place, which if it had worked might have meant that citizens wouldn’t have had to be relocated at all. It was the Army Corps of Engineers at fault for the levee system, not the White House, because the system they had designed simply could not hold up to a storm as severe as Catrina, and then there were errors in how deep into the ground the levees were built to boot. With that thought in mind, now ask about our infrastructure on our respective campuses, IT and otherwise, and ask further if an analogous disaster could happen at your place. I get sick thinking about it.

The problems seem to be mounting and the talent of the people addressing those problems, able as they might otherwise seem, doesn’t appear up to the challenge. Within IT specifically, budget-wise many of us manage by what I call the secret $20 bill theory – do the IT project first and find the funding for it afterwards (in that part of the wallet where the secret funds are stashed); in other words assume (or pray) that the funding will be forthcoming. In case it’s not obvious, the secret $20 bill approach does not scale well. Further, that project which seemed so exciting at the outset eventually begins to lose luster. But it doesn’t go away; it has developed a constituency of its own. And then the cycle repeats, again and again.

This particular dodo-head can analyze the problem out the wazoo. That is something of a talent. After all, sometimes analysis can lead to a solution. But analysis of the problem is in itself not enough. Indeed, nowadays analysis mostly seems to lead to paralysis. So this dodo-head starts to think of a different bird, a very large bird, one that is known for keeping its head in the sand. That’s the opposite of what they teach at LTLI about “chin up” leadership, true. But the dodo-head knows that the ostrich is not going extinct.

* * * * *

Though the original designers of the institute may have had something else in mind, the LTLI turned out be a bunch of latter day Morpheus’ (I was one of those) getting an even larger group of Neo’s (the 50 or so attendees of the institute) to take the red pill and go down the rabbit hole. These folks in attendance are good people and you could see they had an emotional need to make the journey. As it turns out, learning about IT leadership is very much like seeing the “real world” for the first time.

But that initial journey is harsh and especially during the first evening some of the people in their table teams were uncomfortable with each other. They didn’t know how to work through a group process to decide things. They didn’t know how to disagree with each other and get to a resolution of the issues. And they seemed to feel on stage.

In that they were right. We were watching. We were looking for stars. We’re always looking for yet unrecognized talent who might take the next step up. But mainly we were looking for trouble. We spent a lot of time beforehand talking about trouble and what we’d do if we found it. Prior institutes had some non-functional “Making the Case” teams. History repeats – sometimes. Turns out it doesn’t repeat if you’re watching too carefully. Our teams had a momentary impasse that first evening, but they got through it. They bonded. Then they were fine. I don’t know if our worrying mattered or not. I do know that near the end some attendees reported a strong emotional experience from the institute. I felt that too.

Four years earlier I had attended the Frye Leadership Institute and in many respects was in the same boat then as the attendees at LTLI were last week. But, dear Obiwan, it is now I who am the master. I’ve made this rapid transition by embracing the dark side of the force, oh the lure of the dark side, the fascination with self when so many others require attention.

There were seven of us faculty at LTLI. Among this august group, I was tasked to represent the professoriate and true to my calling, profess I did, whether it met the circumstance or not.

And now a little aside. My first semester at Illinois, fall 1980, I did a horrible job teaching intermediate microeconomics to undergraduates and, perhaps unsurprisingly but still painful for a young instructor, some of my teaching evaluations said I had to be the worst professor on campus and I should be fired. (I’ve since learned that there are many candidates for worst professor on campus, with new ones each year.) The next semester I got to teach graduate math econ in the style I learned from Stan Reiter at Northwestern while taking essentially the same course from him. (Stan indirectly got the approach from Plato.) I liked playing Socrates with the economic theory and I was comfortable in that role. The course went well. The grad students liked it in part because they hadn’t experienced that sort of thing in their other classes. It turned out I wasn’t the worst instructor on campus after all.

I was half my current age then. I’ve had a chance to mature since. I don’t have as much opportunity to play Socrates nowadays, at least not with a large group like at LTLI. But from my experience as a faculty member at LTLI last week it is clear that I still like doing it, especially when  I’ve given some forethought to the issues to get at without feeling the need to lead the dialogue from a pre-written script. That’s what I did in my first plenary session with Larry Ragan, which was on “Building Relationships.” That session was supposed to provide insight on relationships between the learning technology leader and many different types of players on campus. When it came time to do my spiel, I got to spend an extended period on building relationships with faculty members, in particular with emphasis on just what it is that drive faculty in their actions. I did that through Socratic dialogue.

