I was reminded today of one thing I missed in the two years we worked from home. When carrying out your duties from home, in isolation, your interactions with your colleagues has two defining features: it’s mediated, and it’s pragmatic.
It’s mediated for the obvious reason that it’s done entirely remotely. You see your colleagues, but through a screen. You work hard to not talk over each other, because doing so makes the conversation stilted. The interactions are just more screen time you are seeking to limit, and it’s artificial in the conversational decorum that’s needed to make the medium work.
And it’s pragmatic in that your interactions are always deliberately chosen. Unless you intentionally sit on an open call, waiting for people to come in as they please, all interactions with colleagues are done by appointment and with a specific purpose in mind. The two of you “connect” virtually to discuss, then disengage to carry on with your day.
The office is different. There is something to be said for serendipitous conversations that pop up when passing each other in physical space; when you wander into someone’s office or cubicle and strike up a chat. The conversation has a tendency to float from topic to topic, because unless you booked a meeting into their calendar, your interaction doesn’t have the same constraints. Once the purpose of the chat is over (e.g. your question is answered, or the message is conveyed), you then move on to whatever adjacent topics are on your minds.
In the time I’ve worked here at the college, I’ve found a lot of opportunity for career development in the casual conversations I’ve had with people around the office. The conversations aren’t even about my career development explicitly, but instead are lessons learned through osmosis. Lessons learned when a manager is describing an issue they are dealing with, and you gleam from them insights into the skills you need to develop to meet similar challenges. Or where they share stories from earlier in their career that’s relevant to something being experienced in the present. It’s not a traditional mentorship, but if you listen closely, it can come close.
During the time I worked at home, my career development came through the projects I worked on, reflecting on skills I lacked, and seeking out ways to train into what I needed. It was always reactive and “just in time.” I didn’t realize how much I missed what happens when people are sharing a space together, and you as a colleague seeking wisdom get a chance to learn proactively with “just in case” wisdom that gets filed away for future use.
I miss the freedom of wearing shorts at home, but I’m glad to be back for the water cooler discussions.
The calendar has rolled over, meaning it’s time to provide an update on my reading over the last year. For my previous lists, you can see what I read in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016.
Sam Heughan & Graham McTavish
Moon of the Crusted Snow
Eat a Peach: A Memoir
The Office: The Untold Story…
Angels & Demons
The Righteous Mind
A Clash of Kings
George R.R. Martin
Hold Me Tight
Dr. Sue Johnson
To Pixar and Beyond
Diana Richardson & Wendy Doeleman
The Massey Murder
At The Existentialist Café
Learn Like a Pro
Barbara Oakley & Olav Schewe
The Great Influenza
John M Barry
The New Father
Armin A. Brott
Anne Helen Petersen
The Happiness Hypothesis
Chip Heath and Dan Heath
The Bully Pulpit
Doris Kearns Goodwin
An Elegant Defense
Infinitely Full of Hope
The Black Count
Lives of the Stoics
Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
A Knock on the Door
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Our Own Worst Enemy
A Storm of Swords
George R.R. Martin
How Ike Led
Robin Wall Kimmerer
Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, Cass R. Sunstein
Finding Your Element
Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica
Why We Make Things and Why It Matters
For Small Creatures Such As We
Courage is Calling
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
John M Gottman and Nan Silver
Mr. Dickens and His Carol
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Why We Sleep
In A Holidaze
Christmas Every Day
A Christmas Carol
Entries whose number is asterisked was read for our bookclub.
This year was a huge step up in the number of books I got through. In 2020 I came in at 38 books, whereas I settled into a good groove and managed 52 books for 2021, or a book per week on average. The big months were January (8 books), August (10 books), and October through December (7 books each month). 2020 was a tough year on everyone as we made the pivot to pandemic life; I was also preoccupied with my wife’s pregnancy and later the birth of our son. For 2021, things settled and we found new normals to operate within. I still relied heavily on audiobooks, but I found that where I made the majority of my reading progress during my work commutes in the before-times, I now find time while walking the dog and doing chores around the house to squeeze in a listen.
I’m also happy to see I continued my trend started in 2020 to move away from predominantly reading self-help and business books. While they are still sprinkled throughout, I embraced more fiction, memoirs, books on history, and discussions of complex social issues.
My book club was down slightly over last year, coming in at 9 books for the year. We also celebrated a birth and added a new member which is exciting. In the table above, the asterisked numbers denote book club entries, but I have included them collected below:
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
To Pixar and Beyond by Lawrence Levy
The Massey Murder by Charlotte Gray
On Immunity by Eula Biss
The Black Count by Tom Reiss
A Knock on the Door by Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada
Social Empathy by Elizabeth Segal
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John M Gottman and Nan Silver
And to round out the post, here are my top five reads of the year in chronological order:
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice (this book was so good, I bought two copies and mailed them to friends as gifts – one going all the way to Scotland!)
