Archive for the ‘university’ Category

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Self-Amusement—It’s Not What You Think

February 23, 2010

There’s no excuse to be bored. Sad, yes. Depressed, yes. Crazy, yes. But there’s no excuse for boredom, ever.
• Viggo Mortensen, actor, poet, musician, painter, photographer (Hmmm–no wonder he’s not bored!)

I am easily amused. I am glad that I am easily amused. When I read a headline that says “You Really Can Be Bored to Death, Researchers Say,”* I am particularly delighted that I am never bored. This is not to say that I am never doing something I don’t particularly enjoy doing or that I never have to sit through long meetings about things I don’t care about. I do work, after all, and no matter how engaging any job is, there’s likely to be some drudgery attached to it.

Still, my mind always actively seeks out ways to connect whatever it is that is not interesting to me with something that is. Just like the occasional student in the classroom, my mind wanders if I’m not interested in what’s happening. (Most of you are interested in all your classes, right? Say “of course” right now.) The difference between boredom and interest in potentially unengaging situations is that I have learned to discipline myself to pay attention to the things that matter whether or not I have a personal connection with them.

When I realize that I’ve gotten myself into something that has no relevance for me, I tune out and write poetry in the margins of my notebook or make lists of things I need to do or jot down some notes about projects I’d like to begin. If you’re a student in a class that you need to pass, whether it’s a prerequisite or part of your major or minor or just one that you need to keep in order to hang onto your financial aid, disciplining yourself to be interested in the initially-boring-to-you is a critical student success skill. Tuning out is not a wise choice. You know where it leads.

I must say that I am also aware that it’s refreshing to quiet my all-too-active mind. To sit still and let life flow around me. To empty my mind. This is not boredom, but is a deliberate rest that relaxes. It’s difficult to achieve. The seldom-bored mind does not like a void—it rushes to fill the emptiness with a deluge of swirling thoughts that must be captured and sorted. Beware the temptations of mind-emptying-nothingness. While it can certainly be beneficial for your health, this is not a skill that should be practiced in the classroom.

Cartoonist and illustrator Saul Steinberg claimed that “the life of the creative person is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” This definitely relates to developing the skills of interest in school. As a creative human being who’s taking classes to get knowledge and skills that will help you have an interesting life, learning how to be interested even in those things that don’t at first appear to have any relevance for you is crucial.

What deliberate steps can you take to avoid boredom in school?

You’ll find boredom where there is the absence of a good idea.
• Earl Nightingale

Nobody is bored when s/he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true.
• William R. Inge

When I get real bored, I like to drive downtown and get a great parking spot, then sit in my car and count how many people ask me if I’m leaving.
• Steven Wright, comedian, actor, and writer

* http://www.ebn.benefitnews.com/blog/daily_diversion/you-can-bored-… (a post by Kelly M. Butler)

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I Would Prefer Not To *

February 13, 2010

Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.
• Lin Yutang

I’m a wordy gal, but there’s a word that I have plenty of trouble saying. It’s no. I try, but I still say yes way too often. When I say no I feel guilty. I understand that this puts me smack dab in the middle of a whole raft full of people who feel the same way. Most recently, I’ve not been following my instincts in a situation where the potentially sustainable simple is becoming infinitely complicated by wonderful possibility.

This is a problem for all of us, whether it’s at work or at home or at school. It is a particular problem as the term moves past the halfway mark and we move into the downhill stretch. All of the wonderful possibilities of creation collide with the reality of coming to completion with sanity intact. This is true for teachers as well as students.

Whenever I’m working on a piece of writing or prepping for class or putting together a conference presentation or creating an art exhibit, I always have lots of materials to work with, gathered over time. The problem is that if I actually integrate everything I’ve collected, I’ll never finish the task. There is always something I could add. Always more research I could do. Always more thought I could give to a project, whatever it is. Always.

But I know that what I must do, in just about every case, is to accept that no intellectual task is ever really finished. Even if it appears done, new revelations and insights will occur to me and to others who are exploring the same things. It’s not possible to integrate everything into a perfect never-again-to-be-touched whole.

To imagine this is to get stuck in procrastinatory hell. I should know. I do this often, although I have learned to pull myself out of these depths because I must get through. Done. Finito. Not infinito, but stopped. I must deal with what’s realistic and will let me sustain the energy to keep moving forward. I’ve been working long enough to know that attaining the wonderful possibility may leave me too drained to do anything else. Wonderful possibilities are wonderful to imagine. Sometimes they’re worth pursuing. But not always.

What can you say no to? What do you need to say no to?

Most of us are so busy doing what we think we have to do that we do not think about what we really want to do.
• Robert Percival

* Thanks to Herman Melville (1853), “Bartleby the Scrivener,” for the title quotation.

