Engagement

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

Commence Real Life

Congratulations to today’s School of Management graduates. I can’t count the number of graduating seniors I’ve heard say I don’t want to graduate over the past four months, but the day (or weekend, depending on your family’s tolerance for University events) is here. You can’t crawl back inside the womb. Enjoy the beautiful spring day (sunny, temperature in the high 60s), reflect on everyone who played in role in delivering you to this moment. and get on with whatever is next.

Just let us know how you are doing.

Haunted

The accident that killed Boston University students Daniela Lekhno, Roch Jauberty, and Austin Brashears, seriously injured Meg Theriault, and injured four others has haunted me since I read the news early last Saturday. Smart, opinionated, engaged, passionate Daniela impressed me indelibly when she was my student in spring 2011. Trite as it is to say, I cannot believe she is gone. She was not on a law track but I hoped to persuade her to take one of my electives because I wanted to experience her again as a student. Her loss, and the loss of those who died with her, is beyond measure. The world is a poorer, meaner place because of it.

I am haunted also by the randomness of this accident’s consequences. Apparently the van hit gravel on the side of the road, the driver over-corrected, and the van rolled. At 21 I was in a similar accident. A group of us–I recall 8 or 9–were driving from Boston to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in my friend’s cargo van, which had two bucket seats in front and nothing but space behind.  On I-95 about 50 miles south of D.C., around 6 am, a gust of wind rocked the van, pushing it to the right. The driver turned the wheel to the left to pull us back into the passing lane. The van’s steering linkage was loose, the front wheels did not respond immediately, and he turned the steering wheel more. The van started to skid to the right so he turned the wheel right, but too hard. The van swayed right, swayed left, started to lean, and flipped. I remember the loud bang each time we hit, and wondered if there would be an enormous final crash when a tractor-trailer plowed into us or we burst into flames. There wasn’t. The van came to rest on its side in the breakdown lane, its nose pointing at the southbound traffic. Inside was a jumble of people, backpacks, sleeping bags, and suitcases. Someone opened the rear door. We helped each other outside. The driver and front passenger exited through the opening left by the shattered windshield. The van was destroyed. The van’s battery–it lived behind the driver’s seat–had torn loose and strewn acid around the interior–something we discovered later when holes appeared in our jeans and jackets. We were shaken and bruised, but the worst injury was to the van’s owner, a small cut over his right eye from flying glass that required one small bandage. Eight or nine people, two seats (the driver and front passenger had buckled their belts shortly before the crash because of the strong winds buffeting the van), everyone else sitting or lying around an empty cargo space, and no serious injuries.

It could have been worse, but it wasn’t. There’s no reason. There may be explanations for escaping unscathed based on how everyone was positioned inside, and why the doors did not open while we rolled, and the light early morning traffic, but those are all random distinctions. There’s no meaning as to why one accident ended in tragedy and another ended as a colorful tale from my youth. This juxtaposition haunts me. Not every accident like this tears out the hearts of the victims’ families, friends, and community. It is unspeakably sad that this one did.

Heartsick

I am stunned by this morning’s news that rising SMG senior Daniela Lekhno and two other Boston University students were killed in an automobile accident while studying in New Zealand. The accident injured five more BU students. From the first class in Introduction to Law in spring 2011 I came to know Daniela’s acute intelligence, common sense, and strong moral compass. She was a leader in class discussion, an outstanding student, and a lovely young woman. Her loss is a terrible blow to the School of Management and Boston University communities, but of course our loss pales next to her family’s. It is a very sad day for the family, friends, and colleagues of all those involved in the accident.

Bright Future

Our final faculty meeting of the academic year had a congratulatory mood. SMG’s ratings are up, the quality of our (and Boston University’s) students continues to rise, we’re hiring terrific new faculty, financial donations are increasing, and curriculum changes are under way. Ken Freeman’s infectious energy has resulted in a flurry of ongoing projects and initiatives, the needs and interests of teaching faculty (like me) are on the agenda for the first time in my 13 years here, and there are many reasons  to be excited. Now the question is whether cohorts of notoriously disaffected SMG and BU alumnae will be willing to sip the Kool-Aid. It’s a tough sell for many–but if they can suspend their animus the benefits should be apparent.

Faculty Address

The text of my address at last evening’s commencement:

Welcome parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, extended families, friends, deans, faculty and staff, my wife Judy, and the reason all of us are here: the Boston University School of Management Class of Two Thousand Ten.

