Friday, August 31, 2007

So this is why our students plagiarize

When a thing has been said and well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.
- Anatole France

Friday, August 24, 2007

Awkward Teenage Blues*

* (Night Moves by Bob Seger)

Next spring marks my thirteenth year with learning technology, a milestone of sorts. Since I never was Bar Mitzvahed, this particular accomplishment would remain unnoticed by me except for a few other happenings. Last week we were on family holiday in San Antonio (some of my in-laws live there) and we spent more time in group activity than we normally do at home. So I got to think a bit about my boys, their learning and their social interactions. The older one is just about to turn 15 and the younger is 13, ages where a lot of things are taking shape. Reflecting on that definitely was part of it. The other thing is that I finished reading Middlesex while I was down there. The rest of them went to Schlitterbahn for a romp on the water slides (and a lot of waiting in endless lines for the opportunity thereto) and mercifully they let me stay behind (amazing what you can get away with given a leg injury). So I sat in one of my in-law’s la-z-boys and read more than half the book before they returned home, with some regret that the reading experience had to end. I don’t know why I fail to do this at home on the weekends, but I rarely do spend the time that way, sitting in the recliner reading a novel. It was great for me down there in Texas. Somehow what I read tied into what I was thinking about with my kids – the protagonist in Middlesex goes through an extraordinary amount of awkwardness, much during the teenage years. And it occurred to me that perhaps there were some lessons for learning technology as well, so…

Obviously, there are many dimensions to my post title. I’m going to try to steer clear of the ones directly related to hormonal change and how to manage that. (Thirty plus years later, I still have no clue on that one.) My focus, instead, is on the intellectual transition from kid to adult, some of the stumbling blocks with that, issues I’m more comfortable writing about. I may have been aware of where my kids fit on the curve right along but their teenage blues became more obvious to me last week, as did the connection between that and their school learning. Here are some examples.

For at least some kids, their behavior is different sitting at the adult table as compared to when they are playing with their friends. Some kids filter a lot in their conversations with adults. Others talk pretty much the same whether with their friends or with adults. Part of becoming adult is learning how much to filter. There is no manual to read to master the lesson. It is a lesson learned from the school of hard knocks. Kids don’t get it right at the outset. Some people never do. Just to be clear though, when I say filter I’m not talking about suppressing free speech or advocating for children-should-be-seen-but-not-heard. I mean eliminating excessive scatological references, or understanding well enough that details of video games that the adults have never played are likely not to hold their interest, or simply putting in some effort during conversation as to whether others are making some connection to the topic.

There is a literature on first born and second born differences, and while I’m not well acquainted with the formal research, I’ve chatted with enough parents who make the point that I shouldn’t be surprised to see some of this show up in my own kids. In my view, one of them filters way too much, at least when he is around me, while the other filters not nearly enough. The one who filters a lot achieves this by not talking much at all rather than by trying to steer the conversation to safe harbors. The one who doesn’t filter enough does try to steer the conversation – to his own favorite topics, regardless of whether those are appropriate or of interest to others. Think about how these behaviors might manifest a few years hence, when these guys are in college. Let’s play a little matching game. Consider the characterization of one type of student as presented by Ken Bain, who when confronted with experimental evidence that contradicts his world view chooses instead to ignore the evidence. Consider a different type of student who aims to please the instructor by trying to produce answers that the instructor is “looking for.” Can you match my kids’ approach to filtering to these idealized student types? I can.

A different aspect of becoming an adult is mastering the know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em choice, especially in situations of conflict. None of us want to be arguing all the time, yet each of us wants to be able to press our case on occasion and make sure we’re not taken advantage of. How does one achieve the right balance on this? From my parent’s eye view, kids figure out an approach to resolving this question by treating one of those needs as a paramount and the other as secondary – which gives us either great negotiators or Miss Congeniality, but not something in between. It has to be unsatisfying to the kids on occasion because that presumed secondary need sometimes becomes prominent, a definite source of awkwardness, but what to do when that happens? I’ve written about the Miss Congeniality types, especially focusing on very bright students in this category, in my post Killing The Puppy. I’m guessing that most instructors tend to think of the great negotiator types as those who haggle about grades, but I wonder if the behavior manifests in other ways in the classroom. That is something to ponder.

Yet a different part of becoming an adult is learning to fulfill their end of the bargain on an implicit contract, which requires a certain sense of stick-to-it-ness as well as an understanding how to assess those agreements that are important to honor. Here too there is a tradeoff of a kind that kids might not realize they make, but they do. The question is how many commitments to take on. Those who feel they must honor those they do take on are likely to limit the set of commitments. Then they may find there are interesting things to engage in, but they are missing out. The opposite extreme is no bowl of cherries either. When you take on more commitments than you can fulfill you’re apt to disappoint people you like and respect. As I’ve recently been guilty of the latter sin, let me use that as a way to segue into the connection with Middlesex.

