Every Day is the Start of a New Year

2,307 days–from 8-Sep-06 to 1-Jan-13. Six years, three months, 24 days. 1,163 published posts–one post every two days (actually 1.98 days, or 47.52 hours). When I wrote that first post I had no idea how often I would post or how long I would stay with it. I planned to integrate A Foolish Consistency into my courses, without a clear vision of how that might happen. I imagined blog posts and comments extending spirited discussions outside the classroom, but I did not require students to read A Foolish Consistency. Compelled participation is low-quality participation. A few lively discussions ensued, some students used blog comments as a proxy for classroom participation (with my blessing), and some students continued to read and comment on my posts long after they left my courses.  As an extension of the classroom I give A Foolish Consistency a C grade–a 73. Just above C-.

If extending the classroom had been my only reason to write A Foolish Consistency I would have abandoned it long ago. Writing the blog helped me think through issues, indulge my sense of humor, advise prospective law students, and voice my views of matters large and small. Providing content was a chore from time to time, but every fallow period ended with a satisfying burst of posts. As a vehicle for self-expression the blog gets a solid A-. 91.

However–(you knew that was coming)–my production tailed off this fall. Teaching sixteen credits spread across six courses with five preps left little time non-course activities. I posted less often, and thought less often of posting. I was not driven to write. I was sanguine about failing to maintain my pace. I felt no expectation-driven pressure.

I’ve decided to change my relationship to A Foolish Consistency. How, I don’t know, but I want to move beyond self-imposed constraints on my voice. Knowing that students comprised most of my audience I held back, keeping distance between my posts and my self. I will no longer present this blog as an extension of the classroom. The aspect of A Foolish Consistency that I graded C- will exist no more. I don’t know what will replace it. Don’t expect an outpouring of my most private self. I’m changing the blog, but I’m not changing. I have no expectations about how often I’ll post or what voice I’ll use. But why not change? Announcing this on New Year’s Day is heavy-handed, but that’s mostly a matter of timing. Today’s the first day I’ve had time to write what I’ve been thinking about for weeks. As one of the smartest and most interesting people I met this semester wrote to me today, who says the new year is a time for resolutions anyway?  I can resolve to changing old ways whenever I want!

Happy New Year.

I Made the Right Call

Sometimes I stumble into the right decision. I reluctantly cancelled today’s office hours and rescheduled tomorrow’s exam via this email to LA245 students:

I hate disrupting the schedule. However uncertainties created by Hurricane Sandy make it prudent to reschedule tomorrow’s exam and juggle the next few classes. A number of students are stranded in weekend travel destinations and the University has cancelled classes and urged that non-essential personnel limit travel to campus (ironic, isn’t it, that teachers are non-essential personnel?). Under these circumstances I am not going to hold office hours. I think the risk of storm-related injury is negligible but I could not live with myself if something happened while you were in transit. I considered answering questions via Skype or holding a Google Hangout but there is a significant chance that some of us–especially me–will lose power during the next day.

I just received an alert that the MBTA will suspend all transit service today at 2 pm–which means students who wanted to attend office hours would have had to walk, bike, or take a taxi. Had I not already cancelled this would have forced my hand.


At yesterday’s Honors Program retreat I explained why above all else I value student engagement. I prepared my remarks with these notes.

If you have ever talked with me about grading you know that above everything else, I value engagement. I want students–

  • to develop a personal relationship with course material,
  • to examine how what we read and discuss relates to the world they live in

This week I was thinking about why engagement is so important to me. Teaching engaged students is fun–but that’s not the only reason. While I was considering this question I was reading the sophomores’ essays in response to the prompt What’s the Purpose of Higher Education? Also while I was considering this question former Boston University President John Silber died. Without Dr. Silber most of you would not be here. More than anyone he gave Boston University a national reputation.

His death brought me back to 1971, when I, like Dr. Silber, started at BU. I was admitted to the Division of General Education–“DGE,” or “Deege.” DGE was a two-year honors program, more akin to Kalichand Honors College than the School of Management Honors Program, but our student profile was similar to yours. (Dr. Silber killed the program in the mid-1970’s, a few years after I completed it.)

At the start I enjoyed DGE’s small classes, smart students, accomplished faculty, and interesting content. Soon, though, I disengaged, and grew detached. I began to ask–

  • What’s the purpose of these courses?
  • Why am I here?

