Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wood's Unsought Advice 3 of 5: Look More, Judge Less

Terry Pratchett once wrote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom." Inspired by that aphorism (and hoping one day to be wise) I'm sharing some draft comments for a project I might develop in a few years: tips for my students who face a complex and changing workplace. 

One day a student stopped me in the hallway and nearly cried out with anguish after receiving an undesirable grade, "But I worked so hard!" To the student, this statement should have caused me to reconsider my grade. I recall how frustrated she was when I informed her that she was confusing personal evaluation with professional assessment. 

What's the difference? 

To answer that question, let's first consider the fraught process of evaluation. This sort of measurement usually mixes belief and attitude. In other words, I may believe that I have completed four of five scheduled tasks today. This is a matter of fact. Yet I may also consider an attitude (mine or an attitude held by another person) about those tasks, whether, for instance, they were done "well" or "poorly." In this way, evaluation adds an attitudinal statement of good or bad, adequate or inadequate, positive or negative. Reasonable enough, right? At the same time we should remember how this process often dredges up deeper notions of worth ("Just how good an employee (or teacher or writer or whatever) am I?" This sort of character judgment can be useful. 

Still it's generally better to assess rather than evaluate. 

To assess is simply to compare outcomes to expectations, seeking to focus on observable characteristics rather than abstract responses: How many widgets have I completed on time? Can my students demonstrate their grasp of today's lesson? Do these paragraphs advance my central argument? Immediately you might be tempted to fall into the mode of evaluation after assessment: How "good" is the outcome? Shifting to that query makes sense when you are concerned both with "What is?" and "What should be?" This is the sign of a morally engaged life. However, "What should be" is seldom under our control. Thus we may understand Voltaire's wisdom when he wrote, "The best is the enemy of the good." Sometimes it's enough to take meaningful steps toward an ideal state, pausing occasionally to assess your progress without judging your distance from your goal too harshly. 

Want a concrete example? Consider the fact that most weight-loss experts recommend you to avoid stepping on the scale every day when trying to shed excess pounds. They know how hard it is to separate the observable assessment from the emotional evaluation. If the scale doesn't show a lower number today, you may give up tomorrow. That's why experts in diet and nutrition typically encourage us to assess our physical health (which only partially includes numerical weight) in concrete ways rather than abstract measures. Do you feel comfortable in your clothes? Can you climb stairs without losing your breath? Is your body sufficiently able to fight off disease? Whether it's losing weight or gaining value, focus on the real rather than the ideal. Check the scale from time to time, but don't fixate on your distance from the ideal.

Of course, that's easy to say and hard to do. We're wired to evaluate; consequently we can easily sink into despair when things go wrong (as they frequently do). Few people are ever good enough to satisfy their ambitions. But anyone can say, "I will complete this task without error, starting one step at a time. First, I will understand how to gather my materials. Then..." This gradual accumulation of observable experience is the subject of assessment and, most importantly, the sign of growth. Even more, it helps us maintain our equilibrium when we might otherwise feel buffeted by evaluations, those of others or those presumed of us. 

Want to get something done? Focus on what you can see. Look more, judge less.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wood's Unsought Advice 2 of 5: Seize the Mayhem

Terry Pratchett once wrote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom." Inspired by that aphorism (and hoping one day to be wise) I'm sharing some draft comments for a project I might develop in a few years: tips for my students who face a complex and changing workplace. 

Heraclitus taught that we never can step into the same river twice. Think for a moment on that statement... What does it mean? One interpretation proposes that life is change, that the constant flow of things and people is far more "real" than any piece of flotsam or jetsam in the river. Deep stuff, perfect for a late night bull session. Problem is, the rush of events overtaking most workplaces is enough to make many of us feel like pieces of clutter on a raging river. It takes so little to get washed away. And all the philosophy we can summon won't help us combat that fear. That feeling is understandable, making us want to grab a passing branch and hold on. Too much change can be scary. Best that we avoid it until we're ready to plunge ahead. 
Is this the best way to deal with change? I faced that question a few years back when my campus was thrown into turmoil during a financial crisis. At that time, as I was beginning my third year as director of my school's peer mentor program, many of the foundational truths upon which I thought we could depend had been called into question. As the university began to draw its resources down, budgets were replaced by estimates, which offered fleeting comfort. Our mission grew hazy as administrator after administrator talked of restructuring and redistribution and the hunt for redundancies. How would I face the incoming group of peer mentors, and what would I say to veterans who saw the seismic chasms cracking under our feet? 

