Monday, July 20, 2009

Why blog?

There are many reasons why blogging is a major component of ES2007S, Professional Communication: Principles and Practice, the course I teach at the National University of Singapore. Key course objectives include facilitating discussions of communication principles, encouraging students to practice various communication strategies, and promoting opportunities for them to develop their written communication skills. In that context, the logic of blogging falls neatly into place.

One reason for using blogging is that each student's blog becomes her platform for summarizing, analyzing and synthesizing ideas, presenting opinions and even story-telling on a number of communication topics. Because responding to any given post assignment can be done independently, where and when the student chooses, she also has time to mull over the topic and address it without the sort of pressures that might exist in class. At the same time, because the post will, in turn, be read and responded to by classmates and by me, the student writer needs to be aware of the demands of her authentic audience. When she reads that audience's comments, she needs to take their perspectives into consideration, at which point she can either respond to those accordingly in follow up comments or ignore them (perhaps at her own peril).

Another reason blogging makes sense for the course is that it's a chance for the student to consider and reconsider her means of written expression. Communication, especially of the professional sort, is not just about assembling information, thinking ideas through and developing opinions. It's as much or more so about expressing the information, ideas and opinions in a manner that demonstrates clarity, concreteness, conciseness and yet completeness, coherence, courtesy and grammatical correctness. (I'd add to these well known 7Cs of writing what I call the "mother" of them all: creativity). In the various course blog posts, the student can and usually will take these criteria into consideration. Not doing so might bring on the critical wrath of the teacher and/or any number of highly competitive classmates.

A final reason that blogging suits the course is that it is an Internet-based exercise, and in that way, a very current means of understanding, shaping and reshaping one's thoughts on a whole range of issues for anyone in cyberspace, while at the same time, archiving the process and product. The growing blog eventually evolves into an open-to-the-world interactive journal, a place where one's reflective character comes to be illustrated with words, audio and video clips, still photography and cartoons, website referrals AND feedback.

Appropriately, at the end of any blog post, week, month, term or year, the writer can sit back and take stock of the whole concoction, glowing perhaps with self satisfaction, or alternatively, flushing the whole thing or any part of it into the cyber-septic tank with a quick click.

My list of reasons for using blogging is not exhaustive. To learn why a professional coach sees blogging as important, check out this link.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Randomness, the Cambrian Explosion and a Eulogy to Donald Thorpe (not necessarily in that order)

One of the things I love about maintaining this particular blog is that it gives me free rein to write on any topic that comes to mind. As the title states, it is ostensibly a venue for my students and me to meet outside of class (and where I can centralize their blog addresses on a list). At the same time, I admit that I use it to satisfy my need to think and write things through. Thanks to those broad parameters, the topics you can find listed here include everything from my thoughts on a university-sponsored visit to Vietnam, reflections on my 2008 trip back to Ohio, and a list of "green topics" for my students in Semester II 2008-2009. The apparent randomness in themes available to me is something that I relish.

Today, as it happened, I learned of the passing of one of my first coaches, Donald Thorpe. Sadly, he passed away at age 76 in an Ohio hospital of an undisclosed illness. Reading his name in the obituary, then that of his surviving wife and six sons -- Ronnie, Dale, Dino, Craig, Bart, and Kevin, all guys I went to school with -- brought back a flood of memories. The first memory was the most recent: in my hometown of Thornville, Ohio, last month, I had said to my sister Betsy that I felt like contacting Dino and visiting his father Don. Unfortunately, I missed my chance.

The broader set of memories puts me way back in the late 60s when my brothers and I were encouraged by our dad to "try out" for Little League baseball. Try outs, if my memory serves me correctly, consisted of 40 or 50 boys between the ages of 7 and 13 --roughly the age of elementary school -- all going up to the baseball diamond on a Saturday morning and showing our stuff: fielding grounders and pop flies, taking a turn or two at bat, running the bases, hanging out. Then the coaches, mainly dads themselves, divided us up into four groups of roughly similar talent and gave each group a name. My brothers and I ended up on the Braves, a team that, at least in my first year, had Don Thorpe as an assistant coach. He was one of the fathers conducting the try out. On the team along with us Blackstones were five of the six athletic Thorpe boys and, I seem to recall, a Hunt boy and maybe another kid or two.

Don Thorpe was a tobacco-chewing, stubble-faced transplant to our area, with the beginnings of a pot belly even then, and I vividly remember how he'd be playing ball right there with us kids, encouraging us to throw straight or keep our eye on the ball, all in his slow-paced West Virginia drawl, then wiping the sweat from beneath the bill of his black and red Braves cap. After we boys were assigned to the Braves, we were given similar caps. More importantly though, under Don's guidance, being on the Braves became the nexus for some serious camaraderie, and for our developing a strong sense of group identity, giving us that first feeling of "doing it for the team." It remained that way, too, for at least three or four summers after that first try out. Even after a few of us became too old to play Little League, we'd follow Don and the younger Thorpes and Blackstones to Braves games in Thornville and on the road.