During my convalescence after my leg injury and surgery, I was mostly at home and spent a good deal of time by myself. I was able to be online so could engage in some interaction that way, but after a while I became extremely desirous of having face to face conversation with folks from campus. So, in a lark, I sent an email to some colleagues inviting them out to the house for some conversation.

Gail Hawisher, Director of the Center for Writing Studies here, was kind enough to take me up on my offer. I met Gail very early on in my uptake of learning technology and over time we’ve become good colleagues, but I’m not one to host folks at home and so having her come to visit was a rare treat. As I recall, we had a really wonderful conversation entirely unrelated to work.

Gail came bearing a gift. (If you guessed that was a box of chocolates you should stay after school to clean the erasers.) Not surprisingly for someone who teaches writing and with whom my connection is about writing and writing online, she brought a book, Middlesex. It’s not a book I would have chosen on my own. My choices in fiction tend toward the plebian, once in a while venturing into the classics, and I need some external direction to get me onto something else that is valuable but outside my usual sphere.

In the quid pro quo of university exchange, I had made an implicit commitment to read that book. And, after all, it was a Pulitzer Prize winner with quite an original story line. So why shouldn’t I want to read it? Further, I had time on my hands while convalescing and that would seem like a perfect opportunity to do just what I ended up doing in San Antonio, though I was still experiencing some significant pain then and wasn’t sure I could concentrate sufficiently to get a lot out of the reading.

I did try. On a couple of trips Middlesex was my airplane reading. (Planes and airports are where I read most of the fiction that I do absorb.) It was ok but it didn’t leave me with the feeling I usually have when I’m hooked – if I don’t finish the book on the trip then my down time immediately after is spent reading the rest of the book. With Middlesex, though, I put it aside. I don’t know why I couldn’t get into it and I don’t really think it was my leg problems. I felt like a sluggo. I owed Gail but that imperative wasn’t strong enough. For some reason I needed to declare “I’m on vacation” in order to put in the time to get into the book. I should do that more often.

There has been much written about Middlesex, for example this Salon review that is reasonably close to my reaction to the book and this rather unfavorable review in the New York Review of Books. So I will content myself here to talk about how I made a connection between the awkward teenage blues and the book, since featuring hermaphroditism conjures up other ideas that make the connection less apparent.

The Friday before we went to Texas I was tasked to take the boys to the barber for a haircut. The place we take them gives me the willies; I won’t get my own hair cut there. All the guys doing the hair cutting have very closely cropped hair themselves. Any style where the hair flops over seems out of their league. As it turned out that afternoon after we were seated and waiting for our turn, in walks a blond hair guy probably in his early or mid twenties who had shoulder length hair. I normally don’t look at the other patrons, whether in this barber shop or other waiting rooms, but this guy seemed so out of place it was hard not to. And since one of my kids got done just when the other one got started I had some time to watch this guy in the barber chair talking to the rather incredulous barber about what haircut the long hair would get. He said he wanted it real short – cut it all off. He had come to the right place, but the whole thing seemed extremely unusual.

The following Monday with the rest of them off at the Water Park, I’m reading about Cal, née Calliope, taking the symbolic step of getting his very long hair cut short to make the transition from girl to boy. I couldn’t help but make the connection. It seemed like a sign. (Though I did almost immediately recall Stephen Jay Gould writing about Kahneman and Tversky and that we humans are really not good at probabilities; we create absurd rationalizations for what turns out to be mere coincidence.) Anyway, once the haircut connection was made it was rather straightforward for me to think of much of Middlesex as a commentary on the awkward teenage blues. And because of the symbolism of the haircut, I began to think that teenagers especially, but perhaps all of us to some extent, believe in a “quantum theory of social interactions” meaning that we’re all capable of radical changes in our behavior on occasion but to achieve that we must go through some initiating rite, in this case the haircut. What could be more radical than switching from a girl to a boy?

Armed with the dual metaphor of awkward teenage blues and quantum theory of social interactions I started asking myself whether it could be applied to our profession. Actually, that’s a bit inaccurate. I assumed it could be applied. My lifeblood is that almost any decent metaphor can be applied, if only one looks in the right place. It’s coming up with the decent metaphor that’s the hard part and in this case it was ready made. So I began my search on applying the metaphor and it didn’t take long to find a target – our communication about what we know and what we’ve learned recently regarding how effective use of technology affects learning. I think learning technologists as a whole are at that awkward teenage blues stage with regard to communication. Below I will explain why.

But first, here is an aside. You, dear reader, who’ve reached this point in the post might well be asking, “Lanny, I’ve gotten this far in and now you’re just starting in on your commentary. Why the meandering style? Why not something else more direct, something shorter overall?” In response I note first that creativity is getting a lot of attention as of late and I’m well aware of that. I want to make some contribution in promoting creativity, albeit small, and my thought is that one obvious way is to make formative thinking explicit. We may not be used to that sort of writing in Higher Ed. None of my formal economics papers take this approach. They explicate the idea and illustrate why it is important. They don’t give a whit about how the idea originated. My blog posts are the opposite. The origin of the ideas is always an important concern. And the reality is that the process is one of jumping around, finding connection between things that might not seem related. Bringing that out in the open produces a meandering effect. So there.

