Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coming of Age

Greg Norman didn’t win the British Open this time around. He didn’t even come in second, though he did lead the tournament after three rounds. There wasn’t enough left in his tank on Sunday. History didn’t get made as some had hoped, the oldest golfer to win a major, close, but golf isn’t horseshoes. The Great White Shark still has that mane of golden hair, but now the face is wizened, the legs lack some of the old bounce, the swing still generates a lot of club head speed but appears not nearly as violent as in his heyday 10 or 20 years ago when he used to really let it rip and was one of the big hitters on the tour. What was he thinking of entering this tournament, preparation for the British Seniors Open that starts next week? Was this a way to prolong the honeymoon with his new bride, Chris Evert?

It turns out that I’ve got Greg Norman by almost a month. I’m January 11th; he’s February 10th. And Chris Evert has me. She was born just before Christmas; now I know where her name comes from. I remember Chris Evert from her first U.S. Open when she was sixteen, exceeding the hype to make it all the way to the semi-finals then to lose, fittingly, to Billie Jean King, a prelude to the baton pass that would happen for sure a few years later. Evert was the first of the teenage phenoms on the women’s tour and ultimately the most successful by far of the American born in that category. Yet she was also a teen idol, her implacable gaze and unruffled composure on the court, so different from anyone else I knew who was my own age. I was still a year away from being on the high school tennis team. My family, which used to play a lot of tennis because my mom was nuts about it, made an annual trek to Forest Hills to watch some of the early round matches in advance of the semis and finals, which we watched on TV. So I had more than a passing interest. This was before the Open moved to the U.S.T.A. National Tennis Center and tennis took on something of a corporate look. In the ‘60s and early ‘70s the stars seemed more approachable – a family friend had worked with Arthur Ashe outside of tennis and I got to see Rod Laver up close at a country club near Binghamton while at summer camp. But memory and fiction blur; I can’t recall whether I saw Chris Evert play live that year. It all seems so long ago.

My affinity with Greg Norman is not about distant memories. It concerns the here and now. This past weekend I spent the entire time in relax mode, recovering from the intensity of the Learning Technology Leadership Program that was held last week in Madison. I watched the playoff for the U.S. Open about a month ago. It was such high drama and compelling viewing that I felt a need to watch the British Open final round, although Tiger Woods wasn’t in the tournament. And true to my expectation it was gripping for me, but for other reasons than the players’ performance. (The wind was the overwhelming factor forcing all the scores to be over par with only four scores better than +10, though Padraig Harrington did play an exceptional final round and deserved to win the tournament.) I was feeling rather spent even though I had vegged out all of Saturday, thus having reneged on a promise to my wife to move the huge mulch pile that was in our driveway to our backyard. So before it got too hot I was loading up the wheelbarrow using the pitchfork stuck in the pile to grab the decomposing mulch that must have been much heavier than it was when delivered because of the retained moisture (we’ve had a lot of rain since), then through our fence with the gate to keep Ginger our dog in the back yard, past the patio with the barbecue and the pond to the shrubs in the back, to dump the load in a big pile, then over and over again, because there was a lot of mulch. I had to sit after a while because my back started to give out. When I resumed it occurred to me to bend my knees while scooping up the mulch and to keep upright rather than bent over while navigating with the wheelbarrow. Then I moved inside to cool off and tuned into the golf.

The first time Greg Norman was on the practice tee. He was warming up far away from the other players. I remember thinking, “I hope you have enough Advil in your bag.” The next time I came in after taking several more loads in the wheelbarrow and another break for my back he and Harrington were on the 5th hole. The lead had evaporated. Indeed Norman was behind by a stroke. Things seemed out of whack for Norman. The commentators (Tom Watson and Paul Azinger) kept on talking about his taking out driver when instead he should have chosen an iron and him not thinking well through the final round. That’s exactly how I felt, how I still feel. That’s the affinity.