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You Cannot Truly Outline a Paper Until You Know What You Want to Say and You Cannot Truly Know What You Want to Say It Until You Have Actually Said It

February 8, 2010

I have discovered that you cannot start a book with intention, calculation. You start writing before you know what you want to write or what you are doing.
• E.L. Doctorow

I have made a bold statement with my title and now I must explain it. I shall proceed so that you will understand that I do not believe that no thought precedes writing. Instead, I am trying to be honest about the messy writing processes I use. I’ve read about—and talked to—enough other writers to know that many of them are not as organized as you might imagine. Perhaps you will find comfort in my words as you find your own writer’s ways.

There is much advice about outlining provided in books and online forums: “Each heading and subheading should preserve parallel structure.” “All the information contained in heading 1 should have the same significance as the information contained in heading 2.” “The information in the headings should be more general while the information in the subheadings should be more specific.” (Thanks to owl.english.purdue.edu where you can find much more if your mind works this way. Honestly, I’m not writing this for you. I applaud you. I congratulate you. There are days when I wish I was—or is it were—you. I must look that up as I can never recall which word is correct in which context.)

I cannot write this kind of well-organized outline until I have finished writing. I am paralyzed by it. Is this heading information, I ask myself, or does it belong in a subheading? What do I do when a section doesn’t have enough subheadings yet? Do I use a capital letter or a Roman numeral here? What comes next? I used to ponder these imponderables endlessly, procrastinating instead of writing. Then I went to work in a job that required writing on a deadline.

There’s no time to craft careful outlines when a deadline is looming and a column or article is due. You have to start writing something, no matter how imperfect. In those pre-computer days, I wrote by hand first so that I could see where changes needed to be made. I still write by hand to capture thoughts and notes on the fly that might be useful for a paper or a project, filing them appropriately until they’re needed.

If you’re a typical student, you usually won’t have the luxury of working on one project at a time. You’re juggling multiple papers and/or projects. Devising a system to capture your ongoing thoughts on each is useful. I use 3×5 cards in my pocket since they’re easy to organize when I’m ready to start. What I have before I begin writing or designing a presentation is not an outline. It’s all those notes I’ve made. Lots of them. My thoughts need to ripen before I pluck them. I try to organize the notes before I start, but I don’t worry if I can’t do it perfectly.

How different the world of writing is now that we’re using computers and can cut and paste and delete and add and create new files for new versions and hopscotch around our writing at will. Now my beginnings are just that. I get started writing. Sometimes what I write first ends up at the end. Sometimes in the middle. Sometimes it gets thrown out as witty and clever and completely inappropriate for the purposes of whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish.

If I’m working on something really challenging, sometimes I write everything out of my head and onto the screen, print it, and literally cut and paste, moving paragraphs or ideas around until they make sense since I can’t see the whole paper at once on-screen. If you do this, number your paragraphs before you start messing around with them. If I know I’m going to employ this technique, I number them on-screen before I print. It facilitates the electronic cut-and-paste that follows.

Often I realize that what I’ve written has huge gaps that need additional information. This is why I believe you should start drafting materials early so there’s still time to fill the gaps in your thinking. I suspect that the rigid outline formats students are sometimes still taught are relics of the days of typewriters when you needed to be pretty sure where you were going before you began writing. Otherwise, you faced the painful prospect of redoing major chunks of your work. I know. I got my undergraduate degree as an English major using a typewriter. No fun.

I once taught high school. I remember the day when the senior English teachers were gathered in the auditorium with all of the seniors to introduce the dreaded Senior Project. The department chair asked someone to describe outlining as it was detailed in the Senior Project Handbook. We looked at one another and, as the pause lengthened, began one by one to confess that we didn’t use those neatly-organized techniques and didn’t want to talk about them. Instead, like a meeting of former substance abusers confessing our sins, we stood up one by one and revealed our shameful writing process secrets. It was one of the best and most honest moments of my high school teaching collaboration.

What are your actual, true, useful writing processes?

I take dictation from that place within my mind that knows what to say. I think most good writers do. There’s no such thing as waiting for inspiration. The idea of “diagramming” an essay in advance, as we are taught in school, may be useful to students, but is foolishness for any practicing writer. The Muse visits during the process of creation, not before.
• Roger Ebert

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Howard Zinn Was Not My Uncle, But I’d Be Proud to Be Related to Him

February 4, 2010

The accumulation of small, optimistic acts produces quality in our culture and in your life. Our culture resonates in tense times to individual acts of grace. • Jennifer James

I am a relentless optimist. That’s what some of my high school students called me when my pretty-much-perpetual smile greeted even those who had not done their work or those whose teenage grumpiness armored them daily. Optimism and hope are inextricably entwined. The optimist in me hopes that things will be better and knows that pessimism will not likely help them to become so.

