Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Light My Fire

Walking home today I encountered this endearing scene on campus - students outside, under a tree, on the quad, paining. As I got closer, I could hear a familiar song - they were listening to The Doors' Light My Fire.

Part of me was pleased - oh, they like music that I grew up with - and part of me was annoyed - hey kids, go get your own music. But the scene was also timeless - my Cal State Channel Islands campus, built on the grounds of an old state hospital, looks a lot like my undergraduate campus Pomona College, built around the same time. Trees, quads, tile roofs, grass. Even a young woman with long hair sitting cross-legged and wearing a headband. And I thought about Light My Fire.

Of course the song is timeless because it's about sex and it's got a distinctive sound. But when The Doors recorded it in the summer of 1966, it was just a year after the 1965 Watts Riot in Los Angeles. I was just eight years old then, but I remember it well, because my father was the "re-write man" at the Los Angeles Times, and every day his name appeared as the byline on horrifying stories like "Eight Men Slain; Guard Moves In". Another article on the page reads "Burn Baby Burn Chant Crowds". Consciously or unconsciously, that mantra "Burn Baby Burn" leads right into "C'mon Baby Light My Fire" and carries forward into the killing fields of Vietnam where our young soldiers marched into firefights with The Doors in their ears

My father was proud and embarrassed by the Los Angeles Times and their coverage of the Watts Riots. Proud because those stories he wrote led to a Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism; and embarrassed, because the Los Angeles Times newsroom didn't have a single reporter of color on its staff. It took an African-American man named Robert Richardson who had the guts to walk into the newsroom and say "Hey, I live there, I can call in stories for you" - because the white reporters were driven out by the mobs - or they would have had no first-person accounts from the street. Diversifying the newsroom became a passion for my father and a major goal of his next 35 years at the paper.

So much has changed, and yet justice still eludes us. The Watts Riots started when the police beat a man in front of his mother, enraging a crowd. I thought we'd do better in 50 years, but it still takes violence to get us to pay attention to the suffering and injustice that's right in front of us. My sanctimonious generation has failed to make this right, and we've handed it on to our students to figure out. They listen to The Doors on their phones now instead of on a transistor radio, but as I stood there I felt like time had stopped. And I didn't feel that idyllic or nostalgic. Instead I felt a little sick and sad, and not very proud.

Friday, April 17, 2015

On liminality, not yetness and the pain of waiting

I was on a Twitter binge this morning when as response from Kristen Eshleman (@kresleman) prompted me to look up the definition of "liminal space" - you can find quite a bit of detail in the liminality Wikipedia article. Go read it now or at least skim it (it's pretty long and detailed) - I'll wait while you do that.....

As the article notes: "The term has also passed into popular usage, where it is applied much more broadly, undermining its significance to some extent." Wow, there's an academic lament. Anyway, it's not only a fascinating anthropological concept but a wonderful metaphor, so permit me to contribute to undermining its significance.

I have several friends that are metaphorically in this state of uncertainty, becoming, passage, change, transition - whatever you want to call it. In fact, living in this state seems to be more the norm than the exception - think how we value "ability to tolerate ambiguity" or "quick adaptability to change" as qualities we look for, both in our friends and in our coworkers. Furthermore, the "liminal space" is clearly a state of great creativity - I'm reminded of those moments between sleep and awakeness where the line between fantasy and reality is so blurred - it's a creative space, and a scary one, a moment of possibility and fear.

Kristen reminded me of the wonderful blog post by Amy Collier (@amcollier) on not yetness - and how this space of uncertainty and "mess" and becoming is where so much learning - maybe all learning - takes place. We have to pass through these liminal spaces to grow and learn and to transition to what we can become - and sometimes it's exciting but it's also disorienting and frustrating. We can be in the liminal space and thrilled by the possibilities, or we can just want to get through and get to the answer. That's when the liminal space feels more like the waiting room, or being on hold, and that feels more like pain than opportunity. 

"Waiting for Godot" might be viewed as an extended riff on living in a liminal space; the Wikipedia article relates liminality to the trickster figure in folk culture. Is the trickster having a good time? It seems like a lonely road to be on. If it seems like this blog posting is stuck in the middle and going nowhere, you're probably right.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

PowerPoint Zombies

A few days ago, I was asking a friend how the workshop for faculty was going at her school, and heard, once again, the Lament of Bad PowerPoint. "She's a good speaker, energetic, engaging, but her slides! Lots of tiny text, impossible to read."

At conference after conference, we sit silently and tolerate illegible slides, silly graphics, and speakers who read bullet points out loud. While it's frustrating to see a typical conference presentation like this, it's infuriating when it's a keynote speaker who has typically been paid many thousands of dollars and who somehow can't make the time and effort to present useful images.

Here are some phrases that I never want to hear again:
  1. "I know you can't read this, but..." Then why are you showing it to us?
  2. "I usually have more time when I give this talk, so I might have to rush through some of it." Wait, this is the only time that I'm going to hear your talk. You've never given this talk to me, and you're never going to do it again, so there's no "usual." Please have the courtesy to plan the talk for the time allocated and customize it for the audience.
  3. "Oh, well, you can read that, I won't read it to you," usually after reading the first two or three bullet points. Why not just put up a URL and we can read the whole thing and go home?
  4. "Let me show you this YouTube, if I can get the WiFi to work." Really, you're going to make me sit and watch you fiddle with your computer and wait for the video to load, and "oh, sorry for the ad, hold on a second...?" You brought a laptop, bring a copy of the video with you and don't depend on the conference network.
How about this - if you have no graphics that will enhance your talk, just turn off the projector. You can make a list of your bullet points and put them online later if you think I will find them useful. Your audience will thank you!

As disappointed I get at so many presentations, I had an even more horrifying realization - if this is what we see at a conference, what do our students see in their classes? I mean, presumably giving a conference presentation is a special occasion, and we're seeing the best of what people can do. Most of the people at the conferences I attend are educators; more frighteningly, some of them TRAIN educators. What are they teaching each other, and their students, about how to communicate effectively? It's scary to contemplate.

Just to end on a positive note... there are so many people who do wonderful presentations. One of my favorites is Michelle Pacansky-Brock - you can find her at http://www.teachingwithoutwalls.com/. Here's one example from SlideShare of the kind of slides she creates: http://www.slideshare.net/brocansky/emerge3. Not everyone has the talent and taste of a Michelle, but I know we can all do better. Let's all of us, myself included, vow to end Zombie PowerPoint presentations.