Thursday, January 5, 2023

When "I Don't Feel Like It" Isn't Acceptable

I recently read Seth Godin's book The Practice. It's chock full of practical advice.  Anyone grappling with the challenges of being "creative" will find it useful.

As I read the book I came to recognize that I haven't written as much as I'd like to over the last year. Why? I can offer lots of excuses. I taught a lot. I advised several students completing theses and related projects. I took on other work and volunteer projects. I joined the Rotary Club of Monterey. I commuted two hours from my home to my workplace. Blah blah blah. The list could go on and on.

What I told myself was, "I'm best in the morning. It's when my thinking is clearest. So, if I don't write in the morning it's not worth my time." I'm referring to blog posts, book reviews, and other academic works. 

Godin's primary point is that a practice such as writing demands we commit to it. We need to show up for it regularly. The practice itself matters, not any specific outcome. You have to produce a lot of work--a lot of ideas--in order to produce good material. No one can or should expect to succeed every time out. 

In other words, we cannot wait for inspiration. "I don't feel like it" isn't an excuse if we're truly committed to our practice.

I've taken Godin's insights to heart. I'm setting out this year to "create" more. That means writing, although I'm not limiting myself. Posting more regularly here will be one measure of my ability to live up to this commitment. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

When Meeting Someone New, Ask for Their Preferred Name

My first name is Mitchell. That's my legal name, and what I wish to be called. Not Mitch. I've never used "Mitch" in my life. As a result, I often find myself correcting individuals who shorten my name. 

I'm not alone in having to deal with assumptions about my first name. For example, take someone given the name "Robert" at birth. That person may wish to be called "Robert." Or he may prefer to be called "Bob" or "Bobby" or "Robbie." And that doesn't even take into consideration different spellings or pronunciations. 

The bottom line is that you can never assume someone's given first name is what they prefer to use. More often than not, it isn't. So you'd best never assume. Ask them what they prefer to be called. I've found that such an effort is always appreciated. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

A Professional Nickname that Speaks to My Brand (Boots on the Ground)

Here's the final post in my series on professional nicknames that helped give me insight into my personal "brand." 

By way of background, I don't like using military analogies to describe non-military matters. I believe it disrespects, and even trivializes, what happens in war. That said, I was touched to be given the nickname "boots on the ground" by a faculty member at one school where I served as a Dean. 

This person observed me at an event, bustling about, tending to everything from the placement of name tags on the registration table to cleaning up after the event ended. Smiling, she commented, "Mitchell, no task is too small for you, and no detail too trivial. You really get things done--whatever that is. You're our boots on the ground--making sure what needs to get done gets done, often by pitching in and not simply leading by fiat."

In my own words, "I "get s**** done." Talk alone only goes so far. All the plans in the world don't amount to much if someone isn't willing to take action--doing anything and everything necessary to complete a project, hold an event, etc. That, to me, is the meaning of "boots on the ground," and I'm proud now to share that nickname with you as yet another element of my personal "brand."

Monday, January 24, 2022

A Professional Nickname That Speaks to My Brand (The Velvet Whip)

To continue my intermittent series on professional nicknames that have helped me to better understand my personal "brand," consider the following scenario and how it gave rise to yet another professional nickname.

I was a communications consultant for a mid-size non-profit AIDS organization in the early 2000s. They served a specific LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) population, and by virtue of their mission inclusivity was fundamental to every aspect of their work. That meant great effort was taken to ensure that everyone had a voice in matters large and small--including some of the work product I was responsible for producing.

This emphasis on inclusiveness meant that producing documents representing the agency took more time and effort than at other organizations. I needed to both encourage participation and move the process along, lest what I was responsible for not get done.

And things did get done--specifically, the agency's first brochure and annual report. I had to counter my own sense of urgency (and impatience) with every ounce of dedication I felt to this organization and its mission. I was delighted that we were able to complete the projects, on time and under budget. But I was even more delighted with the feedback I received from the then Executive Director at a midpoint in the process.

"Mitchell, you really understand us. You've taken great pains to solicit input on your projects, while at the same time staying on us to meet deadlines imposed by our funder. You've done so with a deft touch. You're the velvet whip."