I paused for several days writing this post, getting to the point where I could start my commentary but not producing it. I wasn’t comfortable because I intended to write something critical and I didn’t have a way to counterbalance the criticism. Last night I watched Joel Klein on Charlie Rose, having TiVo’d the interview from the previous evening. It’s an interesting segment for many reasons and I’m glad I watched it. And it provided me with some needed relief because it set a baseline for what adult communication about learning issues should be like. You don’t have to agree with what Klein said, I disagreed with him on several points particularly on how he was ready to discard more senior teachers who have lost their sense of purpose (short term this might make sense but long term the approach will be self-defeating), but you have to admire how he made the case.

Klein rested much of his argument on having good teachers (and good principals) and allocating them not to the best schools but rather to more challenging situations. The basic point was straightforward, simple, and hence easy to understand. Everything else he said got built off that basic idea. He introduced the basic idea with some fanfare, dismissing some other possible contenders – class size, extending the school day – and emphasized the research that argues supposedly poor students can perform well if they are put into a good learning situation and have good teachers. He gave a definition for what makes a good teacher – empathy for the student, an ability to communicate, and subject matter expertise. And in the process of the overall conversation, where much of the discussion was about getting accountability into the system and making it more professional, he talked about a learning technology – a teacher portfolio system – but as an instrument towards his higher level ends, not as a thing in itself.

Klein has spent a substantial amount of his professional career in the public eye and he is quite an effective advocate, whether for the public school system in New York or for the plaintiff in the Microsoft Case. Some readers might feel it unfair to use him as the standard bearer for effective communication about learning technology. Do we need all that public presence ahead of time before we make the case? I hope not. But we need his method, as highlighted in the previous paragraph. Mostly, we’re not getting that. Instead we get muddle.

Technology plays the role of champion in much of this writing. It is true that in addition to its role as instrument, technology sometimes plays the role of the haircut in Middlesex, as a signpost of quantum change in behavior. But technology implementation is other than the change in behavior itself and technology implementation likely isn’t the fundamental cause of the change. Further, while we in learning technology probably need the quantum theory to keep us going, skeptical outsiders require something else. They need an argument or a set of arguments to engage their skepticism. But on that we are mostly silent. Think of what the silence conveys. Ask whether it speaks more loudly than the explicit writing and what that writing signifies.

Here as some examples meant to illustrate the point. There is nothing special about this particular selection, other than I’ve read these pieces recently. I don’t know the authors and have no grudge against them. The pieces themselves I believe to be representative of a larger genre. They are not isolated cases.

Consider this piece by Barbara Cambridge from the second issue of the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. It was an invited article and derives from a presentation the author made at the University of Singapore. To me, it reads like a tour guide through the various aspects of new approaches to learning with technology. Sometimes it is important to get a lay of the land. But usually that’s for the already committed, who are looking for detail. For others less initiated something more conceptual is preferred. This piece fails that test.

Cambridge starts out with a lesson from a second grader, who announces that others should be interested in how she learns. Cambridge follows up with an assertion that learning about how we learn is one of the most important things we can do, it will sustain us through the complexities of rapid technological development we’re apt to experience in the next several decades, and in the process creates the impression that learning how we learn is either a universal or at worst is mostly universal but perhaps with some aspects that are idiosyncratic to the individual.

Then she moves on to talk about robots and computer agents and how the emerging presence of both will modify how we communicate and function. In order for us to thrive in this environment we need adaptability – learning to learn skills will be paramount. Fine. It seems the case has been made. But then, when we return to learning to learn, the focus is on learning to learn within a discipline, in this case math, and we’re told that within discipline expertise is requisite to design environments that elicit a learning to learn approach and to evaluate whether these environments are effective. This seems a direct contradiction to the earlier argument. Either learning to learn within a discipline is in part illustrative of more general learning to learn, in which case the math experts might actually take something from generalists and not simply look from a within discipline perspective, or its not, in which case why should the rest of us be interested in it at all?

Then a jump shift to talk about portals, another shift to talk about The Social Life of Information, which brings us back not to learning to learn but rather to computer robots; then on to information literacy, followed by “lifewide learning” which means bringing in aspects of all experience whether in or out of the classroom, and ultimately ePortfolios. It is asserted without argument that ePortfolios are a good way, perhaps the preferred way, to get students to reflect on their learning. There is no mention of other perhaps lighter weight ways of getting students to be meta cognitive on occasion, nor is there any mention that too much meta cognition might hamper learning by doing. Evidence is presented about some work done at Clemson in Psychology, some work within a course based on a pretest/posttest approach and other work comparing Freshmen performance to Senior performance in design of their ePortfolios. While I applaud taking a longitudinal approach, there does not seem to be any mention that the measured growth could be attributed to other causes. Further, the evidence itself, e.g., “The introductory lab portfolios were significantly lower in hierarchical value than the senior lab portfolios with means of 2.1 and 3.2 respectively,” gives the reader no insight at all into the students’ understanding of psychology nor to their powers of meta cognition.