In The Passionate Teacher, Robert L. Fried (1995) says that “the stance we take in our homes and classrooms, our school and community, grows from the core values and beliefs we develop, articulate, test our, and commit ourselves to put into practice in spite of the obstacles that modern life and society place in our path.” When you’re a student, it is tempting to think of yourself as a kind of neutral element in the classroom, there to receive what is given, responsible only for your presence and for doing the work that’s assigned and for participating while you are there. But you have a far greater responsibility. Your actions can either help a teacher stay motivated and enthusiastic despite the ongoing realities of the job or they can add to the demotivation that even the most relentless optimist can descend into.

You matter more than you know. Your caring about your work matters. Your caring about your classmates matters. Your small acts of generosity and understanding matter. Your eagerness to learn matters. Sometimes it is just one student who can make a difference in sustaining a teacher’s optimism and keeping hope alive.

Howard Zinn died recently. Perhaps he is related to my husband’s family. I do not know, and although it would be easy to claim him, I do not. This activist and author—one of my favorites is A People’s History of the United States (1980)—wrote many things that resonate with me, including these lines from “The Optimism of Uncertainty” (2004):

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

There are many teacher-optimists. We have to be. Teaching is not an easy job even though it might appear to be from the outside. Most of us who teach do this work because we believe that we can make a difference in the world not just by sharing the specific subjects we are hired to teach, but by nurturing the joys of creative learning and mindful thinking throughout life. Every student who sees that being a learner is about so much more than simply passing a class inspires us to keep going.

What classroom choices are you making that help keep optimism and hope alive?

Focusing our attention—daily and hourly—not on what is wrong, but on what we love and value, allows us to participate in the birth of a better future, ushered in by the choices we make each and every day.
• Carol Pearson

I will act as if what I do makes a difference.
• William James

Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
• Mahatma Gandhi

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Tell Me Again: What Is the New Normal and Why Do I Have to Get Used to It?

February 2, 2010

There is more to life than increasing its speed. • Mahatma Gandhi

“It’s the new normal and we need to get used to it,” a speaker said recently about the increased expectations and intensification of work, and while I know that there are things I need to get used to because I’m not likely to be able to change them, I also know that I cannot allow my entire life to be overtaken by the demands of whatever it is that is laying claim to my time. I must preserve something for myself.

When you’re in school, you are held hostage to demands on your time, but you also know that you’re giving in to these demands for a purpose and that their hold will soon be loosened as you graduate and move on to your “real” life. Unfortunately, it’s easy to carry these patterns of intense expectation into that real life. That’s why I encourage my students to indulge just a little bit in things that relax them and send them back to their schoolwork refreshed. If you can maintain a balanced connection with your inner self while you’re in school, you’re more likely to approach your career after school in sensible ways. At least that’s my hope. As for me, I sustain myself with pursuits as a poet and artist, with activities that renew my spirit and cannot be purchased for any amount of money.

In September 2001, I was staying at the home of the creative director of Hewlett-Packard’s Santa Barbara facility where I’d been interviewing staff about the kinds of leadership that nurture creativity. I was up early on September 11, going over notes and looking through books in preparation for a brief talk I’d be giving later that day. As I looked through David Whyte’s (2000) Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, I wrote the following excerpt from the book in my journal, wanting to use these words as I talked about the balance of creative and pragmatic demands at work. Whyte is a poet and a Fortune 500 consultant who understands these challenges of integration well:

To preserve a sense of freedom even in the midst of rules and regulations is to preserve a part of our identities free from the strictures and responsibilities of success, career, and corporation. The measure of our continuing individuality in any work is the refusal to be swallowed by our goals, our ambitions, or our company no matter how marvelous they may be. In order to live happily within outer laws, we must have a part of us that goes its own way, that is blessedly outlaw no matter the outward conditions or rewards. A part of us that belongs to a larger world than that defined by our career goals or our retirement accounts. (p. 156)

I’d just finished writing this when my host knocked on the door and yelled, “Get out here! The world is falling apart.” I never gave that talk. For the rest of the day, I watched events unfold on the television and visited with my host after she returned from dismissing staff for the day. We talked about how quickly the world can change and how important it is to be authentically yourself in a world that often seems to wish that you were something else or were doing something else or were prioritizing your life in other ways.

The new normal is insidious. Life becomes overwhelming even as we think we are simply being “normal.” Like the frog dropped into cold water that is slowly heating to boiling we get used to each degree of more until we are near to perishing. This is not normal.

What things do you want to be a normal part of your life, no matter how busy you might be?

