Category Archives: Family

Good enough teaching, and trust

I spent most of Wednesday at the 17th annual Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning, put on by my new employer, Grand Valley State University. It was a full day of good ideas and good people, and I really enjoyed engaging with both. One experience from today  has really stuck with me, and it happened during the opening session as Kathleen Bailey, professor in the Criminal Justice department, was speaking about the changing student demographic we are encountering (not just at GVSU but everywhere in higher ed).

Kathleen comes from a fairly unique position as not only a professor of CJ and assistant director of freshman orientation but also as a former parole officer for teenagers. In her talk, she drew some parallels between parenting, being a parole officer, and working with college students. I was pretty uncomfortable with that three-way comparison at first, but the more she spoke, the more I had to admit the similarities were pretty striking. She spoke about three conditions that troubled teens — and indeed all children — need to have if they are to thrive:

  1. Kids need to have a good “holding environment” — that is, they need to be in a place where they have a feeling of safety and attachment, and to some extent basic respect as a human being.
  2. Having found a good holding environment, kids then need to have provision of contrasting or contradicting experiences — what Kathleen called “differentiation” — to develop a defined sense of self. For example, a kid who has violent behavioral tendencies needs to be given experiences where he cares about others and acts in appropriate ways, to be shown that he can be kind and gentle and does not have to always follow his tendencies.
  3. Finally, kids need to have an abiding presence of someone else — a person who “stays put” with them and gives them a safe place to integrate all the personal changes they experience through differentiation.

This process is all about building the substrate of a relationship with a kid upon which a mature, productive person can be built. The building process has to be carried out by the kid — the kid with violent tendencies has to choose to act differently, and nobody else can to that for him — but the change that takes place cannot happen in the absence of that “abiding presence” that creates the environment.

Probably by now the comparison with parenting and teaching should be clear. These, too, are about transforming the lives of young people through the presence and enabling work of another person. Kathleen referenced the notion of good-enough parenting (espoused by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) as a model for this kind of relationship. It’s not about being perfect or doing the right things all the time, but rather about “attuning” to the child who is in your care — that is, to attempt to respond to the needs of the child/kid/student, especially emotional needs. The ideal result is that the child/kid/student has a sense of being understood, cared for, and valued. (That’s paraphrased from the article linked just above.)

We faculty tend to focus on covering our content and drilling students to ensure they are mastering a skill set. These things aren’t unimportant. But for students, particularly new students entering into college or university, there is a strong emotional component that intermediates the learning process. They tend to be unsure of themselves; they are struggling to make social connections in a new place; they struggle with homesickness; they are inexperienced at managing freedom and end up making poor personal choices. On top of all this, if we faculty are doing our jobs, we’re asking them to stick their necks out and work harder than they ever have, and wrestle with ideas that are just beyond their grasp. So of course there is a lot of emotional stress at play. It behooves us to build this substrate of a relationship where students have those three things they need to thrive.

I am certainly not good at this sort of thing. I am an introvert and a geek, and emotional stuff like this is not my forte. But I take away two profound things from Kathleen’s talk. First, my personal preferences are irrelevant. If students are going to learn in my classes, they must have a sense that they have from me the basic respect afforded to all people, especially those embarking on a journey through a university education. Second, I can take comfort that all I have to be is “good enough”. From the article I linked earlier:

As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need “perfect” parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children.

That ought to be something all parents and teachers keep in mind every day. (Parole officers too, I suppose.

I suppose all this boils down to the concept of trust. Students need to know that they can trust me. I need to invest trust in my students (even though they, as imperfect people and works-in-progress, will break that trust). On a bigger level, my colleagues and I have to have a mutual sense of trust to work together. My Dean needs to trust me, and I him. In fact the whole fabric of higher education is predicated on trust. No one can learn or teach in a college where the network of trust is not iron-clad. If trust is missing from a college, what you have is a dying college.

On the other hand, where trust flourishes, learning and teaching flourish. That is the kind of environment I want for myself and my students, and so that’s where my work begins.

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Filed under Education, Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Vocation

Four lessons from my Lenten social media fast

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This past Sunday was Easter, of course. Easter marks the endpoint of Lent, and therefore it was the end of my 40-day fast from Facebook and Twitter. I do admit that I broke cover once to announce my upcoming job change, and will also admit that I lurked a lot on both services during the last 10 days or so, reading but not commenting. Otherwise, though, I did manage to stay off both Facebook and Twitter for the duration (auto-posted tweets didn’t count).

