Thursday, October 29, 2020

Who are these people? A reflection on the academy and race pretenders

There have been now four academics in the past few weeks who’ve been outed as having spent a significant part of their lives pretending to be Latinx or African American (see links below).  What’s happening here?  Being a person of color in the U.S. evidently had some self-perceived value to these folks.  Now since they didn’t grow up with my family memories or the lessons that my parents taught me, that can’t be the value.  It can’t be memories of backyard barbecues or sitting in Syd’s barbershop listening to stories.  It can’t be going to the AME church with Aunt Ethel and listening to the organist on the B-3 set the undertones to music that would make anyone consider salvation.  These pretenders never had those experiences, so whatever value they got from their charade isn’t from their past.  It has to come from their perception of Blackness or Brownness.

I won’t try to define the complexity of what it means to be a person of color in this country.  I can and did define my experience as an African American male who has been around since the 1950s, but I’m certain that I can’t generalize that to everyone.  But something that I do know is that while often denigrating us, the majority society has often appropriated our external characteristics – clothing trends, music, language, the list is long.  That’s not something new.  The country and western music that’s often popular in places where Black and Brown folks aren’t sometimes welcomed has its roots in African melodies and rhythms.  Many of the foods that are American comfort foods have their origins in Africa and Latin America.  And if it weren’t for Latinx and Black dances, White teens would be shuffling along with some version of the foxtrot.  So maybe these pretenders’ adoptions of racial identity are just extreme cases of cultural appropriation.  That seems unlikely, though, because you can go to a club and dance, or listen to music, or eat food all day and night without changing your identity.  

So why would someone forsake their own identity for another?  It can’t be for the benefits that new identity brings.  It’s not been my experience, as a brown-skinned man, that people are eager to go out of their way to give me preferential treatment.  In fact, I experience the opposite as I have to take precautions that my White counterparts never have to consider.  I recently wrote, for example, that I can’t show any anger in professional circumstances because that gets immediately defined as threatening.  There’s really not a societal status that my brown skin gives me that someone would aspire to having.  There are rich cultural groundings that my race and ethnic heritage give me, but unless you’ve had that background, you have no way of even knowing its value.  So, still, we need to explain the pretenders.

It seems to me that a thread that ties the four recent cases together is that they’re all academics.  Three have earned doctorates and the fourth is in the process of earning hers.  I don’t think that’s accidental.  I’ve spent a good part of my life as an academic, and I’ve watched academics from somewhat of an insider’s perspective.  What I’ve seen is that far too many of them see people of color as exotic objects of study, as people in need of the guidance that an academic can provide, as folks who need the kind pity that their superiors can offer.  Many academics have little connection to communities of color, aside from studying them or attempting to save them as missionaries do.  Communities of color aren’t Aunt Ethel or Cousin Jeannie to them.  These communities are an abstraction, a concept.  It’s in those perspectives that I believe the origins of pretenders’ need to be someone else lies.  It’s within this idealization of people they don’t really understand that someone can look and desire to be “the other.”  I don’t think I can fully understand what internally drives someone to repudiate their own heritage and pretend to be another, but it seems to me that a view that fantasizes whole groups has to precede that decision.  As academics, we’re taught to look for patterns that allow us to categorize and analyze people.  

I can only imagine how these pretenders have idealized the Black or Brown experience.  Remember just how educated they are.  They read histories or novels about the experiences of oppression and pain.  They may even have conducted some formal studies into communities of color, or worked within those communities.  There are also the ones who declaim their activist roots marching for civil rights.  Then they decide that they need to identify with what they see that experience being and emulate it by assuming it.  In their idealized sense of Blackness or Brownness, they perceive that they can mimic it by changing their hairstyle, picking up some linguistic cues, and fabricating a story.  What their education missed, however, is that doing so is abhorrent.  They clearly don’t see how their actions perpetuate stereotypes and caricatures.  The four recent people felt comfortable enough to carry their charade for years.  These aren’t deranged or misguided people as much as they are symptomatic of the larger intent to demote the Black and Brown experience to the margins.