I don’t take issue with the underlying work that Cambridge writes about. My problem is with her rhetorical style in trying to bring these efforts together. The cheer leading may work in a face to face presentation. But even there, and let me remind of the Charlie Rose interview with Joel Klein, one can introduce a hierarchical approach to the argument where all other points are subsidiary to a primary point and can be derived from it and such a hierarchical approach is much more effective to make the case because the listener/reader can better understand how things are tied together. Not insisting on such a hierarchical style is an error in judgment in my view, an error created by not fully understanding the needs of the audience.

Let me briefly turn to another piece, this one from Campus Technology, a ViewPoint piece based on proceedings from their annual conference. (Go to the end of the article and click through to the full text of Randy Jackson’s presentation, which should bring up a pdf file.) This one is about classroom technology and promoting good pedagogy in the classroom. Unlike the Cambridge piece, it does adhere to a good hierarchical structure, with the core idea to promote interactivity and active learning for the students. But of the two examples to illustrate the point, the first focuses on podcasting – where is the interactivity in that? Indeed, in the piece itself Jackson says, “Nevertheless, students report that these recordings help them catch up when they miss class and are a good resource for homework and exams.” That’s right in terms of the benefit of podcasting, but interactivity is nowhere to be seen. Further, the article begins by saying that early efforts with classroom technology were facility driven (that’s definitely true) but that more current efforts that are pedagogically driven require a different approach to the AV. I didn’t get that from the piece, however, unless I’m missing something. Both the podcasting and the other example, audience response systems (those do hit the mark on interactivity) seem to be enabled on top of the typical AV facility install.

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds but it is also a characteristic of a well thought through hierarchically based presentation. Inconsistencies make it harder for the audience to follow and make the main point seem less convincing.

Let me wrap up this already too long post. The awkward teenage blues are not forever. It’s one phase in a longer development. My kids will grow up; they’ll go to college, with any luck they’ll mature in their perspective and become well functioning adults. This is not a lead pipe cinch, but I can be pretty confident about the outcome. Growing up is a normal part of life. I’m less confident about the profession. While we’re adolescent in the way we communicate, the folks doing the communication are already fully grown adults. As Joel Klein noted, there is a tendency for long time insiders to become settled in their ways. I took Klein to task for not considering approaches to rekindle the flame in these people. That he’s not yet doing this suggests it’s hard to accomplish. Clearly the first step is to establish the need for rekindling in the eyes of these folks. My post is really aimed at posing this question. Do others within the profession see this need as well?

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Soft Skills Are Hard

It was Plato who taught us that thinking is remembering. When I first read that (I took a course on Plato and Aristotle in the fall semester of my sophomore year when I was 18 and had no prior background in Philosophy) I had no clue what Plato was talking about. Now it makes more sense. There is that dreaded phrase – been there, done that – which unfortunately is used way to much and says something about the closed mindedness of the speaker, since it conveys that having a like prior experience blocks the possibility of any learning from the current episode. But, more to the point, there is the notion that any new idea or experience must confront a person’s world view and via some process of internal negotiation that still is a mystery to me, the new idea or experience is integrated in, sometimes without any change in the world view but once in a while with a dramatic change in stance. The world view itself is based on past experience and prior acts of incorporation and thus in any current thinking we bring bits and pieces of our past to bear. Plato had it right.

In a Chronicle Update from last week there was a piece about MBA students and the companies who hire them in discord about the importance of teaching soft skills, with the companies thinking this is crucial and the students feeling it is unimportant. This piece struck a chord with me, partly because I work in a Business School and partly because whenever I see expectations that are out of wack and where the market doesn’t seem to provide self-correction, I wonder if I can provide an explanation for the persistent dissonance. This post is my attempt at doing just that.

I don’t have an MBA, never took an MBA course, and on the details am quite ignorant about how MBA instruction happens. But I think my own soft skills are reasonably well honed, that at least in a University setting I know how to interact and negotiate with a wide variety of people – students, faculty, administrators, and staff – and that indeed at this point I’m pretty comfortable with just about any audience I might be with on campus. (The only real discomfort I’ve had in meetings in the last 3 or 4 years were (1) in a meeting about classroom construction with the construction people themselves where I felt like an outsider and (2) a couple of meetings with the Provost present where I felt like a school child.) Egotistical to the last, I believe my own experience can help in understanding the soft skills issue, in spite of my lack of knowledge of MBA instruction.

When I was a very junior faculty member I was known to be extremely mathematical in my orientation and while a nice guy perhaps difficult to understand on economic issues, especially by more senior faculty members who didn’t have as strong a theoretical orientation. Also, I hung around economists in my social life, other assistant professors in the department, and with them felt quite at ease. This replicated my graduate school experience where I hung out mostly with grad students in econ. The effect was to create a sense that I could be comfortable in this cloistered setting but that it was risky to communicate outside the immediate cohort; I might feel uncomfortable and not well understood.

