Generation X Takes the Stage

Image of Book CoverI recently read the book Generation X Presidents Leading Community Colleges: New Challenges, New Leaders, edited by Martha M. Ellis and Linda L. García (published by Bowman and Littlefield).  Although I have been encouraged to write a review of the book, I want to first spend some time reacting to it.  Because I expect to use this book both in my own research and in class, I focus here strengths, weaknesses, and technical errors that appeared in the book.

Strengths: Advice for New & Aspiring Presidents

As someone who conducts research on community college presidents, I found this book to be both illuminating and frustrating.  The book ambitiously seeks to present data from a study of Gen X presidents along with chapters authored by both Gen X presidents and the researchers.  As a result, there is a lot of information ranging from empirically-based data to assertions (opinions) of chapter authors.  The authors generally provide good advice for new (and aspiring) presidents to consider.  Although there is some contradictory advice about handling the first year, each new president will have to weigh the advice in the context of their own presidency.  One solid word of advice was to have a mentor – not just in preparing for a presidency, but also once in the position.  Being president can be an isolating experience so having a trusted mentor will provide the space for candid conversations, advice, and possibly some tough love while preparing for a presidency and once in the position.

One tip from the book that resonated with me was that presidents re-consider the use of committees.  Rather than work solely through standing committees, the Gen X presidents encourage creating ad hoc committees that have a short life and specific goal.  Once the goal has been met, they advocate disbanding the committee.  Although this is not a new idea (see, for example, ad hoc management or adhocracy), it is one that merits re-examination.  Savvy leaders will recognize the need to honor existing agreements about some committees and will also want to communicate their intentions about changing committees with constituent groups in the organization.  Failure to communicate with groups around any change to established procedures – even when the changes are for the best – has been known to de-rail a presidency.

Noticeably absent from the advice on preparing for the presidency is any mention of the doctoral degree.  Perhaps the editors and contributors see this as an obvious credential so they focus not on doctoral studies but on a variety of professional development programs for aspiring presidents.  Such programs not only provide insight into the role of president, they offer excellent networking opportunities for participants.

Weaknesses: Massive Eye Rolls

Frustrating aspects of the book involve sweeping generalizations about generations, with a bias toward focusing on how wonderful Gen Xers are and how limited other generations are.  As a Boomer, I was insulted by the dismissive perspectives, condescension, and arrogance of many of the contributors (as well as the study participants).  Many seem to view Boomers as hopelessly inept when it comes to technology, seemingly forgetting that faculty (many of whom are Boomers) are using technology in their classes every day in new and inspiring ways.

In other sections it felt as though these Gen X presidents thought they had singled-handedly invented key leadership concepts.  For example, in one chapter the contributor presents two organizational charts.  One is the typical hierarchical chart most of us have seen with the CEO at the top and other boxes branching out in roughly the shape of a pyramid.  The second chart is presented as a “Generation X organizational chart” showing the CEO at the bottom – basically an upside-down pyramid.  To describe this as a Generation X idea disregards the work of Robert Greenleaf who, in the 1970s, promoted servant leadership, a concept that upended the traditional organizational chart and envisioned the CEO as someone in service to the organization.  Similarly, another contributor discussed the “novel” idea that presidents get out of their offices to lead by walking around campus.  This idea, once described as MBWA (or management by wandering around) was first developed at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and popularized by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their 1980s book, In Search of Excellence.

Technical Errors

Some of the technical errors such as the occasional misspelled word, are not unexpected.  In a book, this can happen regardless of the number of people who have reviewed and edited it.  Other errors, such as a misspelled name or a glaring mistake in the description of the generations, specifically the Millennials (Gen Y), really should have been corrected prior to publication.  In one chapter, the generations are described as the Silent Generation, Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, and the Millennial Generation.  Later in the same chapter the generations are referred to as Veterans, Boomers, Xers, and Nexters.  This sudden shift in the use of terms can be confusing to readers causing them to wonder who the Veterans and Nexters might be and where the Silent Generation and Millennial Generation went.

Would I Use or Recommend This Book?

In spite of its irksome qualities, I cautiously recommend this book.  I will use portions for my own literature reviews and also in classes (one on leadership development and one on writing).  It certainly generated a lot of energy and reaction on my part, which suggests to me it could be a good book for discussions about leadership and about working with different generations.  The technical errors can be used as teachable moments, helping to illustrate why attention to detail and consistency in writing are important.

Final Thoughts

We must look to future generations to lead us – in higher education, in politics, in business, and in service.  The hubris/arrogance of younger generations is the very characteristic that will enable them to disrupt the status quo and to be bold in their thinking.  Knowing how to balance this hubris with a concern for other perspectives is a challenge faced by most good leaders.



