Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Getting In On the Ground Floor: The Elevator Pitch

In our professional communication class, the order of the day was "the elevator pitch." Each student would have an opportunity to pitch their proposal to an "authority figure" (played by a classmate) in one to two minutes. The exercise jogged my memory.

In 1980 I postponed completion of my graduate program and moved to Lisbon, Portugal. I was initially hosted by the locally renowned surgeon, Dr. Antonio Pinto Teixeira and his lovely wife Luisa. They assisted me as I got my wings in the local scene. Through one of their contacts, I met another American who eventually invited me to share a leafy residence amidst the fruit orchards of Ameixoeira, a sleepy village in the hills on the northern edge of Lisbon. 

It was in the Ameixoeira house that I had my first work, tutoring a couple young engineers in conversational English and business communication for the multinational carmaker, General Motors. That was quite the idyllic teaching situation, sitting in the garden at a picnic table under a massive plum tree, discussing topics in readings taken from The International Herald TribuneScientific American and other sources.  

The fellows I tutored would typically arrive in a GM company car on two mornings a week, and sit with me for an hour and a half or so, then return to their jobs at the GM headquarters, twenty minutes away. Through them I learned that there were over a dozen such tutroials taking placing in various places throughout Lisbon, on the same regular basis as my own lessons. Even now I remember that at some point I had actually remarked to the guys that it seemed a bit wasteful on the part of GM, sending its staff members out for English lessons when an in-house program could address the same needs more efficiently. Little did I know then that I'd soon have a chance to make the same pitch to the head of GM.

That opportunity presented itself during a social gathering at the Pinto Teixeira residence. Typical of Portuguese parties, the wine was flowing freely. I'd had a few drinks and was feeling quite confident when someone alerted me to the fact that another guest, the rather gruff-looking, burly man in a tight fitting suit, was the managing director of General Motors. 

While I'm not sure now when the thought occurred to me to approach the GM boss, I do know that I was unenlightened to the nuances of an act that I would later discover was called "the elevator pitch." Still, I knew how to articulate a problem clearly and concisely, and I realized that stressing the main benefit of the problem solution that I could offer for GM could also benefit me.

Some of the details of that long past interaction elude me today, but the gist was this: I walked up to the man and introduced myself as an American recently arrived in Lisbon. The guy seemed disinterested, busy with his wine, until I elaborated: I was tutoring GM employees in a program set up by the American School. The program itself, while effective for giving the young staff members a chance to enhance their English, was inefficient in that it was taking them away from their jobs for too long; it couldn't be cost effective because it was sending those workers out across Lisbon, in separate directions, in individual cars. Setting up an in-house program would accomplish the same goals at a more reasonable price.

The criticism pricked the boss's interest. He wanted to hear more: "Come out to my office next week," he said, " and we can talk about this."

Talk about it we did, and soon thereafter, and for the next few years, I was the sole language and communication skills trainer for GM de Portugal, working both at corporate headquarters and at the factory an hour north of Lisbon. That was a very rewarding way for me to support myself during my Portugal years, and it was the start of my interest in professional communication.

Some of you have also had experiences pitching ideas, whether in class, an elevator, a cocktail party or elsewhere. Feel free to share your experiences here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Mock Interviews

What sort of jobs have I interviewed for? Here's a partial list:

U.S. National Security Agency country/regional analyst
People Airlines (now defunct) flight attendant
retail store assistant manager

Those are jobs that I applied for, got interviewed for, and was not hired for. (Thank god!) During my university studies, I never even heard of a course such as the one I now teach, a communication skills course in which a segment is dedicated to assisting/familiarizing students with resume and application letter writing, and then with preparing for and performing at a job interview. If I'd had such a course in college, who knows where I would be today....

Where was I during the last couple tutorials two week ago? In class facilitating mock interviews. In each tutorial group there were four teams. Each team of three or four students read and evaluated the application materials that another team's individual members had prepared, peer reviewed and revised in advance. The evaluating team, much like a hiring committee or HR group, first read the materials then would rank those individuals from the other team based on the quality of the materials in relation to a specific job, internship or graduate program application. After that, they began the interview process.

The interview process entailed setting up the classroom (and an adjacent room, and even some common space outside the class) in office-like quadrants, with one team per designated area behind a table. In their respective stations, each team created their first set of interview questions, set for the peer they'd ranked #1. During a point in the question preparation process, each team then lost one of its members, that being the person who was ranked as having the best set of materials. She or he, along with the top ranked person from each of the other teams, was directed into the corridor, there to wait until being called upon by the peer team for an interview of approximately 15-20 minutes.