Having kids began to change that a bit and especially being on the Board of Directors of the daycare my kids attended because then there was a different commonality that drew the parents on the Board together, our children and the care they were getting, and the interaction was with a different set of people. Then things changed more substantially as I began to do ALN and things really amplified when I became an administrator in SCALE.

That started in Summer 1996, when I was 41. The previous year, as a SCALE faculty member, I had engaged with several others in an ongoing discussion in FirstClass, about how to teach with the technology. In that online conference there were both faculty members from a variety of disciplines and support folks, also variously situated, and we were able to interact well, each representing his own point of view in the argument. In one sense, participating actively in that discussion was a good foundation for what came next.

Along with Cheryl Bullock, who was part of the SCALE evaluation team, I set out to interview as many SCALE faculty as I could. My motivation was to build connections with them. John Ory, who led the SCALE evaluation, and I had agreed that Cheryl and I would tag team because Cheryl was not having much luck interviewing faculty members on her own.

I was terribly frightened about this at first. I guessed, incorrectly, that I needed to show disciplinary knowledge in the faculty member’s subject matter, and just how would I do that? I didn’t realize that much of my thinking about teaching with technology did generalize and that I could hold up my end of the conversation quite well. But subject matter expertise was only part of it. In addition, I didn’t realize that my personal interaction style could work well with quite a variety of audiences. The problem I had communicating with other economists in my department happened because I tried to talk to them in the language of formal economics. Had I been informal, however, I’d have been more successful. Talking about teaching and learning, informal was the only option for me; I didn’t have any prior training. That proved to be an advantage.

There’s still more to it. There is knowing how to argue and be collegial at the same time. There is understanding the need to give the other person enough space so she feels free to express herself. There is communicating in a way where repeatedly there are tests whether the message is being understood, the asking of a question for clarification while pushing the discussion along a little, the trying to tie what she is saying to my personal experience. And there is the making it all fun by recognizing in the other that they have thought about the issues but haven’t been able to give them voice and doing so is a reward in itself.

I knew how to do all of this, though before the interviews started I wasn’t explicitly aware that I had this capability. I learned these things not by taking any classes but rather from my living situation at Cornell when I was junior and senior, at 509 Wyckoff Road. But during college I thought about it a little bit differently. At that time (I think this is still true but I’m ready to be educated otherwise) most kids of college age put on an act, certainly with their parents, quite possibly with any other authority source like an employer or a professor, and then often even with their peers. Being yourself – letting your guard down so to speak – makes you more vulnerable. The act is partly, perhaps mostly, a defense mechanism; it’s not merely trying to be what you think others want you to be; it is surviving in the social environment in which you find yourself.

At Wyckoff Road we didn’t put on an act and we had great conversations. We accommodated the sense of vulnerability by being somewhat careful about who was part of our group and acting within that fairly cloistered setting. My junior year I lived on the second floor and did things with many other people who lived in house, though oddly not much with my roommate whom I had known in High School; he hung out with a different group. The next year I got a single on the third floor and the bunch of us who lived up there became a tighter group, though we did interact a fair amount with some others in the house.

Two others who also had singles on the third floor were grad students, one in Physics, the other in Human Ecology. Both had lived at Wyckoff the year before and while neither was a “ringleader” for the group, they got the ethos without trouble and fit right in. The other room, off the kitchen which was our hangout place, was a double. It had two undergrads who chose to live there largely because they were members of the sorority right across the street and for many of their meals and social activities they’d be at the sorority rather than at 509. One of these studied human nutrition, the other was a hotel-ee.

These two both really enjoyed the be yourself approach we all took, but it took them some time to get used to it and unlike the rest of us our existence at 509 probably served as a refuge from the rest of their lives, where indeed they did put on an act. I did my part to make this work, part of which was simply going with the flow rather than dictating terms. I can’t recall the details of how this came about but my junior year we went out to listen to music a fair amount and often went to the Stables Inn, where I drank Black Russians. (One thing that does change from being an undergrad to being middle aged is our taste for drink.) As a senior, I don’t think we did that as much if at all but I recall going to Hojo’s quite frequently on Friday night for all you can eat pancakes.

This world of open conversation operated almost completely outside our classes and the subject matter there almost never came up in the discussion, except peripherally, so we were quite democratic in choice of topic and how to contribute to it. To me this matters a great deal and is really important when considering how focused college education can get nowadays. The diversity of background was a huge plus for us. It encouraged participation without requiring expertise ahead of time.