We mingled at the breaks and sat interspersed with the attendees at the meals. I professed there too, whether I knew what I was talking about or not; I was comfortable in holding forth, if not with the specifics of the issues we discussed. As I said at the outset, sometimes dodo-heads like me are accorded respect. I took advantage of that.
A centerpiece of LTLI is “Making the Case.” Near the end of the first plenary session on Sunday the attendees were grouped into teams that would persist throughout the remainder of the institute. The teams were tasked with coming up with a plan to resolve a serious campus issue and then on the final day of the institute they were to make a public presentation to the institute faculty who at the time of the presentation would be role playing as campus administration. The other attendees would be in the audience during these presentations. Immediately following each presentation the faculty, no longer role playing, would critique what they heard. The critique was intended for all in attendance.

Each afternoon the attendees had time to work in their Making the Case Teams. They also did a working dinner and several of the evenings continued in that work group mode into the evening. The team work on this project was interspersed with attendance at plenary session on various aspects of leadership. The sessions had relevance to doing the projects and in that way the institute design made sense holistically.

Each of us faculty were assigned to observe the first afternoon meeting of one of the Making the Case teams. We were there to see if they were functioning and making progress, to answer their questions if they should arise, and otherwise to keep our mouths shut. We were not to be the guides on the sides. We were supposed to be quieter than that, like good children, seen but not heard, speaking only if first spoken to. The other faculty stuck to this script. I knew it would be difficult for me to do so. With my group I kept butting in from time to time.

I don’t feel I’m much of a leader. Leaders have a certain pace for doing things and get things done in tempo. Mostly, I don’t get things done; instead I supervise gridlock. The gap between aspiration and accomplishment for me is huge, the sense of inertia strong. Supervising gridlock is one, unfortunate approach to management all too common nowadays --- post competence era, remember? But supervising gridlock is not leadership.

Getting things done, however, may not be leadership either. King George III, one of the object lessons in Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, accomplished a lot. He succeeded in getting the American colonies to achieve their independence. Of course, he didn’t set out to do that. American independence was an unanticipated consequence. I would not call King George a leader.

Underneath my fa├žade I was asking myself before the institute what it was really that I had to contribute. The implicit idea of LTLI and indeed of the other Educause Leadership Institutes is that a more experienced generation of proven leaders pass along their wisdom to the next generation, the up and comers who are soaking in knowledge so they can climb the chain of command. What wisdom would I pass along?

Leadership and thinking are not identical, but they are related. The only President whom I have a living memory of and whom I think of when the word leadership is mentioned is Kennedy. Kennedy had a remarkable brain trust, the power behind the thrown so to speak. I couldn’t help the Making the Case Team directly with their leadership, but I could help them a bit with their thinking. There were lessons to learn on that score.

The team I observed was very eager to make progress to solve the problem they were assigned. They did not have the patience at first to ask whether the problem itself was well defined --- it wasn’t. As it turns out there was a need for them to make important assumptions to give the problem a real definition. Lesson 1 – before solving the problem, do note that most IT people are pretty good problem solvers given a pre-specified problem, ask what problem it is that should be solved. That is harder. The solution may be far from obvious. One doesn’t get to that in a linear fashion. One negotiates to that end through a sequence of iterations by developing an increasingly subtle understanding of the complexities at hand.

Because I didn’t feel constrained to help the group directly with leadership, but I had recently written this post Writing as Problem Solving, I had a strong predisposition as to what they needed to learn on the thinking front. They needed to learn to guess and discover what a good guess looks like. And they needed to develop a process of confirmation as to whether their guesses held up. For my part, after listening to them for a while, I’d play Socrates. “I’ve got a question. If you’re assuming such and such, why doesn’t that mean this? And if it does mean this, doesn’t that create a train wreck for what you’re proposing?” They didn’t like the questions because they impeded their “progress.” I left them that first afternoon after about an hour feeling a bit unsettled, but I had a sense I accomplished something in affecting how the group should proceed with their work. I wonder if the group members reflecting on that experience would feel the same way.

The institute had a strong sense of theater and I believe that the dramatic themes, a subtext rather than a fully fleshed out idea in our planning prior to the institute, contributed strongly to the emotional feeling that many of the attendees experienced. One way the theater manifest was during the presentations of the Making the Case. Several of the teams brought in nuggets they had garnered from institute faculty, delivered in the same way as the faculty had originally presented them, but integrated into their overall presentation. The effect was to show they had been listening, to create a good chuckle, and to give the faculty a sense of looking in the mirror. Imitation may not just be the sincerest form of flattery; it may also be an effective way of persuading others.

I believe the institute’s main impact was cathartic rather than intellectual. It was intense while it lasted. For the institute to have a lasting impact the attendees must now spread their wings and fly from the nest and not have big birds on the brain, extinct or otherwise.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Reruns

Within the family we’ve reached a more mature point about giving and getting presents. For Father’s day I let my wife know about some DVDs and CDs I wanted. Lo and behold, that’s what I received from her and the boys (plus a gift card to espresso royale – my tastes are very predictable these days). One of these was a boxed DVD collection of old Dick Cavett Shows, this set with “Hollywood Greats.” (For the nitpickers in the crowd, the date that amazon.com has for this is wrong. It says 1969 on the site, but the shows seem to be from 1970 and 1971.)

