Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Politics, Part 2

I hate to be one of those people who takes the "when I was young" approach to dealing with the world. As tempting as it is, the fact is that the world isn't the way it was and whining about that generally does little good. Better to deal with reality, I've always thought, then waste time in 'if only' land. However, recently I find myself looking more and more at the way things used to be - particularly in the realm of politics.

I seem to remember that political elections took place and were hard fought. However, after the election, people seemed to 'get on with it' and work with what they had. It seems that when we made the transition from Republican to Democratic leadership (or in the other direction), elected officials (after the obligatory period of mourning and 'what- iffing') picked up where the 'other' had left off and built on what was there.

One of the most disturbing things for me coming out of the 2008 election was Rep. Mitch McConnell's public assertion that "The Republican goal will be to make Barack Obama a one-term president." The following 4 years of what appeared to be obstructionism for the sake of obstructionism were disturbing to me. The stated goal was not to move the country forward, solve problems, deal with issues and get on with the business of governing. I heard more than one Republican politician (and voter for that matter) expressing the opinion that the first order of business after Romney won this election would be to repeal the current health care law. Ultimately, that message was very clear. Our goal is to tear down. Our goal is to destroy. Our position is to assert that we are SO right and the others are SO wrong that the only answer is to destroy all the work that has been done so that we can implement our view of 'right'.

I was raised in South Dakota - a Republican stronghold. South Dakota has only gone the way of the Democrats in 4 elections since it became a state, the most recent in 1964 when I was 4 years old. Even so I came out a Democratic, due to any number of factors not the least of which was a strong parental influence. It should come as no surprise to my family or friends that I voted yesterday to re-elect President Obama. It probably shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time either.

I am, I think, a representative Democrat - a Democrat like the majority of others. I don't believe that all Republicans are evil. I don't believe that all Republican positions are evil. (My mind is not so certain when it comes to the Tea Party, I admit.) I don't believe in free rides. I do believe that people should work hard to support themselves and that, on occasion, they may need help and that providing a safety net for those circumstances is what a civilized society does. I don't resent paying my fair share of taxes and I expect others to do the same. (Yesterday I voted 'yes' on 2 local referenda that will increase my property taxes for the next 10 years - even though I have no children I believe that educating the children in my community is a public good.) I don't want to live in a 'nanny state' where the government dictates to me how I should behave in my personal life. And I believe that there are automatically some restrictions on individual freedoms that must come when living in concert with others.

I have worked very hard this political season to keep my comments and opinions to myself. I haven't plastered my Facebook page with cartoons or placards declaring my disgust with the 'other' or why my chosen positions have the moral high ground (which, I will admit, has been extremely difficult at times.) :-) I have been extremely reticent about 'liking' too many of my friends' posts either - no matter how on target I felt they were or how much I agreed with them.

However, in this venue I am going to take the time to say how pleased I am with the outcome of yesterday's elections - both nationally and locally. Any number of my friends who do not live in Minnesota often ask me (during the winter, of course) why I still live in this place. Yesterday, provides the answer. I live in a place where people still hold the civil rights of individuals in high esteem. While the races were close, both the voter ID amendment and the marriage amendment were defeated. Historically, Minnesotans have amended their state constitution to protect the rights of individuals and to expand or limit the rights of government. More Minnesotans decided yesterday that amending the state constitution to impose limits on the rights of individuals was not the type of state they do live in nor the type of state they wanted to live in. I'm happy to live in that state - even if there's 3 feet of snow on the ground 5 months out of the year.

So here I would take a moment to appeal to my friends and family members who are disappointed in the outcomes of yesterday's local and national elections - on both sides of the political divide. Please do not take on the Mitch McConnell approach to the next 4 years. Please do not dig your heels in and refuse to move forward in any way - "oh I'm just going to check out and wait until 2014 or 2016 when we can take it all back." Do not take the automatic position that if the proposal is coming from the 'other' party that it must be evil and must be defeated and if it passes our society is coming to a fiery end. Recognize that just because you believe it to be true - doesn't mean that it is the only answer or the only way for the world to be. Recognize that we have been moving back and forth on this political pendulum since the beginning of our country and we have survived.

I'm not asking you to change your positions or to stop supporting what you believe is right. I'm not asking you to change your political affiliation. I am asking you to put your energy into working with what we have. Support your legislators who are trying to engage in bipartisan work. Support local and national efforts to solve problems - even if the solutions are not perfectly in line with your sentiments. Support your government and spend your time working to make this world we live in better for ALL of us - not just those who share your positions.

I did the patriotic thing and lifted today's image from:

Saturday, June 30, 2012


"You can lead a boy to college, but you cannot make him think."
-Elbert Hubbard

The career that I have chosen to follow places me in a position to daily observe the experience of failure. Various students regularly make choices, what appear to be conscious choices, that lead them directly to failing. They choose to not attend class, having read my clearly stated policies regarding NO makeup (see previous post if this seems unfair to you!) They choose to not follow clearly articulated instructions for successfully finishing assignments. They choose to not hand in papers. When they do fail in a particularly spectacular way in the writing of a paper, they choose to not do the rewrite that I offer them for partial credit. In short, the majority of students who fail (in my experience) do so not because they aren't capable of success, but because they choose failure instead.

I also see failure in other areas of my work. I see hours of work wasted in committees studying a 'problem' and forming recommendations for addressing the problem, and having that work be dismissed or ignored due to an administrative position or a 'change in direction'. A failure. I see talented faculty members hired who then leave or are not asked to return for lack of effective mentoring or nurturing. A failure. I see years spent developing and implementing programs which are then abandoned when the newest hot trend appears. A failure.

The most painful failures for me, as a teacher, are those which seem to point out how students have failed to internalize, and thus how far I have missed the mark in effectively communicating, important elements of my field. One such failure I experienced at the end of the Spring semester this year in an Interpersonal Communication course. In ths course we spend the entire semester discussing ways in which you can make your communication in your personal relationships more effective - using Perception checks, avoiding 'YOU language' in favor of 'I language', taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions, and using techniques in handling conflict that lead to a more positive communication climate. Still, at the end of the semester, a student chose to miss class and then chose to be angry with me when I enforced my stated 'no makeup' policy and then chose to address that anger to me in ways that directly contradicted EVERYTHING we had been discussing for the previous 15 weeks. When I pointed that out, her response became even more angry, more ugly, and personally attacking. A failure.

Sadly, I am confronted with perhaps my greatest teaching failure on a daily basis. One of my former students has become a somewhat public figure in local politics. He is not a candidate (at least, not yet) but rather works in high profile support and PAC positions. He is asked to appear on local radio 'talk' (yes, I use the word loosely) shows and has been quoted in print and on television news as well. He and I are Facebook friends, so I am privy not only to his FB posts but also to his 'Tweets' as he regularly links his Twitter account to his FB status.

This individual and I have different political perspectives which, for me, is not a problem. I have a number of friends (and family for that matter) who hold positions that are diametrically opposed to my own. I don't object to anyone expressing their viewpoint and believe that, if we all agree to work at it, we can maintain friendship and loving relationships even when we disagree. The lion can lie down with the lamb, metaphorically speaking.

Daily, in this individual's communication, I see evidence that he not only did not internalize the concepts presented and discussed in both my Public Speaking and Interpersonal classes (both of which he took and passed), he seems to deliberately choose to do exactly the opposite - what we teach as being insensitive, ineffective and downright unethical.

This person embraces hostility in his communication. He regularly indulges in name-calling. When someone expresses a different opinion, he takes on a tone in his communication that basically implies the other individual is a stupid f****ing idiot that deserves contempt and ridicule. His tone in general is strident and angry and if you express a contrary opinion or position his tone is also derogatory and insulting.

He repeats 'party line' sound bites regardless of their accuracy. He backs up his arguments with rhetoric as opposed to facts. His sources are completely one-sided which, as we teach in the basic Public Speaking course, generally indicates an ill-researched, ill-formed and biased argument. I have seen him, in print, deliberately mis-quote and mis-represent the words of others, turning them to suit his own purposes and to support his position on a particular topic. This particular practice seems to be done with glee.

All of these things are counter to what we, in the field of Human Communication, teach. And of course, the worst part of it all is that if you confront him with this and ask him to reconsider his method of communicating, he denies that he is doing any of it. Underneath the denial, you can sense his pleasure in his 'effectiveness.'

A monumental failure. One which makes me particularly sad.

Today's image from:

Saturday, May 5, 2012


A colleague of mine gives a quiz during the first week of her classes. The topic? Her syllabus. She wants to reinforce to her students the importance of understanding what they are getting into by enrolling in her courses. A quiz is her way of trying to ensure that students internalize pertinent information regarding the way she conducts her courses, the requirements, her policies, etc. I'm beginning to think she is on to something.

Most college professors have some sort of policy articulated in their syllabi. For some, it's attendance, others talk about behavior, and others, plagiarism and cheating. When I first started teaching my policies were few: come to class, do your own work, be respectful. It took me less than one semester to realize how woefully inadequate my policy section was.

Over the years it has grown and changed. Some things that I used to think were important I no longer care much about. Other things have emerged as 'problem areas' that need to be addressed from the outset of a class. The biggest reason for the change is the change in students and administrators. When I began teaching, few students really questioned the policies in the course and most conformed to them with little fuss. But all it takes, of course, is for one person to challenge you and to have one administrator refuse to back you up because "it's not in your syllabus." No matter that you said this policy aloud, on multiple occasions throughout the semester. If it wasn't written, it wasn't valid. So the syllabus has become longer and longer and the policies have become more and more detailed. The one I want to talk about today is my 'make-up' policy.

My policy for making up missed work is simple - there is NO make-up. That's right - none. If you choose to miss class for whatever reason and you miss an activity that is worth points - it's a miss. A zero. Simple. Fair. It applies to everyone. No exceptions. No special circumstances. Everyone gets treated the same.

Now, before you start thinking that I'm totally out of touch and unreasonable, let me clarify a couple of things. Yes, I realize that sometimes emergencies come up. Sometimes you get a flat tire on the way to campus. Sometimes you or your kids get sick. Those and other things all happen and are all reasons people might choose to miss class. People also choose to miss class because they have a hangnail, because it's sunny outside, because it's Tuesday. I don't ever want to put myself in a position to judge the value of someone's reason for not attending. I can't judge that one person's reason is good and another person's isn't. That's hardly fair. So, I don't judge at all. The policy applies to everyone, all the time.

In a class that meets twice a week we have approximately 30 class meetings during a semester. I have some sort of point generating activity in virtually every class session. Eleven of those activities are quizzes, the dates for which are announced in writing in the syllabus. If students know they are going to miss a class period with a quiz, I allow them to take a quiz in advance - one time only. I also drop the low quiz at the end of the semester so if they happen to miss one unexpectedly, that quiz counts as their drop.

Most of the other days of class I have some other sort of activity. All the activities are in response to what we are discussing in that particular class period so if you miss the discussion, the activity is meaningless. Most of those activities are worth 5 or 10 points. Occasionally there's an activity worth 15 or 20 points, but those are relatively rare and are also announced. Some of those activities are 'completion' activities, meaning if you do the activity you get all the points. Missing one or two or even three of these activities are simply not going to impact someone's grade in any significant way.

Even so, every semester I get emails. They generally go something like this: "Dear Judy. This is so-and-so from your such-and-such class. I won't be in class today because..." And from there you can just fill in the blank. "Because I have to pick my mother up from the airport, because I have to take my little brother to soccer practice, because my cat died, because I'm not feeling well, because my grandma is in the hospital, because my boyfriend's cousin's aunt's sister is in labor..." This sentence is then followed by "Please allow me to get credit for being in class anyway and allow me to make up the points I will miss."

My reply is standard. "Dear so-and-so. Thank you for your note. I'm so sorry to hear your cat is sick, you're not feeling well, your grandma fell. I certainly understand that we can't help it when we get called into work unexpectedly, when family obligations come up, when... I'm sure you understand that I must treat all students equally so I must follow the policy stated in my course syllabus and cannot allow you to make up today's activity. Please remember that this is only 5 points and this one absence will not hurt your grade. See you next class."

Most students respond as you might expect. "Okay. I understand. Just thought I'd ask." If I were them, I'd have asked too.

But every now and then someone decides to get big. This time, it was really big. "You are a horrible person. Your policy is unethical. I'm paying for this class and have the right to miss whenever I want without a penalty. You clearly don't love your family. I'm going to tell everyone I know how horrible you are and that they should never take a class from you..." You get the idea.

I know I've written about the entitlement attitude before. This particular student seems to have any number of other issues going on in addition to that -- lack of maturity and unwillingness to accept responsibility for her choices are but two of those. Even so, I am fascinated by this student's approach. From the immediacy and ease of her responses, it seems that this is the technique she most likely employs in most life situations. And maybe, for the first 20 years of her life, it has been working for her. Hopefully, this experience will be her wake-up call.

Journalist and host of CBS News Sunday Morning Charles Osgood is quoted as saying, "There are no exceptions to the rule that everybody likes to be an exception to the rule." My experiences in teaching certainly continue to prove the truth of this sentiment.

Today's cartoon comes from:

Saturday, April 7, 2012


Once in a century a man may be ruined or made insufferable by praise. But surely once in a minute something generous dies for want of it. - John Masefield

As a teacher of Public Speaking, I well understand the importance and power of Praise. On a regular basis my students put themselves on the spot - put their egos on the line - and get up in front of a room full of relative strangers to speak aloud their thoughts and ideas. It's not easy. For some people it's a little anxiety producing, for others nerve-wracking, and for others absolutely terrifying.

Giving positive feedback is an essential part of my job. It doesn't matter how 'bad' a student presentation is, I find something to praise. I don't care how far I have to stretch, there's a compliment to be found somewhere. If I can't praise their organization, I look to praise their supporting material. If not that, their use of visual aids. If not that, the attention device they use in their introduction. If nothing else at all, I can at least find a way to compliment something about their delivery skills. "You didn't move around nearly as much as you did last time and you also reduced your verbal fillers significantly. Good job!"

Without some form of positive reinforcement, most of us grow discouraged. While it would be nice to believe that we all are motivated purely by the desire to do a job well, the fact is that most people need a little more encouragement than that - particularly when the job that must be done is one that is undesirable, seems unnecessary, or seems downright oppressive and burdensome.

Recently, my department members and I finished just one of those jobs - program review. This is a process that our administration requires each department to go through on a periodic basis. And while the thought behind the requirement is probably a good one, our administration, in my oh-so-humble opinion, misses the boat on the execution.

Each department is required to submit a report. In that report we are required to articulate any number of things that, quite frankly have little to nothing to do with the daily work of teaching in the classroom and making a difference in the education and lives of our students. (The instructions for doing the report run 6 1/2 pages, bulleted and single spaced, if that gives you any idea of the scope of this project.)

My colleagues and I have been working on this document since January of 2011. During the Spring semester of 2011 we met bi-weekly for 2 hour meetings. During Fall semester of 2011 we met weekly for 2 hour meetings. And during this Spring semester of 2012 we met weekly for 1 1/2 hour meetings. That's a lot of time and energy being spent on this process.

Parts of this process turned out to be productive. We talked at length about students, content, skills, and outcomes. We revised all our common course outlines. We discussed what makes our classes successful and where we need to improve. In other words, we worked very hard and did very good work.

This week we had to appear before the Academic Council and Management Team to "present" our findings. We were asked to give a very short (2-4 minute) presentation about our report highlighting a couple of our strengths and a couple of our goals and then we responded to questions for another 20 minutes. It was a fascinating process. It was clear that some people had read the report. It was equally clear that others had not. We were asked a few questions and told where we came up short - where we were unclear, where we needed more detail, where we did something wrong.

And there was not one compliment. Nothing. The options to give even the faintest of praise were numerous. "Good report." "Well-written." "Thorough." "Insightful." "The focus on 'X' was helpful." "Clearly articulated goals." "No typos." But none of those things were said. They thanked us for coming and then we left. A year and a half of really hard work and not even a 'thanks for slogging through this' to show for it. We processed the experience afterward and we all agreed that this was one of the things that makes workers everywhere disappointed and discouraged. One of my colleagues actually felt sick to her stomach following the experience. To say we were demoralized would not be putting it too strongly.

As teachers we are used to working in isolation and we are certainly used to criticism. We are told in no uncertain terms on a daily basis what we are doing wrong and how we are falling short and where we need to work harder and do better. We work without much praise at all, and most of the time we're okay with that. We continue to work because we know the value of what we do may not be recognized in the moment, but that it is there. The rewards of the work are generally not dependent on praise.

But praise and encouragement
are things that help us all to grow and continue to try. Without them motivation begins to flag, dis- courage- ment sets in and, eventually, even the most positive and hard-working among us begin to get a little cynical. So, it's a word to all of us to give someone a boost -- find something to praise and give someone a little encouragement.

Today's image from:

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


"You are younger today than you ever will be again. Make use of it." Anonymous

Good old Anonymous hits the nail on the head again. Many life events have transpired to remind me over and over in recent weeks that life is oh-so-short and we have no guarantee that we will see even one more day of it. Almost daily the news has held stories of people dying unexpectedly - the car accident, the heart attack, the natural disaster. An even more vivid reminder for me has been the visit of #2 Redneck brother.

I have 2 Redneck brothers - a title which both of them wear proudly. #2 Redneck brother was here to do some doctoring up at the U. He has been living with a rather
rare form of cancer called Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. The disease has taken him on a bit of a roller coaster since his diagnosis, as I'm sure you can all imagine. He was here because the treatment he had been under was no longer working to keep the disease sufficiently at bay. Thus the visit to the U - new chemo protocol.

One of the symptoms of this particular cancer is tumors that grow in the skin. Once the tumors reach a certain stage, they break open leaving the patient with what amounts to open sores on the body. There was a period of time where the sores were completely under control. About 6 months ago they began to reappear - the sign that the chemo regimen was no longer working.

