Monday, November 5, 2012

A Live Debate

Thank you, Minnesota Public Radio.  Thank you, Gary Eichten.  And Kathy Wurzer. I listen to you pretty much every day, but until this live experience, I didn't fully appreciate the value you provide us...

It was a demonstration of how our democracy was built - the hard way, with face-to-face debate, and an insistence that tough questions get asked and answered.  It took just an hour, but the results were decisive.  Thanks to Kathy's insistence, evasive answers did not stand. 

Both participants came prepared, in their own ways.  One, however, thought it would be enough to be prepared to express personal opinions loudly and insistently.  That led to a few memorable moments... insistence on hammering on something that appeared to be a non-issue, with countervailing facts in evidence from his own party's representative...

...a closing statement referring to "attacks on me" that never occurred, so obviously incongruous that it brought gasps from his own supporters...

...and, most striking of all, attempts to explain Climate Change as (1) an economic phenomenon, (2) a controversial issue among scientists, and (3) a matter of "belief" (religious?).

In contrast, we saw the value of a different kind of preparation demonstrated humbly by our Senator Amy Klobuchar, who chose the strategically (and ethically) effective route:  answering the questions honestly and directly, citing the evidence, stopping, and letting her opponent hang himself.

I have rarely been as proud of a politician - excuse me, a stateswoman - as I was last night of Senator Klobuchar.  If only 51% of our legislators could take their obligations to us half as seriously as she does, we would eliminate roadblock, talk through obstacles, handle tough issues with powerful common sense, and return to becoming the country we all thought America could be...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hoarder Historian, Two

...a series of posts in which a baby boomer, in the process of cleaning out the file cabinets, boxes, and bookshelves in his basement, discovers memories hidden in long-forgotten artifacts, and waxes, if not eloquent...

Four Dark Days in History: November 22, 23, 24, 1963, Collector's copy $1.00, copyright 1963, Special Publications, Inc., Los Angeles 28, Calif.

Along the bottom of the front cover it says, "A Photo History of President Kennedy's Assassination."  I never understood that.  Even at 11, I knew there was something wrong with the way that was written, as if JFK owned the event.  Inside, all black and white pictures, most of which appeared in newspapers, tell the story with brief, factual captions.  So many of those pictures...

In sixth grade, the classes after lunch were always "lighter," and we had lots of breaks.  We had one of those that day, and I remember that we had the partition rolled open between our room (Mr. Wenner's class) and the one next door (Mr. Campbell's class).  Right at that point, a teacher from down the hall (I don't remember her name) scurried into our classroom and whispered something into Mr. Wenner's ear.  One of the kids in the front row heard part of it, and immediately turned and relayed to us (not in a whisper) "The governor of Texas has been shot!"

She probably saw some pretty puzzled looks.  Why would a sixth grade teacher in Silver Spring, Maryland be so upset about the governor of Texas?  One of the boys in front of me shot back, "Is he dead?"  No answer - because Mr. Wenner was turning away from the other teacher, nodding, and holding his hands up for us to listen.

Inside the front cover there are two yellowed pages that apparently came from a teletype machine (maybe from my Dad's office - he worked for the government) with the date in my cursive 11-year-old handwriting written at the top:  November 22, 1963, my Dad's 43rd birthday.  The type is all in black capital letters, with a symbol at the top '-V-' and a first sentence that drifts vertically down the page, as if someone had started to pull it from the teletype machine as it was printing: 



...and it continues like this for a page.  Then at the top of the second page, there is a headline:


...followed by a one line story, and then back to a Dallas (AP) dateline.

There are several photo pages of documentation about Lee Harvey Oswald in the middle.   The last one is the one of Oswald in custody and a man in a fedora (in the right foreground) pointing a pistol at his midsection.   There are pictures of the funeral, and there is a picture on the inside back cover of a very young sweet-looking John-John with his right hand at his temple in a salute.