Let’s be clear:  My cultural heritage is not for someone’s adoption.  I understand that people can appreciate and learn from aspects of that culture, just as I can from many cultures.  But no one can pretend themselves into more than an observation of it, anymore than I could eat lutefisk and pretend to be Nordic.  In my culture’s case, because of the many attempts to steal, marginalize, or destroy that culture over centuries, a pretended appropriation is a lot more serious than simply eating a food, changing clothes, or mimicking speech patterns.  It’s actually another attack.  And this one comes from academics who are supposedly among the keepers of knowledge in this society.  

The pretenders are symptoms of a much larger problem of people, academics especially, who maintain a distant and fantasized version of the Black or Brown experience.  Academics who maintain a missionary stance toward communities of color are every bit as offensive and destructive as their 18th century, pith-helmeted counterparts’ invasion of Africa, Asia, and South America.  Moreover, those academics who see communities of color as a petri dish from which to extract lessons about human pathologies are equally offensive.  That perspective identifies communities’ strengths as weakness and misses those strengths because they are different from anticipated norms – norms based on biases and ignorance.

How do people become this blind to people not like them?  In the case of academics, you don’t have to go further for an explanation than how higher education functions.  The current system of higher education is modeled on a Medieval idea of knowledge as a sacrosanct virtue that is held within the academy, only to be accessed by a select few who meet certain standards and, thus, show their worthiness to receive it.  It’s the perfect model of elitism, power and control that lends itself well to people who succeed in it and, therefore, see themselves as unique and above others.  Are all academics that way?  I’d like to think that’s not the case, and there are certainly many of my colleagues in the academy who aren’t.  But the system of higher education rewards elitism that separates academics from the world around them.  So it isn’t surprising that some can develop a savior complex or others see communities of color as objects of study.  It’s not surprising to me that there are people who, for whatever personal reasons, transform that pity and objectification into a desire to be part of those groups they really don’t understand from an insider’s point of view.  If you’re rootless, you look for roots.  

I understand that my charge of elitism may sound a little like the critique that right wing politicians and commentators take when they denounce academics.  But what I’m offering is an assessment that’s more subtle than I’ve heard from the right.  Both my analysis and those I’ve heard from the right concern the elitism within the academy.  But that’s the only place where these ideas converge.  I actually see conservative and progressive academics exhibit the same pathology.  They both live in their closed circles of thought where as soon they establish their reputation, they’re obliged to defend it for the remainder of their careers.  It’s a reification of perspectives, actually, both on the right and the left.  That reification is compounded by the social groups where they interact, where they live, and even what they do with their free time.  Such a culture breeds indifference to the real needs of real people outside of that culture.  It reinforces the separateness of the academy.  

Within the academic cloister are people seeking something else – in the case of the people who assume another cultural identity, they seek to be someone else.  There’s little or no thought of the consequences of those actions or how that theft of cultural identity represents the oppression of generations of forebearers – just as researchers will go into a community to offer an intervention and when the grant funding is done, leave the community as it was prior to the intervention.  These pretenders continue traditions that hearken back to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or the appropriation of Henrietta Lacks’ cells.  Hyperbole?  I don’t think so because it all comes from the same superiority that allows some to take from others for their own gain.  It’s within the academy that such behavior has been normal, and it’s within the academy that these four pretenders found the germinating seeds of their deception.  

Here are the links to the original articles that sparked this essay:


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Is the U.S. unraveling? If it is, there’s already a fix in motion.

There’s an article in Rolling Stone that’s making the rounds on social media these days. The article, written by Wade Davis, reports that the U.S. is in trouble. Davis offers evidence to show that the grand democracy that is the U.S. is unraveling as evidenced by what’s happening in response to COVID-19.  Davis is a cultural anthropologist, and he offers the kind of detail that a cultural anthropologist does when making a case. Unfortunately, in this case, he’s really looking at the wrong evidence – or at least incomplete evidence.