So in that sense I was much more open during my college years than I was as an assistant professor. The conversations as an assistant professor tended to be mostly on the same things – departmental politics – and really narrowed things compared to my undergraduate days. Being open to subjects is the essence of soft skills. And delighting in conversation on a wide variety of topics is also critical. The important ability is to bring in something form one’s personal experience that creates a tie, some stake in what is being discussed, but not forcing that and not narrowing the conversation. Courses tend to do the opposite, especially as they get steeped in a particular discipline.

At some point in the trajectory, whether in the major as an undergrad or in graduate studies, school deliberately tries to narrow, to encourage depth in the subject matter being investigated. Soft skills want us to be generalists. That is frightening because the student is not sure what he has to bring to the table and it is more frightening if the person hasn’t been around the block at least a couple of times. The typical MBA got his undergrad degree say at age 22, then enters the work for about 5 years, gets the MBA and now is supposed to re-emerge with their company in a more mature role. But he is still shy of his 30th birthday – a veritable babe in the woods. What experiences while in the MBA program could possibly overcome that sense of being the novice afterwards? Wouldn’t this student cling to the technical training so there would be some veil to be wrapped in, both for self-protection and to demonstrate some expertise so as to establish some personal credibility?
Academic professional programs might try to inject soft skills by attempting to produce the type of diversity that I experienced at 509 Wyckoff Road. One might envision students from Engineering, Law, Human Resource Education, and Business put in teams to simulate the type of communication issues that will come up when these folks return to the world of work. This would give the students some way to gauge whether they successfully could bridge gaps in knowledge and have valuable conversations, discussions that led to interesting action plans. But setting up something like that would be quite hard to do and mostly it would have to occur outside the course context, so might elicit little interest from the faculty. Absent such a program, how could the student possibly develop the confidence to communicate in general terms with a varied audience?

Now let me focus on a different part of my experience and discuss a different dimension of the soft skill capability. Since I didn’t take an English or a Writing course in college, I learned a bit about what was taught there when I took a Writing Across the Curriculum Seminar in summer 1996. My recollection is that there was a hierarchy of writing skill with summary at or near the bottom and analysis or synthesis near the top. Further, it seemed I had been demanding from my own students only those higher level skills and expecting those to be delivered in a mature manner.

Here I want to focus on summary, because now I think it is critical while in 1996 I thought it unimportant. And in discussing summary I want to distinguish it from “taking minutes,” which in the way it’s been practiced here recently takes on the form of those letters about the family that some people send out at Christmas time – Cassandra went on an outing with her French club, Michael found a job working as a park ranger in the summer – more an annotated list than a coherent story. That’s not what I mean by summary.

I never understood why we’d have students summarize other rather comparatively short pieces of writing, for example a newspaper article. This invites plagiarism and begs the question of what value the student is providing in working through the exercise. But providing a summary of a discussion that wasn’t otherwise recorded is an entirely different matter. When one does that there is a demonstration of understanding the underlying issues and there is a potentially productive use, bringing that conversation to others who weren’t there. The summary is also a useful way to follow up with the participants, get their buy in or their further contributions.

Writing such a summary, something I find myself increasingly occupied with as an ordinary part of my job, requires being able to get to the gist of the matter, to first distill to the essence and then providing supporting information. In turn, this requires providing a framework within which to consider the conversation. Analysis of the framework proves the way for organizing the summary.

Now in my 50s, coming up with such a framework is something I do intuitively with little effort, and I suspect that is likewise true for most senior executives in the business world. The skill is not unlike coming up with a formal mathematical model to analyze an economic problem. It shares with the math modeling the need for abstraction. But it differs in the demand for simplicity and the need to produce something quickly – one, two, three brush strokes and we’re done. Beyond that it is self-defeating as the detail cuts against the grain.

Not all students have a taste for abstraction and one of the reasons that we get those Christmas letter type of reports is that the person doesn’t know how to bring the argument to a higher plane. Teaching a sense of abstraction is hard. Where we do it, we normally provide the tools for the abstraction already and then the skill to be acquired is to match the scenario to the particular model. Students struggle with this and it in itself doesn’t teach students to come up with their own models. Further, those who don’t like math may look for a different avenue to develop this type of thinking, but I’m not sure what to recommend. And for those who do like the math and the abstraction there is still the issue that the representation has to be sufficiently simple that it can be readily communicated. Some people making an abstract argument get wrapped up in detail – I find myself doing that from time to time and almost certainly it is a mistake.

Can we teach MBAs to make simple ad hoc models that do focus on the forest, not the trees? This issue is tied to the other one. Students welcome the comfort of their own cohort because they don’t have to adjust their language to the least common denominator. They aim for sophistication, not simplicity, and they may very well confuse being straightforward in communication with being simple-minded. They may also not understand how much thinking and effort goes into producing a summary that is understandable and easy to read.

Personally, I learned these things from failure. I made many mistakes. My current approach, bring it down to bring it up, took a very long time to cultivate. Part of the implicit question behind teaching MBAs soft skills is whether we can accelerate the learning, make the failures more planned and part of the curriculum, or avoid them altogether so the students can go to the next steps.