At my age, 20 years older than most of my students, I had little experience upon which to offer assurance, especially when every meeting I attended with university leaders ended the same way: "We don't know what will happen." What about the experts in Long Beach? "They don't know." What about the legislators in Sacramento? "They don't know, either." All of us, from the most inexperienced student to the savviest administrator, looked toward a horizon that roiled; all the straight lines were gone. The changes sweeping our community resembled nothing less than the gale winds of mayhem. 

That word, "mayhem," gripped me as I stood up to offer opening remarks at our peer mentor pre-semester retreat. I told them to prepare. Faster than most students, they would need to find their equilibrium. Classes were being cut, faculty were being furloughed, programs were being revamped, and policies were being rebuilt, sometimes more quickly than administrators could explain them. Peer mentors would be on the front line of all this confusion and fear. In this "Season of Mayhem," even experienced faculty members would be off-balance. 

I knew this because I'd seen dozens of them standing anxiously at summer orientation sessions, hoping for students to add their classes with a fervor never before felt. For untenured instructors, full classes meant employment, while under-filled classes risked cancelled sections, lost wages, and potentially worse news. I saw proud, confident people facing a dreadful angst as economic change produced personal woes normally hidden behind a professional facade. One colleague turned away from the crowds and cried with me silently as she contemplated her husband's fate. His hospital bills were piling up and their university-provided health insurance now teetered on whether students would take her classes. 

At the same time, students saw their paths to graduation blocked as course options evaporated. In fatter times, professors could allow extra students to squeeze into classes. No longer. Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this Mayhem Season: an instructor's choice to add students over class limits would not contribute to our coffers. Now, thanks to the crazy new math of declining budgets, more paying students would cost us money. Logic itself was increasingly subject to change. 

We did our best to contain our frustrations and advance our mission. Peer mentors waited for paychecks that took weeks to appear, and they patiently endured my empty replies to reasonable questions: ("So, when are we getting paid?" "Honestly, I'm not sure."). At one particularly tense meeting after weeks of long hours and work to ensure our budget, I struggled to contain tears of my own. I stepped out to compose myself and, upon my return, I found nearly a dozen peer mentors waiting for me with hugs and assurance. 

The first months were hard, but eventually we began to make our way, charting new parameters for our program's identity. Each new request became a chance to rethink our skillsets, to assess our processes, and to serve others who need us. After a while I began to change our unofficial semester slogan from "Season of Mayhem" to "Seize the Mayhem." 

Seizing the Mayhem calls upon you to do more than accept chaos. It's a chance to transform change into opportunity. To Seize the Mayhem is to remember that when others are unsure, you can be both honest ("I'm not sure either") and revolutionary ("But I'm ready to try something new."). That moment, when you begin to read the space between the known and the unknown as the site of creativity, innovation, and potential, you risk (in the best possible way) becoming an author of your world. The rules that bind us to anesthetizing conformity, the age of "confidence" that really means the ability to sleepwalk through life, can be abandoned. In their place, a genuine sense of play, the dizzy smile of the unshackled self. This is the meaning of what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction." Change is not the end of order; it is the beginning.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Wood's Unsought Advice 1 of 5: Add Value

Terry Pratchett once wrote, "Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom." Inspired by that aphorism (and hoping one day to be wise) I'm sharing some draft comments for a project I might develop in a few years: tips for my students who face a complex and changing workplace. 

Do you work hard? Great. Now for the bad news: It's not enough to work hard. You must be able to articulate the value of that work to others. For many folks, this is difficult. It feels like bragging, like showing off. Conversely we all know a coworker who seems determined to insert her or his achievements into every conversation (even when supposedly praising the good works of colleagues). The "It's all about me" vibe is easy to spot and difficult to stomach. Heck, it's even tough on the offender who discovers how hard it is to stop relentless self-promotion, for fear that others will wonder: "What has Faultless McPerfect done lately?" Don't fall into that trap.

At the same time you should be prepared to translate your achievements in terms that are meaningful to the organization, mapping your labor upon a recognizable (and changing) terrain of valuable outcomes: clients served, dollars saved, innovations launched, that sort of thing. And if your salary for these accomplishments is less than another person in the industry (or even at your workspace, if salary figures are publicly available) you must be willing to find an appropriate time and venue to identify how your organization can adequately compensate you for the value you offer.

Whether you're seeking a job or advancing in your current position, always consider how you add value beyond the initial terms of employment. When I negotiated my salary at my current job, I stated that the opening salary was too low, that I needed more if was going to face California's notoriously high cost of living. Unfortunately my need alone was hardly persuasive. Actually, I came across as whiny, which was hardly the way to begin a professional relationship with a new boss.