Skills-wise, I never was more than a mediocre player (and a second baseman because I had a weak throw), and the team never won the league or any grand tourneys, but we still had a great time and I learned a lot. It's hard to zoom in on all of the details now that 40 years have passed. What stands out is that our games were played mostly on Friday nights, with the ball diamond and outfield bathed by sets of huge flood lights arranged atop tree- trunk poles. I also recall the wafting smell of popcorn and the hot dogs being served by feisty Lion's Club members like ole Burt Cooperider, Jake Shaner and my grandpa Jerry Blackstone, who'd watch from the concession stand conveniently installed in a green wooden building protected by mesh fencing just behind home plate.

Added to that, there was heavy competition in the air, because our opponents, the Yankees, Indians and Dodgers, were all our schoolmates and neighborhood friends. Each of us played our heart out to capture playground bragging rights and to impress our siblings, parents, grandparents and any potential girlfriends watching from the hard-plank bleacher seats.

The more I reflect on that time, the more I realize the trait that made Coach Don seem special was the gentleness of his instruction. He was the type who wouldn't bawl us out when we made an error or fanned out in three pitches. He'd clap and say something like "get 'em next time," then he'd put a juicy wad in the dust.

That style was in contrast to the manner of our first head coach, Jesse Hunt. Jesse was a huge bear of a man, with a big bushy eyebrows and the sort of booming voice that could scare the wits out of you just as your concentration was drifting off across the grass in right field. Whenever we lost a game that first year, Jesse would wear the agony of defeat on his face like an upset ogre. Not Don though. When he took the team over from Jesse, each of us boys rejoiced. Even in the heat of competition, he was cool, calm and collected, allowing our sporting antics to be augmented with barbs, gags and giggles that made it much more fun. Such was the case whether we were on the losing side or not.

Years later, some people could have speculated that it was Don's mild manners that contributed to a few of his boys drifting into so much trouble. Dino was the classic example. He was the one my age, cute as a button, and definitely the smoothest-talking Thorpe boy, and probably the best athlete amongst the whole bunch of us. (He eventually gave up baseball but set long-standing high school records for pole vault and broad jump.) By the time we were all in high school, he was running full throttle with local hoods, looting vending machines and robbing gas stations for a good time, even knocking up a classmate's sister and eventually getting sent up the river for failure to pay child support. The oldest brother, Ronnie, also ended up doing time, on two separate occasions. As with their more law-abiding brothers though, I never saw either of them as bad guys. They just seemed restless and willing to take risks, as young guys often do, and they had the added misfortune of getting caught. In later years when I recalled these stories, I'd guess it was the tough economic situation of the Thorpes that was the leading factor in all that, but I would never once think that Don hadn't tried his best to give his family what they needed.

How might any of this relate to the Cambrian explosion, that time roughly 570 million years ago when life on earth went into hyperdrive and new species multiplied after an era of mass extinctions?

Well, currently I'm reading a controversial book loaned to me by a friend. The work by British author Christopher Hitchens, who Stephen Prothero of the Washington Post called a "fundamentalist atheist," is entitled God is Not Great. In it, in a chapter entitled "Arguments from Design," Hitchens discusses, among other things, the Burgess Shale, a geological site in British Columbia revealing Cambrian-era fossils of bizarre animals such as the marrelle and opabinia, from roughly 500 million years ago. The place has been called the "Rosetta stone for decoding life forms." In that context Hitchens also presents comments made by the late great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould regarding an appearance in the shale of one particular vertebrate creature called Pikaia, which he speculated led eventually to all vertebrates, including man. According to Hitchens, Gould went so far as to say that if, by chance, Pikaia had not come into being, all life as we know it on earth would have never come into existence.

With that, Hitchens writes of the random chance of evolution, and at one point he states that "we are the offspring of history." Whether one considers such statements controversial or not, they are compelling. And when you add to them the idea (also mentioned by Hitchens) that a large number of renowned scientists will tell you that there are 700 regions of the human genome where genes have been reshaped by natural selection, the argument for the seeming power of randomness, of chance, as some variations become selected for and others not, depending on environmental conditions, swirls higher and higher into heady stuff.

