Thursday, August 28

Just Ramblin, No 16: Politics of change?

Today is a big day. Barack Obama accepted the nomination as the first African-American presidential candidate. The day is made even more significant by the fact that today is the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The media started working that connection early. Yes, it's a big day for the Democratic party. Yes, it's a big day for the country.

But I worry about this notion of change and who will or won't bring change. I know that the Democrats are working hard to position their guy as a super-duper change agent and show that a vote for McCain is a vote for continuing the work of the Bush administration. I get that. And I know that too many American people will get caught up in the hype and mania and might not think through the rhetoric.

Here's my deal. I live in the Chicago suburbs. I'm originally from Florida and I've lived in New York so I've experienced a variety of approaches to politics. But Chicago and Illinois, well, this is where politics has been raised to an art form.

The Daley Dynasty goes without saying. But in Chicagoland we have also witnessed other dynasties in the making. Todd Stroger took over for John Stroger, his father, as Cook Country Board President. He's doing a terrible job, but there seems to be no opportunity for change. It is business as usual. Michael Madigan is the Speaker of the House and Chair of the Illinois Democratic Party. His daughter, Lisa Madigan is the Attorney General of Illinois. Emil Jones is the President of the Illinois Senate. He's 73 and plans to retire this year. Almost immediately, party leaders determined it would best for Emil Jones III to replace his father. Oh, they are all Democrats.

In the spirit of full disclosure, yep, I'm a Republican though I plan to change my party affiliation to Independent this November. But I'm ambivalent about politicians anyway. I listened to Mr. Obama's acceptance speech. He hit all the right notes, struck all the right chords. But his list of promises for health care, taxes, jobs, education, and more. Seriously? Does the Obama campaign believe that most or any of those campaign promises are reasonable? possible? How are they going to insure Congressional support? how is he going to control lobbyists or the members of Congress who respond to lobbyists and political action committees?

What strikes me is the realization that one individual runs for president and shares his (or some day her) ideals and values, hopes and dreams for the country. But the president does not have sole responsibility for decision-making in this country. The president cannot fulfill any of his campaign promises without the support, the backing, and the votes of Congress. I'm disappointed that Obama spent so much time bashing McCain. I would have preferred he spend more time talking about his plans, his hopes, and how he planned to accomplish some of those things, how he hopes to work with Congress and other political organizations to implement change. I would have liked to have heard him talk about ways he might be able to work with the Republican party to find a common ground.

Change is really hard and a lot of people are not comfortable with change. It's probably too great of a stretch to talk about the USSR, but for some odd reason I can't help but think about the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Theoretically the Russian states began to adopt democracy. But it doesn't take a political expert to see that those folks struggled with change and gradually, over the years, have returned to the sort of governmental structure and conformity that existed when the Soviet Union was still unified. It's no big surprise with Vladimir Putin, former KGB officer, at the helm.

I'm impressed with the style and presentation of Barack Obama and I've seriously considered voting for him. But his list of things that he will do as president is just shy of "world peace" and it worries me that his reach may exceed his grasp. I can only hope that if he really believes he can accomplish even a tenth of this, his campaign team is busily working the members of Congress to make sure they are completely and unstintingly on board with his plans. And I hope his campaign team is working hard to form alliances with any Republicans who may be left in Congress because the alliance will be necessary and I do worry about Obama's lack of experience, potential naivete of how things seem to work in DC (though Biden should help him navigate some of those treacherous waters). Changing DC "business as usual" would be an amazing accomplishment.

Regardless, we witnessed history tonight. Good for Barack Obama and I hope he has a great campaign. As painful as this incredibly lengthy campaign has been, the rest does promise to one heckuva ride!

Wednesday, August 20

Just Ramblin, No. 15: The Olympics stories we don't hear or see

I love the Olympics, but I am weary of them. I am weary of the politicizing that inevitably accompanies the Olympics, but even more so this year. There has been so much commentary about China and Beijing and the 2008 Olympics: constraints, restraints, and raising the bar. China has been praised and vilified and while that may true for any host nation/city of the Olympics, critics seem to have been particularly vocal for this Olympics.