Nowadays Cavett is now one of the regular bloggers at the New York Times and I came to wanting that collection from reading one of his posts. It’s a bit odd to write a post promoting something commercial where the writer stands to benefit from the sale, especially given the imprimatur of the Times. But blogging about one’s personal experience from work or private life is de rigeur and in Cavett’s case he spent a significant amount of his work time very publicly as ABC’s alternative to Johnny Carson, with less mass appeal for sure but a bit more depth in the conversation, and since there are clear lessons from that experience it seems right to me that Cavett should bring it up and that the rest of us can take part in his past by buying these videos.

There are three shows per DVD, I’m in the middle of the second disc, in a show with Groucho (irrepressible as ever, but getting a little senile) and Debbie Reynolds, with Dan Rowan too but I’ve not yet reached the point where he makes his appearance. The entire previous show was an interview with Bette Davis. While I haven’t quite put the stopwatch to it, all the Dick Cavett shows originally aired as 90 minutes but now with the commercials taken out they are about an hour to view. I wouldn’t know this but for the way I watch them. I dread exercise so much that I need some sugar coating to get me to take that pill. We’ve got an old TV hooked to a DVD player where our stationary bike is set up. I pedal and watch then get off the bike and do some other light exercise and watch all the while and back and forth in that manner till some of my guilt feelings are erased, or the show has ended, or I’m too pooped to continue.
In the old days when I used to jog regularly (people who’ve met me in the last 5 or 6 years wouldn’t believe this, but I used to do 4 or 5 miles a session though not very fast, about 10 minute miles, and do that either every day or every other day) after about 20 minutes or not quite halfway in, I’d find a sense of rhythm. The breathing would have reached a plateau and my heart would be beating pretty well with an elevated pulse rate, the melody of the song I’d been listening to would have somehow been brought into accord with my stride, and altogether it created a feeling of exhilaration, especially when the air was crisp and the sky a sharp blue. In my head I’d feel a kind of reverie, away from work thoughts, not expecting this time to be anything but R&R.

Riding the stationary bike doesn’t quite do that for me. My urge to quit during the session is pretty strong (are we there yet?), which is why I need the DVD to watch. And I’m doing some of the same type of reflecting that I do when I watch TV sitting on the couch, trying to tie what I’m seeing and hearing on the screen to specific issues I’m dealing with at work or to those other more broad issues that are confronting us in the learning technology profession. It’s both a blessing and a curse to be in reflective mode most of my waking hours.

The first disc has two sessions just with Katherine Hepburn – well worth watching, quite compelling actually. And then the third session is with Fred Astaire. As a talk show guest, Astaire is kind of stiff. But Cavett got him to agree to perform, singing Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, and to do a bit of dancing as well. It was quite amazing how good he was in the singing – all timing and style, not a great voice like Sinatra, but do know that the composers wrote their songs specifically for him; timing and style count for a lot.

The Hepburn interviews were unusual. Apparently Hepburn didn’t do TV interviews. This was a first for her. She made a preliminary visit to the studio to check it out. She’s there in slacks and Cavett is wearing tennis shoes. As it turns out, part of her reticence in going on television was abject fear about appearing in that medium – too spontaneous and not enough control for here. The walk through visit was done mostly so she could try to overcome the fear. Once in the studio and with her emotions in check, Hepburn decided to do the actual interview then and there.

Cavett, fully cognizant of how difficult it was to get Hepburn to be a guest on the show, accommodated in full. Actually he was more devious than that, making me guess he was onto her discomfort right from the start; they were filming from the outset of the walk through. And the entire show ends up being one continuous segment with no real separation between the walk through and the interview. There was no audience at the start, only the crew for the show. Somehow word got out about the interview and an audience trickled in while the interview was going on, unbelievable actually except for it clearly being how it was done.

I’ve seen Hepburn in a variety of films – The African Queen, Pat and Mike, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond are some I can recall off the top of my head. There are many adjectives that come to mind about her from seeing these performances – smart, gutsy, spirited, quick witted, tender, and insightful are a few of those. Fearful is not on the list. It’s very hard to think of Hepburn as cowering and afraid. That doesn’t match the mental model. Yet at least insofar as appearing on television, she certainly was. During the interview she talked both about why there was no good reason for her not to appear – one might have thought she’d argue that TV was drivel and not worthy of her attention, but she didn’t press that point at all. Quite to contrary, she seemed to feel that TV was a worthy medium for artistic communication. (Remember again this was Cavett’s show, not the Tonight Show.) It was herself that was the problem, not the medium.