This was year two for me as a faculty member at the Learning Technology Leadership Program, with the experience last year exhilarating in its emotion, its tie to the next generation of leaders in attendance, and its bringing to the fore that I have something to contribute to their development. This time around the two sessions where I was a co-presenter, Building Successful Relationships with Shelli Fowler and Influencing Decisions: Strategies for Using Data with Malcolm Brown paralleled sessions I participated in last year and were in the same time slots in the program. (Last year the Program started on Sunday while this time it began on Monday so things were shifted by a day as a result.) The familiarity notwithstanding, I got rather keyed up before the session with Shelli. During the extended part on Faculty, where I played Socrates and through a sequence of questions tried to get the attendees to reason through the motivation and circumstance of instructors at various junctures of the career cycle, I became aware that my memory was failing me. As a teacher it has become my usual practice to not rely on notes and instead to remember in advance the starting point for the questioning and then from there to more or less work through the rest by the logic of the back and forth, this making the entire thing seem natural and the discovery, in particular, more authentic. During the journey I’d have a good sense of where we were going and the route we’d need to traverse to get there. It was familiar terrain so a simple matter to get my bearings. Unlike the year before, however, I hadn’t crossed it fully in my head the evening beforehand so at some point during the thing, already overheated and dry mouthed from performance anxiety, I felt some panic at losing this sense of location. I’m not sure whether it was noticeable by anyone else. On other occasions I’ve been told my nervousness doesn’t show. But it definitely was there.

Whether for that reason or some other cause, perhaps I made an awkward motion or took an imprudent step, somewhere in the middle of that session I became aware of a sharp and excruciating pain in my neck, near the corner formed by my shirt collar and left ear. It felt as if someone had jammed the butt end of that pitchfork into the spot. I kept waiting for it to go away, sharp pains usually do. Immediately after the session I did take 3 Advil and then another 3 right before we went to dinner. That and the wine helped to alleviate the pain. It was better the next day. But rather than go away entirely it seemed to move to the top of my head and it has persisted there since, not nearly as sharp but continually present. Along with the headache I’ve felt out of synch, with my fellow faculty at the LTL program and with the program as a whole. In the last session before the close the mike was passed from one attendee to the next so each could give a sentence or two about what the program meant to them and so they could offer up their main take aways. Their comments paralleled the comments of the group from the year before – some calling this the best professional development experience they’ve ever had. Last year I had been right with them on this emotional response. This time around I was not. That contributed to my disconnect. I was surprised they felt as they did when I didn’t.

After the sessions on the first full day the attendees spend much of the remainder of their time in their “Making The Case” teams, gearing up for their presentations which last week happened on Thursday afternoon, just before the closing banquet. Last year we were quite concerned about dysfunctional MTC teams so at their first meeting we sent each faculty member to monitor a team and make sure the group functioned well with all team members contributing. The faculty weren’t there at the start. They entered about a half hour into the team deliberations. I went beyond the charge to monitor team function, offering up a critique of the group’s ideas. I did not propose alternative solutions, but I did ask questions that poked holes with their initial ideas. This time around we did not have such an initial meeting with the teams, instead letting them go off alone while we discussed how the first day had gone as well as some issues with the composition of the MTC teams. I understood fully why the faculty leaders wanted the teams to take a more do-it-yourself approach. Nonetheless, I felt as if it were an opportunity missed – one of my skills is helping others work through an argument, critiquing the thinking with questions that hadn’t come up the first time through or hadn’t been anticipated at all. This time around I didn’t get to exercise that skill.

We had modified the presentation sessions to have the table teams (distinct from the MTC teams) work through scenarios and report out to everyone. We did this in both the session with Shelli and the one with Malcolm and in each we did this at the start of the second half of the session, right after the break, with the content presentation in the first half before the break. I felt after each of these sessions that I should have ended those first half segments earlier than I did – the ideas had been pretty well milked before we took the break at 2 PM. Then in the second half we were jammed for time so while we did get the table team responses, question by question, there was little give and take to those responses. This was another opportunity missed, where ideas could have been critiqued and pushed beyond what had been offered up. But we didn’t get to that.

We all believe in learning by doing and so it was doing that was emphasized, so far as idea generation in the group work at LTL is concerned. But I, for one, also believe in learning by schmoozing and I wish there had been more of that. In a leisurely one-on-one conversation, a chat that might not be so results oriented, there may be more of an opportunity to discuss the “why” and not just focus on the “what” and the “how.” A critique asks first whether the why is a good one, a cause we want to honor and do well by, so first there is a back and forth on that, ultimately leading to a good reason why. Then the critique moves to asking whether the what and the how are aligned with the why and whether there might be other alternatives that align better. There is back and forth on that too. This happens at each step in the plan and then again on the overall plan. Such a critique is what I’d call “testing” the plan. Being tested can be a discouraging experience and many people avoid it for that reason. It is ego deflating to have a plan defeated by such a test. In a friendly and leisurely conversation, however, it’s my experience that people enjoy this sort of conversation, perhaps because they learn something, perhaps because it helps them to vocalize their ideas to an audience who is at least partially receptive and whom they know would be fully receptive to any idea that passes the test.

I was much more ready for these conversations after the middle of Wednesday afternoon when the session with Malcolm had concluded and I no longer needed to feel on edge since I had no further presentation to make. It’s perhaps strange that I felt shyness earlier in the week, having been through this last year and as a senior administrator with a lot of experience conversing with diverse audiences. But it’s always been for me that I have to understand where the other person is coming from before I can feel comfortable or if not that then that we’ve gone through some emotional experience together that could serve as bond. The first couple of days of LTL performed the latter function. I did get a bit of the type of conversation I was seeking at the meals on Thursday and at breakfast on Friday. Perhaps the happy medium for all would have been if these conversations focused on the attendees’ careers and their actual situations at work rather than on the exercises we had cooked for them at LTL. But it’s hard for that to happen in mid week because they are so immersed in their MTC projects. As we were saying our goodbyes at the end of the closing session some of the attendees came up to me with fragments of their work experience to which I somehow connected in one of the sessions. I was grateful for those comments. But I wish there had been more and the conversations more substantial on these themes.

Thursday night after the banquet the faculty met to discuss the type of feedback we’d give to the MTC teams the next morning when as ourselves each of us reviewed the performance of a particular team. During the actual presentations we role played as Campus personalities with interest in the presentation (I played the Provost) to simulate the circumstance of an actual presentation of this sort. Most of us barked in the role play, as if gruff questioning is the norm in such a circumstance (perhaps it is). None of us on the faculty had any problem with that. But when it came to voicing criticism as ourselves we had a lot to work through about what we were trying to achieve with the feedback and with the exercise itself. What I thought would be a 15 minute meeting to go over the pro forma review that we’d deliver turned into a marathon of almost two hours. And in the process of the following question came up because it was obvious the MTC teams had experienced substantial stress in planning and then delivering their presentations. How would the groups be receptive to any of the feedback unless the tone was gentle and the evaluation mainly positive?

I was vexed by this because I had been tasked to pay attention to the business case being made by each team and on the merits the business case had big holes. This was entirely understandable because the problem the teams had to address was quite hard to solve. The setup of the problem which they were give ahead of time gave a skeletal view of the scenario and the teams had to add some flesh to that. A big issue, something quite relevant to learning technology leadership more broadly, is if in adding that flesh the focus should be only on where the learning technologists have direct control and assume the rest “would be handled” by other, more centrally situated administrators. My own view on this question is that actually the entire problem needs to be solved as a whole to ensure coherency in the solution, so taking the narrow approach and leaving the rest to be handled is something of a cop out. In particular, the setup mentioned fiscal exigency and to address that any real solution requires pain for at least some and likely most of the constituency affected by the plan, where pain here means some people working harder after the plan is implemented and for no additional pay while other people end up even worse off --- they lose their jobs, quite possibly without sufficient notice.

Perhaps the problem is too hard. Last year (and this year too) Carole Barone’s name got batted around as somebody who exemplified the view that in this sort of professional development activity the attendees should struggle mightily, thrash around a lot, and feel disconcerted because the problem they were tackling was well nigh impossible. Get used to it, the argument goes; this is the life of an IT Leader in Higher Ed. I’m sympathetic with that point of view. There is a lot of truth in it. But it leaves some questions open for which I don’t have good answers. What should a leader wannabe do when first exposed to this argument, embrace it or run for cover? And what should those of us teaching/mentoring the fledgling leaders offer up as sage advice when we see their first reactions?