Back in the classroom, each team crafted its questions, and each individual adopted a particular stance, whether as a friendly and smiling HR person, impatient and brusque interrogator or something in between.  No matter what the demeanor of each interviewer was set to be, all sessions had a principle interviewer and a note-taker, the person whose main task was to reflect on the verbal and nonverbal behavior of the applicant. When the first round of interviews finished, the process was repeated in a second round, then in a third, and then in a fourth. In this way, every student had an opportunity to be an interviewer multiple times, and to be interviewed once.

After all the rounds were completed, a debriefing session was held where students were encouraged to share something about their experience.

This is another opportunity for such a debriefing. How do students view the process and these interviews?

That's exactly what this blog post is all about.

Students, please add your thoughts. Innocent bystanders, please see the commentary below.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Democracy as Blood Sport

What did Bill Clinton say? "Democracy doesn't have to be a blood sport." 

But when a high school student openly calls for the president's assassination, and when she gains "likes" for her message, I wonder what has happened in the USA?

When I was in 3rd grade, we lived in Wilmington, Ohio, just 15 minutes from the town of Clarksville, where this 16-year-old racist lives in southwestern Oho. When I was a kid there I remember seeing a huge Confederate flag painted on the roof of a barn, and in the yard of the farmhouse, 3 crosses, which would be periodically burned. My parents told me the farmer was a member of the KKK. 

Now welcome to Ohio in 2012. I know for a fact that some people in my hometown - two hours from Wilmington - refer to Obama as "our nigger president," discounting his mixed race roots, ignoring that he was democratically elected to the highest office in the land, and proudly declaring their racism for anyone within earshot. 

That's what kids hear, they see the disrespect, the hatred amongst their parents' social circles, they catch glimmers of it on TV. Who might be surprised?

Just yesterday I spoke to my brother who lives on a farm in Licking County, Ohio. He made the same observation: People judge Obama not by his policies, not by what he has done or hopes to do for his fellow citizens, not by the accomplishments of his administration, but by some preconceived notion of him established by malicious rumor, based on his skin color, created with the worst poetic license. What did singer Hank Williams Jr. say recently at the Iowa State Fair, "We've got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S. and we hate him!"

Racists like Williams can spout any lying rant, and that becomes fodder for the next uninformed redneck cross-burner. 

There are times when I REALLY appreciate walking into my university classes here in Singapore where Singaporean Chinese, Indian and Malay kids interact respectfully, studying alongside Indonesian, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Czech and French students, all co-mingling, learning together, sharing ideas and opinions, developing a better understanding of each other and their respective cultures --- and I think how "proud" I am to be the American representative amongst the group.

And then I read crap like Alyssa Douglas's tweet, and I feel almost sick and ashamed (and as if nothing has changed in Ohio since the 1960s). Blood sport, indeed. 

All The World's A Stage

Shakespeare joins ES2007S.

This week in the second tutorial session all three groups came alive as we dramatized various interpersonal scenarios. The main purpose was two fold: to give students a chance to interact within possible conflict situations, and to once again put them in a position where they had to leave their normal comfort zone and be spontaneous, albeit with a slightly altered identity. 

In Group 7, the Academy Award ballots came out early as we watched Yong Sheng and Yea Wen get right to the heart of the interpersonal matter with commanding performances that clearly connected with their real world experience. Yea Wen saved the day as she consoled her "friend" in what was supposed to be an issue of disappointment with his own academic performance. For drama's sake, Yong Sheng's application of eye drops was just a starter though.

On came Shi Ying and Min Thu in what appeared to be a serious tear jerker. Shi Ying was bawling her eyes out in woe, having been dumped supposedly by her "bf" Sai, when Min Thu tried to help her pick up the pieces, gently consoling her. We all learned that in a case where love becomes unrequited, it's best to just stand by and listen.

A number of masterful performances ensued, many related to the frequent social issue of one team member not playing his or her part in project work. In Group 4's tutorial session, that sort of conflict was precisely the basis for fine outings by Heather and Wei Song. 

If you look at the photo above, you can see Heather waxing indignant, presenting a non-verbal barrier in response to the accusation by Wei Song that she hasn't been pulling her load.  

In a similar fashion, Patrik prodded Dinh with a low-volume yet insistent position that work deadlines had to be met. If I recall correctly, Patrik was quite skillful in challenging Dinh to explain why he had not been able to complete the assigned task. What's interesting in the photo below is that with his left  hand holding his right arm, Patrik seems to be guarding himself (or holding himself back) from Dinh. What do you think?