The person making the offer kindly offered me some advice: "Tell us what else you offer, along with what we're already willing to pay you to do." I soon understood how that kind information gives an organization the justification to reconsider budgetary realities that otherwise seem insurmountable. I took some time, figured out some ways that I can add value, added this previously unconsidered information to the discussion, and negotiated a satisfactory increase in my starting salary. The result was immediate and long-lasting. That initial conversation has paid benefits year after year, since each raise I've received has been built upon the foundation of that first negotiation.

And don't forget that once you land that job, you're not done enhancing your value. Search for new challenges, new opportunities, new ways to become useful. Because even if you impressed someone enough to get hired, your ability to respond to changing needs will likely be judged by someone else - someone who doesn't necessarily value those initial skills that got you through the door. Your ability to bring new skills and competencies to an organization, not simply to plod along in the job you already have, offers more assurance of your indispensability: an essential quality in an economy that promises security to fewer and fewer of us. Don't take yourself for granted, unless you want others to do so. Know your worth - and add value.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Street Art Collection

View Street Art in a larger map

Paris Street Art

Today I'm wrapping up my collection of street art found during our 2011 European Grand Tour. Our destination? Paris!

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Genoa Street Art

Time to share some more street art gathered during our recent European tour. Today's destination, Genoa. Elsewhere I've described other dimensions of our visit. Now I'm focusing on the bits and pieces of Italian ephemera you won't find on postcards.

Multiple Marx
Patty Hearst

"Take them and throw them all."
- Likely a variation on "[You all] take it [the Body of Christ] and eat it."
[Thanks to Michael Hirsch and his friend Silvia for translation help.
Thanks also to Jeff, Roslyn, Lisa, and Tezee for their advice!]

[caution photomontage]

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why Vocal Fry?

[I know this is old. It comes from my overflowing collection of articles I've read and wanted to post during my recent blogging hiatus. Better late than never!]

This is one of those speech patterns that I've noticed among my students but never really considered. Then I read the term, "Vocal Fry," and suddenly a few things fall into place.

I'm fascinated by the potential for this mannerism to represent a sort of generational in-group performance. Here's the overview:
"A curious vocal pattern has crept into the speech of young adult women who speak American English: low, creaky vibrations, also called vocal fry. Pop singers, such as Britney Spears, slip vocal fry into their music as a way to reach low notes and add style. Now, a new study of young women in New York state shows that the same guttural vibration—once considered a speech disorder—has become a language fad."  
Learn More: 'Vocal Fry' Creeping Into U.S. Speech

Feb 23 Update: Thanks to my pal Bon for this creepy illustration of vocal fry!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Memento Park (Budapest)

One of the highlights of last year's Grand Tour was the opportunity to visit Budapest's Memento Park: a collection of statues and other relics from the Communist era. While I've already written about that day, I've yet to post the pics we took from our visit. Time to catch up to the future worker's paradise that never came!

Republic of Councils monument (Kiss István, 1969)

Soviet-Hungarian Friendship (Búza Barna, 1975)

Liberation Monument (Kisfaludi Strobl Zsigmond, 1947)

Liberation Monument (Kisfaludi Strobl Zsigmond, 1947)

Lenin (Pátzay Pál, 1965)

Lenin relief (Szabó Iván, 1970)

Béla Kun memorial (Varga Imre, 1986)

Republic of Councils Pioneers memorial plaque (1959)

"Stalin's boots" reproduction (Ákos Eleőd, 2006)

Soviet Heroic memorial (Mikus Sándor, 1970)

The Heroes of People's Power memorial (Kalló Viktor, 1983)

The Heroes of People's Power memorial (Kalló Viktor, 1983)

Unnamed sculpture awaiting installation

Unnamed sculpture awaiting installation
(Photographs by Andrew Wood)

Monday, February 20, 2012

East Oakland Street Art

On Saturday I returned to Oakland to photograph some more street art - followed by a visit to San Francisco's First Amendment Gallery Truck Show. This time I focused my attention on International Avenue (once East 14th Street) and along side streets between 12th and Foothill.

This map is my growing collection of Oakland photo-sites (blue: visited; red: not yet visited).

View Oakland Street Art in a larger map

1739 Solano Way (GMap)
1789 Solano Way (GMap)
2260 International Boulevard (GMap)
2261 International Boulevard (GMap)
2262 International Boulevard (GMap)
"Love your enemies" - East 15th and Miller (GMap)
"Love your enemies" - East 15th and Miller (GMap)
1304 41st Avenue (GMap)
International Boulevard and 45th (GMap)
More Oakland Street Art

(Photographs by Andrew Wood)