If you take a picture of The U.S.’s national political landscape right now, the resulting portrait is a mess. Look at the gridlock in Congress; look at the daily circus that is the presidency; look at our international relations; look at our internal strife; there’s much to see that’s going wrong. There’s not much in that landscape perspective that’s positive. I can see where someone looking at that level would see the nation unraveling. However, I look at a different level.  To me, the strength of this nation has always been at the local level; and that’s where I look. By looking there, I see something different than Davis does. I see a vibrancy and a commitment that promises a different future than he sees.


The sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote famously about “third places.” His work explained how local communities gather in informal places like coffee shops and barber shops to generate a sense of connectedness and community identity.  Donald Oliver went further and described not just the places, but the institutions that mediate interactions.  In The Primal, the Modern, and the Vital Center, Oliver and his co-authors explain that it’s not just places that are central, but also organizations and institutions.  Oldenburg and Oliver have something to teach:  A community is the sum total of the places, institutions, and people that bind it together.  Building from their ideas, it’s valuable to understand that a nation is a compilation of those communities, and the core of a democracy is always at that community level.


And that’s what Davis is missing. Davis misses the opportunity to look at the micro level of American society by focusing only at the macro level.  It’s at that micro level that the U.S. experiment in democracy really works. We can’t ignore the impact of the larger national political scene. As he rightly points out, the current pandemic has exposed the inequities, fractures, and mismanagement that divide the nation.  However, it’s a mistake to confuse that with a complete picture and to assume that those national issues foretell a looming destruction.


I know this because of what I see. I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work with leaders and organizations that focus at the local level. And I’m now fortunate to have seen decades of those efforts’ impact.  What I’m seeing now is that while the national systems are strained, local organizations and leaders are finding renewed strength. The next generation of leaders, those people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, especially, are finding the current crises as opportunities to look at how their organizations can be better at what they do. Local organizations and leaders are bringing people together; local organizations and leaders are using the power of community to build.  That looks very different than a dystopian unraveling of the nation. In fact, it looks like people gaining power through their joint and collaborative efforts.


What does it really look like? The picture is impressive. And rather than trying to tell all of the possible stories, I’m going to leave this statement with a list of a few organizations that are the future of this nation. Follow the links and you’ll see what I’m talking about. These are organizations that perform amazing work every day. They are committed to their communities because they are committed to people. The result is work which makes communities stronger, which makes the nation stronger.  If you want to know why I am not in despairing in a belief that the nation is unraveling, follow some of these links and see a small portion what’s going on in just one region of the country. I know it’s happening elsewhere, too. 


These aren’t political action groups, but their actions do have political implications. As they do their work, they change their communities to be more responsive to the needs of those communities – and that’s fundamentally a political act as more people gain the knowledge and freedom to be engaged in a community.  It’s the politics of action and change as these groups advocate for and impact their communities’ needs to be responsive to all members of a society. 


The brief list below contains names of organizations from my e-mail interactions in recent months.  I used that criterion to limit the list.  If I went beyond my recent personal contacts, this list could go on much longer to include many more organizations.  Take a minute and look through the list and see how these people are generating and sustaining their communities through engaged, democratic actions. Then let me know if you think the nation is unraveling. 


If you want to add some organizations to this list from your own experiences, include the organizations and their URL as a reply to the posting.




Literacy Source:


Neighborhood House:




St. James Immigrant Assistance:


Seattle Education Access:


Seattle Goodwill Jobs, Training, and Education:


South Seattle Emerald:  httpss://

Friday, June 19, 2020

Everybody Knows – a personal reflection

Everybody knows that hate is wrong.  Everybody knows that it’s wrong to exclude and discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability status, age, and a whole list of characteristics.  Everybody knows that limiting another person’s education or employment or financial future shouldn’t happen.  Everybody knows that people should always be given fair treatment by the law.  Everybody knows.  Yet these issues continue as if no one knows.