The velvet whip, indeed. I'm someone who can get things done with a persistent but gentle touch. And so you understand yet another nickname that highlights an aspect of my personal "brand."

Friday, January 21, 2022

A Professional Nickname That Speaks to My Brand (Meat Thermometer)

A recent blog post discussed professional nicknames as cues about one's personal brand. I've had three such nicknames. Here's the background on the first one: meat thermometer.

Yes--someone I worked for said I was like a meat thermometer. Yes--it was meant as a compliment. More importantly, the comment helped crystalize my thinking about one of my strengths--and, therefore, a critical component of what I like to think of as my "brand." Let me explain. 

I worked at a public relations agency for two and a half years.  I look back on the experience with fondness, even while acknowledging it was a difficult place to work. The owner had a habit of coming down hard on employees who he thought weren't delivering the results he believed were possible. The pressure was intense. We worked long hours and turnover was high. 

I got to know well most of my colleagues during my two and half years at this agency. I heard about their challenges in working with clients, supervisors and colleagues. I was very social, and became known as such--which was accompanied by a quick (and occasionally sarcastic) wit that ruffled some feathers.

Little did I know my socializing had been noticed, and favorably so. The co-owner of the company, who alternated between being personable and difficult, approached me one day as I poured myself a cup of coffee. "Mitchell," she stated, "how is it going? How is everyone doing? What's the general mood like here?" I didn't know how to respond, much less whether it would be wise to do so. l remained silent.

She continued: "Mitchell, I ask you because I know you know what's going on. You have a sense of what morale is like. You know what people are thinking. You have a keen understanding of our agency and its culture. You're like a meat thermometer."

I answered her questions to the best of my ability, and then turned away, aghast at this new moniker. A meat thermometer measures the internal temperature of meat and other cooked foods, letting the chef know whether they're ready and safe to consume. I couldn't fathom how that in any way described who I was.  

Many years later, long after I left the agency, I came to understand the real meaning of my "meat thermometer" nickname. 

I saw I indeed had a knack for understanding what was really going on in that organization, and in most of those I've worked for since as an employee and consultant. I listened and observed, noting what was said as well as what went unsaid. I can "read" situations--whether in an organization, group, or a classroom, and based on that insight, could respond accordingly. It remains hard for me to put into words this skill, or gift, as I like to think of it, even to this day. I just have a feel for what's going on beneath the surface in groups and organizations. In short, I'm grateful for the third party observation that enabled me to zero in on this ability and to understand a critical element in my brand as an educator and consultant.

So you may continue to call me the "meat thermometer."

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

My Fellowship to Develop Instructional Materials for Systems Engineering Professionals

I’ve been accepted into The Learning, Education, and Assessment Fellows (LEAF) Program at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), where I serve as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Defense Management. It is a one-year fellowship that encourages and supports experienced faculty to lead efforts that foster a strong teaching culture at NPS.

During my fellowship I’ll be spearheading a learning initiative including faculty from the Departments of Defense Management and Systems Engineering (SE). The outcome will be instructional modules covering communications challenges specifically faced by SE students while they’re attending NPS, as well as ones they are likely to encounter in future roles they fill in the U.S. Navy. 

NPS is encouraging individual faculty members to forge relationships with faculty across the university to deliver an interdisciplinary education that better prepares students for their subsequent Navy responsibilities. In addition, we’ve been asked to reimagine and subsequently restructure existing courses and curricula for shorter, dynamic formats that fit into revised degree programs. My project checks all these boxes, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to work on it during the remainder of 2022. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Twelve Strategies I Use That Have Made Me a Better Teacher (which I never read about in any book)

I've taught for over 20 years. During that time I've read countless books on teaching. I've read articles on teaching published by trade and academic publications. I've listened to podcasts. Yet my key learnings come from classroom experience. I share twelve of these key learnings, or strategies, below. 