I’ll have to say my first real tweet after breaking the fast felt awkward — like I’d been out in the wilderness for 40 days and had stepped back into a once-familiar place with people who had never left. I’m gradually getting back into the swing of it, but I also feel like I have a much different perspective on my social media involvement after giving most of it up for 40 days. I’ve learned a few things about the role of social media in my work and life:

Lesson 1: Denoising your life is good. I found this out within days of starting the fast. I didn’t realize until I gave Twitter and Facebook up for a few days just how dependent I’d become on checking status reports every few minutes, not to mention creating status updates myself. There is a tremendous amount of time bound up in these little 2- to 5-minute bursts of social media that I really benefitted from reclaiming. But more than that, I found that once I went cold turkey on Facebook and Twitter, the pace of my life slowed down several notches. I felt less hurried and more relaxed. When you make yourself try to keep up with a continuous stream of status updates, you soon begin to feel like Lucy and Ethel on the candy wrapping assembly line:

But that’s not all I learned.

Lesson 2: Getting rid of the noise is good, but losing the signal in the process is not so good. Many times over the last couple of months, I’d catch myself leaning over the keyboard about to compose a tweet asking for help or ideas on a question, or looking at Facebook to see what my friends all over the world were doing. But I had to catch myself because I was on a fast. I learned through all this that I really value the thoughts and ideas of the people and groups I follow — these thoughts and ideas enrich my life, fire my imagination, make me laugh at silly stuff, and generally make me a better person and professional. I missed all that, and the people behind them, a lot.

Despite the value I place in my connections, I also learned that:

Lesson 3: It’s good not to share everything. I remember quite clearly having lunch with my dissertation advisor one day, and he gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: Always keep secrets. Work on things that nobody knows about but yourself. While sharing is generally good, and while the power of being able to share yourself quickly and on a large scale through Twitter and Facebook creates a powerful opportunity to connect with others, I think there’s a point of sharing past which the individual starts to get diluted. For example, during the first couple of weeks of Lent, I attended the ICTCM in Denver. There was no tweeting from there, although there was ample opportunity. Instead, I kept notes, talked to people, and made myself social in real life. It was good, and I think it would have been less good if I had taken time away from the here-and-now to tweet about the here-and-now.

Then, the Wednesday after I returned from Denver, I noticed on my right leg a series of painful, angry-looking red streaks going from my lower right calf all the way up to the top of the thigh. I went to the doctor to have it checked out, and they sent me directly to the emergency room, and from there they sent me directly to a hospital room. I was diagnosed with cellulitis, an infection of the subcutaneous tissue under the skin that I probably picked up from walking around barefoot in my Denver hotel room. I spent three days in the hospital getting IV antibiotics around the clock to fight the infection. Had I waited till Thursday morning to go to the doctor, the infection would have made it to my femoral artery and I likely would have gone septic, and it would have gotten considerably worse from there.

I’ll admit it: I was scared, frustrated, and sorely in need of people to connect with during those three days. Had I been using social media, I would have been posting Facebook and Twitter updates, probably with pictures, about as often as I was getting antibiotics. But by choice, I kept this experience to myself, to share with my wife and kids, my doctors, and with God. Instead of tweeting, I prayed and wrote and talked to my wife and children. I watched a lot of Netflix and got some grading done. So while it would have been a comfort to have social media as an outlet for sharing with others, by concentrating my sharing to the real people in my life who matter the most, and keeping the rest a secret (till now), the whole experience somehow has more meaning and lasting power in my memory.

Finally, I learned:

Lesson 4: Social media is a permanent part of who I am, and when managed well it is a powerful force for good. Early on during Lent I realized I liked the slower pace of life so much that I wondered if I would go back to Twitter and Facebook once it was all over. Honestly, I can’t see giving those two services up. I’ve carefully groomed and built my list of people and groups to follow so that whenever I look in on the Twitter update stream, I learn something. Facebook is the same way except on a more personal level with friends from real life. So I can’t see just giving these things up. They are an antidote to stagnation. But I do like taking a more minimal and focused approach to engaging with social media — which, by the way, leaves me more ideas and energy for blogging — so that the signal-to-noise ratio is high.

So ends my Lenten social media fast, with results that I consider successful. I feel that I’m now more apt to use social media outlets to grow and learn and connect in positive ways, less prone to share indiscriminately and inappropriately. Like most things, it takes some time away to help you appreciate what you have.

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Working and having a life, redux

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The Chronicle has an article on a Harvard survey of Gen-X professors and their attitudes toward the balance of work and the rest of life. The professors surveyed indicate that they want to be successul in their careers but don’t want to sell out their personal lives in the process. The main survey report is here (PDF, 2.1MB). Here’s a representative quote from one of the interviewees, a business professor, talking about the perils of overwork that Gen-Xers perceive in their older colleagues:

There’s really nothing to be gained by closing your door and working until 11:00 o’clock at night, other than the tenure hurdle that is somewhere out there. If you want to pole vault over it, you go right ahead, but no one here is going to back up the Brinks truck and start dumping all this cash on you, simply because you’ve decided to work like you have three jobs. So that’s the approach I take – sometimes you have to know when there’s this point of diminishing return, where if I keep pounding at this one front, then yes, I may nail it, but at the same time, it will then for a very high cost in other areas.
Although the sample size for this study is painfully small — just 16 professors (the Chronicle article says 12) — the responses are nonetheless fascinating to read and range across a wide variety of work/life balance issues. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

The study is from the same group at Harvard to which I referred in this post from 2006. There, I was responding to comments form some older (or “embedded”) faculty who took the reluctance of Gen-Xers to work until 11:00 PM every night as some form of laziness. Some of the comments at the new Chronicle article tend in that direction also, and conversely there are comments from Gen-Xers that lob equal and opposite stereotypes back at the older faculty.

Unfortunately, until COACHE comes out with a scientific nationwide  study on this issue (with, at the very least, n > 16), all we can do is rely upon anecdotes to understand the issues. But it does seem that most GenX faculty I know share my incredulity at the priorities of some other faculty who place work as the be all-end all of their lives. We also share an extreme irritation toward the inefficient use of time that seems endemic to academia. I shudder to think about how many meetings have I been forced into that have no agenda, spend 45 minutes in chit-chat or irrelevant philosophizing, and accomplish nothing.  And — very especially — we share a kind of hopelessness in considering the rewards structure of academia that gives the loudest applause to those faculty who cut the most out of their lives and say “no” to work the least.

I can only speak for myself (until COACHE gets more data), but I have learned that the best sacrifice to make is not to take time away from your wife and kids so you can get another publication out or hold office hours at 10:00 PM, but rather to lay down hard boundaries around your family and make the crossing of those boundaries by work to be unacceptable. I have learned to say a resounding “no” when work gets to be too much. I have tenure, and surely if I can get tenure then anybody can, but I am coming to understand that I will probably never win one of those prestigious teaching or service awards at my college simply because I maintain those boundaries and protect my family time ruthlessly.

And you know what? So be it. I have three happy and healthy kids who see a great deal of both Mom and Dad every day, who never want for play time or story time, and who know without question that they and their Mom are top priority in Dad’s life. This is more important, more satisfying, and ultimately more crucial to the well-being of the next generation than anything I can possibly crank out in my career. And if it ever gets to the point where my job and my family life cannot coexist, guess which one I’ll jettison without a second thought?

Although hopefully it will never come to that, and I have no reason to think that at my current place of employment it will. And hopefully higher ed as a whole will begin to see that there are a lot of people like me out there and learn to respect our boundaries even as we work to respect the mission of the academy.
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Daily routines

John Cook shared this interesting article on Twitter the other day. It lists 25 great thinkers and their daily rituals. This got me thinking about my daily routine, the little rituals that I observe, and how the rhythms of a routine help me find balance, stability, and productivity in my life and work. I’ve seen the value of a routine through my kids (ages 6, 4, and 1), who early on needed routines to help them learn day from night and know when to eat and nap, and who still need to stick to a routine or else become incorrigible.

While having three kids this young makes routines and rituals more a matter of probability than anything and routines hard to follow, there are a few rituals I like to keep around no matter what happens:

  • I get up at 5:00, and from 5:30-6:15 I do Matins from the Treasury of Daily Prayer, eat breakfast, and get all the stuff the kids need for school that day assembled and ready to go. Then I get the kids up (if they aren’t awake early, as is all too often the case) and we’re out the door for school by 7:15.
  • I try to get to the office by 8:00 or a little after and reply to messages for no more than a half hour. Anything messages I don’t get to wait till the afternoon or later. I don’t even use Entourage or a “push” email client; I use the web access to our email server so that I’m only alerted to new messages when I ask it to alert me.
  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays I try to take 8:30-9:30 and do something scholarly and/or creative. This might be working on a computer program, watching part of a video from MIT OpenCourseware or iTunesU, reading a journal article, working on a blog post, or the like. When I first became a professor I was instructed that I needed to find large chunks of time in which to do research, but this approach simply hasn’t worked for me. Instead, I try to take a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook,  shoehorning intellectual work into my busy schedule one 30- or 60-minute segment at a time.
  • On Wednesdays, I usually don’t teach at all (it’s a feature of my college’s scheduling). So I give myself until 10:00 to do my GTD Weekly Review. Then I take the entire remainder of the day and try to get every single course I teach fully prepped through the following Tuesday. That way there is no preparation work to be done through the week, and all I have to do is pull out my materials and walk to class when it’s time. This doesn’t always work, but no ritual works all the time, so I don’t let it bother me as long as I am prepared for at least tomorrow’s classes.
  • I almost always make dinner for the family, and I eat with them and then play games or horse around or what-have-you until it’s bedtime for the kids, which is 7:30-8:00 at our place.
  • From 8:30-9:30, I like to spend time walking on the treadmill while I am watching a course video from iTunesU on the iPod Touch. (Right now I’m doing Gil Strang’s linear algebra course at MIT; also on my “course schedule” is an intro biology course at UC-Berkeley and a basic statistics course from a community college.) I do that 3-4 nights a week. On the other nights I will try to practice my bass guitar (through headphones, of course), work on blog posts, or something else fun.
  • I always read in bed until I fall asleep, usually by 11:00 PM.