The overwhelming number of recent statements on injustice from every sector of the society are stultifying.  I’ve seen corporate statements and civic statements and celebrity statements.  Educational institutions all have published statements, as have sports teams and their leagues.  Politicians stumble over themselves to be the loudest voice decrying hatred, racism, and inequitable policies and practices.  Everybody wants to show that they’re aligned with what everybody knows.  But as I scan the statements, they’re mostly pretty interchangeable.  It’s like reading the results from one of those word-column exercises where you select a word from each column to form a sentence.  Pick “justice” from column A, “anti-racist” from column B, “deeply committed” from column C, etc., and pretty soon you have a statement that shows that you agree with what everybody knows.  The result is a cliché bomb of platitudes that end up saying very little about what will happen to change what exists.

There’s a deeply personal reason why I find these statements dissatisfying.  From about the age of 10, I immersed myself in politics and current events to try and understand the world around me.  The lynchings, fire hoses, and church bombings in the south that I read about then happened to people like my family and me.  The targeted murder and incarceration of justice leaders of color in the north by the federal and state government happened to people like us, too.  When I was harassed on the streets by White people or cops, I saw a direct line to what was happening in the news to people just like me.  When I faced personal and systemic racism daily in the community of my youth, I knew that I wasn’t alone because the newspapers and TV news gave me daily examples of what others faced, too.  The journalists typically didn’t filter it through my lens, but I reframed those stories from my personal experiences to decipher what was happening.  I needed the picture of the larger world that the news gave me to make sense of the one I experienced every day.  And I learned to believe people’s actions over their words. 

As I became an adult, those lessons continued as I was denied jobs because of my brown skin, or I was relegated to less important work by people in organizations where I volunteered or had interactions with people who assumed I am incapable and needed their paternalistic guidance.  Underlying all that is often a general feeling of un-safeness in public because I know that the experience doesn’t somehow end magically because someone or some organization publishes a statement of solidarity.  Despite what I accomplish, what I dress like, how I talk, or what activities I undertake, I am judged daily by a society and its systems as I negotiate each day.  It’s all a blanket that still covers my daily life as a brown-skinned man in American society.  Today and every day.  

Between what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced, I have a mental picture of what this nation’s values are and how those values are expressed.  That image transcends statements of the moment, and the image lives in the actions I see daily.  That picture is not positive, and it’s seared into the neural networks that comprise my memory.  So I can’t watch murder porn of another man executed on the streets by police.  I can’t watch cell phone video of another privileged White woman calling 911 in attempt to create another incident that puts a man’s life in danger because he challenged her privilege.  I can’t read about people who created a fictional account of being assaulted by a Black man in order to cover their own crimes.  I’ve been seeing these for most of my life.  I don’t need to see what they look like today to be horrified.  I already have been.  For a lifetime. 

I understand people’s recent rage and disgust with a society that allows these events to continue.  Actually, that’s a rage and disgust that I’ve held since I arrived in this country at age five and heard someone identify me by derogatory words that were intended to make me less than, or when the local all-White parochial school told my parents that my sister and I would find a better fit in the public system, or when parents in my all-White neighborhood made it clear that their children shouldn’t play with me.  I’ve never surrendered those feelings and have channeled my rage and disgust into what I hope is productive action as I’ve spent a lifetime working to make things around me a little better.  In my youth, I needed those pictures to remind me I wasn’t alone.  Today, I need to rage and be disgusted without seeing more of the reason why in daily news clips because I already understand the ubiquity of the experience.  Equally, it’s impossible for me to see manufactured platitudes of support as anything of value – no matter how well-intentioned the source. 

If you read this and ask yourself why this sounds angry when you know me and think of me as even tempered and always calm, that’s because you and I may live in two different versions of the world.  In my version, expressed anger often has consequences in how people perceive and interact with me.  You may see my lack of outward anger as a calmness, but that’s not the case.  There are stereotyped perceptions of people who look like me.   In my version of the world, when I show the least bit of annoyance, I get quickly categorized and labeled as a menace either to be feared or dismissed.  So, over the years, I’ve learned to sublimate anger into positive action.  Maybe that’s healthy, and maybe it’s not.  Armchair psychology aside, it’s how I’ve been able to navigate to the point where I can have impact, and I can create small changes in my world.  I know many other professional men of color who’ve made that choice.  It’s how we cope with our experiences.  I’m not silent about my ideals, but I rarely show external anger as I express them or make demands for change.