I didn’t have satisfactory answers. In the second semester of sophomore year my disengagement became so pronounced that one of my professors told me to stop coming to class because he did not like my influence on class dynamics. He offered to let me complete the curriculum as an independent study.

I accepted. I completed the course as an independent study and received an A. I then dropped out of Boston University before my junior year.

I worked, traveled, had adventures, and thought about whether I should go back to college. I returned to BU after a year, motivated enough to perform well.

My lesson in engagement began soon after I returned. Through a political science internship I started working at an organization that provided legal services to state prison inmates. Within two weeks I was spending all my non-academic time in the Project’s offices or at the maximum security prison in Walpole, representing convicted felons. What’s important is not the activities that engaged me but the fact of my engagement. I learned the difference between doing something because it was expected and doing something with purpose, engaging so fully that it changes how you see life itself.

Some of the sophomore essays were cynical about the purpose of their education. Being cynical about something requires intellectual and emotional detachment from it.

Engagement makes detachment and cynicism wither and die.

The Chinese proverb that ends the Outward Bound Thompson Island video touches on this–

  • Tell me and I’ll forget;
  • Show me and I may remember;
  • Involve me and I’ll understand

We’re here today to get involved with and understand service. Performing service is a requirement of the Honors Program. Not so you can go through the motions of an experience and list it on your resume. It is because meaningful service requires engagement.

I know many of you are here only because you are required to be, because you would not want to face Amelia if you missed the retreat. You are here because you are “excellent sheep”–a reference that the freshman and sophomores understand.

I ask that you do one thing.

If you approach today with eye rolling or cynicism, store your detachment in your backpack with your extra pair of socks.

  • Engage with the program
  • Engage with your friends
  • Engage with the dozens of Honors Program students from the other cohorts whom you don’t know

You have something in common with them–they are as smart, accomplished, and interesting as you.

Have fun

Dr. Silber

In September 1971, a few months after John Silber became its president, I arrived at Boston University as a freshman to attend the Division of General Education–DGE, or “Deege”, which the brochure described as “a two-year honors interdisciplinary program.” Forty-one years later, at the time of Dr. Silber’s death, I am a senior lecturer at the Boston University School of Management. To say 41 years later I am still at Boston University would imply, misleadingly, that I never left. I did–to drop out of BU after completing DGE, travel, return to BU and graduate, work, attend law school, work more–but John Silber’s force field was never far away.

To me Silber was brilliant, occasionally charming, irascible, aggressive, tough, and proud. Like most students I knew in the early 1970s, I loathed and feared him. He disdained our anti-war demonstrations and loosed the helmets, shields, clubs, and tear gas of Boston’s TPF–Tactical Police Force–to break them up. I was among dozens of students the TPF chased down Bay State Road; we were faster and escaped them by Kenmore Square. In the spring of 1974, when BU students engaged in their annual protest against the recently-announced tuition increases–back then tuition increases and anti-tuition increase protests were, like robins, harbingers of spring on the BU campus–a TV news reporter asked for Dr. Silber’s reaction. I recall that he said it’s fun and games for young primates. Have I accurately remembered this quotation’s dismissive disdain? The memory is vivid, but it’s also 38 years old. If he didn’t say it exactly like this, if the words I remember are the product of faulty synapses, those who remember Dr. Silber in those years would agree that if he didn’t say it, he could have. It sounds like him.

A decade and a half later Dr. Silber featured in one of the most remarkable meetings of my legal career. Congress Group Ventures, a real estate development company at which I worked as General Counsel, was negotiating a large, complicated real estate venture with Boston University. My boss Dean Stratouly and Dr. Silber had met alone some months earlier to paint the venture’s broad strokes, and now we were trying to fill in the details–which, as the saying goes, is where the Devil resides. A series of meetings between us lawyers had yielded more areas of disagreement than compromise, so we called a meeting of all principals.