First, I must note the passing last December of our law-faculty colleague Jeffrey Beatty. Some of our students know Jeffrey’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher. All of our students know Jeffrey as the talented co-author of our law textbook. I would not be teaching here, but for Jeffrey’s call eleven years ago to tell me of an open faculty position. I am forever indebted to him.

Next, this is Dean Lataif’s final School of Management commencement ceremony. Thank you, Dean Lataif, for your support over the years, and for your inspiring vision of the social role of management education. You made this cynic a believer.

Recently, one of your classmates had occasion to see an old picture of me [full-size image]. I am about 23 years old, sitting on the battered wooden stoop of a dilapidated apartment building—for those who’ve heard the story, the same building where I was on rent strike for over three years.   The numerals “one eight three” are painted freestyle on the front door. In one hand I’m holding a pocket knife and orange; with the other I’m pointing at a newspaper. My narrowed eyes stare at the camera behind chronically unkempt hair and a thick beard. Your classmate studied this picture, saying repeatedly “that is not you.”

She was right. The young me in that picture had a life plan guaranteed not to include teaching law to business students. When I graduated in 1976 from what was then Boston University’s College of Liberal Arts, I planned to continue working for a few years as a paralegal handling prisoners’ rights issues, to attend the country’s best public-interest law school at Northeastern University, and to use my law degree to represent society’s have-nots. Five years later I graduated from Northeastern Law into Plan B: representing society’s haves, as an associate at a corporate law firm. Today, many changes later, I am eleven years into what may be Plan Q, although I lost track of the labels long ago.

Some say there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.  I’m the latter, one wary of binary explanations to complicated problems. I’m a lawyer, inclined by nature, and accustomed by training, to deal with complexity, nuance, and changing facts. To lawyers, the answer to every question begins with two words: “it depends.”  [Actually, before getting to “it depends” we say “my rate is $500 an hour and I’ll need a $10,000 retainer.”]

A few years ago one of my students struggled with his inability to find black-and-white answers to legal questions. Frustrated by my explanation of the first exam he yelled at me and stormed out of the room. For the next few weeks he sat in the front row mumbling “ridiculous” and “multiple choice” and “picky” to himself, and glowering at me while I taught. Then one day he ran into my office to share an epiphany. “I understand!” he yelled. “We have to think in the space between black and white. We have to embrace the gray!”

Unfortunately, he never did figure out what that means.

Many of you believe that everyone, but you, knows what they are doing with their lives. Everyone doesn’t. Many of you believe that everyone, but you, is moving ahead with certainty. Everyone isn’t. Those with step-by-step career plans will discover that there are plans on paper, and then there are plans in the real world. Plans on paper rely on binary assumptions: if I attend a top-tier law school, then I will have a lucrative career in corporate law. If I work on Wall Street, then I will earn enough to work for Teach for America. If I live at home to save money, then my parents will treat me as an adult and let me come and go as I please.

It is difficult, even scary, to cut the moorings of black and white choices. Whether or not you embrace the idea that your future is uncertain, it is the nature of plans to encounter the convoluted world, and to change. My plans changed because of love, marriage, real estate, mortgages, children, youth soccer, the 1990’s savings-and-loan crisis, business opportunities, innate restlessness—and love, again.

This last love affair does not involve another individual. (Remember, my wife is here.) It includes you, and my thousands of other students. It encompasses what I feel, teaching in a college classroom. It is the deep connection teaching creates between who I am and what I do. It is devotion to sharing my passion for learning. It is ardor for exploring life’s complexities through law, for encouraging students to pierce the deceptive ease of black-and-white resolutions.

Years from now, you may see a picture taken of you today, smiling in your regalia, flanked by family, holding your empty diploma cover. You will look across the years into the eyes of your younger self. You will see someone who was focused, or uncertain, someone employed, or looking for work, someone seizing life, or someone who wanted to defer graduation’s reckoning for three years—that is, someone going to law school. You may reflect on the path you’ve traveled since the moment captured in that picture. And perhaps your path will have delivered you, as mine has delivered me, to a place both implausible and natural. Implausible, because 34 years ago that idealistic future lawyer would have never imagined he might one day teach business law at Boston University. Natural, because being a part of your experience at the School of Management is the most rewarding and satisfying thing I have done with my professional life.

Embrace the gray.  Thank you.