Seems to me that there are two parts to the creation of equity.  There’s the awareness part where everyone needs to understand the histories that led to inequities; they need to see the biases that drive inequities; they need to understand who benefits from and who is limited by inequity; they need to understand how inequity shapes the experiences and perceptions of people like me.  Whether people are Brown, Black, or White, they need a formal awareness of what all that looks like.  However, that seems to be where things end in many groups that are seeking to address inequity.  Their thinking appears to be that if people get educated on the issues, they’ll take that knowledge and change the world around them. 

That intention to create change through education hasn’t worked for a lot of reasons.  Most critical is that change in groups, in communities, in long-standing practices, isn’t easy.  A nation that’s held racist and other exclusionary beliefs for 400 years isn’t going to become inclusive because of what it learns – even by watching a horrific murder on television.  And a police officer, teacher, doctor, or crossing guard isn’t going to change a lifetime of practices because that person attended a seminar on White privilege.  I’ve been an educator for 41 years, and I’ve learned some truths about the work I’ve done.  At the top of the list of those truths is that people and systems don’t change solely because of what they learn.

So the second part of addressing equity is about actions.  It has to happen concurrently with the first part because the reason for action needs to be built on what we know.  However, actions aren’t the result of what we know as much as they are a corollary to what we know.  In other words, the knowledge part of addressing equity doesn’t lead to the other.  What we know and what we do need to occur together.  The Christian Bible describes what this looks like in the Book of James 2:14-17 when it demands correlation between belief and action.  Even though this isn’t my faith, truth is truth, and this one is worth citing:

(14) What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (15) If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, (16) and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? (17) Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

The writer then offers an example from the Old Testament story of Abraham who merged his beliefs and actions.  In other words, beliefs and actions have to happen together.  “Everybody knows,” but from my life’s perch that knowledge isn’t enough to counter a nation’s values that are expressed in how it has acted to establish explicit and implicit systems and rules which intend to diminish people like me. 

So what are people saying when they claim that everybody knows?  When someone says, “everybody knows,” that person may not understand that what each person knows gets filtered through the experiences that give us each different perspectives on what we each know.  That phrase, as you might guess from what you read here, has little meaning to me.  I have a similar reaction when I hear, “we’re all alike.”  It’s true that we all have a common physiology, but how we see the world gets shaped by our unique experiences.  If you understand that very important idea, then you seek to listen and to understand my experience to see what I know.  That’s very different than believing that “everybody knows.”

Because of my experiences, I have a different outlook than many of the people I know from my professional life where there aren’t a lot of folks of color who’ve shared similar experiences.  In contrast, many other people of color will see my story as typical; but that’s because we’ve had to live in what Dr. DuBois called the “double consciousness” of understanding both the larger world and our own experience.  People in the dominant society haven’t needed to understand our experience for their survival while we need to understand that society’s rules and norms – especially when those rules and norms threaten our existence.  As the nation has become more racially and ethnically diverse, and as more of us demand to be seen and heard, the dominant society has now had to start learning about our experiences in order for it to survive.  And it has to change its actions, not just its words. 

So if you want to respond to me or the events around us, start by asking yourself what you’re going to do besides being angry.  Not what you’re going to think or say or write, but what you’re going to do.  That’s what I’ll be doing – planning what I’ll do next.  If you want to tell me how you decided to act on your anger, contact me personally, and you and I can start a discussion that focuses on our actions.  Maybe we can work together on those actions.  As you might infer from what I’ve written, I’m only interested in those discussions that are about actions right now.  It’s really not enough that everybody knows.  If you really know, you act. 