  1. Don’t introduce new technology for students to use UNLESS it makes sense for the teaching of the class. Also, you should have achieved some degree of mastery with the technology. 
  2. Attempt to tackle individual student technology issues on your own, assuming you can do so. By doing so yourself, students who contact you often have one less step to take to solve their problem. That saves them time having to wait for a response from IT.  
  3. Provide an EXTREMELY detailed syllabus. Include all assignments and as much information about course policies/procedures as possible. Review assignment details carefully at the beginning of the course. Repeat them as due dates approach. You can never mention due dates too often. 
  4. Take every opportunity to mention other classes students take, and integrate into your discussion topics covered in these other classes. In some instances you're class builds on this other material. In other instances, absent you making the relationship between different courses explicit, students may not make the connections critical for their learning. 
  5. Be proactive in terms of working with students to complete their assignments. Ask them to meet with you to brainstorm ideas and review assignment drafts in advance of final submission deadlines. 
  6. Admit to your mistakes. You will make mistakes. None of us is perfect. For example, you might have misspellings in your PowerPoint slides. Perhaps you have one deadline for an assignment in your syllabus and one in your PowerPoint presentation. It makes no difference. Recognize your error, apologize as deemed appropriate, and correct it.
  7. Spend most of your "grading" time on providing substantive feedback. That includes the subject matter AND the writing or presenting itself. Spend significantly less on actually assigning letter or numerical grades. The former will be much more valuable to students than the latter.
  8. Seek ongoing feedback from students on the value and effectiveness of what you do in class. That includes readings, assignments, and class activities.
  9. Pay close attention to narrative comments in course evaluations. Consider outlier evaluations carefully. Such evaluations differ markedly in substance and tone from the vast majority of evaluations (which are positive). Others offer suggestions or make comments that no one else in the class does. There’s usually something in these evaluations that can help you improve your teaching. That is, while negative (and even harsh) evaluations sting, there's often something in them you can use to improve your teaching. 
  10. Change components of the course in response to repeated student feedback. If students in different classes over time negatively comment on some aspect of a course, it's probably worth revising.  If you hear a specific suggestion for improvement more than once, it's probably worth trying it out at least once in your class. 
  11. Be ready to change your class real-time, if, for example, an especially rich class discussion merits more time. Or, for example, a student shares an on-topic experience with you privately that you believe would benefit the entire class. In short, plan individual class sessions but remain flexible and nimble to respond to student needs. 
  12. Devote a portion of the last class to critique the class itself. The course learning objectives (or outcomes) serve as a useful starting point. For example, for each learning outcome, I ask students:
    • What concepts were critical to achieving this learning outcome? 
    • How well did you feel this learning outcome was met?
    • What will you take away from/apply from the class related to this learning outcome? What have you already applied?
    • How can the class be improved in terms of achieving this specific learning outcome?

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Why I Believe in the Sanctity of Learning Objectives (or Outcomes)

In a Twitter thread a few months ago, participants questioned the need for learning outcomes (or objectives) in teaching and training. To me, they’re indispensable. Here's why.

First, learning objectives serve as guideposts for my class or workshop. I’ve found that unless you know where you’re going it’s easy to veer off track. Learning objectives provide a roadmap. They help instructor and participate alike focus on what's most important. Besides, no matter how much time you have as an instructor or workshop leader, it’s never enough. There’s always a lot more material you could include. Therefore, you must constantly decide what material to cover and what to leave out.  Learning objectives can help guide you as you make these often difficult decisions. 

Equally important, learning objectives provide a means of accountability. Share them at the outset. Then, use them as touchstones for assessing engagement and learning throughout the course. Finally, as part of your assessment at the end of the program, you can use learning objectives as a baseline. Invite participants to consider the relative success in achieving each learning outcome. Ask them to consider which activities best contributed to their learning experiences. Invite suggestions for alternatives. You can't help but gain critical insight into the overall success of your program. More importantly, you'll benefit from fresh perspectives. These can only improve your teaching and student learning.  

Universities typically provide learning objectives or outcomes for each course. Faculty develop, vet, and approve them. Each set of course learning objectives supports broader program or degree learning outcomes. So you might say as a faculty member, one has little choice but to keep them. That said, they're more than mere window dressing for me. I rely on them every day as I plan and assess learning activities.  I would no sooner jettison them than I would agree to (yet another) root canal on my two front teeth.  