In Tutorial Group 1, the first round of the dramatic portrayals of these interpersonal conflicts situations for me on Thursday, among many fine acts, the performance that stands out in my mind at this point (two days later) was that of Kim Bongjin, our spikey-haired blonde from Korea, as he tried to resist the request by Dhanya to help her with a statistics program. He had adopted the position of not wanting to assist her, but having a hard time to "say no," he simply grimaced and squirmed and delayed any verbal response. She pushed and pushed, but he neither agreed nor disagreed, in what we all would recognize as stereotypical East Asian behavior. The nonverbals, again, were priceless.

What did I learn from this exercise? That role play is indeed a compelling motivator for students to get on task, and that we have serious acting talent amongst us. 

I'm curious what any of you might have to add about the experience. Which performances resonated with you? What did you take away from the session?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Road We're On --- Looking for Your Input

I've mentioned to students in my three tutorial groups this term that when I was a student during nearly 7 years of university, I never witnessed a PowerPoint presentation. That's right---I never saw a PowerPoint presentation. It hadn't been invented yet. (Yes, I am a dinosaur!)

Neither did I ever use a computer (although I saw one, an old "mainframe" that filled a room and spit out cards filled with data holes), nor did I ever have an instructor who used one in class.

(Yes, the 1970s and 80s were not long after the T-Rex roamed the Earth!)

Now, not only can we use slideware and notebook-size, laptop computers and other high tech gadgets, we can communicate even when not in class via facebook and our blogs. These platforms allow us to interact in ways that most people couldn't have imagined when I was a student.

So here's something I'd like to add to the gadgetry: An open discussion about what has been taking place in our classes up until this point in the term.

Yes, you understood me correctly. I am interested in knowing what you think about the direction of our course of study, class assignments, the website, schedule, whatever you'd like to comment on at this point in the term (still way early to make an overall assessment, but I'm sure each of you has an opinion about what we have done so far, so why not start?).

Please feel free to comment openly and without any hesitation here, in the comment section: Flattery won't influence my image of anyone, and my ego won't be threatened by any criticism!

I am truly curious what your impression is of the way we've done things to date. Does it seem like we're flying through the material at Formula 1 speed, or might you feel like we've just been driving around in circles?

Here's my challenge to you all: Who'll be the first to commit to this very 21st century bit of educational interaction and give me a response? (In short, who shall warm my heart!)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Kaleidoscope World

Does hearing a particular song ever twirl you around by the heels, throwing you and your world view off kilter, revealing another dimension to existence? Of course. In that way, many songs act as a form of transport, refracting not only the sounds in our ears and the light before our eyes, but our very thinking in an unexpected and unique fashion, moving us beyond our usual perspective.
I have had kaleidoscopic (or kaleidophonic?) experiences with a number of the songs in this playlist, but let me recount just one, the so-called “Sukiyaki Song,” as an example:
I was riding alone with my father in the family car, circa 1963, at about age 7 or 8, on our way to the Perry County Golf Course, when I first heard “Sukiyaki” (or “Ue o Muite” by Kyu Sakamoto). Even now, 50 years later, I recall how impressed I was by the arrangement, by the singer’s sweet voice and amazing whistling, and by his words, in a language I had never heard:
Ue o muite arukou
Namida ga kobore naiyouni
Omoidasu harunohi
Hitoribotchi no yoru….
While I couldn’t understand the lyrics, hearing such a song, one that was both “foreign” and yet familiar at the same time, startled me — turning my world upside down, a fact that might be reflected in me eventually residing in Japan for 17 years, and in the way that the Sukiyaki melody has stayed with me (and with millions of other listeners) all these years.
Other songs in this set provide the listener with the same sort of exhilaration. Reach into the depths of Jeff Buckley’s passion as he presents the Cohen classic “Hallelujah” or imbibe the elegaic beauty of Paul Desmond’s alto sax in the “Theme from ‘Black Orpheus’,” and contemplate the impact that these songs have had on listeners since their release. Ride on the melodic waves created between Niladri Kumar’s sitar strokes and Talvin Singh’s beats in “River” or on the chanting pulse of The Congos mystical “Congoman,” and try not to be moved! Then sing along with Francis Magalona in “Kaleidoscope World,” and see if you don’t feel part of the Big Picture.
Whether by inciting an “aha” moment, initiating a series of inescapable body gyrations, or simply giving a person pause from the daily routine, many a song has such potential. That’s the bewildering power of music.
Check out this varied set, and see if you agree. And as always, enjoy!

This post first appeared as Daddy Peet Expresso #25 on Hear the music at this mixcloud site.

