Lessons from JMS

At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood.  His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5.  It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance.  The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down.  I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours.  Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.

I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories.  It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.

In no particular order:

On antecedents

JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm.  He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied.  In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent.  JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.

On writing

Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft.  He found every excuse and opportunity to write.  He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by.  No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt.  He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft.  The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit.  If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.”  JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.

On principles

JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles.  When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away.  When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity.  When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from.  He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.

On children’s taste

While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show.  A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with.  JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman.  The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction.  To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be.  In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers.  He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior.  To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.

On backdoors

There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal.  When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them.  When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses.  When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating.  (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings).  Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors.  This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value.  While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.

Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good.  He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics.  He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him.  In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times.  Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work.  Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Masterclass in Political Oration – Jon Stewart

There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen.  We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show.  He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously.  I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling.  At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.

Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words.  Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.

Give it a watch.  It made me feel choked up.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Livestreaming For My Students

Last week, I tried a new tactic to engage with my students.  I was inspired by two workshops I attended during Conestoga’s annual E3 (Employees for Excellence in Education) Conference.  The first workshop covered how to write good assignment prompts, with clarity and purpose in mind, and the second covered strategies for writing for online courses.  In the course I manage online, my students were preparing to submit their first major philosophical paper, and historically my students do poorly on the writing side.  I largely attribute this to it being their first time trying to write a philosophical paper and their only exposure to this point was either essays in high school or non-philosophy essays for other courses in college.  After sitting in on these two workshops, I reflected on what I could do, in an online course, that would improve my student’s ability to write.  It’s challenging to engage with online students for two reasons:

  • first, you (almost) never meet your students face to face, so you lose the ability to use tone, voice, inflection, and body language to convey information, and
  • second, online courses are atemporal, which means you don’t engage with your students at the same time.

An idea I’ve been kicking around for some time is creating a video for my students as an added bit of content for the course.  The problem with this option is it’s still fairly static and easy for students to skip if they feel it doesn’t contribute to improving their assessments.  It also goes in one direction, where I speak at my camera rather than engaging with the students.

However, I’ve been mulling over another option.  I have borrowed a web camera from my podcasting partner, I have a good microphone, and I delivered a webinar with a live Q&A in the middle of May.  I considered running a livestream last semester, however when I offered the option to the students, I had no requests for it.  But this semester, I decided to set it up and run it, regardless if students attended or not.  At worst, it would be a wasted hour of my time.  However, the benefits would be two-fold: my students would have a chance to interact with me and ask me questions about their assignment, and it would give me practice with a new skill set.

I picked a date and time, figured out how to broadcast (in the end, I went with Twitch, but next time I’ll test out YouTube Live) and went for it.  I had 4-7 students drop in, which is fairly low engagement, however the questions were really good and I had a lot of fun actively engaging with students again.

One unfortunate thing was I didn’t set up the system to auto-record, so I don’t have a copy of the livestream to review or upload.  I ended up recording a second (static) video to cover the main points so that my students had something to reference when they were completing and submitting their essays this past weekend.

It was a good experience and I plan to run at least one livestream per semester moving forward.  I have yet to grade the papers, so I don’t know if I had a material impact on their performance, but in time I hope that my students will get better with the added direction I can give them.  I also now have a video that I can post to help them think through the process of writing a philosophical paper.  If nothing else, it’s good to build handy resources and have them available for your students.  My goal is to help my students improve their thinking and writing as a result of taking my course.  Even if their papers are 1% better as a result of my direction, it’s worth it.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Give Business Card” As A Default Action

I had a strange realization last week.  I am now at a point in my career where I need to make “give business card” a default action for when I’m out and about, but not for the reason you may think.  Under normal circumstances, I feel it’s relatively rare that I have to give out a business card.  In most instances, my role has been too small and insignificant to warrant it, but also because I don’t really buy into the culture of swapping business cards with people in an effort to ‘network.’  I have been promoted to a new role, which entails more responsibility and autonomy when it comes to business meetings, but I’m still getting used to the idea of thinking of myself as an administrator or a manager.

Last week, I was in a coffee shop to grab a quick bite to eat before a meeting.  The cashier saw that I was wearing a jacket with our school’s logo, and he excitedly asked if I was a student or employee.  I let him know that I work at the college, and he asked in what area.  When he heard I work in the school of engineering, he proudly told me that he received multiple acceptances into our mechanical engineering diploma programs.  Since the coffee shop was dead, he then launched into a mini history of his background – he was born in east Africa, immigrated to the Middle East, did secondary school in the US, and now has his visa to study in Ontario.  He told me some of his education, that he had top marks in design in high school, and even has a portfolio.