Part of what my brother must do, then, is bandage those sores. They are painful, they bleed easily if bumped, scratched, or rubbed, and there are many of them. Each evening my brother takes his daily shower. It takes him approximately 30 minutes to unbandage before the shower. After the shower, a salve containing chemotherapy drugs must be applied to the sores. Then, he must re-bandage. The bandaging process takes 2 1/2 hours -- that's with help.

Hard to imagine - I know. But almost his entire body must be bandaged. His legs from ankle to mid thigh. His arms from wrist to shoulder. His torso from waist to neck, both front and back. He jokes about being a mummy. The bandaging keeps the sores clean reducing the chances of infection. The bandaging, practically speaking, protects his clothing, sheets, and furniture from bloodstains. The bandaging also helps in managing the amount of pain he experiences throughout the day.

My brother's attitude is incredibly positive. He sees no reason to stop fighting and give up. He sees no reason to whine and complain even though at times during the bandaging process the pain is so intense he has to grit his teeth to ride it out and it leaves him shaking afterward. He sees no reason to stop working and sit around the house. Instead, he sees the opportunity that is each day and he is taking full advantage of the ones that he has left.

The lesson could not be clearer. Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way. Tomorrow is not a promise for any of us - it is a wish. So when opportunity is in front of you - grab on to it. Hold it tight with both hands. Immerse yourself in it. Experience it. Enjoy it. Revel in it.

You may end up being pleasantly surprised. Your opportunity may turn out to be everything you hoped it would be. It might end up being a "mistake." You may end up with some of those regrets I spoke of last time. You may get hurt. But you will have lived. You will have lived fully. You will have chosen to experience everything that life has to offer you. No one will ever be able to take that experience away from you.

I've taken the opportunity of acquiring today's image from:

Monday, January 23, 2012


I've been doing a lot of reflecting of late. I spent time with a very dear friend recently and we did some of that reflecting together - our
conversation is actually what has motivated this bout of introspection. One of the things we talked about was the question of regrets. Did we have any - what were they - did we see ourselves doing anything about them at this point in time - would those regrets change our future actions. Maybe you've had similar conversations, similar thoughts.

At the time, I said that I didn't really regret much of anything that I had done. And in big terms, that's true. I can look back and freely admit that I have done things that others probably regarded as monumental mistakes. And, considering some of the outcomes of those choices, perhaps they aren't that far off. But I don't really regret those things. In terms of things I've done, I regret small things - character things. I regret the times I've spoken thoughtlessly, the times I've been careless with others' feelings. But in terms of Big things - I tend to look back on all those questionable choices and outright 'mistakes' in my life as 'opportunities for growth' as opposed to things to regret. It's served me pretty well or at the very least has kept me going forward.

However, the more I've thought about this the past few days, the more things have come to my mind. And I guess that I do have a few regrets. The thing that they all have in common is that I didn't do them - as apparently others have decided as well if a Google search of 'regret quotes' is anything to go by. This one, by Zachary Scott says it in exactly those words - "As you grow older, you'll find the only things you regret are the things you didn't do." Damn. Don't you hate it when people are right about something like this?

How many times have we skipped the opportunity to take a risk and try something new -- explore some new activity, meet a new person, travel to a new place, listen to new music, eat a new food, learn a new skill. The list is endless. I don't regret not buying anything or not having certain things. I don't regret not having a certain house or other things that might be considered 'impressive' or 'important.' I don't regret not having a job that would pay more money or have more prestige or, in today's terms, cache.

For me, the list seems to circle itself around experiences and people. As Hurricane Katrina came closer and closer to New Orleans, I regretted never having been to Bourbon Street. When my mother became ill, I regretted not hounding her to get her passport earlier than I did so that I could have taken her to see more of the world. I regret not having taken some chances with people in my past, instead choosing to stay safe and avoid the possibility of hurt. I regret not saying 'I love you' soon enough, or often enough.

When you scroll through all those quotes that smart people have said about regret, the main theme that comes through is primarily that you shouldn't do it. It's a waste of time and energy. It solves nothing. It's even destructive. But, then, there's our old buddy Henry David Thoreau. He had a different take on regret. He says: "Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh."

"To regret deeply is to live afresh." It's a curious thought. I think I'm beginning to understand a little bit of what he means. And, I'm thinking I'm ready to learn a little more.

Of course, I regret not coming up with today's picture myself. Truly. I think it's pretty funny and, of course, oh-so-true. Instead, I lifted it from: