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Failure … It’s A Good Thing 2 comments

There is a bizarre sort of deja vu that comes from teaching the same material to different groups three times a week. The first time it is fresh, although perhaps not “new”. If not enough time passes between the first class and the second class, serious deja vu sets in. For me this term, the second class happens hot on the heels of the first one, a mere one hour later. It is going to be hard to keep the energy up for this class. I repeatedly had the feeling of “Didn’t I just say this?” The weird thing was that they actually laughed in the right places, even though I had the feeling that I “just did this”. A bit disorienting. The third class happens 24 hours later, thank goodness, and I have had time to shake off the first two. Still, I could feel myself getting a bit punchy. I am grateful that my Friday late afternoon (and I do mean late afternoon) class was equally as giddy last week and that made for an unexpectedly fun and energized class.

I should just say, as an aside, that I’m glad that acting/theatre thing didn’t work out. I can’t imagine keeping 6-8 performances a week “fresh”!

New faculty training, lo these almost 10 years past, included a session on classroom management issues. One of the suggestions I kept from that session is the discussion of my expectations of student behaviour in the course and I have adopted this as part of the first class for every course I teach.  The “expectations” page is about one and a half pages long and I go through it, section by section, trying to keep it light but letting them know I’m serious … all at the same time. We discuss the reasons for some of these expectations, why they are important. One of the sections is labelled “No Personal Attacks”. At this point in the class, I usually draw two little stick figures on the board and show the happy stick figures sharing their ideas in a realm quite separate from their physical beings.  Keeping the discussion in the realm if ideas, and not in the realm of “the person” is an important, nay, critical, distinction to make.  People can disagree with each other’s ideas without, in fact, needing to disagree with each other’s value as human beings. However, people fear that sharing ideas will result in others making judgements based on those ideas – and this is not a groundless fear to have. We do tend to do this, and part of the shift I like to see communications students make is to develop the discipline NOT to rush to judgement quite so quickly. This shift takes time, of course. I like to introduce the concept as a basic rule of operation in my classroom environment and, later, as a concept supporting team work.

So, by the end of the week, I had drawn my little stick figures multiple times, and tried to find different ways of saying “play nice … be kind … critique ideas, not people … healthy disagreement is force for creative good … what are some phrases we can use in this situation? … ” and, on my way home on Friday, with all this echoing in my head, I had a revelation of my own.

I ended 2009 feeling exhausted and pretty low and, although the end of 09 had its challenges, I’ve had rough patches before and not felt so defeated. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what else was wrong. Then, I realized that I had a lot of “big plans” for 2009, some as New Year’s resolutions and some as just personal goals … and I didn’t make much progress on any of them. I was experiencing the nagging feeling of having failed myself, of having lost focus. And I was beating myself up pretty good about that.

It seems to me that I forgot a couple of things.

Thing #1 – Failure is good.

Years ago, I took one of those self-improvement courses and one day the instructor said this:

If you haven’t failed recently, you are not doing enough.

At the time, once I thought it through, it made a great deal of sense to me. Of course! Statistically, if we are doing lots of things, we are going to fail at some of them. We are going to screw up, say the wrong thing, start the wrong project, piss the wrong person off. People who don’t take enough risks don’t experience a lot of success. Sometimes, “failure” is the price of success. We also learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Thing #2 – Stick Figures Rock

I forgot to be one of my stick figures for a moment, and I let the sense of failure get too close to me, personally, and not remain in the realm of the external. My “failures”, if they were that, existed outside of me. They are not “me”.

Thing #3 – Expectation Management

Setting expectations, or personal goals, or New Year’s Resolutions – I generally think these are good things to do. Somehow, though, I let an unconscious adherence to these specific and particular outcomes obliterate the beauty and the busy-ness and the fun of 2009. In 2009, I learned so much and laughed so well with such amazing people in my life. I learned to be more “in the moment”. I needed some help and I got it. I felt loved. How can a person wander around feeling gloomy about THAT? (Seriously, girl, get a grip … ) Long-time readers may recall my image at the beginning of 2006 in which I wanted a “burger with everything on it, extra pickle, with the juices running down my arms as I devour it” kind of year. I’d say 2009, most of it, came pretty darn close.

