Smart people get it

A Tennis ball Author: User:Fcb981

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every morning I get up, start the coffee, grab the newspaper and check email. That last item is often a list of push emails from places like the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and blogs I follow. It is a one-sided conversation.

Years ago I heard a speaker who had a great idea for teaching a child the art of conversation. He would face him and gently toss a tennis ball in his direction. Once the ball was caught, the child could hold it or toss it back. So goes any conversation, he noted. A child — or adult — who catches the ball and holds it misses the opportunity to engage. On the other hand, if the ball is tossed back and forth, a relationship develops.

In the same vein, modern communication — email, texts, blogs, etc. – presents a similar dilemma. What is our response? Do we hold the ball or do we throw it back? Take that one step closer to home. What about Facebook messages?  What about telephone calls? What about letters?

When one tosses the ball back, so to speak, it affirms a relationship, and secondly, it’s a positive investment in that relationship.  Two of my personal pet peeves are companies that do not respond to customer inquiries and potential employers who fail to acknowledge applications. Though I risk being called old fashioned, I say anyway: It’s rude.

Poor communication is rude.

With a plethora of modern communication, it’s easy to hide, easy to ignore emails, easy to ignore phone messages and easiest of all to reduce communication to only those one chooses. Few things irritate me more than a person who fails to respond to an email or who doesn’t return a requested call back. On the other hand, responsive individuals have my lasting gratitude. For instance, an architecture professor at UVA, an entomology professor at the University of Georgia, and QVC have all graciously and generously answered questions for me over the years.

People who respond to email queries, especially for something entirely mundane or utilitarian, do themselves a favor as well. For their part, they’ve established a relationship with me, one I’m likely to honor with continued business, and they have positioned themselves in a positive light. A company, a business, an organization or a university that makes the effort to establish a relationship with potential customers or employees does much for its reputation.

In today’s too-busy-to-breathe society, it’s easy for organizations and individuals to fail to find time for that all important response. It’s a shame. I’ve conversed with numerous friends who are job hunting. It seems that the standard procedure now is to handle potential employees at a distance (“apply online only; don’t call us”) and if we’re interested, you’ll hear from us. The silence that ensues is not only maddening for the job seeker, it turns companies into jerks. And it begs the question: What is the time limit?  Does one assume that two weeks after the position closes can one fairly assume that no news is no job?  Or is it a month?  Or three months?

Rudeness abounds these days — from companies, from institutions, from any number of entities that could, would and should understand that a reply, a thank you, a simple acknowledgement of a correspondence is a valuable, indispensable and all-too-ignored investment in people. Smart companies and smart people get it.

When I started writing this post, I had one special group of people in mind: those who follow this blog.  By following and sometimes commenting, they’ve established a relationship and for them I am exceedingly grateful. You know who you are.

It is sadly ironic that in an age of enhanced communication we are gradually losing the art of keeping in touch. Perhaps a simple tweak could change all that; perhaps an individual commitment to acknowledge and respond to correspondence would change everything.


Documenting murder and mayhem

“When a frail-looking child with startled eyes breaks down crying, her tiny hands covering her tiny face as she talks about a neighborhood shooting, it’s hard not to gather her up in your arms,” wrote New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis about the new film The Interrupters.

The newly-released documentary film by Steve James (’77) follows a group of former Chicago gang members returning to the city’s tormented neighborhoods with one mission in mind: to “interrupt” the cycle of violence that plagues the city with their special blend of wisdom and credibility.

Steve, who also produced the Oscar-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams, collaborated with journalist Alex Kotlowitz to tell the story through the experiences of three of the “violence interrupters.”

Working though an organization called CeaseFire, the interrupters get right in the middle of volatile situations to defuse them — to interrupt them. It is not an easy or safe job. It requires persuasion, finesse and courage to use their credibility as former gang members to funnel potential violence into more productive reactions.

The interrupters are saving lives and changing the culture of violence one crisis at a time. Steve told NPR in an interview this week: “What we wanted to do, in some ways was to refocus some attention on the issue….”

Focus they have. Their film premiered in New York late last month to very positive reviews.

Manohla Dargis also wrote that while some documentaries exploit their subjects, The Interrupters “rises above the usual do-gooder cant by giving the interrupters — and the people they work among and periodically come close to dying for — the time to share their stories about life in the trenches. Mr. James has put a face to a raging epidemic and an unforgivable American tragedy.

You can listen to the full NPR interview with Steve James at:

To read the full New York Times review, visit:

And you can also read Alex Kotlowitz’ original New York Times story that inspired the film:

The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech

Language is a magnificent construct with which we can express beautiful subtleties, clever thoughts and challenging ideas. We can discuss thorny issues. We can visit controversies. We can work toward solutions.

Or we can beat each other over the head.

Anyone who peruses the Internet frequently will have noticed a trend in the discussions: an unfiltered proliferation of words flourishing on Websites, blogs, online publications, Facebook pages and Twitter. The ability to “speak” with inflammatory, disparaging and downright mean words is a temptation that apparently befalls many people.

Here some samples that I found posted today (and these are the mild ones):

Alas, the GOP field of candidates reminds me of going to the supermarket to find that this year’s crop of fruits and vegetables is rotten to the core. (Washington Post)

No matter what happens the US is done, finished, over.  All bow to your corporate masters. (New York Times)

I am ashamed of the people who are supposed to be running this country…it’s a “my way or the highway” attitude in Washington DC.  They are a disgrace. (CNN)

We Americans take our freedom of speech very, very seriously.  It’s right up there with breathing.

We speak fearlessly and the press foolishly takes our “pulse” with such comments. How many times have you heard “news” people, say “this is what people are saying?” Add in the “tabloid effect” — the likelihood that the most sensational, outrageous and often the most irresponsible comments will rise to the top of the discussion — and one has to wonder: How valuable is this, anyway?

While often people are blowing off steam as they pontificate, such loaded, thoughtless rhetoric rarely advances civil discussion. Political correctness has banned whole categories of words; it’s a shame that all malicious phrases (akin more to baseball bats than words) aren’t banned from print or posts. But alas, they are not, and I don’t suggest it. Instead, we should dispense with them ourselves.

Far too frequently, online “discussions” — and I use that term with a certain amount of sarcasm — sound more like verbal beat downs. (“McDonnell is an idiot”; “Obama is the anti-Christ”) Reason and civility are lost to the unbridled sentiments of frustrated individuals. The status quo seems to be “say anything you want and turn a deaf ear to the consequences.” Piling on this way in expressing one’s dislike for a particular political candidate, an elected official or a specific piece of legislation is common, and frankly, quite unhelpful.

Far more infrequent are discussions that explore interesting, controversial and divisive ideas with candor and civility, with honesty and open mindedness. Sadly, these are exceedingly rare.

Once in a while, however, you’ll come across a thoughtful comment that makes you think and that adds to understanding. Earlier this month, Nathan Alvado-Castle commented on a post on this blog about being “green.” In the same thoughtful way, John Reeves commented on a post about Sudan. What they wrote added  new dimensions to the discussions.

Both Nathan and John exercised “free speech” in positive, reasonable and valuable ways. Perhaps commentators elsewhere should follow their lead.  Neither yelled, condemned, name-called. They expressed viewpoints with reason and consideration — and frankly, it was refreshing. So, Nathan and John, thank you!

Somehow we need to change the tone of discussion from the current dismissive rants to comments that further discourse. And while I would never imply that freedom of speech should ever be quelled, I would suggest that thinking before one “speaks” online — or anywhere else — is a policy that might make our sacred freedom far more productive. So let’s change the tenor of of freedom of speech; let’s bridle our own, so we can really talk.

You can read Nathan’s comments here:

You’ll find John’s comments here:

Walter, Watergate, Wisconsin and the lynchpin of education

Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks a...

Walter Cronkite (Image via Wikipedia)

Can you imagine how interesting it will be in political science classes all over JMU this week?  I, for one, would love to be sitting in a heated discussion about last night’s news and all of the implications of the Wisconsin legislature’s passage of a bill to weaken collective bargaining.

When I was in college, another national issue was equally riveting: Watergate.  As a political science major, I was fascinated. And as if to top off my four years of studying about politics, constitutional law and governments, Sen. Sam Erwin spoke at my college graduation.

But political/news junkies like me weren’t the only ones following the news. The entire nation followed the unfolding story of the disintegration of an American presidency the same way that Americans  have followed the political escapades of Republicans and Democrats over the past year from first the passage of national health care to the challenge to union strongholds.

But the difference between now and then is staggering.

Back in the 1970s, neither television nor radio had hit its zenith. Newspapers were the primary conduits for news. Radio was where you listened to music. Television news featured Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley for 30 minutes following the local news. If you missed the evening news, you missed it. You would have to wait to read the next morning’s paper. At the time, the New York Times was a colossus, and most major cities had not one but two major newspapers. The idea of 24-hour news was absolutely ludicrous — about as ridiculous as not having a land-line telephone. There was no CNN. (There was no cable!) No Headline News. No MSNBC. No Fox News. No HuffPo or Drudge. No cell phones. No laptops.

Today’s students have the benefit of instant information. They also have billions of up-to-date resources available with a keystroke. Information flows in ways that were unimaginable only a few decades back. A book that could be secured only by scouring the trays of a card catalog and then stalking endless rows of stacks is now available instantly — as a download — to their cell phones. Within a single minute, today’s student can reference James Madison or James Carville or James Brown.

This avalanche of information, though, begs the question: Do students have time to think? And how do they deal with the onslaught not only of information but technology? Are they completely on their own?

In a fascinating piece in the New York Times last summer, writer Matt Richtel wrote:

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

Today’s students unquestionably live in a circus of activity and rapid-fire information. By contrast, by the time President James Madison was 14, he had read all 400 volumes in his father’s library, according to historians at Montpelier. Well, sure, he didn’t have an Ipod, a laptop, 24-hour news or texting. All this begs another question: Will today’s classroom’s be able to produce another James Madison?

Let’s go back to today’s political science classroom. One thing  that has never changed at JMU is the deliberate and corporate emphasis on teaching — that focused exploration of a subject with the guidance of a dedicated educator. Teaching has always been the lynchpin of education at Madison. One could argue persuasively that JMU’s brand of careful and dedicated guidance is perhaps more important than ever.

Dr. Marcia Angell (’60), editor emerita of the New England Journal of Medicine and a senior lecturer at Harvard, said it well: “My daughters got tired of hearing me say that I got a better liberal arts education at Madison College than many of my friends and my colleagues and my daughters got from schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Oxford … because the faculty at Madison was not too proud to teach.”

Think about that! The willingness of professors to engage and to seek out students in undergraduate research, in classrooms, in discussions and more — all for which JMU is renowned — positions students to benefit optimally from the onslaught of information and technology. To paraphrase Mr. Cronkite: “They are there.*” And they are focused on students first and foremost.

The value of an engaged educator can never be discounted, but I would contend that now, perhaps more than any time in history, that kind of guidance, leadership, connection and dedication of the educator is not only critical but essential.

And to borrow another phrase from Mr. Cronkite: “And that’s the way it is.”

You can read all of Matt Richtel’s fascinating piece, here:

*”You Are There,” was the title of a series of history films made during the 1950s for which Cronkite was a frequent host.
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