But please don’t contact me with questions about what you should do.  That’s not my responsibility.  If you don’t know what to do, make your first action about educating yourself about who’s doing the work that makes a difference.  If you’ve read this essay this far, you clearly care enough to know the experience of one Black man.  But there’s more to know beyond just my experience.  Learn the history that got us to this point.  Learn about power and privilege and the impacts of race.  But most importantly, learn about the actions you must concurrently take to generate change.  As you learn, you can synchronously engage yourself humbly in that work.  Make your action your work as I have made it mine.  The most powerful statement that I read recently came in a note from a former student who’s focusing her actions as a real estate professional to promote justice.  It’s that commitment to actions in our daily lives that will move us beyond what “everybody knows” and into changes that counter the systemic oppression that now governs our daily interactions. 

And if you’re interested in what I’ll be doing about current events, know that there isn’t a new action I’ll be taking because the killing of a Black man by police or the hunting down of another by self-deputized night riders isn’t new to me.  Actually, I needed to write these paragraphs partly so that I can internally reaffirm the choices I’ve made in my life – to those actions I’ve already taken and plan to take.  In retiring from the educational work that I did in service to justice, I didn’t and can’t retire from my obligations to channel my rage against the oppression I’ve seen and experienced.  So I continue to work toward a just world; I continue to support people who need that support; I continue to help build those systems, organizations and institutions that counter oppression; and, yes, I continue to speak and write – but about action built on ideas instead of just the ideas.  Consequently, I continue to live a life forged by injustice in ways that build justice.  How about you?

Monday, June 1, 2020

An Important History to Know

The idea of a “race riot” has deep roots in the historic violence against Black folks.  Before the mid-1960s, the term was used to describe the hundreds of instances of mob and often governmentally allowed violence against the Black community.  Thousands of Black people died in these attacks, and few people were ever prosecuted for those deaths.  They happened in the south, the north, the east and west of the nation.  They were common enough to have left an imprint among the vast Black diaspora.  Every current Black family still has stories of their progenitors being attacked during a race riot.  We know about them as a part of our history.  But these events weren’t just our history.  They are the history of the nation because they form a significant thread in the fabric of the nation’s race relations. When you ask, “How did we get here?” in response to what you’re seeing on the news, the history of race riots is one part of the answer.  

You should know about them, and here’s a place to start:

My guess is that you’ll find an event from communities you know in that list.  Additionally, I looked up some reliable sources for a few of these.  Here’s a random, geographically diverse sampling of what you can find.  It’s a gruesome history that you now have no reason not to know.

New York City Draft Riots

Memphis Massacre

New Orleans Robert Charles Riots

1904 and 1906
Springfield, Ohio Race Riots

Atlanta Race Riot

Red Summer

Black Wall Street Massacre

Detroit Race Riot

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Building an Off-ramp – it takes more than money to retire

People ask me at least once a week about being retired.  “Do you enjoy it? Or “Do you find enough to do?” Or “Do you miss going to work every day?”  For the record, the answers are “Yes!” “Yes!” and “Are you kidding?”  People keep asking, though, because they hear about other folks who retired who struggle with it. 

Search the Internet with the phrase "advice for planning retirement" and you’ll find a list of articles about financial planning.  People think about preparing for the monetary part of retirement, and if they’re fortunate the finances come together.  But they often don’t think about what retirement will mean for their daily experience.  In my experience, how I prepared to use my time was as important as how I prepared financially.  

I was fortunate to have had a career that I enjoyed and that I found fulfilling.  Not every day (or sometimes month) was rainbows and daisies, but it was a good way to have spent a working life.  As an educator who spent a third of his career in as a junior high and high school teacher and the last two-thirds in community colleges and universities, I contributed to people’s lives and helped them dream and build their futures in small increments.  I even helped a few institutions move forward and think of the ways that they served or didn’t serve learners. 

I still continue to do that on a smaller scale, as I advise a few doctoral candidates as they complete their dissertations, consult with institutions on issues and programs, conduct studies that I find interesting, and write and edit articles that I believe are important for the profession.  So I haven’t disassociated from my professional life.  But what I have now is the flexibility to do the work that’s important to me without the demands of a job that requires me to be in certain places, doing certain tasks, and working at certain times.  In brief, I control my own life with few demands from external sources. 

