Thursday, January 31, 2013

The [Name] Show as Path of Least Resistance

Several times in the past three weeks, I've witnessed Professors or guest lecturers speak for three straight hours.

Does anyone really think the human attention span was built to withstand that?  I know mine was not.

Once upon a time, I actually got certified to teach.  When I put aside the Marxist indoctrination associated with the program, I actually learned something:  Hands-on instructional methods that give students a voice are the right way to do it.  Want to present a case?  How about having a student come 'down to the pit' to play-act the protagonist, rather than just answer questions from the mezzanine?  For a business plan class, why not have students break into groups to actually discuss something and get to know each other?

So what's the wrong way to teach?  Many would answer "lecture."  In some circles, the word itself is a pejorative.  I would add that "facilitator" is only a slight step away (this is the teacher-centric mode that allows for occasional acknowledgement of raised student hands...not 'technically' a lecture).

Ironically, the very Educators teaching Education (emphasis on the Big 'E') didn't practice what they preached.  I don't think most educators anywhere, on ANY level, really practice student-centered lesson plan models.  Here are two major reasons why:
(1) It's easy to just 'stand and deliver.'  It requires far, far less preparation to just stand up, work through your slides, and jawjack than it does to stop and think about more innovative ways to teach.  High school, college, graduate, or whatever...this is just how most education happens because it's the path of least resistance.  The students can 'just sort of sit there' and the Prof. can amuse himself with Billy Madison-esque lines like "this does not make the ribosomes happy."
(2)  For the speaker, it's your chance to the star.  It's the [insert your name here] Show for the Prof. That's hard to give up.  It's well-known that many people fear public speaking, but I'm convinced that among the group that doesn't have this fear, there's a fear of  stopping.

I don't think anyone, anywhere, should speak about anything for three straight hours.  I don't care how well-spoken, how knowledgeable, or how-anything someone is.  That's a long, long time to hear a single voice...and I think any speaker who misses this needs to have their self-awareness equipment adjusted.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Now THAT's a Trend I'll Support

You know what the last real taboo in our society is?  It's money.

Some might think the last taboo(s) involve certain, uhh...private matters, but there are lots of people quite willing to bring those matters up in great detail with people they've barely met.  Start asking those people about their finances, their inheritances, their incomes, etc. and watch how fast things get touchy.  Better yet, if you want to ever be asked back to their coffee klatch, don't ask.

That said, I'll open my kimono just enough to say this:  I was thrilled to see the uptick in downtown Lowell condo value, as reflected by  I'm not necessarily trying to sell it, and I've written before on several occasions why the whole 'upside-down' mortgage thing isn't necessarily so terrible.  Still, I was happy to see the trend.  


I bought in 2008 for 225 (230 with 5 back).  Pretty much from then forward, its value has steadily dived to its rock bottom of 156 exactly one year ago. 

I put nothing down (ahh...the old FHA zero down days), which was nice because that was the best option for me at the time, but which sucks because I pay PMI plus a mammoth-sized monthly payment (30-year fixed).  On the bright side, I paid a big chunk of principal last year and now owe about 189.  At this rate, I'll be PMI-free in the spring of 2014. 

Anyway, the value has been creeping up since last February, and Zillow now says it's worth 175.  If things keep moving this way, it may go 'rightside up' at some point next year.  That's nice because a) the thought of positive equity is a pleasant one...and it's nice to think it could buoy me if I hit a rocky patch; and b) I would have mobility if the siren song of an 'actual' house became too strong to resist.  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Sound of a Bubble Popping?

Every time there's a speculative "bubble" in any field or industry, lots of people write books and articles afterwards about how obvious and easily-preventable it all was.

To the credit of many, though, the concept of a Higher Ed bubble in the United States has been brought out in many forums.  There are lots of different, passionate opinions...and the only opinions that I truly cannot and will not respect are those hypocritical ones held by people like Peter Thiel -- someone who took an education he was very fortunate to get and then made many millions of dollars as a result -- but who go around telling other people not to bother with college.

So are we in a bubble?  My take is that there is no Bachelor's degree bubble.  However, I do believe there's a societal idea that "more learning is more better" which leads people to just kinda sorta pursue advanced degrees that don't always have a clear return on investment.

Two articles I saw this week made me think about the bubble and where we could be headed.

One appeared in the Wall Street Journal, and it was about the University of Wisconsin granting Bachelor's Degrees to people not for taking courses, but just for passing subject matter tests.  This is an intriguing idea.  Of course, it has its problems, but it could be morphed into something that works out the kinks while driving college costs down for a segment of the population that might currently be constrained by availability of time or money.

The other article is one I caught on my Facebook news feed (thanks Renee Aste!).  It's this article from CNN Money about people whose Master's degrees weren't "worth it."  If there's any sort of bubble that I see (assuming we're defining that as people paying higher and higher prices for something that is overvalued) it has to with the post-graduate stuff.  Getting an advanced degree has to be a very conscious, adult decision and it shouldn't be made "just because."  If people are getting terminal Master's degrees in the Humanities, Social Sciences, etc. and thinking there's going to be some huge reward at the end, then there is an expectations problem that needs to be addressed.