In that context of this reading, my mind went back to what I see as the less disputable idea that there is a degree of "chance" in any social circumstances, and I recalled my Little League baseball try outs, the fact that I was chosen, by who knows what criteria really, to play on one particular team, the Thornville Braves, and in that way, I became a player for this gentleman named Don Thorpe, from whom I learned a great deal about teamwork as my brothers and I bonded with him and his sons. If anyone of us had become a famous ball player, I'm sure we would have pointed to Don as our inspiration. As it turned out, none of us ever went on to play in major league baseball. Still, in retrospect I recognize that there was something miraculous about that chain of occurrences. Some might call this fate, of course. Others may see it as a divine act, part of God's ultimate plan. For me it is not so easy to define, though on a fundamental level, Don was meaningful for my baseball experience and, indirectly, for the way I approach teaching. (Firm but friendly.)

In his "Arguments from Design" chapter, Hitchens also had presented his own anecdote with its roots in West Virginia (as were Don Thorpe's). To make a point about the dangers of declarations of "divine intervention," he mentioned the recent case in which 13 coal miners were trapped underground after an explosion, and how, after news reports had prematurely declared that a "miracle" had happened and all the men had escaped alive, the reality turned tragic as each man was found dead.

That, too, may seem ridiculously random here. (Am I now pushing the envelope and your patience? Surely.) But as should be clear by now, I believe that in every social context, there is indelible, inescapable meaning for the individual(s) and the group itself.

That's what I'm really exploring in each of these blog posts: the meaning that certain people, various events, ideas that I've discovered, the odd artifice, and interactions, past, present and future, hold for me.

Thank you for following the circuitous path of this one.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Reflecting on My Past Experience with Russia and Obama's Speech at the New Economic School in Moscow

From 1972 through 1979, I studied Russian language, first in high school, then at university. I had been intrigued with Russian history, culture and society ever since, as a primary six school student back in the 60s, I'd read a chapter in my geography textbook about how difficult life was in the Soviet Union and how pitiful it was that its leaders wanted to rule the world, even to the point of being willing to destroy America. Oh yes, I learned, we were all potential victims in a Cold War.

My interest, or curiosity, took on added meaning one day when my P6 teacher asked me to assist a visiting lecturer in carrying his box of slides and slide projector from his car and into our school auditorium for a presentation - many years pre-Powerpoint - about his trip to the Soviet Union. The guest lecturer turned out to be Mr. Edward Taylor, a humble but world-wise and hilarious gentleman who would soon be my high school Russian teacher and the inspiration for my future studies and a career in education. What amazed me about his presentation was how he captured the faces of the Russian people. While the USSR was vilified throughout my youth by the American media, even by many of my relatives and neighbors who feared nuclear war, its people --at least those portrayed in Mr. Taylor's slideshow -- looked normal, and not like bomb-wielding homicidal freaks. What was the real story, I wondered.

Three years after high school, in 1977, after I'd been studying Russian for nearly 5 years, I left Ohio State University as a 3rd year uni student embarking on his first international trip, a study abroad program at the famed Pushkin Institute in Moscow. My goal had been to put all the Russian I'd been learning into practice, to walk the streets of my newfound literary "heroes" (from the very real guys like Pushkin, Lermontov and Turgenev, to characters such as Raskolnikov and Prince Myshkin), and to check out America's number one foe from the inside out. For a dude from small town America, it was a monumental, foundation-shattering experience. The travel itself, from Columbus to New York, then to Luxembourg, then to Frankfurt and West Berlin (my first plane rides), then by train through the Berlin Wall and into "Eastern Europe," across the DDR, Poland and into the USSR and on to Mockba, allowed me to "get my head around" the distances, mile by mile, and to prepare for the massive shift in cultural and geopolitical perspectives.

Then there was my daily life as a student. From eating soft boiled eggs and sausages first thing every morning in a dreary cafe in the university hotel to traveling across Moscow by train and bus to the school, to interacting with my Russian teachers, fellow (mainly American!) students and local friends, it would all touch me in a way that few experiences ever had. What broke first, I suppose, was the illusion that I had held until that time of America being the center of the universe. Suddenly, there I was, speaking another language to satisfy my basic needs, seeing sights (Red Square, St. Basil's, the Kremlin) that I'd only read about, studying in classrooms with photos of Lenin and Marx hanging in them, and --despite the mortal enemy rap I'd learned so well -- partying down with young commies and dangerous dissidents alike, learning that we were very much alike, after all.