Because I control my own life, I also decide how better to balance my professional life with my personal enjoyments.  When I’m not isolated from a pandemic, I can take time on a week night to meet a friend to play music without worrying about getting up early for work the next morning.  Or I can take a motorcycle trip along the Olympic Peninsula on a week day.  Or I can take the time to work on something I’m building, and if I don’t like my work, I can undo it and start over.  Or I can just relax at home, or have a standing, virtual cocktail party with friends from around the country – without worrying that some work demand will interfere.  After 46 years, three months, and 27 days of having a job that scheduled my life, now I’m scheduling my life.  That’s an incredible gift that I see as a privilege and a responsibility as I use my time.  If you haven’t yet deduced this, though, I’m really enjoying retirement.  So I write this in order to pass along some wise advice I received that helped me prepare. 

My already retired colleagues encouraged me, most importantly, to build what I think of as an off-ramp to retirement.  It’s important to think about retirement not being a finite point, but, rather, as a continuation, just like a freeway off-ramp isn’t a dead end.  That’s why I continue to have professional activities.  I’ve been consulting on the side for 25 years.  In the first year of retirement, my consulting practice had its busiest year ever, and its tapered a little from that in the last two years.  I don’t see that work continuing forever into the future.  But that helped me have an outlet for the professional energy that I maintained for a very long time during my career. 

Similarly, finishing out my doctoral candidates allows me to continue a teaching relationship with each of them – a relationship that I find incredibly satisfying.  Also, conducting a few studies, co-editing an issue of a professional journal, and co-writing some articles all allow me to make contributions to my profession, while I’m also mentoring the people who are working with me on these projects and helping them to gain publications that gain them status in our profession.  As I left my job and the part of identity it provided, these were the components of the off-ramp that allowed me to develop a new self-identity that’s not that much different than the one I’ve had for a long time. 

In my personal life, that off-ramp began about seven years ago as I built a music studio behind the house.  We have a small house, and there’s no space for the Hammond organ and other instruments I play with (note the phrase “play with” as opposed to “play”).  Four years ago, I replaced the older motorcycle I was riding with one that is better suited for touring because being on the open road helps me to meditate on life.  Then two years ago, we finally demolished our ramshackle garage and replaced it with a much larger one where I built a workbench with space for tools and working.     

The off-ramp also includes people – its most important component.  My wife and I’ve been fortunate to have made deep and lasting friendships over the years of married life.  Also, we both have family members who are important to us.  Although we only see some of those friends and family periodically, maintaining our connection to them grounds us in an understanding of the significance of human contact.  That’s part of the off-ramp that we started building a long time ago, and it’s one that we continue to build as we now have more time to nurture relationships.

Okay.  I understand that some of what I describe about building the off-ramp to retirement takes money.  In our case, it was the good fortune to have the resources to make choices a few years back.  As we had some extra dollars, we would invest in the off-ramp (e.g., building the studio or replacing the motorcycle with a newer one).  But that’s not any different than what we did in paying into our retirement accounts.  It was a conscious decision to understand that our lives were about to change and that we needed to prepare for that change.  In return for this opportunity, we try to live responsibly in the world around us because we understand how fortunate we have been to prepare for this time.

Like I said, I didn’t come up with this off-ramp idea.  I learned it by listening to and watching others.  None of the people who taught me did exactly what I’m doing because who they are and how they did it are all different.  The friend who retired and spent five years as a consultant with various companies providing his expertise.  The colleague who began a new research center after his retirement in his late 50s and then spent 30+ years managing that.  The neighbor who was a carpenter and now helps people with construction projects.  There are also people I know who have made their hobbies their life, or have completely reinvented themselves in retirement.  The key is that they had lives that extended from who they were to whom they became.  They built an off-ramp.