I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ve tried to show what is at issue. The student’s ego and the student’s courage are at stake. Soft skills test both of those when they are practiced, especially at the beginning. Students want to be prepared. Unfortunately, that can be self-defeating.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

C# Minor

Ingmar Bergman is dead. Will anyone mourn?

A couple of nights ago the family went out for dinner, a bit unusual for us; we normally do takeout. We’re not great at having family conversations. Eating at home allows for an efficient ingestion of nourishment and treats; perhaps some matter of fact discussion about tasks that need to get done, then back the computer or to video games or Harry Potter. Going out is more leisurely with time to burn and now the boys are too old to play “I Spy” – riddlely riddlely ree, I see something you can’t see. So after placing our orders we started to talk.

Soon thereafter my younger son asked – “who was the President who came after Lincoln, in 1860?” Ben usually has a point when he asks a question, but this time I wasn’t getting it at all. I said Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln but that wasn’t till later. Then Ben offered a non-rebuttal rebuttal about Jefferson Davis and followed that with some observation that Lincoln was a Republican but what about the Democrats? Somehow this morphed to me quizzing the family about the presidents since JFK, and then before JFK too. The boys didn’t know LBJ and guessed that Nixon was next after Kennedy. They did know Nixon; interesting what one must do when in high office to be remembered, at least by the Arvan clan. The boys knew Jimmy Carter, but only after a prompt. They struggled with Reagan and Bush père and couldn’t identify their Democratic opponents. (I confess that when my wife brought it up I couldn’t recall whether Geraldine Ferraro ran with Mondale or Dukakis.) They didn’t know Harry Truman. They didn’t know that Adlai Stevenson ran against Eisenhower. We’re from Illinois and they didn’t know Adlai Stevenson, yet their teachers keep saying how well the boys are doing at school. What gives?

I don’t doubt that my kids are bright and can learn quickly and deeply. I’ve seen that in other things they’ve done. But it is clear that history, at least the type of history associated with knowing the Presidents, doesn’t touch them in their own world, even if there are parallels between Viet Nam and Iraq, even if the cocoon in which they reside will burst forth as they enter adulthood. The kids say the Pledge of Allegiance at school, but I’m afraid it is an empty ritual with no meaning for them behind the words, no way to touch them inside with the message. That goes likewise for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner. My older kid is in the High School Marching Band and this week he is in band camp. During the rest of the year they do parades, competitions with bands from other schools, and of course they perform at half time of the football games. In their repertoire apart from the Star Spangled Banner, obviously there is Sousa, and then some Rock Classics set to marching band format.

Not having gone through this sort of thing myself as a kid, I played in the concert band for a while but my school didn’t have a marching band, I wonder what the activity instills in the kids who go through the rather intensive effort to prepare as well as what it instills in the broader audience, the fans and the parents. Certainly there is much pageantry in the performance and, since that is by design, one might guess that it is done for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. Perhaps it is meant to instill patriotism, although it seems more likely to generate school spirit than loyalty to country, since most of the pageantry is wrapped around an athletic contest.

* * * * *

These are not topics on which I normally dwell and I wouldn’t have given them any attention whatsoever save for some other happenings.

Last week ran an in depth series on the Pat Tillman incident. There was greater coverage on the ESPN site than on the NY Times site. I was puzzled about why ESPN provided this content; it didn’t seem sports related though I supposed that in an expanded view any news about former pro athletes is sports related, but that didn’t seem enough to warrant making it a feature. A different idea is that currently sports is wrapped up with the debunking of institutions: Barry Bonds home run chase and the Tour de France with steroids, an NBA ref betting on basketball games and possibly fixing those games, and the dog fighting case that feature Michael Vick make for a prominent but incomplete list. Perhaps the Tillman case fits as more of the same.

There is sports punditry just as there is news punditry, but the analysis these sportswriters provide is less driven by ideological fervor. Partly for that reason and partly because, face it, sports is supposed to be entertainment, not life and death, the sports punditry is less heavily scrutinized by other members of the established media, by the fans sure but less so elsewhere. And in the case of ESPN, though part of ABC probably run as a unit independent of ABC News, there is likely less scrutiny than at other sports news groups, which do have ties to the larger new organization. Maybe ESPN featuring the Tillman case is an example of their News unit pushing its boundaries, something they can do --- recall the George Bernard Shaw maxim.

It seems that ESPN is encouraging at least consideration of the idea that Tillman wasn’t killed by friendly fire, but rather he was assassinated by his own troops, witness the headline on this piece, caused by resentment against an overbearing sports star. And if that’s true, the closest tie is with Columbine, where the shootings were similarly motivated. The pageantry we associate with sports has a dark underside, especially in how the “heroes” treat the rest of us. Perhaps that is “the story” of all of sports and so maybe the Tillman case belongs on the ESPN pages after all.

