Jan 312013

When interviewing candidates for teaching positions at my university, I often ask them how they provide and receive feedback in the workplace, to get a quick, vivid picture of their character and initiative. When you give clear and useful feedback to your colleagues, you make them better. When you receive feedback gratefully and attentively, you make *you* better.

One applicant told my Search Committee that when she got criticism at work she would run down to a nearby park and throw rocks at the geese. We wished her well.

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(photo by Bob Basil)

Jan 302013

During a classroom discussion about program evaluation and research last night,  I recommended to my entrepreneurial leadership students that they bookmark The Free Management Library. It’s a wonderful community-composed resource. “The Library provides free, easy-to-access, online articles to develop yourself, other individuals, groups and organizations (whether the organization is for-profit or nonprofit)…. The Library focuses especially on free, online and practical information that visitors can quickly apply. Articles are about personal, professional and organizational development.” The Library’s “collection” ranges from “Action Learning” to “Organizational Performance” to “Work-Life Balance.” The Library also hosts a very active and intelligent group of bloggers.

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Jan 262013


Language Log » Tiny grass is dreaming.

When I found this gem through @stevesilberman‘s Twitter feed, I knew I had to blog it. I could talk about this as a product of a higher context culture than ours, but I prefer to talk about its delightfulness as a piece of communication.

The world is full of harsh warnings and commands. Keep off the grass. Stop. Don’t Walk. No Soliciting. No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. But it’s always better to invite someone into compliance than beat them into submission.

“Do not disturb: Tiny grass is dreaming” is a lovely reminder to lighten up.

Jan 242013

The prefix para means “beside” or “beyond.” Paralinguistic or paraverbal communication usually refers to *how* one’s words are conveyed: through tone, body language, speaking speed, or even through one’s wardrobe.

Siberian Tigers at The Bronx Zoo

In both workplace and social environments, though, beside and beyond the verbal language one uses with others is also one’s commitment to behave in a sound and regular fashion. Erratic habits subvert sound sentences.

Keep your promises, keep your confidences, and keep your appointments.

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(Photo by Bob Basil)

Jan 082013

One of our resources over on the right-hand side of the page is “The Plain Language Style Guide,” published by the BC Securities Commission to help securities professionals in the composition of correspondence and public documents. Drafted with the assistance of Wordsmith Associates Communications Consultants Inc., the guide’s goal is to make sure that all stakeholders – investors, public-company management and directors, brokers, and the like – easily understand the Commission’s written prose. Although it is an in-house style guide, we’ve found it useful in a numerous other workplace environments as well as in the classroom. Its sections on planning, designing, and writing professional text are uniformly lucid and helpful.

The “plain style” is also making in-roads in some literary criticism. Professor Jonathan Mayhew’s “defense” of “writing that is clear, concise, elegant, and free from unnecessary jargon” is worth reading, as is his blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly writing and how to get it done.

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(Photo by Bob Basil)

Jan 072013

“We agree much more than you think.” This was Niels Bohr‘s kind way of indicating profound disagreement with a colleague’s point of view.  The genial physicist knew that the literal truth of that statement – after all, all scientists would agree on basic mathematical principles, for example – would camouflage his rebuke and foster a continued, friendly dialogue.

Bohr was perhaps the greatest scientific and collaborator mentor of the twentieth century. Although his talks were notoriously digressive and hard to follow, his spoken manner was otherwise congenial, drawing talent to his laboratories and conferences. People responded well to him. The phrase “we agree” is an excellent way to indicate that your relationship with someone is important. A lot can be accomplished on that basis alone.

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Jan 022013

Back when I frequented the Poets.org critique forums, I often found myself talking about the distinction between what I called “private poems” and “public poems.” Private poems were poems that existed for the author’s benefit – often to work through emotional events like a breakup or the death of someone close. And there’s nothing wrong with a private poem – it offers catharsis to the person who pens it. But the place of a private poem is in a personal journal and not a literary one. Private poems may deal with the same subject matter as public ones, but what differentiates the process of writing a private poem from the process of writing a public one is the subtle, constant presence of the “other.” In composition classes, it’s referred to as audience, and often treated as a mere consideration or component.

But audience is at the core of writing, and all other techniques and conventions flow from that. It’s a shame that so much of writing in our schools and academic institutions is audienceless. And let’s be clear that a teacher or professor is not an audience, because there is no purpose in writing to that particular person about the chosen topic except demonstration: to prove your knowledge about the topic, your ability to perform research, your writing skills, and your mastery of style guides. Writing for a grade is not the same as writing to communicate a point, a process, a feeling, or an experience. I suspect many students are only confronted with the distinction when they reach university. Their misunderstanding becomes evident when they are suddenly asked to blog for their courses; often the writing is obviously a private demonstration of ability for the instructor’s benefit, and not a public conversation with their classmates or a wider audience.

I remember – at least I think I do – when I came to understand that I wasn’t just writing for myself or for my instructors. My high school creative writing teacher gave us letter grades because she had to, but those letter grades were accompanied by an evaluation that the work was either “publishable,” “publishable with revision,” or “unpublishable.” We were not required to submit our work for publication, but we were, for the first time, treated like working writers trying to communicate with real audiences. We learned to read like writers and openly workshopped each others’ fiction and poems, speaking in detail about how the work worked for us, as well as its strengths and weaknesses. This switch in stance, from students trying to impress to writers trying to engage an audience, changed everything.

It’s something I wish for every student, the earlier the better. I believe that, wherever possible, educators ought to ask their students to write public projects, not private ones. Writing work that will be peer reviewed doesn’t necessarily count – the student’s peers must be a natural audience for the work, not a contrived one. But what if you are a student, with little control over the course material? Simple. Choose to switch stances. Treat your instructor not as your arbiter but as your colleague, and decide that you have something important to share with them. Choose a topic you’ll both find interesting; this almost certainly won’t be the same topic ten of your classmates choose to write about just because there’s abundant literature. Writing is the show-and-tell of adulthood. Bring something that matters.

Image used under Creative Commons license from IcyAero’s Flickr feed.

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