Of course we have had to hear the stories of the possibly underage gymnasts and how anyone in a sport that requires judging has been getting a raw deal and the Chinese have been getting all the benefit of the doubt. I have to wonder what other nations' presses are reporting about the fairness of the judging or is it only us Americans who are being such whiny spoilsports. Is the judging always "fair"? Probably not. Depends on your perspective and what you know about the sport and that's probably true of judging for any sport in any competition. It's just that the Olympics is a particularly ginormous stage.

So I'm all tired and don't care about the gold medal race between China and the US, though I'm pretty sure a bunch of other countries are competing in all of the events. I mean, last time I checked I saw athletes from other countries in the events. What I'm really digging are the hard-to-find stories about some really cool accomplishments.

For example, how being the athlete to get India's very first individual gold medal? So it was in an air rifle competition. So what? It was a competition that was awarded a gold medal. And a nation rejoiced.

Sometimes winning big does not mean gold, but bronze. Though it was hard to find a thoughtful (read "objective") report, I think it is very cool that Afghanistan will be able to celebrate its first Olympic medal. Rohullah Nikpai took the bronze by upsetting world flyweight tae kwon do champion Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain. Yes, it may be bronze, but it is a medal.

And there were the Mongolians honking horns, waving flags, and singing the national anthem after Tuvshinbayar Naidan won the country first ever gold Olympic medal.

The people of Bahrain celebrated enthusiastically as well when Rashid Ramzi won that country's first Olympic medal ever and that first Olympic medal is gold. After Ramzi won, he said, “I didn’t believe in my wildest dreams that I’d be Olympic champion. But the dream didn’t come from nothing. I had to work hard to achieve it. I can’t find words to describe this victory.”

That could be the victory speech for any Olympic athlete. No one coasted to victory. No one coasted to get to the Olympics. Every athlete worked hard. Every athlete, whether backed by an enormous and well-funded sports organization or fortunate to find a sponsor to have some of the right equipment, worked hard. Worked hard because of his or her passion for the sport. To represent their country, to bring honor to their country is a bonus for them.

I believe those who compete honorably and with dignity regardless of the outcome are the heroes and winners of the Olympics. Oh I know they are hyper-competitive and want to do their best and most of them seem to do their bests. So they are to be commended, even if they don't have a medal to show for their efforts. But those folks who have won over the most improbable of odds or who are able to be the first to take home a medal for their countries, well, those are the real stories worth telling.

Monday, August 18

Just Ramblin, No. 14: Academia; Plurk

In a recent First Person article in The Chronicle, Eliza Peterson, a pseudonym, discussed her coming to grips with having been denied tenure. She describes the tumultous cascade of emotions, the sense of being shunned, the conflicting sensibility of being "dead faculty walking" while also a viable instructor during the oddly yet aptly named terminal year, yet strangely free. Her essay reminded of a recent Plurk discussion about those with doctorates and those without and their respective attitudes and behaviors towards each other.

Academia is a strange place. I'm no longer in that place, but was a resident for about 12 years. I too left under less than auspicious circumstances. I was up for tenure, but rather than deny me tenure, the institution simply chose not to renew my contract. I'm quite certain that had I been at a public university rather than a private one, I would have had far more options than I did. I'm quite certain those who were reluctant to stand with me against what is still considered an inadequate administration would have been more forthcoming in their adjudication process. I did not have the option of a terminal year; the administration could hardly wait for me to clean out my office and, in fact, tried to accelerate that schedule. I took my time and, like Eliza Peterson, completed my year of service with dignity.

The high road can be a very comforting place indeed, but the high road does not pay the mortgage. The choices my former colleagues made still smarts because I believed then and believe now that they were unwilling or unable to do the right thing. I have tried not to gloat even a little bit when certain things have come to light or when I hear bad news about the institution. More often than not I do (eventually) feel sad that the institution that had so much promise seems to have become so much less. I hurt for my friends who remain there; I'm saddened for the students who do and have deserved so much more.

However, in the long run, I was meant not to be at that institution. Though I survived an emotionally and financially painful year, I survived. I still teach one course a semester at a well-respected institution and I do love teaching. Sometimes I miss it and wish I could do more. But what has followed, for this season, has proven to be a much better fit for me than the path of academic administration. I also learned a lot about academics, the people and the arena of academia.

When I finished my doctorate, I was proudly donning my academic regalia for the university's graduation. One of my now former colleagues came over and asked me if my degree was a Ph.D. or an Ed.D. He seemed genuinely miffed that mine is a Ph.D. Over the years, and long before I got my own doctorate, I noticed there was a tension between the Ph.D. and the Ed.D. In the academic hierarchy, the Ph.D. is considered "better" than the Ed.D. I suspect the differences are related to the kinds of hoops one has to jump through to complete doctoral obstacle course. I bet mine were smaller and had more flames, but there is true elitism in academia.

The Plurk conversation was related to the behavior of the decorated (those with doctorates and, therefore, fancy stripes on their regalia) toward the non-decorated (those without doctorates of any kind) and how often the decorated peer down at the non-decorated from their lofty ivory towers and seem to suggest that the non-decorated are somehow lesser beings.

I will admit that getting a doctorate was a lot of work. Talk to anyone who has experienced the rigors of that academic achievement and you will likely get a series of unpleasant and often unfortunate events. It is a tumultuous road fraught with all sorts of hazards. Most from your own committee. Doctoral candidates soon learn that the project that represents the culmination of their academic careers is not really their own work but that of the Committee. The doctoral candidate becomes an expert in negotiation and arbitration, moderating discussions between opposing committee members.

I was at a faculty development conference when one of the keynote speakers, addressing a roomful of doctorates, said that the only thing a doctorate says about you is that you are able to persevere and complete a project and that, for about 30 seconds, you were an expert in something.

The individual with the doctorate has proven what needs to be proven. But too often the decorated are those who remind others they are in the doctoral club. I don't know why some of the decorated consider themselves so special, but maybe my jaded perspective comes from the fact that I never felt completely a part of the world of academic that constantly feels the need to prove itself, even after tenure.

I think at the root of those kinds of insecurities are the standards by which we evaluate faculty: how many projects have been published in a peer-reviewed journal? how many presentation given in how many venues to an audience of how many? The US places so much emphasis on improving teaching for K-12 classroom teachers, but allows some incredible muttonheads to be in front of the classroom in colleges and universities because those individuals have a 37-page CV which includes a list of abstruse publications but in peer-reviewed journals. In their rarefied world, size does matter but teaching, theoretically one of the reasons they entered academic in the first place, places a distant second, even third.

So I think the tension between the decorated and the non-decorated may have something to do with an subconscious understanding of passion and purpose. The individual who lovingly labors to teach with a mere Master's degree probably really loves to teach, and loves seeing personal and academic growth in her students. The individual with the doctorate may have been caught in the "betcha can't top this" competition of research and publications. Perhaps that individual with the doctorate, especially the one who feels compelled to do research more and publish more, is the one who secretly fears she will be discovered as a poser because her focus, her passion and true purpose is not directed towards students and teaching.

Of course, a simpler explanation is that those with doctorates are just arrogant and need to get over themselves. I suspect the truth lies somewhere betwixt, between, and among those polar perspectives.

Monday, August 11

Just Ramblin, No. 13: Favre (get over it already); Olympics

I noticed an ad on Yahoo! for Madden 2009. Brett Favre is wearing his Green Bay Packers jersey. My first thought was that they'll have retool that game now; my second thought was that Madden 2009 will become a collector's item.

Brett Favre is becoming a true part of the New York Jets. Even ran his penalty lap. But there are reports that it's a little disconcerting to have people cheering for penalty laps. Apparently the Jets have had as many as 10,500 fans out for their practices and I've heard sports commentators suggest that the New York Jets may end up with more fans this year simply because of their new #4. Good for them. And we'll just see tonight how this whole thing is going to work out for Green Bay and their QB. Not too much pressure on Aaron Rodgers, or the coaching staff. Yowza.

In the "What do I know?" department. Yes, last night's (this morning's??) showdown between the US and France in the 400M Relays was absolutely one of the best EVER swim meets I've ever seen. I love that Michael Phelps goes out first; sets the tone and pace and doesn't need to be the anchor when he knows he's not a sprinter. Every swimmer on that team had the performance of his LIFE. But Jason Lezak was THE MAN. An absolutely phenomenal finish.