His energy and enthusiasm was infectious, and he left a strong impression on me.  He sounds like a great kid, and I have no doubt that he will be successful in his studies.  I told him where he could find me on campus, and he said he’d find me in the future.

I realized as I was driving away that I had missed the perfect opportunity to give him my card and promise to follow-up if he had any questions.  I want to see him succeed, and if there was anything I could do to help, I’d gladly try.

Rather than seeing the business card as a way of helping myself, I should put more emphasis on seeing the business card as a way of helping others.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

“Kids These Days” Part 1

At the time of writing, I’m assisting faculty with processing the grades and academic standings of students from the last academic year.  All of the grades for the Winter are in, but for the engineering degrees we are in the long, tedious process of reviewing all the grades and courses delivered over the last twelve months and making notes on ways the delivery can be improved for next year.  This is an important process for us to follow, not only for our continuous improvement requirements for accreditation, but also because it’s important to pause periodically and reflect on the reasons students perform they way they do – especially when they fail.

Because people have a tendancy to shift blame away from themselves, reviewing student failures can be challenging.  If you ask students why they fail, you’ll likely hear something that reflects courses that are too challenging, professors who are unreasonable, or circumstances they had no control over.  Faculty, on the other hand, think students are unwilling to put in the hard work needed to be successful.  The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.  In my opinion, I feel that faculty sometimes forget what it’s like to be a student, and I feel that students don’t see the bigger picture to help them understand how they should be prioritizing their work.

Despite the fact that students are legally adults when they come to school, we forget that the depth of their experience is often pretty shallow.  It’s the first time they are away from home, the first time they are having to manage their day-to-day lives, and often higher education is a large step-up in academic expectations compared to their secondary school experience.  I’ll chat a bit more about this next week, but I think the takeaway is that we often take for granted the experience we, as professors, draw upon to manage ourselves and our work, and instead we shake our heads when the students perform poorly in their work and seem to ignore the opportunities we extend them for extra support (office hours, anyone?).

A valuable skill faculty need to develop and practice is empathy for students.  We as faculty have a responsibility to both apply high expectations to the students, but also be willing to place ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they do – a world where everything seems important, everything is competing for their attention, and crucially, students think everything carries dire consequences.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Note to My Students

I closed out the winter semester last week, submitted my marks, and took a breather.  During the next week, I will be prepping my next semester and updating the course shell in anticipation of the start of the new semester.  During the interim, I’ve been reflecting on how the last semester went, and what I can do to improve the student experience in my online course.  My failure rate was higher than usual, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to address those elements I can control.

Were I to give some advice to my students, this is what I would say:

Hello Students!

It is the start of a new semester, and I welcome you to the course.  If this is your first general education elective or philosophy course, I hope it meets your expectations.  Gen Eds tend to be a special kind of course.  This is one of the few courses you get a chance to choose, but it’s also one of the courses you’ll take that is a departure from your core major courses.  While you need the Gen Ed credit for graduating, you will feel the conflict over prioritizing the rest of the semester’s courses that will lead directly to your career.  It is very easy to let my course slip to the back-burner.  I recognize this and can understand your predicament.

In light of that, I want to give you some advice on how to do well on my assignments.  If there is one piece of advice I can give that will maximize your chances of passing my course, it’s that you have to do the work and submit your assignments.  As obvious as it might be that in order for me to give you a grade, you have to give me something to mark, I know that you will look at the assignment weightings and judge that the assignment is not worth your time to complete when you have other “more important” assignments to turn in.  Unfortunately, each submission you don’t turn in is essentially free marks that you will miss.  A good grade in this course is not won through stellar big assignments.  It’s about showing up consistently and slogging through the little assignment.  All those little assignments add up.

It can be intimidating to do philosophy.  If you are used to coming up with the right answers easily, you can face down a philosophy paper and become paralyzed by the weight of the work.  However, I want you to remember one important fact: doing good work in philosophy is not about thinking big ideas.  To do good work in philosophy, you must be good at communicating ideas.  I don’t expect you to have the “right” answer.  I don’t expect you to fully understand the concepts you are encountering.  Instead, I expect you to give an honest attempt to grapple with the ideas, and for you to use what you are learning in the module to play around with the ideas.  The more connections you can make between the ideas, the better.  Also, the more simply you can communicate those ideas, the better.  Don’t try to wow me with big vocabularies and vague writing.

I am generally not a hard marker.  I value progress and earnest intellectual work over feeding me the “right” answer.  Don’t give me what you think I want to read, and don’t give me your unsupported opinions.  Learn to play around with the ideas and explore topics you’ve never thought about before.  Make sure to attribute your ideas, and make sure you keep your reader in mind when you write your papers; explain the concepts to me as if I am a your grandmother.  If you do that every week, and put in an honest effort, I won’t let you fail my course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan