Only With & Only Here

I recently read an article called “We Must Own Our Own Futures.” (H/T to the great Eric Hudson.) It’s for educational leaders, and mainly, for educational leaders on the collegiate level. Its author, John D. Simon, is President of Lehigh University.

Here’s my favorite part:

[We] at four-year residential research universities should revisit and recommit to what we do that isn’t captured in componentized, knowledge- and skill-centric educational pathways.

Every industry should have their own version of this question. It assumes that computers exist and will continue to exist. It assumes that they can do all the amazing things they can — and will — do. It assumes that, increasingly, people will rely on certain technological affordances, blending them seamlessly into their own lives, giving them time and resources to do different things (or things differently). It assumes that the existing model could already be a dinosaur, hanging on because people can’t cut ties with legacies or sunk costs or defaults or routines.

Variations:

What can we only do when we’re together, in the same room? Are we doing that?

What can we only do when we congregate in this building or space? Are we fully invested and engaged in that?

Where is it possible to be more deeply human in that situation or exchange — or program or application?

What is uniquely valuable about this particular group of people, and is their work being amplified in the right way?

William Blake: A Tweetstorm

Yesterday, a sturdy and wild old friend came back to me.

I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw something strange, though not the typical kind of Twitter-strange. It was, simply, a quotation from William Blake.

I studied Blake in college and again in graduate school, and this quotation reminded me of why I liked his work so much, why I fell into it with an abandon that dragged me from Boston to Virginia and almost to Hollywood (I’ll explain that last part later).

For me, Blake served up precisely the right kind of difficult. His syntax was a bit off. His grammar and word choices skewed and scattered. He capitalized words haphazardly. He invited cognitive struggle, cognitive dissonance, muddy waters, daniel johnstons . . .

Also, when I was young and intellectually carnivorous, he inspired me. There’s no other word for it.

When I read his poems or looked at his art, he made me want to create my own poems and art. Understanding him meant making something of my own, and in fact, saved me from becoming a literary scholar. I was on that path, but Blake kept shoving me onto other, more creative paths. My final graduate thesis was a screenplay adaptation of his most challenging work, The Four Zoas, and that was the end of graduate work for me. (That screenplay and I almost made it to Hollywood; instead, we landed in a classroom, teaching English, which most days feels like pure luck.)

But back to the story at hand.

When I saw Kleon’s Tweet, I composed a Tweetstorm in response. A joyful Tweetstorm. It made perfect sense that Kleon would be looking into Blake, even if just for a moment. Kleon works daily at the crossroads of the Word and the Image; he loves seriously playful and playfully serious comic books and graphic novels; he’s a poet who sometimes works by subtraction rather than addition. All of those attributes are Blakean attributes.

And none of what follows is Blakean scholarship; instead, it is the work of enthusiasm, a.k.a., my version of laughing out loud at a movie theater or pumping a fist at a Bill Callahan show. It’s a gesture that fell out of me . . . my own way of encouraging a fellow writer who, in his own way, has carried Blake’s spirit into the (currently) modern age.

With all of that said, my Tweetstorm-Roadmap to the work of William Blake is cut & pasted (& linked) below:

The Four Zoas is pure energy — a savage comic book for the ages, filled with dead ends, needless complexity, and necessary obfuscation.  It was later reincarnated as Can’s Tago Mago. Just let it wash over you.  

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the last artist’s statement you will ever need to read.  It beats all others.

Songs of Innocence and Experience is best absorbed in the way [Blake] intended it — find a good illustrated version and read the “plates” themselves.  Oxford Paperback edition is nice. 

“Auguries of Innocence” is a poem about Seeing by seeing.  Also, I believe it helps us understand what very young children might be up to.  

Blake’s letters are also very instructive.  In them, he hashes out the struggle between art and commerce.  He never fully learned how to channel his art-damaged weirdness into something that society deemed productive.  Good for us.  Maybe not so good for him when he was alive.   

Find, too, his aphorisms [okay, this should have said “marginalia” or “annotations“].  They contain multitudes.  

Blake and Twitter are odd bedfellows, but they felt just right to me this week . . . and now I’ve returned to a well that, once, was all I needed.

Communication

I learned again today, for the thousandth time (or more!), that communication is something we practice.

Every day.

And because it’s a practice, rather than a perfected state, we won’t always get it right.

What’s important, then, is how we recover, what we learn, how we apologize and forgive, how we express and receive gratitude, how we roll on, what we say next — or decide not to.

Noticing + Contextualizing + Sharing

A friend of RW recently started a new job. He’s in a major leadership role, and when he began to add events to his calendar, he made sure to schedule a near-daily “walkabout.”

As he walks, he pops in and out of classrooms and conversations and works hard to simply notice what and how students are learning.

When he returns to his desk, he writes down a few details about what he noticed.

Later, he evolves some of his noticings by connecting them to quotations from relevant educational research.

Even later, he polishes the newly formed pairing of noticings and research tidbits.

Last, he shares back whatever he has polished with the community that hosts his near-daily walkabouts.

I think this is good practice for a leader:

Walk around on-site.

Notice and then capture what you notice.

Contextualize what you notice.

Polish the above.

Share the above.

Repeat.

How Will You Decide?

Lately I’ve been getting a lot of mileage out of a simple question.

When I’m meeting with people and they are trying to solve problems, rather than jumping in to tell them how I might solve them or even asking them how they themselves are planning to solve them, I take one giant step back and ask, “What will your decision-making process look like as you attempt to arrive at a solution for this problem?” (Of course I try not to sound like a robot when I’m asking this question, but you get the idea.)

Each time I’ve used this question, it has led to some modifications in the proposed decision-making process. Often, that process needed to involve more input from more people, to move more slowly, to take into account more data, or simply — to end.

And talking about decision-making has some added bonuses.

It helps people to make better decisions not just once but many times. It helps me, as a “coach,” to know why people might be stuck in a certain performance pattern. And, last, it helps me to make my organization more transparent to the people whose daily decisions help it — hopefully — to thrive. On this last point: When you help to inform or upgrade someone’s decision-making process, you end up having to talk about all kinds of institutional stuff (for lack of a better word). This stuff could include information flow or architecture, politics, power dynamics, unspoken tension, relationships, competence, incompetence, money, meeting agendas — all the things that make a difference while not being written down in any manual.

The Grateful Farmer

I was very pleased with the results of the first homework assignment for my English class. I asked students to:

Email me a Quicktime video introduction that includes: your full name, your preferred name or nickname, the name of your favorite writer or filmmaker (or book or movie), and anything that I need to know about you as a learner or human being.      

I’ve been watching a few of these videos each day since I received them and taking notes (even if they are short). Besides learning the answers to each question, I am also learning about the ways students communicate (both orally and in terms of their body language), the fluency level of their speech, and their eagerness (or lack thereof) to connect with me.

Since I don’t know these students personally, and I’m trying to figure out how to connect with them as quickly as possible, all data is useful. To close the loop with each student, and hopefully open a new one, I’m replying to each of them with an email that acknowledges that I’ve watched their video, comments on something I’ve noticed about their video, and asks any followup questions that seem necessary.

As a teacher early in the year, I try to hang onto the mindset of a grateful farmer — happy to be planting seeds in even the smallest plots of land