On edge already because of this phobia, she talked about being in constant fear while acting in movies. (Bettie Davis made the same point in her interview but she didn’t seem as ill at ease during the actual interview with Cavett. Hepburn took the entire first show and some of the second show before she settled down. Both of those were filmed the same day.) It was never quite clear from what she said exactly what it was that she was afraid of, but being in a similar boat on numerous occasions myself, it almost certainly was fear that her current performance wouldn’t stand up to the standard set by her previous work. She came back to the predominance of fear in her screen acting on multiple occasions during the interview. Yet clearly she overcame the fear and is one of the icons of Hollywood filmmaking. She was not explicit on how she did that but certainly other motivations were at play as well – ambition, a need for self-expression that seemed especially strong during the interview, and the kindness of her co-actors were a few that did come out in the conversation.

Cavett asked her why she wasn’t wrecked like so many other leading women in Hollywood. (I think it was in the Bette Davis interview where he asked essentially the same question that he specifically mentioned Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe.) Apparently booze and debauchery were ok for Bogie, John Huston, and Spencer Tracy, but not for Hepburn. She reported she had a strong sense of discipline and staying physically fit and being able to perform at a high standard with boundless energy during that performance was an imperative for her; so booze and pills were out. She attributed the sense of discipline in full to her New England upbringing. Her parents encouraged her to speak her mind, but they also required her as a youngster and on into young adulthood that she be attentive and listen to the wisdom of her elders as expressed through their conversations, not just her parents but the many house guests they had. And her parents had a genuine curiosity in how her day went, what she had accomplished. They were quite supportive in that sense, though apparently her dad was not very happy at first with her going into acting.

So here are two key themes for us to think about. Even the best and the brightest of us, perhaps especially in them and then even more so in those for whom acting or more broadly performance is a critical part of the work, have to deal with stage fright on an on going basis. It is a constant demon with which to do battle. Stage fright does not vanish even for those with great experience and great talent. In that sense there is no cure. But there is a tonic, much of which is a sense of rootedness and rightness that comes from proper upbringing. The tonic is not simply the need for self-expression. That need evokes passion. The sense of discipline does not emerge from that. The discipline comes from elsewhere, from family and the lessons learned there. At least that was true for Hepburn.

I think that is worth pondering now, as we try to teach leadership and ethics to our students (while plagiarism and disengagement seem to be on the rise). What is the foundation for the students on which we can build? Is it rock solid like Hepburn’s seemed to be? What can we do if it isn’t?

I want to turn to a different part of her interview where she talked about acting. There are lessons from that as well. Hepburn was quite modest about her own acting and during the interview you could see why. She had a certain quickness to her talk and would flit from one point to another in reaction to Cavett’s prodding, mildly annoyed that he had interceded but seemingly incapable of resisting the temptation to react to what he said. She reserved the highest praise as an actor for Tracy. This is not surprising, of course, given their relationship. But it is what she praised him for that was interesting and to me a bit unexpected. She said that Spencer’s great power was his concentration. He could stay in character and continue to focus in spite of the distractions and with that concentration could go deeper into getting at the essence of the role.

Concentration is not a word we talk about much these days, certainly not as a mode of behavior we should aspire to. Yet for Hepburn, concentration was the absolute key to acting. According to her Tracy had it, in spades, and all his fellow actors knew it and they wanted to work with him just for that reason. He could elevate their concentration as well and in turn that would produce marvelous performances. It certainly seems that way from the pictures he made. I watched Inherit the Wind not too long ago, a case in point, truly a wonderful picture and an apt commentary on the religiosity of today in America.

I suppose it is on this point (about the importance of concentration) where I am most removed from the bulk of the profession. I find support in my view from this comparatively recent interview on NPR, though I get more solace from listening to Hepburn and hearing her voice her seemingly timeless Yankee values on the subject than I get from learning that neuroscience seems to tell us that we don’t function at a high level when we multi-process. Others in the profession seem to allow for concentration only as a byproduct of the environment and thus we must seek immersive environments for it is those that produce concentration. And in general the profession seems to attribute great power to the environment and looks there for a first cause.

In contrast, Hepburn clearly thought that concentration was an individual power, some have it more than others, and Tracy was her ideal. She really didn’t say in the interviews whether it could be learned or not through she thought her own powers of concentration not as strong as Tracy’s. People of Hepburn’s ilk will look inward to improve their concentration. They will not look to technology for that.

There is benefit in watching these old Cavett shows, if not for the lessons I’ve drawn from them then simply to get a glimpse of the stars as they were when not in a film. And, too, the shows can remind us of where our views have changed over time and where they’ve remained the same. I was in high school when these show first aired. On some of the key themes, I don’t believe my views have changed very much.