I still want to achieve some of those things on my 2009 list and, oddly, I feel more ready and focused to get there now. Maybe I wasn’t ready a year ago.

So, a new week begins and there are more stick figures to be drawn. I wonder what they will tell me this week?

Extended Absence Greeting 4 comments

Hey there – remember me? 🙂

So, the last few months of 2009 became a muddy blur during which time writing, and exercising, took a backseat to the following:

  • caring for the lovely Freddie as she recovered from surgery to repair ruptured discs in her spine (neck). My home became a baby-gated, cushioned, modified pet crate for seven weeks. My dog was in pain and I felt helpless. And then, shortly afterwards, broke. So grateful that Freddie’s Other Mom, and the lovely WWBA, were able to be such a supportive part of this adventure. But it did take its toll. Freddie needs to be carried up and down stairs and, at first, needed more, shorter walks. I live up two flights of stairs and my routine was tied more than ever, to Freddie’s requirements. I was exhausted.
  • … and thus got I ill myself with a persistent bronchial infection – several weeks of coughing and hacking and sleeping badly.
  • having my car vandalized, right here in the underground parking lot. Stuff stolen, car damaged. Much time and energy lost over a 10 day period, dealing with this. Not to mention feeling just a wee bit violated.
  • grading 174 really sub-par essay-like business reports in 3.5 weeks. That is a real number, 174. 87 in the first round that had to be done quickly and returned so they could have feedback to complete and hand in the second round. Second round to be graded to the grade submission deadline at the end of term. This activity will suck your brain out through the eye of a needle and will rip your heart out of your chest, tossing it away like last year’s PlayStation. Don’t let anyone tell you that teaching isn’t an emotional pursuit. After teaching plagiarism (how to avoid it, not how to do it) as a topic in class, finding students who persist in the behaviour is like getting smacked up the side of the head with a 2 x 4. I’m not sure I can explain why, it just feels … horrible.  It does get balanced out, of course, by students who really do make incredible progress and there were some really fine moments of this as well. Somehow, though, this term, the amount of grading and the roller coaster ride it took me on just about did me in.
  • ongoing negotiations with management on workload issues (see above) and the looming possibility of a strike that no one wants yet that seems difficult to avoid. Multiple meetings with management over next term’s workload. A workload review by a larger committee. Not much progress. Stress. Self-doubt. Worry.

As you can see, not a lot of writing took place. Furthermore, I actually have found myself daydreaming of the smell of my gym. What I’ve learned is that my mental and emotional health is linked to these two activities. Thus, I resolve to re-prioritize and get both disciplines back into my life. Although I’m going to wait until mid-February to actually step on the scales, I think. Yikes.

Anyway, thanks for your patience – all three or four of you. 🙂 Stay tuned for more … as for now, I’m off to the gym!

Here I Am Again 3 comments

It was 1990, late summer/early fall. First L-T love and I were living in a gorgeous, quirky apartment over a tailor shop on Church St. in St. Catharines. I had a rather fun job with a steel distribution company that included bookkeeping on a new-fangled computer program called "Gem", making inside sales calls, and using a forklift to load and unload steel from the trucks as they arrived at the warehouse. I was the only "worker", other than the outside sales people – all men. There were four – count'em four – senior managers, only two of whom were actively involved in the day to day running of the joint. It was a cool little entrepreneurial venture launched by a bunch of senior execs from Toronto who were tired of living in the big city and wanted a taste of small town life. Basically, I got to do everything including, on occasion, accompany them on their negotiation trips with the larger steel suppliers.

Things were going ok, for the most part. Computers as integral parts of our lives were not yet present and, yet, this small exposure at work intrigued me. Through a family connection, I had an opportunity to buy a "real" computer for a vastly reduced – at the time – price. I remember it clearly: $2,500 got you a 386 Pentium and a 14" monitor, a dot matrix printer and Windows 3.0, running over MS DOS 5.1. Actually, it was a brief flirtation with something IBM called "PC DOS" round about then as they were feeling a wee bit pissy with Mr. Gates. Anyway, at the time, I didn't know anything about all that. Based on the stability of my job, I went and got a line of credit at the bank and invested in the computer as, at this price, at the time, it was a steal. We hauled the very large boxes home, took an entire day to set it up, and stared at it for a long time. Figured out how to turn it on and watched with frustration as Windows revealed its penchant for the blue screen of death.

Almost immediately after making this investment, I got laid off. The senior execs had a falling out amongst themselves, much legal wrangling, and the whole operation was being moved to a new location, far away.

Because the special opportunity to buy the computer was through an employee program, there was no returning it for a refund. I now had debt and a big plaster-coloured monster on my desk that I had no idea what to do with. Or what it could do.

It came with something called a 2600 baud modem and a phone cable. I plugged it in.

What followed was three months, the better part of a winter, of me getting up, kissing my partner good-bye after making coffee and having breakfast, and heading upstairs to sit in front of this … thing … for eight to ten hours a day, figuring it out. It wasn't like I was forcing myself to do it. I was drawn to it. I learned all about MS/PC DOS (same diff), learned how Windows "sat on top" of it, learned command lines, learned the limitations of Windows as an "operating system", learned how to use the modem (uh oh), and learned about Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs). Me and my coffee, pre-Internet, pouring over books, cranking up the long distance bills, and learning almost strictly and entirely by trial and error.

I learned a lot. I sat with my L-T partner's brother, someone who passed for a computer geek at the time, and would listen to his lively explanations of the internal workings of the computer and that really helped. I tried to ask intelligent questions but, not being formally trained, I felt really quite inadequate and in awe of anyone who actually Knew How These Things Worked.

By the end of the winter self-directed tutorial, I had started two businesses, one of which I sold 20 months later after starting it from nothing. (That business taught me the basics of databases.) The other lives on, after several morphs, as my consulting practice.

Flash forward – wow – eighteen years. In some respects, I'm still sitting here, pointing and clicking and wondering what will happen next. But, this week especially, it feels like I'm back at square one.

See, I'm branching out my creative and business online activities. I'm in the process of moving this blog, The HandBasket, to TypePad. I have plans for an additional five, count'em five, blogs that will also be on TypePad. Here on Vox, we are all producing content and driving traffic to vox.com from which they benefit enormously in terms of ad revenues. One could be resentful of this, but it isn't until one has tried to set up a blog, including domain mapping and advertising, from scratch, in the still quite buggy TypePad interface that one appreciates the slickness and cozy-cushy comfort of Vox.

Of course, Vox and TypePad are part of the same company, so many elements feel somewhat familiar. But the experience of "blogging" is quite different in the TypePad world. First – and this is what I'm working on now – the creation of a visually-attractive look/feel for the blog is trickier for those of us who are not particularly design-oriented. I'm thanking my lucky stars that I have retained some sense and basic "hunt/peck" skill about HTML and CSS. Still, I'm never sure what is possible or desirable, design-wise. It is – as it was eighteen years ago – all trial and error. I keep trying stuff and thinking, oh, I like that or euw that sucks. This will take a while.

Then there are crazy bugs, like trying to put one's blog on FeedBurner and being told that the feed is not verifiable. Then going through the verification process to slice out, line by line, the orphan/stray code that has been inserted but will not pass the feed test. Ref. my gratitude at having a passing familiarity with HTML.

Then there are "widgets". I've inserted about a dozen of them into the new HandBasket, only to find that they don't actually work without significant tweaking, some of which require a fair amount of fiddly concentration and not a small amount of frustration.

There is the interaction, selection and placement of ads which, in TypePad , will be entirely under my control. According to the stats monitor I've been keeping, The HandBasket (at Vox) has drawn an oddly consistent and ever-growing flow of traffic however I have NO expectation that it will be a money-maker for me. I'm using this blog as my sandbox at TypePad to figure out how it all works and what works best in terms of layout and types of ads. As with my experience eighteen years ago, it is a matter of trial and error. I feel that once I get this process in place and under my belt with The HandBasket, even with no expected revenues, the creation of several "real" revenue-generating blogs will be much easier.

There seems to be a myriad of tools out there promising great things in terms of keeping track of stats, providing search functionality, feeds, hits, bounces, referrers, etc. etc. Again, trial and error … good solid learning that also takes the most time.

Then, there is the domain-mapping issue. TypePad makes this seem fairly straight-forward but, in reality, something has screwed up in their folder structure that has made it impossible for me to map my totally cool new domain names to anything in my TypePad account. They have acknowledged this and are working on the problem, apparently. I think it is only a matter of aligning the folders properly.  (Cut to visual of me drumming my fingers on the table.)

Oh, and for reasons not yet known to me, I can't upload files through the upload button on the toolbar. Control panel, yes. Upload button, no. (More finger drumming.)

See, here at Vox, this is all pre-fab. When it is time to write, one logs in, clicks create, and away you go. Wanna change your design? Click on "design" and click on a template. Boom, done. Wanna upload something? No problem. I'm trying to create a similarly cosy environment for myself as a creative sort of person at TypePad. I want to log in, understand the shortest, clearest route to expressing myself, and have it done. Afterall, there is a huge relationship between form and content. If I don't find the process or the results pleasing, I won't keep at it. This learning curve has given me a new appreciation for the effort that has gone into creating Vox and I feel less resentful for the lack of ad revenue sharing.

It sure reminds me of that intense learning time, oh so long ago, when I had to force myself to channel my creativity through a technological interface I did not completely understand. Let's hope my results yield something pleasing to both me and you, dear readers.

Watch my work-in-progress at the not-yet-launched new HandBasket. Stay tuned for the new domain name which I'll announce at the point in time when I'm ready to fully switch from Vox. Which is not yet. The search thingy doesn't work, the ads aren't quite right, and I'm not happy with the lay-out yet. But I'll get there … 🙂

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The End is Nigh 4 comments

Of my grading, that is. I can see the light, faintly, at the end of the tunnel.

I have so many posts planned. Tags to include … weird doggie nicknames, doggie-talk, memes, taking stock, old blog, pluralism – Canadian style, middle-aged mixed media mash-up, and confronting the enemy.

Marking / grading is a much more emotional experience – for me, I suppose – than one might expect. My classes are small and (supposedly) at a graduate level. This past term, I taught two classes to the same group of 16 people, so I got to know them pretty well – or so I thought.  I designed each of these classes to have the following at the end:

  • term project (due in either the last or second to last class)
  • in-class assignment (group work, timed exercise)
  • final exam

Times two. So that is six major sets of rather involved stuff to mark.

It is hard to describe what it feels like to teach a group of students, to get to know them reasonably well, and then to have them hand in plagiarized work on their final projects and, in a few cases, the final exam – a portion of it was take-home. In some cases, the work handed in by student A still had student B's name on it.

It feels a bit like getting kicked in the head. With this group, I have turned myself in knots to try to get them to understand project management. They have two textbooks, software, customized powerpoint slides AND the summary slides provided by the textbook publisher, each other (esp. for the group work) and me, twice a week. Every teacher feels their subject is the most important, of course. The beauty of learning project management – philosophically – is that you can apply this framework to ANYTHING. To completing schoolwork, to cooking a huge meal for many people, to managing IT projects, to building a house … very useful, transferable skills. After all the resources I've put before them, the practice, the lectures, the hand-holding through the software step-by-step, the individual tutoring after class … the response of eight out of 16 students was to either provide material to other students, or to hand in the materials provided by other students.

Sigh. Feels like pissing in the wind somedays.

I have one set of final exams left to grade, a discussion board to evaluate, and peer evaluations to compile. Then the marks get entered and I can start cooking/baking like a mad-woman for Christmas. Oh, I have some furniture to paint, too.

It is a beautiful day here. Not sunny, but very warm. Spring-like. Someone didn't get the memo about Canada and December. It is warm enough for me to have my windows open and get an exchange of air in here. My dog had a marvelous time in the park, cavorting. We had an extra long walk. One of the other dog people in the park said she saw crocuses (crocii?) coming up in her front yard.   I hear birds chirping outside. Sounds … hopeful. A good way to approach the final batch of grading.

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