I’ve switched the order of things. I used to do my work first and figure I’d do my personal stuff after. I used to call my best girlfriend after I finished my work. Now I’ve reprioritized. I make the call to the people I love, I spend the time with the people I love, and then I do my chores. The amazing thing is, it all gets done anyway.
• Rita Rivest, owner of Sage Hill Spa in Ojai, California, about her post-9/11 epiphany

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There Are Things I Plan to Do Soon. Really Soon. Thoughts on Inertia, Endless Lists, and Perpetual Possibility.

February 1, 2010

It’s week five of the quarter. Mid-term. And it feels as though the quarter has barely begun. My lists have sprouted sub-lists and I’m adding to them faster than I can cross things off even when I try the strategy of adding things I’ve already done so I can have the satisfaction of lining them out. The speed of a quarter is both blessing and curse. A blessing because no matter how challenging a course may be (or how much work I have to do) it will soon be over. Quarters are definitely finite. They are a curse because keeping up and getting things done can seem impossibly daunting, especially midway through when nothing much has come to fruition and there is still so much to be done.

Some students are bothered less by this than others. School and its work are secondary. Primary is socialization and having fun with friends and doing just enough work to get by. They would get a different lecture from me. The students I’m thinking about right now are the ones who are procrastinating self-care. They’re putting off eating right, exercising, getting together with friends, making time to have a bit of fun. They are driven to get it all done and get it all done really, really well. They are so deeply immersed in school that everything else becomes secondary.

The brevity of a quarter makes it difficult for these folks to get involved too. As the quarter begins, their intentions are often good, but, hey, there’s plenty of time and it’s smart to see what’s going to be required by your classes first, find out how much “spare” time you’ll have after you calendar (Note the nifty use of a noun as a verb—this is the kind of experimentation that amuses wordfreaks like me and drives other people crazy. I have changed it several times, but I am leaving it because I want to.) school and work and family or whatever else it is that needs to be done.

Then it’s week two and three and four and you’re just getting into the rhythm of things with your life organized around an ever-shifting series of ongoing demands that are the same but different every term. And whammo! Here you are; it’s mid-term and you still haven’t joined that club or gotten together with a group that sounds interesting if only you had the time and you’re still eating fast food or the easiest thing you can scrounge up and there hasn’t been time to walk or go to the gym or whatever. But there will be. Soon.

But it’s mid-term. The middle of it all. WTF time has arrived. Pressure is on to make sure everything is moving along because this fast train is already halfway there when it seems as though the trip has barely begun. No space to take on anything new. Not right now. And wouldn’t it be better to wait for a fresh start anyway? Of course. Possibility is perpetual when you’re in school. There’s always next quarter. And the cycle will start again.

What small step(s) could you take to take better care of yourself this quarter?

If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call “failure” is not the falling down, but the staying down.
• Mary Pickford

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“People Are Pigs,” She Said, But I Don’t Think Pigs Would Appreciate the Comparison *

January 30, 2010

Pigs are not that dirty. And they’re smart, strange little creatures. They just need love.
• Shelly Duvall

A keynote speaker at the conference I attended yesterday, a community college president, shared her experience working a custodial shift. “People are pigs,” she said of the task that she and the regular custodian faced as they cleaned the cafeteria. It’s true. I see the messes they leave on my own campus. I also spend time in women’s bathrooms. At least some of the pigs are women. I won’t go into the disgusting details here, but there are things that belong in the toilet and not on the seat or on the floor.

In the classroom, sunflower seeds are one of my least favorite messes. It probably surprises you that sometimes students leave snack detritus behind for someone else to clean up. It surprises me too. In an ideal world, I suppose, no one would eat in classrooms, but many of my students are coming from mornings in public schools and have spent their lunchtime traveling to school. They need to eat. Any student in a class that’s three hours long probably needs a snack to help stay alert, so I’m not for banning food.

I’m a proponent of civility and consideration for others and for the general environment. Custodians are not there to clean up our messes. You’ve heard this lecture many times before if you’ve been in school, and it’s true everywhere. If you’re shopping and you see something on the floor, you could pick it up. If you drop something somewhere, you could pick it up. It doesn’t matter if you made the mess, you could be a part of cleaning it up. This philosophy applies in the classroom or in the world.

F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the Buchanans, a wealthy couple in The Great Gatsby (1925), saying, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” I’m reminded of this when I’m shopping and watch someone pull out all the carefully-stacked whatevers to find the one they want and then leave the others piled haphazardly on the floor. I’m reminded of it on a larger scale when I see what human beings do to their environment.

As you move through the day, think about ways you can make life easier for others rather than leaving messes for someone else to clean up.

Are there any messes, literal or figurative, that you need to clean up?

Clean up your own mess.
• Robert Fulgham

* Pigs wallow in mud to stay cool since they have no sweat glands.