So in my third year, I’m still becoming.  It’s interesting that I had plans to do things that I haven’t yet done.  I’m okay with them never getting done.  Unlike my professional life, my goals now are now more fluid and less about an end product than they are about the experiences.  For now, I’m enjoying this latest episode of life, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it brings next as I transition through this off-ramp to whatever the fully retired me will be.  It seems to me that it’s never too late to start building that off-ramp.  Even if you’re retired already, you can start thinking of ways to bridge from where you are to where you could be.  My wife, for example, has taken up indoor gardening of late as a way to extend her enjoyment of seeing things grow without the demands of yard work.  The key, it seems to me, is to build forward to what’s next instead of looking back to see what isn’t.  After all, going to what’s next is what off-ramps provide us.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Let’s put on a show….

Those of us of a certain age will remember TV reruns of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals of the 1930s that got a lot of airtime in the 1960s as fillers for local TV stations looking for inexpensive content to air.  The plot always seemed to revolve around the need to show off the two young stars’ singing and dancing talents.  The heart of the movie revealed itself when Rooney flashed that mischievous smile he had and said something like, “My uncle has a barn we can use.  Let’s put on a show.”  The thin plot line then revolved around the rehearsals and performances that allowed Rooney and Garland to shine.

With all the talk of education moving to online formats in the current crisis, I’m reminded of those movies.  Get a barn, a group of kids, and then let them sing and dance their way into 90 minutes of entertaining frolic.  In this current circumstance, though, it’s, “We have online technology; let’s use it to teach.”  Well, just like a musical takes skills and an incredible amount of time and hard work to produce in the real world, just having a technology isn’t enough to replicate such a complex activity as learning and teaching.  In truth, it takes a lot of preparation and thought to move a course, at any level, into effective e-learning.  I worry that we’ve lost that truth in the demands to, “Let’s put on a show.”

In the past week, I’ve had a few discussions with teachers, and I’ve seen many more have discussions online, as people charged with educating children and adults are scrambling to figure out what to do as their institutions make a sudden move to online instruction.  That’s not to say that these teachers and institutions haven’t used e-learning in the past.  Most educators these days use a course management system to store content.  And many have used e-learning tools like video conferencing to connect their students to the wider world.  But it’s like putting on a musical.  We may have seen a barn, we may have seen a musical, and we may have some talent at signing and dancing.  But putting on a musical?  That requires mastering special skills that cover everything from stage design to directing to acting to marketing to a hundred other important tasks. 

K-12 schools and colleges that have been successful at moving into e-learning have hired good instructional designers to work with teachers.  Good instructional designers are amazing because they help educators rethink what they do to translate their intended impact into an electronic format.  They teach a way of thinking – they offer much more than the tools of e-learning.  That’s because teaching via e-learning is a learned skill that designers can help educators develop.  There are actually benefits to e-learning and there are ways that teachers can replicate the impacts they create in their face-to-face classrooms.  However, teachers generally don’t develop those skills innately.  They need support to develop the skills they need.

A school or college that expects that its teachers will succeed at translating what they do face to face into e-learning will quickly discover the importance of supporting that translation.  Unfortunately, there aren’t anywhere near the number of instructional designers available for the sudden change that schools and colleges are now undertaking.  So rather than looking like a polished MGM musical from the 30s, many of the current efforts, I fear, will look more like a local community talent show:  some highlights, but few stellar moments and even more frustrations for teachers and learners.

What to do?  For now, there’s not much to be done.  There are some schools and colleges that have a robust instructional design department, and they will provide the support that teachers need for the transition.  But this current crisis can be a wake up for educational leaders.  For the 25 years that I’ve been leading, teaching, researching, and developing e-learning, I’ve seen the “Let’s put on a show” model as dominant in discussions of educators outside of e-learning experts.  Educational leaders who hold the purse strings are satisfied to purchase the latest tools in the expectation that the tools are what’s required.  However, just like Judy and Mickey’s barn wouldn’t work in the real world, there needs to be a concurrent effort in the future to do more than just attempt a show.  Schools and colleges need to invest in a future that does more than puts a few assignments into an electronic format and expects learning to occur.  In addition to instructional designers, schools and colleges need to invest in ongoing, job-embedded, quality professional development and support for their teachers.  This moment, as emergencies often do, offers an opportunity to rethink how better to prepare for the future.