Finding my “Why”

Having been granted tenure and promoted to associate professor in 2015, I subsequently Entrance gate University of the Pacificneglected this blog.  I could provide many excuses, but will forego those and, instead, commence writing again.  Although technically I’m no longer “on the road to tenure,” I appreciate the title and don’t really want to set up a new blog.  Maintaining the original blog also provides perspectives that will be of interest, at least to me, as I continue on the road to full professor.

Simon Sinek encourages us to find our “why” – our purpose, if you will, in the things we do.  As I contemplate my academic journey, it would be quite simple (and not uncommon) to stop here.  The title of associate professor carries some gravitas and generally signifies to the academic community that one has achieved a level of academic prowess and been granted tenure.  As a result, the pressure to continue research and service (both to the university and to the broader academic community) is lessened by a considerable amount.  Many people decide that this is the highest academic rank they seek and shift their focus – perhaps more to teaching and different kinds of service.

I will confess that I considered this possibility.  That is, to stop here and to use a sabbatical leave to focus on my teaching in order to return to campus with redesigned courses, new approaches to teaching, and new ideas for service.

As a pre-tenure faculty member, there was clear, defined pressure to meet the requirements for promotion and tenure within a specific period of time.  Failure to meet this deadline would require one to leave the university. Once granted tenure, there is no specific time frame within which one must apply for full professor. Some may remain at the associate faculty level by choice, others may focus on promotion to full professor and stretch out the time for promotion to balance other needs (family obligations, for example).  Some of my colleagues and I, with the encouragement of full professors in our school, have decided to continue moving forward toward full professor and apply for promotion at the first opportunity (typically this is a minimum of five years after being granted tenure and promoted to associate professor).

I am curious about my motivation … what compels me to want to continue this journey when it could be much easier to stop at this point?  In my earlier life I would have been driven by the prestige of the title.  Somehow the title and rank would have been tied to my sense of self-worth rather than some larger purpose.  If seeking the rank of full professor is now tied to something larger, what exactly is that? Part of it is a sense of completion.  I do not begrudge others who decided to remain at the associate faculty level; we have worked hard to reach this point and it’s reasonable to say, “Okay, that’s enough pushing. Let’s see what else I can do.”  For me, the rank of full professor has become my finish line and that not moving forward would seem like an incomplete journey.

In re-reading this blog I just realized something:  A few years ago my goal was, in fact, the rank of associate professor.  I knew I would be satisfied with that accomplishment and that I could define my position differently if that were my end goal.  Two things changed my perspective.  One was our new department chair who encouraged me to see a longer road ahead and to work toward full professor. The other was the actual process of assembling my promotion and tenure portfolio.  My committee members and the external reviewers were so positive about my research and my future that I began to see myself differently … I began to see myself as others see me; I was heartened by their belief in me.

Tenure affords me the opportunity to push my research deeper and to take more risks with my research ideas.  Like many, I took a safe route as a pre-tenure faculty; not really jumping into things that were too edgy or controversial.  Because I like research projects, I can now move forward with some confidence that it is not only okay to tackle riskier research questions – it might actually be expected.  Framing this next part of the journey – from associate to full professor – is exciting.  I have co-authored an article with a former student which took an inordinate amount of time to work through the editorial process.  During this process, I came to appreciate that I’m quite skilled at this work and could support my co-author as she navigated these murky waters for the first time.  Similarly, I co-authored an article with several colleagues which has led to new insights about teaching and learning as well as new friendships with peers.  In co-authoring another article, I provided substantial contributions that strengthened an article I might not have written on my own.

So the “why” of this journey is that this is something I want to do for myself, for students, and for colleagues.  This is an opportunity for professional development; more importantly, it’s an opportunity to create an intentional path forward in ways I haven’t done before.  Without the pressure of a tenure decision, the process is energizing, invigorating, and liberating.

Discovering Disequilibrium

It started innocently enough.  Another post of Facebook with questions that were designed to help people think about their purpose in life.  I usually stay away from these kinds of posts because they typically over-promise and under-deliver … plus, well, it’s Facebook. But, something told me to click on the link.  I was immediately hooked when I read,

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I continued on to the seven questions posed by the author.  In-your-face writing doesn’t always appeal to me, but the questions were intriguing nevertheless.  I started thinking about how I might adapt them so that I could include them as class assignments.  Then I got to question number six: GUN TO YOUR HEAD, IF YOU HAD TO LEAVE THE HOUSE ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO? The narrative below the prompt included the following: Let’s pretend there are no useless websites, no video games, no TV. You have to be outside of the house all day every day until it’s time to go to bed — where would you go and what would you do?

As I thought about this, I knew immediately that I’d want to do what I had been doing over the summer: Tromping around Alaska, kayaking and camping in Glacier Bay, and enjoying the cool, wet weather in Gustavus.  My second thought, and I admit this with trepidation, was: I do not like what I’m doing right now. There. I said it.  Gulp.  Followed by a strong sense of dissonance and discomfort.

This sense of dissonance last a few minutes as I sat, reflected, and thought about this.  What’s not ringing true about this, I wondered.  Oh, yeah:  I love my work.  I have great colleagues, I enjoy teaching, I like advising students and helping them solve problems, and I love service aspect of my work (ways to give back to the community, university, and the profession).  Hunh.  So, what was that earlier thought all about?

Uncertainty.  Let that sit a bit.  Reflect.  Let the mind and heart work this out.

Four days later … I’m driving to work – my commute takes me along Highway 4 through the delta, open space, farm lands, home of hawks, dirt devils, and coyotes.  This little thought continued to niggle at my brain.  Then, light bulb.  The theoretical framework that informs my current research on community college presidents held the answer:  Satir’s change model explains what I’m feeling.  Suddenly I felt like Dorothy in Oz: I had the tools I needed all along.

Virginia Satir developed a model of change that is usually used in family therapy but can be used to describe a variety of change processes.  The six stages of change, as described by Satir are:  initial status quo followed by an external catalyst that alters the status quo and leads to chaos/disequilibrium which gives way to the integration of new learning followed by time to practice new learnings to strengthen new state then ultimately new status quo emerges.

Last semester (spring 2014) I was in a happy status quo as a faculty member: I was comfortable, energized, and engaged.  Then at the end of the semester, I was asked to serve as the Director of the MA – Student Affairs program.  An exciting opportunity (AKA major external catalyst) that knocked me out of my comfortable status quo and … wait for it … into the third stage of change: chaos and disequilibrium.

Of course, I’m uncomfortable.  Disequilibrium is not a fun place to be – we’re off balance; we’re often uncertain; we’re adjusting to new information, new relationships, new expectations, and new ways of being.  A wave of relief washed over me as I made sense of what I was feeling.  Even more important, Satir’s model offers a promise:  Disequilibrium will give way to a new stage where learning comes together and a new state evolves.  The model doesn’t suggest how long the journey will take, but it does provide a way to make sense of the journey from one state of being to another.

Challenging Assumptions

Sometimes I forget that I can go outside to work … how lovely it is when I remember!  I so enjoy being at a coffeehouse (as I am now), sitting, writing, and thinking.  As an added bonus this is time that I’ve actually scheduled to write my blog post.  How nice that I’ve (finally) given myself permission to include my blog in my writing schedule.

It’s interesting to notice how little conversations that we have with ourselves can become ingrained truths that translate to behavior.  My conversation – for a long time – has been that I could only focus on “peer-reviewed” kinds of writing during my designated “writing time” – and that if I were writing a blog post this would have to occur in a separate, additional writing block.  What I find so fascinating is that this assumption then became a paradigm for my writing life … it became the reality for how I structured/scheduled/shaped my time … and guess what I noticed?  In that paradigm I don’t write blog posts very frequently.

Sunday night while I was working on my weekly plan, I scheduled my writing time, exercise, class prep, meetings, and so on.  Like many weeks, the schedule is pretty full, but does include some flexibility, some built-in breathing room.  As I looked over the schedule I asked myself, “When am I going to write my blog?” Rather than trying to squeeze in another block of time, I simply looked at Monday and designated it as blogging day.

And just like that my hidden assumptions were revealed.  “It’s that simple?” I asked myself.  “Interesting,” I thought as I realized how my assumptions had been limiting my thinking and my behavior, and the choices I was making relation to my writing.  In this moment of clarity I expanded my definition of my writing time and today am blogging.

By scheduling the dedicated time to blogging I was also able to calculate how long the task actually takes (see Step #3 in creating a weekly plan).  This week I ended up needing two writing blocks:  One to write out the blog (which I did by long-hand at the coffeehouse and found it to be immensely satisfying; the handwritten effort also seemed to keep the internal editor at bay) and another block to transcribe the blog.  The process of transcription provided an opportunity for additional reflection and a bit of editing.

So next week when I’m preparing my weekly schedule, I’ll include my regular writing blocks of time and designate two for blogging!

Empowering Learners

Sometimes an assignment just doesn’t feel right to a student — maybe it doesn’t “click” with their interests for a variety of reasons.  But as teachers/learning facilitators we may not know that students feel that way about the assignment until the assignment has been completed.  This semester even though I’ve worked on putting more of the learning activities into the hands of students, there are still some structured assignments that I’ve created.  And while I (obviously) believe the assignments are solid and that they meet the learning objectives, some students may want more and some may want something different.