Soul Rebel Soundtrack

It’s mid 2012, and there’s roots reggae playing tonight, as happens every Saturday night, in the Hotel Santa Fe Bar & Grill. But this isn’t a dislocated place in New Mexico, nor is it throwback Jamaica — I’m beachside on the island of Guam, seven hours west of Honolulu / three hours east of Manila. High tide or low tide.
Nearly 40 years have passed since Bob Marley & the Wailers first popularized reggae worldwide, 30 years have passed since Bob moved on to that big sunsplash in the sky, and you can still hear Jamaican-based ska, rock steady, reggae and dub emanating from sound systems and stages in every corner of the globe.
A few years back, while living in rural Akita-ken, in northwest Japan, I used to hang out in Bliss, a street-corner drinking spot in the  picturesque coastal city of Honjo. What I recall most about Bliss are three things: the long blonde dreadlocks of the Japanese surfer-dude bar master, the complete Marley oeuvre on display in CD form, and — if I remember correctly through the haze of time — an Olympic-size rasta flag (with a cannabis leaf) unfurled in the shop’s front window. To top it off, the music was invariably a soul rebel soundtrack.
We’ve all heard reggae, even those among us who still don’t quite get it. Wherever you stand though, you have to be amazed by the quantity and quality of music that has originated in Jamaica. When I visited in the late 70s, the 11,000 sq kilometer island was home to a mere 2,000,000 people (in contrast to tiny Singapore’s 2.2 million at the same time). But what a dynamic musical culture!
While I might have been oblivious to the power of reggae in 1979 (sure, I’d seen Peter Tosh in concert, but that was only because he played as an opener for the Stones), what stands out in retrospect is that no matter where I was in the west of the island — strolling through the street market in Negril, catching sunset at Rick’s Cafe on the West End Cliffs, or lounging somewhere along the infamous 7 Mile Beach — reggae was pulsing from ghetto blasters and PAs alike, and everyone within earshot was grinding their hips.
What I didn’t know at that time was that Jamaica was home to hundreds of competing recording labels and studios. One label, Island, was the world’s leading indie music brand back in the 70s, and is now a mainstay under Universal. Sound studios such as Studio One, Treasure Isle, and The Ark, the home base of early Wailers’ producer Lee Perry, made an impact through both the music and the mythology that grew alongside it. (Remember, The Ark was allegedly burnt to the ground in a splif-inspired fire, ignited by Perry himself.)
There were also thousands of professional musicians in Jamaica during that era, a good number achieving international renown, all the while leaving us with a huge catalogue of classic recordings. Many of those included astute social commentary, with others being playful or self-mocking. Performances were typically soulful and heart-felt.
This episode’s set includes an array of songs, mainly from the 70s, with lesser-known artists like Tinga Stewart and The Uniques represented beside well-established singers such as Desmond Dekker and Max Romeo. It also presents more recently released numbers with a clear Jamaican connection, starting with a pair by Abyssinia Infinite (showcasing percussionist Karsh Kale, the ubiquitous Bill Laswell, and the fine singer Gigi), a bouncing social critique by Tiken Jah Fakoly from Cote d’Ivoire, and a party song by Sierra Leone’s Refugee All-Stars.
This is the first in a number of episodes dedicated to all and anything ska-ish and reggaesque. Bliss indeed.

This post is taken from Daddy Peet Expresso Episode #35, on Hear the music at this mixcloud site.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Music of the Spheres