Am I hypocrite for writing that?  After all, I'm 32 and list my full-time occupation as "student."  I am partially under-written by Uncle Sam but am also borrowing by the wheelbarrow-full (part of which is a conscious strategy to build a large cash reserve in order to bootstrap a start-up).

I would say that as long as I don't go around complaining about "Where's mine?" if and when I struggle to pay that debt back, I'm okay.  No one promised me anything when I signed all the FAFSA paperwork, so that one's on me.  As for the people out there going for their nth Master's Degree but not sure how to answer the question "Why?" I'd say that there could be a bubble out there that's ripe to be popped.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Who Ya NOT Gonna Call? Silobusters!

As I wrote here last week, I made a tactical boo-boo by signing up for January-term classes.

Still, rather than just engage in hand-wringing, I can try to have some fun with it, right?  On Thursday last week, the Prof, who had just left a position with the federal government, was explaining different ways of sharing information within organizations.  He introduced the idea of "stovepipes" or "silos," but then made a crack about how rich he'd be if he had a dollar for every time he heard someone describe himself as a "silobuster."

I was the only one who actually burst out laughing, which made for a slightly awkward moment -- he might not have even intended for it to be that funny.

But I was also the only one with 7+ years' experience working in and around bureaucracies.

And here's what I know:  Anyone who ever introduced himself or herself as a "silobuster" in an interview in which I was across the table would be certain to receive a "We received many qualified applications..." e-mail shortly afterwards.

And trust me, that's not because I like silos.  Obviously, information should be shared, not hoarded, and systems should be designed to ensure this occurs.  But someone calling himself or herself a "silobuster" is kind of like a girl that a single guy meets at a bar, and tells him five times within the first ten minutes that she "hates drama" and prefers things to be "drama-free."

Any guys out there think that girl would really live up to those bold opinions about drama?  Right.  And anyone who brags about "silobusting" has already told me as much as I need to hear.  

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What NOT to do with IAP

So, I committed a tactical blunder this week.  Well, technically the blunder wasn't committed this week, but this week basically was the blunder.

It's Inter-Session, or J-Term, or Independent Activities Period (IAP).  As the name implies, it's supposed to be a time to break away from the normal school grind and pursue something else.

I tried to get cute.  Figuring I could throw some classes in there to keep up my full-time status (to the VA, that means I'm eligible for the housing stipend for this month), I didn't think it'd be a big deal.  I also didn't pay enough attention to how often, or how long, those rinky-dink little 1,2, and 3-unit Pass/Fail classes actually met.

Coulda shoulda woulda read the fine print on that one.

Time that should have been spent doing many many other things has been squandered inside of back-to-back three hour lectures.  I've been able to sneak in a couple e-mail replies here and there, and some Facebook time, but a few balls have been dropped, and a lot of "personal admin" stuff has completely fallen by the wayside.

Next week won't be as bad, and neither will the one after.

So why did I write this entry?  To leave a Google crumb trail, which is contained right here: "If you're a Sloan MBA trying to work on a project locally during IAP, DO NOT register for a full slate of courses.  Whatever 'thing' you're trying to do isn't going to happen when you're trying to jab your eyes to keep them open during the 7th hour of class that day."

And on a slightly ranty end note, I don't think ANY class, anywhere, ever, should be three straight hours.  I don't care how entertaining the material or the speaker is -- that's just too long for attention spans that get pegged at about the 60- or 80-minute mark, tops.

If you e-mailed or otherwise tried to reach me this week, I won't say the 's' word but will say I goofed on the schedule, and basically 'lost' the better part of several days.  Be forgiving.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Plus que ca change...

To the Faithful:  Thanks for coming back to the blog.  It was a nice hiatus, but it's also great to be back.  Lots to report, so I'll wheel it out over the next few entries.

The other day, I was in a cab from Stuart, FL (right near Port St. Lucie, a place most Mets fans would know) to the airport in Palm Beach.

I asked the cabdriver, a friendly, chatty, fifty-something African-American man, about the area.  "It's changed a lot in my time," he said.  "Back when I was a kid, we didn't have all these highways running everywhere.  It was much, much quieter."  He said it in a neutral sort of way, so I prodded a little further, asking about feelings between newer and more-established residents.

Right away, he explained me that he was a third-generation guy in Stuart, before offering a totally unprompted observation about who does the most huffing and puffing about newer residents who've come down to Florida to raise families or retire [they don't use the term 'blow-in' but you get the idea].  "It's not the multi-generational people like us," he said. "We've seen plenty of good and plenty of bad over the years, but generally we welcome anyone who would want to come down here.  I'd say let's even get more if we could.  But it's always the ones who've just been down here 'a little while' that are the quickest to complain about even newer residents trying to change it from the way it was.'

I loved it.  I absolutely ate it up.  I tried to get him to say even more, but he didn't go too deep in the way of explanation before veering down a side-path about local norms and hospitality.

Any long-time reader of this blog will know why I was so tickled by what he said: By and large, that's pretty much been my experience in Lowell.  

At first, it seemed a wee bit counterintuitive.  The more pedigreed a person was in the place I came to finally settle down, hang my coat, and build some "social capital," the more welcoming he or she was. And by and large, on the very few instances when I've caught a stink-eye or gotten some funny questions about agendas (if you find mine, please let me know!) it's come from a fellow New Lowellian.  [N.B.  I'm not counting the well-intentioned but stupid stuff, like when someone assumes that a person who lives downtown can't find their way onto a street that doesn't begin with "M."  That is real, and it's an expression of provincialism].

Now I'm just used to it.  And upon further reflection, the whole idea seems way less counterintuitive (let's just say Roger Bannister's ghost isn't haunting me when I struggle to break seven minutes in four laps...we don't worry about stuff we're not insecure about).  

When I got back, I noticed that Dick Howe's blog ran a profile piece about Fred Faust and his views on the evolution of the city.  Sure enough, there it was -- grew up outside of NYC, came to Boston for schooling, found Lowell, fell in love...  Sounded a bit familiar.

And no shocker that class acts like Dick and Paul are the ones who realize how important a Fred is to the city.  

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Want to Build More Bridges? Be Like Louis!

I bumped into my good friend Joe Darensbourg today, and before long we were in the Club Diner talking about Louis Theroux.

Some know him from his role doing spots for American cable news shows, while others know him as the BBC documentary maker who travels around the U.S., exposing its underbelly.  In case you don't know him at all, type his name into YouTube and you will be able to see most of his documentaries for free.  They are hard to turn away from, so make sure you've got some time to dig in and watch.

Anyway, back to Louis.  I first learned about him because YouTube "recommended" that I watch one of his films, and that was that.  Watching the way he penetrated some hard-core crystal meth networks in Fresno, CA, I instantly thought back to the observation I had made a few months ago about the impressions that my American classmates make on my international ones (In case you didn't read that one -- or don't remember an obscure, months-old blog entry -- the basic idea was that it's better to be very curious than very knowledgeable).

Louis Theroux plays this to a T.  It doesn't hurt that he is a well-educated foreigner speaking in an accent that makes him "different" right off the bat.  His boyish posture, unremarkable physique, and angular features don't hurt, either.  The people he interviews don't view him as a threat or as a condescending jerk; instead, they view him as an open, somewhat naive British guy who wants to learn more about what it is they're doing, and why.  

Everyone loves to believe that he or she is especially possessed with "street smarts" or general knowledge/awareness about the ways of the world.  When people get into pissing contests about such things, it quickly becomes hard to bear (I recently bought a new car, and flat-out avoid any related conversations with someone just waiting to rob me of 15 minutes so I can learn how much better/savvier they are about car buying).

Sometimes, it's hard to swallow your pride.  When I worked in the Mayor's Office, it used to drive me kinda nuts when people "from" Lowell assumed that I couldn't possibly understand where any street was that doesn't start with the letter "M."

But really, that's just my own insecurity on display -- why else should I care?  The other day, someone started explaining to me "what downtown Lowell looks like during the Folk Festival."  I have no idea what inspired the person to do this (he even knew exactly where I lived, which made it all the more strange) but I knew to just let it go.  

If you watch the embedded YouTube vid (it's the entire Louis Theroux piece on crystal meth in Fresno), you'll see why "being like Louis" is an endearing way to break the ice with people you don't know well.  Louis never tries to be "down" or "hip" by showing off his knowledge about American slang or drug culture.  Whether it's an act that he puts on, or whether it's his real self on display, it doesn't really matter -- Louis builds the bridge, and he builds it well.  

C'mon...Really, Elizabeth?

I did not vote for Elizabeth Warren.

However, I congratulate her for winning an uphill battle for the US Senate seat and for recently becoming Massachusetts' junior senator.  I wish her the best, I have good friends who worked for her campaign, and I'm not partisan enough to think she's some kind of communist subversive.

However, I haven't lost the ability to call out utter BS when I see or hear it.  Here is a  quote from a story about Warren's inauguration, in reference to an old family King James Bible she brought to the swearing-in:
“I know people come with big fancy family Bibles,” Warren said in an interview shortly before her Noon induction into the Senate. “Mine’s a little more modest.”
Give me a break!  I consume a lot of Americana, and I'm not familiar with ANY tradition involving fancy-pants WASP families who pride themselves on "big fancy family Bibles."

After a while, I get pretty tired of hearing millionaires engage in the "who-had-fewer-cars-in-the-family-driveway" sort of arguments.

Who carries a more modest Bible, though?   That just takes it to a whole new level.