Though the French tried to dismiss it--only a fingertip; it doesn't matter--well, it did matter. Coaches will tell swimmers time and time and time again that the finish and the touch can make all the difference in the world. Jason Lezak proved that last night. Still gives me goose bumps to think about it. I'd've felt sorrier for the French--all of whom also swam amazing races last night--but they did that trash talking thing.

I want to see the race a few more times because it was hard to watch the racing itself and the little WR line. I do know that in the last 50M, at least three swimmers had made the turn and were a few body lengths down the lanes before the WR line hit the end of the pool. Just incredible stuff.

Watched a little of the Olympics on MSNBC, too. I never thought trap shooting could be so interesting. But it was fascinating to watch.

What's also interesting to me is how the media is handling the collision of the kinds of news in the world. There's that little dust-up going on between Russia and Georgia, at least in some media outlets it doesn't seem to be much of a big deal. It is, of course, to the people involved, but it's as though the media can't be bothered. Are they as war-weary as the rest of us? But I was also intrigued by the attempt to make the tragedy of the murder of the father-in-law men's volleyball coach a big event, almost an anti-China event. The media didn't seem to get much traction on trying to rain on China's parade, figuratively as there seems to be enough literal rain just now.

It is a tragedy, no doubt about it. But it's not as though other Olympics have not been marred by tragic events. China is working very hard to show the world its capabilities. Let them. No system is perfect and they have a lot to prove to themselves as well as the world. However, I was far more interested in the story in the Sunday Tribune about the Chinese dissident who found himself with lots of volunteer "help," an offer he was not allowed to refuse.

And I couldn't help but wonder how many women and girls worked how many hours with little or no pay to make all those incredible costumes for the Opening Ceremonies. And then I wondered if those same women and girls would work in those same Chinese shops making the Olympic Opening Ceremony costumes for the city that wins the 2012 and the 2016 Olympics and if they'll be treated any better.

I love the Olympics and I'm so thrilled for the athletes who show such incredible delight and excitement when they have achieved medal status. It's a remarkable pay-off for dedication and discipline most of us don't understand. I didn't watch the whole of the Opening Ceremony this year. The self-congratulatory nature of those bore me. But I do love to watch the Parade of Athletes when the moment of being there truly dawns on some of them and you can tell they are having the time of their lives. I'm far more interested in the stories behind the athletes and their journeys to the Olympics and far less interested in the self-promotion of any country or any city about what it has done to "put on" the Olympics. It would be awesome if whoever won the next Olympics would make the whole experience more about the athletes and their dreams and less about the host city and country.

Thursday, August 7

Just Ramblin, No 12: Vacation; Winning a Major While Tiger is in Rehab

Vacation re-entry is really hard. Getting on the plane to head home, the sad reality of the vacation being over begins to settle. Then if you're cramped in the plane and the guy in front of you crashes his seat back into your lap, well, then you're just grumpy and you know the vacation is Over. Getting home is a little easier because you've acknowledged The End of the Vacation, but then you open the refrigerator, sigh, realize you must restock, and begin to unpack to begin loads of laundry. So really, why go on vacation? Ahh, because you look at your pictures and remember all the great things you saw and did and somehow the laundry and the grocery shopping isn't so horrible though you might still be pretty ticked with the guy who encroached so rudely on your limited economy seat space. But you'll get over it because you've got these great pictures and these great memories. Really. You will.
This morning I heard on the news that when sportscasters were interviewing Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh at the PGA, but asking what it was like to be in this major and not have Tiger Woods on the course. That's got to be disheartening for any player. Now some guys named Jeev Milka Singh and Robert Karlsoon are leading the PGA Championship. Good for them. But I do wonder if anyone who wins a tournament between now and the time Tiger Woods returns, if he returns, will feel as though the win should have an asterisk: "Played while Tiger Woods was in knee surgery rehab." Probably not. A win is a win, but you know that some folks will wonder how different the outcome might have been had the Tiger been prowling the course.