Monthly Archives: December 2010

Breaking down the walls of the university: Education with purpose

Amongst the midst of the crazy end-of-semester whirlwind, I had the delightful pleasure of attending an informal Q&A session with Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Syracuse University.  Dr. Cantor is a social psychologist by training, much like myself.  But she is a thoroughbred of administration staff, holding titles such as Chair of the Psychology Department at Yale and Dean at University of Michigan (much UNLIKE myself).

In going to this talk, I didn’t have too many expectations. I knew she would be talking about the purpose of higher education, but to be quite honest, I feel that this topic can often be drawn out into a boring, uninspiring message that might as well be left on a recording machine for you to bore yourself to death with at your own convenience.  But not her.  Not this talk.  This talk reminded me why the purpose of higher education is, in fact, an exhilarating topic.

She focused mostly on how the university needs to be fully integrated into its surrounding environment, jumping into partnerships with the local community.  Much to my delight, she emphasized the importance of making sustainable, lasting integration with the community, not just some colonial attempts to “save the poor person” with our “special gifts and abilities.”  The community has as much to offer us as we have to offer them.  I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, she talked about the inspiring programs they are doing in Syracuse such as having the local community run their own newspaper and giving youth a place to come and get training in the arts as a means of self-expression.  Each of the projects she mentioned sounded like an educator’s dream, but surprisingly, this was not the most impactful part of the discussion for me.

For me, the most inspiring part of her discussion was the fervor with which she spoke about her job.  She talked about how her training as a social psychologist made her especially well-trained for the job of administration she holds, and then she went on to talk about the countless gifts and abilites that exist among individuals in the university.  Seeing her light up reminded me of why I do what I do.  Sure, I love just doing my job.  But it’s more than that.  I – ME – have special skills that prepare me to serve my community and improve the world I’m living in.  I can stand in my world and change the atmosphere around me, just by the work I do.  That’s powerful.  That’s inspiring.  And that’s a reason not to grow too weary when you’re job is exhausting you.

The only challenge left now is figuring out how to tear down the walls of this university.

The fine art of writing

Writing is such an enigma to me.  It is a skill that is both learned and somewhat in-born, I think.  However, it is a skill you may possess in one instant at other moments feel like you never learned at all.  I have turned to blogging this morning to remind myself that I can write, I can communicate, even if for now it’s not in the realm I prefer.  You see, I have finally hit what feels like an unscalable wall on a manuscript I am currently revising and resubmitting.  And these walls always make me question if I can ever effectively say what I want to say.

I naively told myself, “Once you finish grading this and turning in those final projects, THEN you will have time.  THEN you can finish the manuscript revisions.”  But writing doesn’t work like that.  Here I sit at my desk, with ample time to crank out a large amount of revisions on my paper, yet somehow my brain is at a loss for words and ideas.  To have the time to work but not have the ability to create is one of the most frustrating feelings in the world.

I have rewritten my intro and discussion around four times.  One or two of those times involved major overhaul of my entire theory.  And it’s still not right.  It’s still not ready.  And the strange thing is that I can’t really force it to be ready.  I just have to come back to it over and over again until, in an instant, it all fits together.  And then you know you have your final draft.  But I cannot explain how this happens, this mystery of writing.  I cannot explain why the more time you have to write does not necessarily equate to the more writing you produce.  I have had wildly productive bursts of writing in short periods of time and hopelessly unproductive periods of writing over long stretches (e.g., my current manuscript).

But I have spent a lot of time writing manuscripts these past 7-8 months.  More time than I ever have before.  And these are the few things I’ve learned.

1.  You must write every day, even if you don’t feel like it.  Over time, this translates to more ease and comfort with writing.  This translates into more productivity, usually.

2.  Some days, you have to go somewhere outside of your ordinary workspace to get creative insight into the writing you are trying to do. Often times, I find that I have learned to associate my office with “failure” in writing because it has happened so many times in here.  So occasionally, I’ll write from home or a coffee shop or somewhere that I can break out of the mold and get new ideas flowing.

3.  Writing cannot be rushed.  Some days you are in the flow, other days you are not.  Either way, writing comes with time, patience, and diligence.  I have never been able to sprint my way through writing and see good results.

4.  Writing is rewarding and frustrating at the same time.  It’s such an amazing feeling to say something the exact way it should be said or how you want to say it.  But the journey to getting there is frustrating.

Given my ambivalence toward writing, I am often tempted to just give it up.  But then I remember, my job as a scientist is to be a storyteller.  To tell the world how things work and function.  And so I must communicate.  Without effective communication, my job is obsolete.  But it’s hard to remember that on days like today.  Days where I feel like no matter what I do, I cannot say what it is I hope to say.  Unfortunately, as a scientist, I often get so good at presenting data that I forget about the important stories that go with the data.  So here I am, sitting at my desk, back to the drawing board.  I have nothing but a pen in my hand and paper in front of me, and I am left to ask the most basic yet most difficult question about my research, “What is it that my audience MUST know?”

What a wonderful thought you thought: Reflections on course blogging

As I am wrapping up this semester, I say goodbye to another class full of what is my favorite course to teach.  The students, who are part of an interdisciplinary educational program at Baylor called the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (lovingly referred to as the BIC), are just outstanding.  Seriously – why isn’t all education interdisciplinary?  These students are unimaginably engaged in learning and exploring and integrating, and so it is an educator’s dream to teach them.  And I live that dream.  But as I say goodbye this time around, I have the blogs to reflect on.

You see, this semester was my first time to take a plunge into the uncharted territory of course blogging.  I had my students keep their own blogs to reflect on one of the courses I teach, Examined Life.  This is the perfect starter course for blogging since the whole course is dedicated to examining five dimensions of your life (intellectual, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual) and asking yourself the really hard questions like, “What do I want to do for the rest of my life?”  My hope was that it would provide an outlet for my students to express their own creative thoughts and reflections about the course.

In many ways, the blogging was not as successful as I had hoped.  Only about half of the class actively blogged during the semester and due to some blogging platform difficulties, almost no one commented on each other’s blogs.  But besides these minor flaws, it was hopeful, inspiring, and eye-opening.  Some of my students took it and ran with it.  I had one student who started to frequently post in photos he had taken and quotes he found or pieces he had written. Others reflected on their own thoughts and struggles and pictures from their daily lives on campus.  Still others discussed the passionate, raw emotions they felt during their first semester at Baylor.  It was…beautiful.  Beautiful to see them each get their own voice and start to shout it out to the world.

Yesterday, as I said my farewell (at least until finals), I left them with a final thought.  It’s actually strange to me the thought I left them with.  You see, normally I tie up loose ends, emphasizing all that we learned and wrapping up any last minute details.  But this time, I felt like I knew them better.  Between their personal reflections and blogs, I owed it to them to leave them with a touch of my own self as I closed out the semester.  And so I told them that it was a pleasure to teach them.  That I was so proud of them, and that each of them had so many unique gifts and I hoped they knew that and never forgot it.  And most of all, I encouraged them to never stop asking the hard questions.  So many of them have had the total life changing experience of asking if they really wanted to pursue the career path they had chosen.  And along this journey, many of them had to answer a resounding, “NO!” And thus, they were left wandering but hopefully wandering.  They are now on a journey to find their true selves, a journey which I think in many ways this course brought them to.  I told them to never stop asking themselves if they love what they do and if they MUST (as Rilke states) do it!  Ultimately, I said, it is these questions that will lead them down the path they should take.  And the blogs.  Oh the blogs.  I told them that it was a privilege to get to read their writings.  I told them that they are so talented and they need to speak out loud for the world to hear!  I reminded them that their blogs were a wonderful place to do this and although they may not know it, their audience would find them and the people who MUST hear what they are saying will eventually find them.  As I challenged them to continue to speak to the world, I was surprised myself.  I was surprised by my desire and need to see their voices go forward and reach the world and tell it what they think and reflect and create.  The photos they took, the thoughts they thought.  Oh how each one was precious and unique and beautiful!

So yeah, I think the course blogging worked.  And now I’m hooked.