And I try extremely hard never to bring work home — no grading at nights or on the weekends for me unless it’s crunch time. This is a commitment I made to myself and to the family early on. I eventually became a GTD disciple precisely because I’ve found that particular approach to work to be very amenable to a satisfying family life, uninterrupted by work tasks that could (should) have gotten done earlier had I been more focused.

Now it’s your turn. What are your daily routines and rituals? How do they make you happy and productive?

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Thoughts on the first day of kindergarten

2030_02_2---Yellow-School-Bus_webI’ve been lax in posting lately because I’ve been enjoying an all-too-brief interim period between the end of my summer Calculus class and the beginning of Fall semester at the end of this month. I’ve been splitting time this summer between being a stay-at-home dad to my three kids during the day and then teaching Calculus at night. Since the end of the Calculus class in July, I’ve had two weeks where pretty much my only “task” is to hang out with the kids — playing games, doing puzzles, going to the Childrens Museum, etc. It’s been a blessed time, the kind of quality time with one’s kids that a lot of dads only dream about having. But today that period has come to an end with the crossing of a major milestone: The 5-year old, my oldest, just got on the bus for her first day of kindergarten.

Lucy has been intellectually ready for kindergarten for a while now (she went to an excellent Montessori preschool for two years) and has been relishing all summer long the idea that she is heading to kindergarten while her little sister is still in preschool and her brother is still just a baby. So she showed no signs of nervousness, fear, or sadness this morning. As for her dad, though? Not really trepidation, but definitely a sense that both my kid and all of us as a family have crossed over into a major undertaking, namely a minimum thirteen-year journey through the very educational system I have blogged so much about here at this web site. (And if she takes her old man’s route, this becomes a 22-year journey.) And definitely a bit of a lump in my throat as I watched her ride off down the street, and as I sit here now knowing she’s 30 minutes in to her formal education.

It gives me a sudden, deep, and above all deeply personal sense of perspective about things like teacher licensure and school choice and other issues of the K-12 school system we debate about so much. It’s one thing to be a mathematician writing hack jobs articles about K-12 education and quite another to be a dad whose kid is doing the homework, riding the bus, being affected by the decisions of school boards. Perspective doesn’t necessarily make your thinking about these things any more informed, but it does make you think a lot harder about them as the abstractions of issues like licensing, redistricting, and so on become very concrete — as concrete and real as the big yellow bus that pulls up to our next-door neighbors’ house to take my daughter to a school where her lifelong intellectual development is in the balance.

So I hope that, just as my teaching changed for the better (IMO) once I had kids and could see my students as human beings near the end of this educational journey rather than Just Another Freshman Class, I hope that my thinking and writing about schools will change for the better now that my daughter, and by extension both my wife and I, are in it. And to all those parents who are sharing this journey with us — and especially to all the school teachers, administrators, school board members, politicians, etc. whose decisions and actions shape our kids — our family is pulling for you.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Family, Personal

On not paying for your kids’ college

Meagan Francis has this “bad parent” column today in which she confesses that she has no plans whatsoever to pay her five kids’ ways through college. Snippet:

Our plan is to assist each of our children with lots of support (including living at home if necessary), encouragement, and information; and as much financial support as we are able to — and that it makes sense to — give. […] Paying our kids’ ways through school has become such an integral part of “good” parenting that we feel pressured to do it even if footing the bill means mortgaging our own futures. Yet even Suze Orman warns that it doesn’t make sense to tap into our retirement funds or put our own finances at risk in order to subsidize the education of young, able-bodied people with lots of time ahead of them. By doing so, couldn’t we in effect punish those adult children when they have to, one day, support our broke and aging butts?