It was supposedly Pythagoras who realized that the pitch of a musical sound was in proportion to the length of string that produces it. He also apparently understood that basic numerical ratios can be found in the intervals of harmonious sound  frequencies. With these ideas in mind, he went a step further and proposed that the sun, moon and various planets each produce their own tones, which are in relation to their orbits and the distances between each other. Mother Earth and the quality of life of its inhabitants would naturally be affected by the music of these spheres.
Well, I can dig that. Again, I’m reveling in sunset at one of the beach-front tables at the Santa Fe Bar & Grill, on Tumuning Bay, Guam. I’ve mentioned this place in the previous episode. The bay is at high tide this evening, and pretty much empty except for a trio of local fellows casting a net for what catch I don’t know (I haven’t seen a fish longer than an inch during my forays into the water). Beside them, there’s a young loving couple cam-whoring, and further down the beach a slightly hunched Korean or Japanese lady apparently trying to train her Chihuahua to swim. I’m dry yet enjoying the restaurant’s sesame-tinged Tuna Poki, and a cold Stella Artois, but things are far from perfect — the background noise sucks.
What is it about so many of these paradisical drinking establishments and their bad taste in musical entertainment that riles me? (I must ask now for you to forgive my irritation, and my pretension.) Just above the bar is a 36-inch TV delivering raunchy music videos (which segue into Major League Baseball by 8pm). At the same time and in distinct counterpoint, the bar’s stereo system belts out tunes as improbable as ACDC’s “Highway to Hell” and “American Woman” by the Guess Who. Clearly, somebody in management needs a lesson on more appropriate ambient music. (I’m preaching to the converted if you are a regular listener at Radio Moka.)
How rare it is for a “rock free” playlist to appear in paradise. I think back, recalling when and where a beachside establishment bucked the trend and played music that seemed to fit the scene: Mykonos, Greece, 1979 — the master of a small tavern that served killer ouzo introduced me to the wizardry of two true guitar heroes, Paco de Lucia and Baden Powell.
Praia do Meco, the nude beach on Costa de Caparica just south of Lisbon, Portugal, 1981 or so — an airy cabana serving beers also had a cassette player, where for the first time I heard the lyrical voice of Brazilian Milton Nascimento.
Perhentian Island, on the northeast coast of Malaysia, early 1990s — a sandy tie-dye place called Coco Hut, wedged between three gargantuan boulders and canopied with dried coconut fronds, served Alpha Blondy’s reggae and jazz by the likes of Stan Getz amidst a buffet of catch-of-the-day curry and grilled barracuda. That all made perfect sense.
This week’s set is yet another foray into background ambient consultancy. I’ve purposefully kept the focus on Latin, Brasilian and African-based rhythms, each song with a clear tropical vibe. If only I were in charge here at the bar & grill, what magical musical majesty I might suggest.
But now the sun is blazing a bit too brightly (yep, blinding me) as it begins its dip into the Philippine Sea; the Earth seems still for a second, and good, as she grinds inexorably along her axis.
Happily, I imagine other realities, parallel universes, where no music is ever overplayed, where Anglo-American rock, rap and pop are kept at bay, and where every beachside bar and grill gets its sound just right —- in accordance with the music of the spheres.

This post first appeared on Daddy Peet Expresso #36, on

Monday, July 23, 2012

Missing Suitcases and Other Odd Phenomena: A Question of Management

So nice to be back home in safe, clean Singapore after a couple weeks in the Philippines. The two countries are both in Southeast Asia, and both are members of ASEAN, both are island nations -- though the Philippines has 7000+ islands and Singapore merely a handful -- but they couldn't be more different. I'm going to use my travel experience to illustrate.

On a recent international trip, I arrived by plane in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, to find that my suitcase had not arrived with me on the Tiger Airways day flight. The bag was left back at Changi; it was then forwarded to the Cebu - Mactan Airport on a subsequent Cebu Pacific night flight. That flight left Singapore at midnight and arrived in Cebu's airport at 4am. There my suitcase apparently sat unattended for six hours. I suspect that was when it was ransacked. When I opened the bag in the presence of a Tiger Airways staff member who brought it to my hotel at noon the same day (24 hours after I'd arrived), I discovered not only that everything in the bag was jumbled, but that the new Nokia Lumia 610 phone I was bringing to Cebu as a gift (still in its original packaging) was gone.

Later, when I reported this theft to the head of police back at the Cebu Mactan airport, I was told by the kind gentleman that he indeed suspected it had been stolen there at the airport. He also confided that he had items taken from his own suitcase on a recent flight from Singapore to Cebu. In fact he went on to tell me that a crime syndicate was operating at the airport among the Cebu Pacific luggage handlers. According to this same police chief, his office was recieving complaints nearly every day of thefts from luggage!

Naturally, I asked the chief why his office couldn't make an effort to stop the crime wave at the airport. His answer startled me: oversight of the luggage handling was the responsibility of Cebu Pacific, not his office. 

That is precisely what I see as the major difference between Singapore and the Philippines, this lack of a sense of responsbility. Of course, it would be naive for me to say that everyone in Singapore feels responsible. However, I think people in Singapore are encouraged to take action, to get involved, and to be responsible. Rigorous demands in the education system require such responsibility, certainly. I also see it in the place that the rule of law plays in Singapore society.

Let me explain this idea in terms of another example, something very basic: the way people interact with the physical environment, which is another area of stark contrast between Singapopre and the Philippines.

In Cebu, I have been startled by the grime, dust and dirt on sidewalks, roads, buildings and public spaces, how litter is openly strewn on streets, fruit peels tossed into gutters, and plastics dropped helter skelter. I've seen people spit and piss throughout public areas (including a taxi driver who stopped near my downtown hotel and was peeing along the street), kids blatantly drop icecream wrappers and other rubbish on the ground, and smokers flick their cigarette butts randomly onto the street.

It seems that few Cebuanos hesitate to trash their living environment. The result is one of the trashiest, smelliest places I have ever visited, bar none, in the world. When I asked my Filipina fiance about this, she reported that many people in Cebu have the attitude that things are messy, so what would be the difference if a bit more garbage is added.