Together in our conference room were the present or former leaders of the institutions that had most shaped my almost 20 years in Boston: my bosses Dean Stratouly and his co-owner David Gardner, Boston University President John Silber and his lawyer Bob Popeo, the most powerful partner in Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo, the firm I’d left to work at Congress Group, consummate political insider and Silber confidante Kevin White, and former mayor of Boston and then-current professor at Boston University. Present also were other powerful insiders and other lawyers, including me. David Gardner, in a wheelchair due to neurological illness, sat at one end of the table. Dr. Silber, a shortened and cuffed suit-jacket sleeve covering his stump arm, sat at the other end.  The meeting began with a recap of our progress-small–and disputes–significant–and it was not long before Silber and David Gardner, who was Silber’s intellectual equal, were arguing vociferously. Popeo, the combative lawyer political insiders hired when their world turned to dog doo, stepped in to ratchet back the tension and suggest topics for more fruitful discussion. White advanced his perspective on how things should unfold. The collective egos’ magnitude and personalities’ fire-power were enough to blow the windows out of the room.

We never closed that deal. Disagreements remain as to why.

In recent years I ran into Dr. Silber on the BU campus from time to time. I no longer loathed him, but he always reminded me of my shifting relationship with the school. He terminated DGE a few years after I completed the program; its interdisciplinary and counter-cultural ethos was anathema to his brand of intellectual rigor. Terminating DGE killed one of my defining links to Boston University. The University excelled, during the Silber years, at graduating students who left campus and never looked back fondly. From time to time BU sends email to DGE alumni. It comes under the heading of CGS, the College of General Studies–which, as anyone familiar with Boston University knows, is not likely to engender enthusiastic responses from alumni of DGE’s self-described honors program. BU’s low percentage of alumni contributions is a legacy that the University is managing, slowly, to eradicate. I came to the University too late to be among the faculty bruised by Silber’s rough handling over the years, but resentment still runs deep in some circles. He did not remember me, which was a blessing because remembering would involve remembering how he knew me. I know Boston University would not be the vigorous educational and research institution it is today without Dr. Silber’s tenure as president, a simple fact whose truth is reinforced every time I use FitRec, built on the site of the former Commonwealth Armory.

He was frailer physically each time I saw him, and emanated none of the combativeness I experienced in professional meetings two decades ago. In the end he was just a man. A controversial, polarizing, profoundly influential, consequential, memorable man. I’ve heard that he died with dignity, his intellect undiminished, in control until the end. I would expect nothing less.

By the Numbers

Week 3, 2012 Fall Semester:

  • Number of courses: Six
  • Number of credit hours: 16
    • 3 four-credit courses
    • 1 two-credit course
    • 2 one-credit courses
  • Number of students: 210 (students enrolled in multiple courses are counted twice)
  • Percentage of students who responded to FAQs:
    • LA245 F1: 35%
    • LA245 H1: 34%
    • LA349: 56%
    • SM123: 82%
    • SM223: 58%
    • SM453: 58%
  • Percentage of students in each course with no idea of what the previous entries refer to: 100% less each course’s FAQ response %

Which proves, for the 18th consecutive semester, that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make it read the syllabus from cover to cover.

What’s the Purpose of Higher Education?

This post’s title is the subject of next week’s Sophmore Honors Colloquium–and a question every college student should ask daily. Megan McArdle poses a similar question in Newsweek: Is College a Lousy Investment? The answer: yes, sometimes, for some people. In other words, it depends. A few of the article’s highlights:

“Even with these high prices, you’re still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated,” he says. On the other hand, “if you’re not college ready, then the answer is no, it’s not worth it.”

For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

“Why does cheating work?” If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

I Will Be Serving Flounder

You wouldn’t know it from the quantity of my summer posts, but I am still alive.

I will be teaching a freshman course for the first time in 13 years, so I think often of how they are different from the sophomores, juniors, and seniors I usually teach. An Op-Ed in today’s Boston Globe by Boston College professor Carlo Rotella titled Advice for the College Freshman captured my attention, particularly this paragraph:

Hit the marks, but find opportunities to flounder purposefully. A number of tendencies in child rearing these days, chief among them the predominance of coaching and lessons and other formal instruction, make for kids coming out of high school who are terrifically good at hitting the marks. A teacher tells them what to do and how to do it, they do it and get praise for it (because positive reinforcement really works), the teacher gives them something a little more advanced to do, and so on. This is great, on balance, but the price of all that coachability is that students are often not as comfortable when learning in an open-ended, less-guided style. College is a good place to do both . . .

Amen. Many of my assignments are open-ended and I prefer free-ranging give-and-take discussions to structured lectures. Students across the achievement spectrum can drift aimlessly if they are not told exactly what to do and how to do it. It’s not enough to be smart, to implement someone else’s concept perfectly, to shade your performance to satisfy someone else’s expectations.