In her blog post, Dr. Meggin McIntosh, offers a strategy that can provide a way for students to (a) express any reservations they have  prior to beginning the assignment and (b) propose an alternate assignment that meets the same learning objectives.  I’m looking forward to incorporating this idea into future classes.  Check it out here:  Eliminate Complaints about Assignments.

Word Cloud: Teaching and Learning

Not quite how I expected this to turn out…

At the beginning of a semester, I try to find ways for students to get to know each other before we begin our work together.  I often select an activity called “Where I’m From” that provides students with a template to create a poem about themselves.  After briefly introducing the activity, I ask students to work on the poem over the next week, bring a printed copy to the next class session, and upload an electronic copy to our course site on Sakai. I also let students know that sharing the poem (either in class or electronically) is optional, that if they prefer to keep the poem private to let me know.

My poem

Here’s a wee picture of my poem. Click on it for a better view.

Each semester that I’ve facilitated this activity, it has gone so well that I didn’t prepare for a time when it might not.  And while I wouldn’t say that the activity failed this semester, I would say that it didn’t go as well as I had hoped or as well as it has in the past

So, what was different?  There were more students who didn’t complete the poem, who completed the poem but forgot to bring it to class, and who said they didn’t want to share it with the larger group.  Because I work with graduate students, I often don’t share my work first. My thinking is that I want to create space for others to go first.  I had uploaded the electronic version of my poem, but thought it would be better to not be the first to share in class.  Students did share in small groups, pairs and triads, but in both classes there was an unusual amount of reluctance to share with the larger group.

When we talked about this, some students thought their poem wasn’t good enough, wasn’t poetic enough.  Students were, admittedly, feeling more vulnerable than other groups had in the past: they shared that they didn’t feel ready to write about their family or they didn’t want to share specific personal stories; for some, the recent death of a loved one made writing the poem much too emotional. I’m still sitting with these reactions, looking for ways to build connections in our learning community and pondering the differences between this semester and prior semesters.

In thinking how I might re-structure this activity for the future some things occur to me:

When introducing the activity during the first class session, (1) clarify the learning goals (that is, community building is an essential component of the classes I lead; building community provides a foundation for learning together), (2) show a video of the poem (there are lots of examples on YouTube), and (3) read my poem.

It would be helpful to remind people to try to follow the template without any judgment about the quality, without any second-guessing.  It’s easy to get in our heads and become overly critical of our work; kicking out that internal editor can be liberating.  It might be helpful to talk about the types of emotions that can surface during this kind of reflection.  Finally, I think it would be good to remind people that they can be creative with the template and that, if after completing the poem they would rather keep it private, that this is okay.

During the second session, I’ll ask students to work in pairs and talk about what it was like to write the poem.  For example, was it easier or harder than they expected?  What surprised them about the experience?  I could also ask these types of questions in the large group.

In terms of sharing their poems, in both the large and small groups, I would remind students that they don’t have to share if they don’t want to; if they do want to share they can either share the entire poem or just one line that they think will help us get to know them better.

Perhaps it would be helpful to show another video of a poem at the beginning of the second session.  It’s unclear whether students found the videos helpful or intimidating. It does seem that the videos illustrate the ways that each person’s poem can vary; at the same time, the elegance of the videos might cause some people to think that whatever they have to say won’t measure up.

And, maybe, it was just too early in the semester for the poem.  Perhaps we needed more time to get to know each other on a “safer” level before jumping into this.  I want to ask students about their experiences with the poem, but I think they need to be able to provide feedback anonymously…and I think they need some weeks to pass in order to reflect back on the experience and share their thoughts. I know I’ll keep thinking about this for awhile to see how I might approach this activity in the future.

Change is Inevitable, but is Transformation?

A note about this re-blog (from Delores): I wandered over to WordPress to post my thoughts today about receiving a manuscript from a student who has made an amazing breakthrough in her writing: She has found her voice. On my way to post this, I saw this blog about change … In the case of the student I’m advising, transformation was necessary in order for her to find her voice. I’m so honored to part of the journey.

A Librarian by Any Other Name

My colleague, Mary Piorun, is defending her doctoral dissertation this afternoon. (Woohoo!! Go, Mary! Go!) To help her get ready, a bunch of us listened to her give her presentation earlier this week. Her topic is on transformational change in organizations, in particular, this type of change in academic libraries today. I found it to be pretty interesting stuff, not just as it relates to our work in eScience and data management (the focus of Mary’s research question), but the bigger topic of how organizations change, in general. Transformation suggests significant shifts in one’s thinking, behavior, environment, etc. How do such changes happen? What are the components of the change and how do leaders usher their organization through them? Don’t ask me, ask Mary. She’s the one who’s spent the last several years reading and thinking and writing about it. You can reach her at… 

But seriously, as a librarian in…

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