Clearly, there is little sense of "I am responsible for my environment." (Very little attention apparently given to any sort of "green movement" in Cebu, and dare I say, in the Philippines in general.)

I contrast this to the endless campaigns I witnessed in my youth 40 years ago in America, both in school and through the mass media, by which the value for creating and maintaining a clean environment was instilled. The results today in America are obvious: beaches are pristine, wilderness areas are garbage free, roadsides are generally litter-less, and city streets and sidewalks exist without rubbish. (Sadly, America has a long way to go toward ensuring its citizens that their environment is also safe!)

As for cleanliness, Singapore is very similar to the U.S. in this regard (although I have witnessed a worsening in Singapore since the late 1980s). As I rode the bus this morning from my residence in Bukit Timah to my office in Kent Ridge, the fact that the roads and sidewalks were clean jumped out at me. (And nowhere in Singapore have I ever smelled pee in a public area!)  Someone somewhere has done something right when an environment filled with so many people -- and Singapore is one of the most densely populated islands in the world -- is so clean.

It's also clear to me when something is wrong. Yesterday, taking the taxi from central Cebu City to the airport on Mactan Island, I was struck yet again by the filth on the city streets, sidewalks and in public spaces. Who's in charge, I wondered.

For me, that is the real issue: Who is in charge? Where's the management? Where is the sense of responsibility of the chief executives, directors, section chiefs, police chiefs, mayors, council members and other government representatives?

What do the citizens of a place like Cebu think when they visit a place as clean and safe as Singapore, or Tokyo, London, Chicago, New York, or Paris?

It is the responsibility of ordinary citizens to have the concern, and then they must pressure those around them, including their leaders, to set goals and work hard to lead their constituency in a direction that pays more than lip service to the notion that the Earth is our home. Safety and cleanliness are basic human responsibilities, and rights, not luxuries.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Group Grades versus Individual Marks

In the course that I have been most recently teaching, Professional Communication: Principles and Practice, I need to justify for the powers that be the weighting of the various course assignments. One could say it breaks down to 90% for individual marks and then 10% for group grades. The so-called individual stuff includes a blogging regime of six content-based posts and regular commentary on classmates' posts, an application letter process, a peer teaching (in a team) assignment, a team-based discussion of a research project, an oral presentation of that same assignment, and finally, a composite score of various classroom interactions. The "group" grade is for a team-written research-based proposal. Identifying assignments in this way -- group or indiviual -- is nearly as inaccurate as calling the work either individual or group though, as it overlooks the interdependent nature of the work and each assignment.

In the oral presentation (OP), as one example, I give indivdual grades largely based on each team member's performance, but much of the effort, e.g., the slides of the typical PowerPoint, is a group creation (even if one person was initially responsible). The “value” of the slides is then figured into the holistic assessment of the OP for each individual, the assumption being that every OP team member signed off on the final set of slides. In short, each OP team member gets an individual grade, but that is within the context of the group’s effort.

I feel that what constitutes the group grade vs individual “mark” is hard to judge at times (and rather inappropriate), especially in a communication setting where working together/creating together is so much part of the classroom process. In my course, a student is required to find a job, grad school or internship advertisement, and she then does her application letter and resume in a four-draft process. In principle, the various drafts are refined with input from peers and me. Is the work, therefore, individual or group? Well, the grade eventually given is certainly individual. But what about the actual work?

The same question could be asked about each component of the course. Which "product" is the result of a process done independently, individually in isolation? Certainly none of the final products. Perhaps an initial draft of a blog post, say the one written on an interpersonal conflict, is done while the writer is alone in the proverbial ivory tower. But even the blog posts can be updated based on reader feedback. In fact, it's my hope that each one IS refined because that is exactly how writing is effectively improved.

When so much of the work in a course like mine is process-based with lots of requisite peer and tutor feedback given, it could almost be argued that for any final product a team should be judged more accurately than any one individual. You might say, however, that in an assignment like the team-oriented, research-based oral presentation, most of the weight of a grade should be based on each team member's performance, ie., the delivery. But even our OP is founded on a process; it has the required research project discussion as stage one, an “elevator test” summarizing the main content objective as stage two, the mock OP as stage three, and the final OP as stage four. Of course, an individual's performance is factored into awarding the final mark, but so much prior to that performance depends on other individuals, whether in the form of contributions made by teammates or feedback from members of the larger class group. Unfortunately, when I give an individual mark that social element is eclipsed. This may satisfy my superiors because they want to be certain that individual students are achieving the prescribed learning outcomes and receiving the appropriate carrot or stick, but it diminishes the various nuances involved in the educational process. 

Why do we often have to align the educational universe in this manner? Because even for a content-area such as communication, even when the course focus is helping students develop what are essentially social skills, we are in the business of teaching and assessing individuals. Of course, students can only improve communication skills when they develop a sense of other, of audience, and this happens best within the context of team projects and group-oriented assignments. But still our philosophical focus is on the "I," the individual rather than the group. This is because our value system within the educational context, just as in the context of contemporary life in general, is focused on each one of us as an individual; we have a certain obsession, if you will, for giving each individual a specific mark because individualism rules the day, not "the group," not "the learning community."

So I give individual marks, for the sake of the student,  my boss, the system; and  I justify the individual marks given, even when I feel that doing so misrepresents the way effective communication develops or the manner in which the associated skills improve.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Speaking of Norms: America and the "Gun Culture"

The headlines are hardly noteworthy anymore: "...shooting-leaves-1-student-dead-and-4-wounded." Why? Because in America, it happens all the time. School shootings have become a norm.

This time, however, I took note because the tragedy occurred in an Ohio high school. It was easy for me to imagine the cafeteria at 7am just before the shooting took place: kids coming in with thick winter coats and scarves on, having just arrived from homes nearby. Others sitting and talking with their friends, their coats hung on their chairs, hats and gloves piled in front of them, right beside the plates of scrambled eggs and glasses of orange juice. And still other kids dragging themselves up to the cafeteria line, waiting for some grub.

The place would have been lively, maybe with a song from Lady Gaga's latest album playing from one girl's laptop, noise from another being passed ear to ear as a group of boys checked out a new screamo number from a buddy's mp3 player. 

Then suddenly one lad, a boy that many people knew as a quiet guy who attended a different local school but who would occasionally stop in Chardon High to visit a friend, stands up, jostles with his coat and takes a pistol from his pocket. He brandishes the weapon for just a second, then takes aim at a group of dudes sitting at the next table over.

Before anyone can process what is happening, BAM! he shoots. BAM BAM!!! he shoots again. A couple boys slump immediately in their seats, slide to the floor. Simultaneously,  a heavy rain of screams and cries pours out from all directions. Hell is unleashed.

The scene might seem like that of a Hollywood flick, but it is all too real, all too common: Thanks to a combination of interpersonal issues (bullying and teenage angst) and America's "gun culture,"  a young problem child turns to violence to express himself. Others end up dead before their time.

For several days, maybe even a week, the media will focus on the school, the victims, the culprit, and the affected families and friends. There will be images of hospitals and funerals and the childhood home of all those involved. For another fortnight, there will be talk throughout Ohio about the shooting up in Chardon. For a year, maybe two, maybe three (until the kids who witnessed this incident have all graduated), there will be a ripple effect throughout scores, maybe hundreds of parent-teacher meetings, counseling sessions, and focused community discussions on the cause of violence in schools and the part that guns play in the equation.

And then, slowly but surely, the focus will turn away, turn to other events, turn to violence with other faces, in other places, while back in Chardon, like in Columbine (Colorado), like in Baton Rouge (Louisiana), like in Blacksburg (Virginia), things will have long returned to "normal."

But what is the norm? 

That a shooting can happen anytime, anywhere, and anyone can be a victim. Just wait and see.

For more information, check out this link.

I will never meet the Sentinelese

Have you ever imagined taking a sailing trip through the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal? I have. And though I hear the scuba diving is excellent and the sunsets are spectacular, my greatest interest is not in the water or on the horizon but for the little known island of North Sentinel. What would it be like to step ashore, I've wondered.

Welcome to a version of the Stone Age, where sure death is the answer. For on that tropical islet, among lush vegetation and behind a ring of white sandy beaches, resides a group of people for whom outsiders are unwelcome, and time has stood still --- meet the legendary Sentinelese.

In visiting North Sentinel, one has to move cautiously. In an article on the website AtlasObscura, it is reported that two fishermen who made the mistake of illegally casting their lines within the shadow of the island were killed in a barrage of arrows. Even the helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies nearly fell prey to the tribesmen's expert shots.

No, the Sentinelese don't take to strangers, and for that and other reasons, their idyllic speck of real estate has been declared off limits by the Indian government, which oversees the area --- and that has been the saving grace of their society and culture.

When we talk about culture, I like the definition set forth by Lederach (1995) in the book Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures: "Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them" (p. 9). 

The social reality for the Sentinelese, we might surmise, is one in which the idea of in group and out group is very strong. If you are one of us, you look like we do, you act like we do, you speak like we do, and you live in the lean-to next door --- then you're safe. If you don't fulfill those criteria --- you are a danger for us, and if you get too close, you will die.

The Sentinelese "perception" of outsiders as dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows has been corroborated by the experience of other islanders in the Andamans. Without the protection of the Indian government, the Jarawa, the Onde and others have been individually and collectively exploited, their social universes broken apart in much the same way as those of the native Americans from the 17th through 19th centuries: men forced into working as cheap laborers, women conscripted into the invaders' kitchens and beds, and children stripped of their sense of identity as the tsunami of outside influences rushes in.  

There are different perspectives, of course, on what action a government can and should take in this case. Some would argue that it is better for the inevitable to happen, that the assimilation/integration of "primitive" groups to the dominant, more "civilized" society is social evolution, a necessary stage in historical development, and the sooner the better. That argument gains strength when one considers, for example, the advantages of giving these people access to modern health care. 

Still, as the experience of the Penan in East Malaysia and countless other tribal groups from Borneo to West Papua shows us, forced assimilation -- with reneged upon promises of health care, housing and formal education -- can come at a high price: thwarted expectations, dire new living conditions and cultures in decay.

So India's current policy of enforced protection of the isolation of the Sentinelese stands, and my dream of visiting their island will never be realized. Good for them.

For more information on the culture of various tribes in the Andaman Islands, see this link.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Turning the Table on Study Habits (repost)

Have you ever wondered whether it's more effective to study in the same place night after night or to change locations frequently? Should you focus on one subject per study session, doing mugging for that physics exam tonight and the project work for prof comm tomorrow, or split things up across various evenings?

This article from The New York Times,  "Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits," gets at the heart of study habits in a lucid manner. Invoking recent research while dispelling old myths, author Benedict Carey leads you through the library, into your favorite spot in the student lounge, back to your room in the residence hall and right up to your work desk --- then out again, and provides fine detail on an activity that takes up far too much of your time.

So you better get it right!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Kids of Ermita

I was in a taxi Christmas Eve coming from my hotel near Mango Square in Cebu, the second largest city in the Philippines, when my destination took my driver by surprise. "Ermita?" he asked. "Are you buying drugs?"

Huh? "No, I'm not," I responded.

"But Ermita is dangerous," he added.

"I'm visiting a close friend," I added. (My friend is a veritable "princess" of Ermita, the granddaughter of one of Ermita's most infamous personages, a now-deceased "godfather.")

Having been to Ermita nearly half a dozen times before Christmas Eve, I already had many impressions of the neighborhood bisected by a single pulsating thoroughfare: crowded, chaotic, in-your-face, friendly, even welcoming.

Every time I had been driven by "tricycle" into the Ermita barangay (burrough) from one of Cebu City's main bayside arteries, Magallanes Street, I had been warmly welcomed by kids wanting to give me a high-five and voices familiar and unfamiliar alike: "Hey Blackstone! Hello Blackstone!" 

And though there were stares and the occasional threatening glare, I never had the impression that Ermita was dangerous, not with so many children out and about. My most immediate reaction was that the place, while teeming with seemingly hundreds of kids of all ages playing games, was like a gigantic pre-school. Of course, Ermita's main drag, more like an alley lined with mostly open drains and an assortment of narrow makeshift wooden and brick homes, stores and other structures, hosted not just kids but also gossiping housewives, preening teenagers, straining videoke singers, street vendors selling everything from local dishes and pastries to bagged soft drinks and bottled water, lounging village elders, and random chickens and ducks (and even the occcasional pig). At various spots along the alley, fires were being tended, with black kettels hung over them being brought to a boil or skewered meats being grilled.

Even with such robust activity though, Ermita was clearly one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Cebu City. This was evident in the rags that many of the residents were wearing and the scrawniness of so many of the kids. On my early visits I had also been struck by the fact that so many babies were being carted about by tiny mothers, some barely into their teenage years. In fact, a recent article bears witness to the pressing social problems confronted by the area's residents, from unemployment and gambling to teenage pregnancy and hunger.

Still, even in the face of such problems, the neighborhood has impressed me as its inhabitants strive to work together to overcome the obvious challenges and create a sense of normalcy within their community. I've seen this in the way that those who have share with those who don't, in the manner that the most fragile young are so often protected and even adopted by the ones who can do so, and in the enduring and seemingly genuine cheerfulness that pervades interactions---and in the smiles.

Of course, as I reflect on my experience with the residents in Ermita, I wonder what I can do to help. The impromptu English lessons that I gave, the tips to the trike drivers and the asundry holiday handouts are not enough.

What could I or any one of us who are in more fortunate positions contribute to a community such as this?