My wife and I are pretty much of the same mind as Francis here. I made it all the way through four years of undergrad (including two summers) and five years of graduate school with my mom and dad paying only for my utility bills during my final two years of undergrad (because I had moved out of the dorms), textbooks that my scholarships didn’t pay for, and some “allowance” money. Their total financial investment in the nine years between high school and finishing my Ph.D. (at super-expensive Vanderbilt, no less) was probably about $5000 and certainly less than $10,000. The rest was paid for through scholarships, assistantships, work-study, and part-time jobs. I never applied for a student loan, so I finished up my PhD with no debt. Plus, I gained some valuable life- and work-related skills through my work-study and part-time jobs that added a lot of value to my education. Having to work while in a rigorous major at an academically-focused university forced me to come to grips with time management and making good choices about my priorities, and I would like for my kids to get that kind of “education within an education” too.

So my wife and I are firm believers that socking away a fully-funded college fund for each kid is just not necessary. We plan on saving up enough to be able to help our kids through college but not to pay for it. Actually our plan is to instill an excellent work ethic and a love of learning in our kids on the front end, right now even before they start school, so that they’ll do extremely well in K-12 and end up getting a full ride somewhere. And believe me, if you’re a good high school student, you can get a full ride somewhere. It may not be at an Ivy League school or MIT, but it will very likely be at a number of really good schools that aren’t especially well-known but where you can get just as good of an education, if not better, than at the big-name places.

The important thing for students and their parents to keep in mind is balance. Francis’ advice taken to its extreme would have some students trying to manage 18-hour credit loads while working 40+ hours per week to pay for it, and that will lead to failures both at work and at school. If your financial situation is going to require this kind of insane schedule, it’s probably better to wait 3-4 years before starting college and get a job to save up money; or plan out a 5- or 6-year path through college taking about 12 hours a semester; or both.

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The iPod touch: Keeping new parents sane since 2009

With Harrison’s arrival on the 15th, I have had neither the time nor the raw material for blogging about math, education, or technology. Instead I’ve been mostly figuring out how to decrypt my new son’s little coded messages and trying to sleep when I can. But there is one tech item from my experience of the last week that I would like especially to highlight: the ongoing awesomeness of the iPod touch.

Originally I wanted an iPod touch to replace my aging third-generation Photo iPod. I figured the main purpose of an iPod is music playback, and having internet and video capability would be sort of nice too. But now I see that the iPod touch is a lot more than a music player: It’s a passport to new-parent sanity. Consider the following ways the iPod touch has been of use lately:

– I used the iPod touch to provide real-time updates of my wife’s delivery — well, at least right up to the point we went to the delivery room — for friends and family using Twitter and Facebookfacebook-update I was even able to make some short posts to our family blog, although blogging on the iPod screen keyboard really takes it out of you.

– I found out that while you’re in the hospital having a baby, the moments of genuine excitement are intense but sparse. Mostly there are lengthy periods when you’re just there in the hospital room with nothing to do. Fortunately before I came to the hospital with the Mrs. I stocked up the iPod with every LOST episode I owned and a whole bunch of podcasts, so when baby and mom were asleep and I wasn’t tired (ha! Remember when I wasn’t tired?) I could fend off the boredom.

– Although I have never actually done this, you could use the iPod in its originally intended mode, as a music player, to play back calming music to a newborn with one hand while holding the baby in the other.

– Perhaps the most frequent use of the iPod touch has been during my overnight shifts looking after the baby. These are usually from 8PM to midnight and involve trying to lay down in a quiet, dark room knowing that any attempted sleep is going to be interrupted by a suddenly hysterical baby. The first night we were home and I was on deck, I ended up rocking the baby in my left arm while seated and using my right hand to Twitter to the outside world. Now this has become something of a nightly live-blog of my exploits as parent-on-duty.  I use the tag #babyshift to highlight these posts.

babyshift

Sometimes I report on what’s happening during my shift. Sometimes I throw out questions to the “audience” which turn in to good discussions about parenting tips and tricks. I’ve had very lively conversation threads during these times, while I Twitter one-handed in the rocking chair in our bedroom waiting for Harrison to settle into sleep. The “#babyshift show” has made what would normally be a tedious parenting task into something fun, even something to look forward to. You simply can’t overestimate the value of connecting to the outside world when your whole world is turned inward because of a new baby, no matter how wonderful that baby is. (Join me most nights between 8-9 PM by going to my Twitter page.)

So here’s to the iPod touch and the whole idea of mobile access to the Internet.

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