Saturday, October 27, 2007

Catching Up a Bit

Hello Friends, and sorry I haven't written in a while! I thought I would write today and share a few updates.

1. I got a new car, a Yaris. I had written about wanting one in some earlier posting. It felt a bit extravagant, but I did need a car, and it is hard to find a good used car where I live -- many of the better ones where I live cost more than this new one did! I got my previous car used, and it had a lot of miles on it. The day I traded it in, the brakes went out on it! A friend and I drove it very carefully to the car dealership (it has manual transmission), confessed the problem to the salesman right away, and offered to pay for the repair. He appreciated our honesty and said that he would take care of it. "It could have happened tomorrow," he said. That was nice of him. I like the new car a lot. Of course, it would be better not to have a car at all, but this country we call "civilized" (the U.S.) in fact is not as civilized as some other countries. The transportation system is not well-developed at all! There is hardly any public transportation available except in urban areas.

2. This semester has not been as ridiculously busy as last semester, but it is busy enough.

3. I have a student who is very sick. She almost died. She is still vulnerable to falling through the cracks due to a combination of (a) her family just not getting how serious this is (and erroneously thinking that she brought it on herself in some way, but it is not an illness that is contagious or caused by lifestyle choices), and (b) our ridiculous medical system. We call our country a "civilized" country (the U.S.), but in fact it is not as civilized as some other countries. (Do you detect a theme developing here?) For example, our health care system is not a caring system. It is a system that too many people are trying to make big money from. When money becomes more important than people, sometimes it is "better" (i.e., makes more money) just to let certain people die. Fortunately, there are still people who can transcend our flawed system. The people who have helped prevent this young woman from falling through the cracks are her professors, friends, family of friends, the college's health center, and a local doctor. I hope she makes it.

4. We've had a lot of unseasonably warm weather. On the news, I hear about fires, and polar ice caps melting, Ph levels in the oceans changing, New Orleans having some flooding, and Atlanta at risk of running out of water. It's hard not to be terribly worried about the state of the world.

5. While my administrative role is lighter than last year, I am still chair of my department and chair of a couple of committees. I sent out a reminder notice of a meeting for one of the committees last week. A few people sent understandable regrets. I spent all afternoon preparing for this meeting. Then I went -- and no one showed up. (There were three people I had not heard from, and I thought at least two of them would show up.) I spent some time working further on the work of this committee myself, then wrote up joke "minutes" for the meeting. In these minutes, I wrote about a "concerned discussion" among "all present" about the efficacy of their chair. ("She can't even get people to do the work they promised to do, or even come to meetings, one voice pointed out...") While I laughed a little doing this, those minutes are too edged with bitterness to actually show anyone, and I left the "meeting" feeling seriously depressed.

6. Related to the above, I have decided that I'm not really "leadership material," as they say. I have good ideas. I'm organized. I'm good at planning processes for getting things done. I'm willing to work hard. But I'm absolutely no good at all at motivating others to follow through with things they have said they would do. I can't wait until my current terms of office of my "leadership" positions all end -- I've decided I'm letting them all expire without extending any of them, and I am even going to resign from one big one early (my being chair of my department. I've just started the second four-year term of this, although I've actually been at it for longer than four years because I had to step in early due to an emergency situation. Anyway, I agreed to be chair this year rather than another full four-year term, and our new Dean now knows this and is agreeable to my plan). While I am a little sad to admit to myself that I'm not really "leadership material," I know that I have given this a good try, and have learned a lot. And there's a way I am relieved to finally admit this to myself. Like I've been saying a lot lately, I really need to focus my life better on what I know I really am called to do: write! I am actually really happy to let go of something that stresses me out terribly in order to make room for writing.

7. I may yet have promise as a teacher, though. One of my classes entered a kind of crisis stage, and I think I've successfully intervened in a way that moves things forward. Sometimes professors respond to this kind of crisis by shaming the students as a way of putting pressure on them to work harder. They may, for example, hand back a set of papers with very low grades and announce to the class that they've never seen such a pathetic batch of papers. What I like about what I've just done is that I didn't take this approach! I think I succeeded in not making anyone feel bad at all. After all, I fully accept that a lot, if not all, of the responsibility really lies with me. But I didn't punish myself for that either. I just took a long hard look at what I've tried to do in relation to what they have given back to me, and totally reworked the next class session to try again to bring them to where I want them to be. Then I gave back a set of papers without grades (but lots of comments) and simply asked the students to rewrite them. To my surprise, they didn't actually complain ("What! You're giving us more work that's not in the syllabus!?" They didn't say this!) They are smart enough to read between the lines. I think they know full well that I just didn't have the heart to give them the low grades that these papers deserved. But they also saw from the tone of my comments that I was accepting where they were and trying respectfully to move them to better understanding and higher standards in their reasoning. We will see what their rewrites look like -- that will be the real test.

There's more, but this is all I can write about at the moment.


  1. What really worries me are people who think that they are good leaders when they are not. And I suspect that many leaders in academia (presidents included) are far more insecure than we realize.

  2. I think Plato said somewhere that one of the signs of someone who has potential to be a good leader is their not wanting to be a leader!

    But, this does not mean that all who would rather not be leaders would necessarily make good leaders!