My only other memory of that day is the walk home from school (early?) and the strange feeling that something was happening that was somehow different from anything else, even though the street was the same, the trees were the same, and everything was the same on the outside.  Something felt very different on the inside.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hoarder Historian

...a series of posts in which a baby boomer, in the process of cleaning out the file cabinets, boxes, and bookshelves in his basement, discovers memories hidden in long-forgotten artifacts, and waxes, if not eloquent...

Nick Manoloff's Spanish Guitar Method, Book No. 1...$1.00...copyright 1935, M. M. Cole Publishing Company, Chicago

I think I was probably about 8 years, maybe 6.  My Aunt Selma gave me the old Kalamazoo guitar (which I was to learn later - much, much later - was an early Gibson), and my mother arranged for me to take guitar lessons.  My teacher was Mr. Vesey, a man with little patience, and less sense of humor.  I didn't remember his name - but my cousin Lissa did, and she always laughed when she said it.  She took lessons from Mr. Vesey about 6 weeks later, after I quit.  She stuck with it, until, as a young teenager she taught me some of what she had learned at camp (Talking Blues, and the E, A and D chords, so that I could play Gloria).  I was 15, and I got serious about folk guitar.  Lissa died in February 2010, just 56 years old.

Nick Manoloff's book, according to page 1, is "recommended by THESE GREAT ARTISTS," whose headshots (14 of them) are lined up vertically to the left and the right of the cursively labeled picture of Nick Manoloff himself, wearing a tuxedo and playing his classical guitar in the center of the page.  I just scanned those pictures and names surrounding Nick, and I don't even vaguely recognize a single one.  How could I?  This was published 17 years before I was born.  I'll bet Mr. Vesey knew them.

As I flip through the book, my eye lands on page 31, labeled at the top "The Natural Scale in the First Position."  There's a pencil note just under the title - "Play up & back," and a humorless bracketing of groups of three to nine notes, each bracket labeled with a penciled date, beginning with the first string - April 15 - and proceeding through the sixth string - May 12.

Lissa died of brain cancer.  It was diagnosed almost 10 years earlier as some chronic disease, and the symptoms were treated.  By the time her husband insisted on taking her to a specialist, 8 years later, the tumors had infiltrated her entire brain.  She was a Nurse Practitioner, an artist, and a wonderful mother of two kids (now both successful adults - and both medical professionals).  She had an incredible, sudden, cackling laugh, as abrupt to stop as it was to start.  I learned more guitar from her in one afternoon when I was 15 than I did from Mr. Vesey in a month and a half.  Although she spent most of her life in New Jersey, and I have lived mostly in Virginia and Minnesota, we talked.  Every time we talked, it was as if we were both still living in the brownstone on East 91st Street in Brooklyn...or unscrewing the light bulbs while waiting for her parents to come home.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Baseball and ...Complex Systems Analysis?

Yes, I will admit it, I was getting my hair cut.  Which, if you think about, is pretty absurd in itself - that someone with as little hair as I have on my head would be bothering to get it cut.

At any rate, the person who cuts my hair was telling me how baseball-averse she was:  how her husband had insisted on taking her to a game (once), how bored she had been, how she had never been willing to watch another game...

...and it got me thinking about how much of what happens in a baseball game is not physically visible (although, to players, or former players, it may all seem palpable) so that while the visible action on the field may appear to be limited to the pitcher and batter, at any particular moment, there is so much more going on.

If you have played, or perhaps simply become a serious fan, you know what I'm getting at:  that at any given moment, there are multiple "systems" in play:
  • Between the pitcher and the catcher
  • Among the infielders
  • Among the outfielders
  • Among the manager, coaches, the batter and base runners
  • Among the manager, the pitching coach, and bullpen coach
Those are just the "simple" systems.  Then there are the signals between the systems - infielders and outfielders, catcher and infielders, manager and fielders...parallel systems, at different points, in particular situations, that intersect....