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Unsolicited Feedback (Nicknames) Can Help You Identify What Your "Brand" Is (first of a multipart series)

Over the last 30 years I've received a lot of feedback on my work--some direct, some indirect. Sometimes I only was able to fully fathom the meaning of specific feedback after many years. The nicknames bestowed on me fall into the latter category. I believe they capture the essence of who I am as a person and professional in ways I could never have imagined. 

I didn't ask for these specific nicknames. I didn't solicit feedback that in turn inspired that individual to come up with a nickname for me. Instead, each nickname emerged almost spontaneously during a conversation with a colleague. That they were shared with me in this fashion makes them even more meaningful.  The individuals who shared these nicknames with me have long since come and gone from my life. But their words stuck. 

In short, I consider these nicknames as evidence of my "brand." They reflect personal attributes and attitudes, not so much what I do. They nonetheless stand out. They offer ways for me to talk about my achievements through others' eyes. 

In future blog posts I'll share the stories behind three of these nicknames. More important, I'll share why each remains relevant in my work as an educator and consultant. 

Monday, September 27, 2021

Learning to Know When to Quit

In a 9/23/21 interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Warriors' coach Steve Kerr commented on his longevity as he has the third-longest tenure of any coach in the NBA (National Basketball Association). That achievement in part speaks to the rapid turnover in the coaching ranks of all professional sports. Kerr acknowledges this fact, recognizing that sometime, someday, he too will leave his position. To that point, he states:

“It will be obvious when that time comes. It will be obvious for the organization and the team when change needs to be made. It will be obvious to me, too."

Kerr's remarks beg the question: how will he know when it's "obvious," i.e., time to relinquish his position? What criteria will he use (consciously or unconsciously) to make that decision (assuming he gets to make that decision before it is made for him)?

I don't know Kerr, so I can't ask him. Nor can I glean his thoughts from other interviews with him that I've read. What I do know, however, is that knowing when to quit is as much an art as it is a science. And it's one I've had to learn--and continue to practice--over many years.

The decision starts with the recognition of changes, both in the environment and yourself. In regard to the former, perhaps it's shifts in personnel. You no longer have the opportunity to work with a group of people you've grown to trust and like. Perhaps management has changed. Maybe your role has changed. In short, the context you've become accustomed to (and even enjoyed) no longer exists.

On the individual level, that means perhaps you're not up for the task of adapting to the changing circumstances. You may no longer feel challenged. You're not learning. You're not growing. You can't see what else you can achieve in the position.

It's time to step away from your role, you conclude, while good feelings about your work remain palpable. Yet sometimes, you can't, or simply won't. The familiar seems better than the unknown; moreover, if you've invested considerable time and energy, you might consider quitting a waste of what you'd achieved to that point. In short, you remain in the role--even while you have that feeling in your gut--one that you might not be able to put into words--telling you that it's time to leave.  

Here's where the situation can deteriorate rapidly. You grow more short-tempered, frustrated by daily tasks you at best once tackled with gusto or at the very least with calm professionalism. A dark cloud of sarcasm, criticalness, and negativity may invade your space. You find it difficult to stay motivated, often feeling like you're going through the motions. You may even feel depressed. 

You don't want to get to this last phase, which I've experienced at times throughout my career when I didn't take heed of that feeling pointing me in the direction I needed to go.  Not only  was it not good for me or anyone around me, but it also made it more difficult to extricate myself from the position. 

So the challenge becomes, how do I know the precise point at which to leave, and how do I do so with all due professionalism and enthusiasm? My bottom line: it's time to go when 1) I feel like I have to force myself to do what's essential to my work over a period of time 2) my enthusiasm for the challenges I'll like face wanes, or 3) I simply don't work every day to improve my work. It's time to plan my exit while moving on to something bigger and better. 

At the same time, I recognize that I have a choice. I can choose to stay in the role and remain stuck in my negative feelings, or I can leave. 

Entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers has captured these sentiments in his standard response to opportunities presented to him. In his wordsit's either "hell yeah!" or no. You're excited about the opportunity, or you aren't. If you're not, pass on it. To that I'll add, regarding an ongoing opportunity, when my natural enthusiasm wanes, it's time to change

Steve Kerr continues to say, "hell yeah!" to his work as the Warriors' coach. I'll be curious to see how he evolves in the roll, and how he manages the circumstances of his inevitable departure.