* * * * *

Here is a different thought on the relationship between music and patriotism, coming not from the need to glorify the nation through pageantry but rather from another place entirely, to endure suffering and to do so by having something close that touches the soul, something to cling to and value in spite of all else, something of beauty. Here is Roman Polanski talking about Chopin in reference to the soundtrack in Polanski’s movie, The Pianist.

Fryderyk Chopin's music was an essential part of Wladyslaw Szpilman's repertoire. For us Poles, Chopin symbolizes revolution. It is not surprising that his monument in Warsaw was pulled down during World War II, nor that the wartime struggles led to his music being banned in Poland. His music is our music - it's like mother's milk. It is what gave Szpilman strength and courage. I am proud to be able to reunite them for this soundtrack. I needed a great pianist from Poland to play authentically and honor both men's memories, and Janusz Olejniczak does that.

I’ve written about The Pianist before, so I don’t want to linger on it here (although this piece in the NY Times is intriguing about the particular selection of music in the film). Instead, I’d like to focus on a different film that I watched last week. It is partly about the life of Chopin and in that about some of the ordeal he went through in writing his music. The movie is called Impromptu, in an obvious reference to one type of Chopin’s piano music. But Chopin is only indirectly the main character of the piece. More overtly, the main character is George Sand, the French novelist.

Sand had many of the affectations of a man, in part because doing so gave her greater freedom to pursue her own ends. In the movie, Sand is portrayed by Judy Davis, a performer whom I haven’t seen in many films but who makes a strong impression in those that I’ve seen (A Passage to India is a good example. There she plays the odd and perhaps demented but certainly determined character, Adela Quested.) What Davis does most convincingly is to visually demonstrate earnest and complete pursuit of her own interests, to be totally driven by that rather than to behave in accord with social convention or to perform in a certain way in order to attend to the feelings of others.

In the film Sand’s life was spent in pursuit of scientific truth, as rendered by the artists, musicians, and writers who resided in the sphere in which she operated. Chopin’s music was the embodiment of this truth. Her love for him followed from her love for the music. On multiple occasions in the film Sand is seen lying under the piano while Chopin is playing it, an unlikely place for the rest of us yet the best way to be caught up in the rapture and the beauty of the music. And indeed the music is wonderful.

After watching the movie I did a Google search (chopin piano .mp3) and found this truly delightful repository at There are free recordings (and sheet music too) that are available for download and organized either by composer or by performer. The composer pages provide a biography and sort the music by type. Chopin’s page is interesting to read in its own right and helps in understanding the underlying events in the movie.

Chopin, played by Hugh Grant in the movie in a role that doesn’t fit Grant’s current typecast, is depicted as sickly, timid, and very much concerned with doing things in a proper way. In all of that he is the opposite of Sand. In fact, Chopin had Tuberculosis and died when he was only 39. (My dad had TB; got it before I was born. The consequence was a partially collapsed lung that limited his wind while swimming or playing tennis and that did create the impression that he was not as robust as the rest of us, well after the TB itself was gone.) So the sickly part seems accurate.

The timidity is at first hard to reconcile with the enormous passion that is embodied in the music. Chopin was a magnificent performer, but apparently he preferred to play the piano in the company of a small group of friends over giving public performances. He clearly was not timid in the pursuit of his own ideas but he very well may have been quite shy with others he didn’t know.

The dialect Grant adopts does seem misplaced, but how does one do a native Polish speaker talking in French but performed in English? An interesting part of Chopin’s story is that he was loyal to Poland till the last, but he lived in France and never returned to his home country once the war with Russia began. Much of his music, certainly the Mazurkas and the Polonaise, were written to bring the folk life of the Polish people into the world of piano music. He did this wonderfully.

The biography of Chopin also points out how much of a traditionalist Chopin was and how much his innovations, for example in the Nocturnes, were firmly based on earlier baroque music. Listen to some of those and then listen to some music by Bach, perhaps one of his Toccatas. The rhythm in the left hand is essentially the same. As daring as Chopin was with his haunting melodies, he made them conform to the strict rhythm of the left hand. There is a lesson in that for all of us would be creators, a need to adhere to a discipline even as we try to break the mold.

In the process of my Web surfing about Chopin (I didn’t alight on the sight at first) I learned that Chopin’s Nocturne in C# Minor was the “theme song” to The Pianist. And in my further surfing to the Wikipedia page on the musical form Nocturne, I learned that some think the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is a Nocturne. Guess what key that is written in.

* * * * *

The Poles have Chopin and Chopin’s music. The music is wondrous. It is so easy to describe the music with the adjective beautiful. At first thought of this I was jealous of the Poles. They have Chopin. We have Francis Scott Key and Sousa. They have love of Chopin’s music and that deepens their love of country. We have our pageantry and that make us endure the music.

But then I had a different thought. We all have Chopin. We all can love beauty and can make its pursuit our truth.

The pursuit of beauty is not talked about much these days as an ideal in higher education; it doesn't find its way into many campus strategic plans. Nor is the pursuit of beauty an ideal talked about much in the arena of national politics. Yet we all have Chopin. Hmmm.