And those are just the covert communications among team members.  Add in attempts to steal opponent's signs, detect patterns, pre-empt tactics...

While former players spot the "gloves in front of faces" of infielders, and the series of gestures of the first- and third-base coaches, not much of this is terribly obvious to the uninitiated.

So the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the analogy to systems thinking in an organizational environment:  the contrast between official, visible communications channels, and all of the informal channels, supported by friendships and networks of unofficial allegiances; the ways in which some of these channels intersect, or provide counterpoints...  I began to picture the "systems archetypes" at play in the organization ("limits to growth," "shifting the burden") and look for counterparts on the baseball field.  I began to think about the role of the manager in this light...

...and then, as suddenly as it began, my reverie stopped.  My haircut was complete, and my stylist still had no interest in watching a baseball game.  I, however, knew the punchline:  there's got to be a blogpost in here somewhere.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Interesting SMEs

Plumb your experience for a moment:  what are the strangest or most interesting experiences you've ever had working with a SME?
  • Discovering that your SME - a genius in his field - could not write a complete sentence.
  • Being told by an editor (after submitting a completed course) that approximately 50% of the content sent by the SME drew major hits on Safe Assign (i.e,, appears to have been plagiarized - from 8 different sources).
  • Having 90% of a completed course submitted to you in a single spreadsheet - that's content for 10 week-long units, in a 50-column spreadsheet.
  • Having a SME for a history class tell you that she would be out of the country for 2 weeks while teaching Fashion Design to the Saudi royal family.
  • Having the scripts for 90-minutes of model role plays dictated to you over the phone because the SME is "blocked" when he sits down to write.  (Thankfully, I had access to audio recording and transcript capabilities.)
  • Holding a remote course review meeting with a SME who is sitting in a hospital emergency room, waiting for a diagnosis on her husband.
  • Having a SME completely disappear for two weeks in the middle of your project - with no warning, no responses to phone calls or e-mails.
Got any of your own you'd be willing to share?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Working with SMEs: A Simple Idea?

Those of us who work in roles like instructional design, or project management, or interactive design, or for that matter, any process-oriented role, may occasionally forget what it feels like to be labeled a "subject matter expert" (SME).  We have our own ways of framing their contributions:  we talk about the "content" or "material" our SMEs provide or about "tapping into their knowledge and experience," or perhaps sometimes about their tendencies to go too deeply into "esoteric aspects" of a subject.  We may think of our roles as primarily asking the right questions, or perhaps providing a framework.  Most of us also try to put ourselves in the position of the end user of our "product" - the student, the employee, or more generically, the learner.  All may be worthwhile aspects of conceptualizing the design and development of learning experiences from our own point of view.  But what about the viewpoint of the SME?

During the past two years of developing courses and other "learning experiences," I have been fortunate to work with about 30 different individuals cast in the role of subject matter experts.  And they were different.  No two really were alike.  Like any self-respecting instructional designer, of course, I have my process, my methods, my questions.  But over the last 15 months or so I have been increasingly intrigued by the view from the other side of the bridge.  What is it like to be them?

So increasingly I have slowed down my initial process. I have inserted some nonjudgmental steps into the opening phases, all with a definite purpose, of course, but all with the ulterior motive of getting to know my SME. In the past, I was too often surprised, halfway through the development process, to find that my SME wasn't as good at conceptualization as with details, or vice versa, or just didn't write very well.  Or, in some remarkably delightful situations that my SME was extremely creative in some way, or in fact, a better writer than I am.  If only I had known at the outset.

I've learned to look for signs of talents, skills, interests, preferences, or just "special characteristics" as early as possible.  I've learned to ask questions - not just about the subject matter - but also about the SME's working preferences.  Most importantly, I've learned to observe those less obvious personal habits, those clues to what makes them productive, because these, I find, provide the greatest leverage points.

And this is my simple idea:  if my SME is productive, I, and the rest of the team, will be productive.  Increasingly, that is my focus:  how can I help my SME become productive?