Two of my best friends from that era, a young Chechen artist named Shamil and his sidekick, a Russian black marketeer named Valya, even introduced me to something I'd never expected to find in the land of Lenin, Stalin and Krushchev: ass-kicking anti-establishment attitude! In the back alleys, cramped crash pads, and beer halls that they inhabited, in the alternative lifestyles they had, Shamil and Valya showed attitude. In fact, these guys openly trashed many things Soviet, questioned the ideals and means of their leadership as well as the passivity of their fellow citizens, all that while listening to Pink Floyd and other forbidden Western musical groups and buying and selling every piece of foreign apparel they could get their hands on. They also talked of bringing another revolution to their "fucked" homeland. Through this they were, I surmised, yearning in some odd way to be more capitalist than me, which smacked of serious irony for an Ohio-farm-boy-turned-intrepid-explorer in search of the heart and soul of the socialist dream.

Little of what I found in Moscow, mind you, had ever been discussed in my international studies, political science and literature classes at OSU (although there was a Dostoevskian tragic quality to my new friends' existence). The focus of many classes was either on the archaic or the life-threatening. Once, when I'd wanted to research and write a paper on samizdat literature (underground self-published materials that had begun to filter out of the USSR), a distinguished professor had even told me to focus on the classics. In Moscow my friends lectured me on the reality, insisting that a focus on the so-called classics, whether in art, music or literature, was just a means by the the authorities for keeping discussion of change out of public discourse.

My book learning had taken place in the Brezhnev years, a period when the US-USSR competition seemed to have reached its epitome, when many of my countrymen envisioned that every Russian (or even student of Russian!) was a probable KGB agent and when many Soviet citizens were keen to show Americans how evolved their society was. It was also a period when the huge statues of Lenin and well-armed military parades symbolized Soviet might and hostile US and Soviet relations had been spun into scary acronyms like MAD --- mutually assured destruction --- and heavy metaphors such as the Iron Curtain.

Those images have fallen by the wayside in the last 20 years, of course. Which brings us back to Russia today, to Obama, and to his speech at the graduation ceremony of the New Economic School....

Nearly twenty years have passed since the country that my friends Valya and Shamil lived in ceased to exist. The Soviet Union of Lenin's dream, of Stalin's purges, of Krushchev's shoe being pounded on the lectern at the UN, is no more. This is not to say that Russia today has ceased to be anything like its Soviet incarnation. The corruption that still exists there might seem a vestige of earlier times. That a privileged few control vast wealth and resources might seem a vestige of earlier times. Even the fears, doubts and distrust that many Russian citizens have toward political institutions, toward leadership, toward America itself, might seem a vestige from earlier times. But there have been mountains of change.

In fact, at the end of his speech to future entrepreneurs and business leaders at the New Economic School, an institution whose very existence speaks of amazing changes in the Russian landscape, Obama carried the geological metaphor further when he said that "Russia has cut its way through time like a mighty river through a canyon, leaving an indelible mark on human history as it goes." Yes indeed.

What I especially liked about Obama's speech was not just that an American president was actually taking the time to address Russian college graduates, but also the clear intelligence and insight of his comments. Obama offered the students a rich analysis of how Russians and Americans (in fact, citizens worldwide) have many common interests. He spoke of how Russian success could also be interpreted as American success. He talked of the need for citizens and leaders of both countries to work together with the goal of building a better world with better opportunities and a better future for all involved.

I like that goal, and admire Obama's attempt to be inclusive. He's a guy who knows that people are just people, no matter where they live, no matter what their national or ethnic or religious identity. French, Iranians, Chinese, Iraqis, Chechens, Filipinos, Kenyans, Russians, Americans. We want a chance to fulfill our needs, a life that spells security and a measure of comfort, a good place to raise our kids, a brighter future for ourselves and our communities.

But Obama's also a guy with few illusions: he knows that in the face of growing demands and shrinking resources, peace and harmony hang by a thread because the world is the way it is, a place of backward tribal beliefs and dark corners of vice, raw emotions bubbling and chasms waiting to be filled with unsuspecting victims. Still, he's trying to put a positive spin on the human spirit and international relations, he's trying to engage others and reverse past trends -- down with all the stereotyping, vilifying, sabre-rattling. Out with the base need to conjure up ghouls and antagonistic, war-mongering sentiment in phrases like the Axis of Evil and the Evil Empire (or even the Great Satan).

And who can blame the prez? We're all in this world together. Look at the potential for disaster that exists by reviewing the mess that's been created in the last 100 years.

There seems to be cause for optimism, however guarded. At least the Russian and American leaders have sat down at the table and seriously talked about hot topics like easing bilateral tensions, reducing nuclear arms, shoring up international institutions and improving cooperation. Let's hope these guys' intentions are as sincere as they seem.

In these interesting times, I have to wonder what ever became of my old friends Valya and Shamil and what they might think now. Viva la revolucion?

Find the transcript of Obama's Moscow speech here.