It was a disconnect for me that we’d pose such a tough problem and then be so gentle with feedback on their presentations. But I was probably making a mountain out of a molehill, a personal tendency that becomes all the more likely when doing work in the evening, especially after having a few beers, which is why I don’t do that very often. (The banquet itself was a celebration of the week not a working dinner.) After all, the feedback was being given Friday morning soon before they’d all depart for home. Memories of Making the Case would likely fade quickly but a blunter memory of the entire LTL Program would probably persist for quite some time. Wouldn’t it be better for their parting thoughts to be fond ones? I understood the point but couldn’t let go of making this an issue.

Having made that first mountain, I started in on some others. The facility itself (The Fluno Center) is quite wonderful and one of the attendees in our closing session made a point in observing the she felt pampered in this place and that contributed to the importance and intensity of the experience. As nice as the facility was, however, in the room where we held our sessions the acoustics could have been a little better. Pretty much everyone in the audience can hear the presenter, at least when the presenter faces front. And, likewise, the presenter can hear questions from the audience for the most part. But members of the audience on one side of the room may not hear questions from people in the audience at the other side of the room. We had a handheld mike to bring to the tables where the attendees sat so the questions would be amplified. But it took a moment or two to walk between the tables and deliver that mike. Some of the faculty preferred to simply ask the attendees to speak up and forget about the mike – to keep up with the flow. I preferred staying with the Mike. We never quite resolved this and chose one way or another to address the problem depending on which faculty were facilitating the particular session.

On a more substantive plane, I thought we faculty were too “preachy.” Each of us gave, from time to time, examples coming out of our own work experience, solutions that we offered up to exemplify the points we were trying to make. Providing the examples was a way to show we know from which we speak. It is important to ground the LTL Program this way – the faculty need to have the right sort of experience. But it seemed to me we overdid this and often focused too much on the outcome and not enough on how we got there (so not on how the attendees might imitate the approach and produce their own outcomes of a similar sort).

* * * * *

All told, the post up to this point is kind of a cranky response to the LTL Program this time around, much of it probably the consequence of fatigue, which is the reason why Greg Norman’s performance resonated so much with me.

Just then a friend stopped by the Royal Birkdale locker room to say hello. "Hey, buddy, how are you?" the friend said.

"Um, I'm like a whipped dog, man," Norman said.

He said it with a smile, but he's right -- there was a hint of exhaustion in Norman's voice. You'd be tired, too, if you'd arm-wrestled golf history for four long days.

I don’t remember feeling so tired last year. I’m wondering why it’s this way the second time around. Surely it’s not because I arm-wrestled with history.

I began to think about my reasons for participating as a faculty member in the LTL Program, whether out of obligation to the profession to see the next generation of leaders come along, to be part of something bigger than the interactions I typically have on campus, as a type of professional development for me, or still something else. I see former LTL faculty running a refresher pre-conference seminar at this year’s annual Educause conference. The “normal” rotation for a faculty member is three years (we’ve just completed the fourth program, the first two at Penn State, the next two in Madison Wisconsin, and now they’re trying to identify a new location for next summer). All indications show the original faculty want to remain connected with the program and are very loyal to its goals.

But this recent column by Nicholas Kristof on encore careers seems to suggest that others, some of whom have been wildly successful, want to break with their pasts to take on new challenges and the folks Kristof focuses on are in my age group. (Bill Gates, who is mentioned at the outset of the column, is 10 months my junior.) The encore career represents an investment in a new set of problems. The skills acquired in the prior career are still relevant, to be sure, but the newness and the largeness in what these people are trying to accomplish now makes that a full occupation, not a hobby. A couple of years ago I wrote a post about teaching K-12 as an encore career. (I called it second careers. What do I know about marketing an idea?) This is evidence enough that something along these lines has been in the back of my head for some time. For reasons that aren’t completely apparent to me, being at the LTL Program triggers these thoughts, even though it is itself a limited time obligation (and even though I’m still firmly ensconced in in the job that provides my LTL Faculty credential).

So I’m scratching my head in a similar way to what I did when I was in college, trying to think through what to do after graduation. But I’ve also got this puzzle to work through about why last week was so different for me than for the attendees. And what does the one say about the other?

If I see any of those folks at the annual conference, we should have a chat over a coffee or a beer.

1 comment:

Thomas C. Kern, Jr. said...

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In Truth

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