The Great Influenza by John M Barry (if history doesn’t repeat itself, then at the very least it rhymes, and so learning about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 helps to contextualize our experiences over the last two years)
How Ike Led by Susan Eisenhower (I took so many notes reading this book and will revisit the lessons of Dwight Eisenhower often)
Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (this was my first proper introduction to Indigenous ways of knowing, and my worldview has been made richer for it)
Why We Make Things and Why It Matters by Peter Korn (a beautiful memoir and reflection on the nature of making, craft, art, and finding your calling within a career)
2021 was a great year of reading for me. Despite feeling adrift in the monotony of the pandemic (or languishing, as Adam Grant claims it), I found exploring both ideas and fictional worlds to be immensely rewarding. My horizons have expanded and I’m looking forward to continuing this exploration into the new year. I’m intending on tackling more biographies, books on history, and works of fiction. I’ve also decided to explore another genre – comic books! With all the great media being adapted from comic books (and now that I have disposable income), I’m intending on diving into some of the celebrated collected volumes that I missed out back in my Wizard reading days.
I uploaded my post last week without much thought. When I went back to draft some ideas for a future post, I saw that Beachhead was my 301st post. I missed the opportunity to both celebrate the milestone and reflect on its significance.
Earlier this year, I missed the 5-year anniversary of this blog. I let the milestone pass by, unlike yearspast. I think part of the lack of enthusiasm for these significant milestones is due to general pandemic-induced apathy (we’re all feeling it). But the optimistic side of me also thinks that these milestones are less important than the work itself. I used to be more metrics-driven with my blog, excitedly noting the passing of the first year or the first 100-posts. However now I’m not concerned with reaching a future target but instead focus more on ensuring I’m keeping up with the weekly schedule and trying to come up with decent thoughts worth publishing.
That’s not to say that all of my posts are worth reading. I wouldn’t say I take a lot of pride in the final product of what goes up weekly; I’m not ashamed either. It’s just that the quality of the final draft isn’t as important as sitting down to do the work. Of taking an idea from brainstorm to coherent narrative. I find more satisfaction in putting in the work than the bragging rights of the final product. I try to think of it as more of a craft-mentality rather than creating a masterpiece corpus of writing.
Each post is an exercise that stretches the muscles, practices the movements, and gives me an opportunity to learn and develop slowly over time. At present, this blog operates at a loss (no income is generated to offset the nominal fees I pay for the site and URL). And I’m completely fine with that. At one time I thought about turning this into a brand and trying to monetize it. I’m not opposed to scraping money out of the endeavor, but it’s not the primary focus of this blog.
When I shifted away from the blog being an exercise in becoming a paramedic, it merely became a place to publicly share my practice of writing to meet a deadline. That’s good enough for me. It doesn’t have to seek to achieve anything grand – not everything has to be epic or monetizable. It’s still fun and I feel good shipping the work. As the mass of posts grow, I can look at the incremental progress and take satisfaction in what it represents – time well spent.
With the passing of Prince Philip last week, I reflected on his impact on my life. Normally, the goings-on of the Royal family impacts me little directly, albeit I am a commonwealth subject as a Canadian. However, Prince Philip was also the creator of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Program, which I participated in as a youth. I was fortunate to be introduced to the program during my Army Cadet days, and I progressed through each of the three levels before I aged out of the program, completing my Gold Level in late 2011.
I recently participated in a survey of Gold Level holders asking about the program’s impact on my life. At the time, I answered that the program had little lasting impact on me. I said this in relation to each of the four core areas of the program – physical fitness, skill development, community service, and the adventure component. For each of these areas, I felt like little had directly carried over all these years later. I’m not a particularly fit person, I don’t remember any of the skills I had developed, and I haven’t gone camping in about a decade. The only domain that I am still highly active in concerns volunteering.
So, on the surface, I feel somewhat disconnected from my achievements in the DofE program. Yet, as I reflected over the weekend, I was struck by a realization: had it not been for my gold level trip to Kenya (I joined a group who travelled to Kenya in 2007 to perform a service project and climb Mt. Kenya), I would not be where I am today.
My trip overseas came at the midpoint of my undergraduate experience. As I returned home and went back to school in September 2007 for my third year, I had a profound change in outlook. Prior to my trip, I was a residence-body. I rarely ventured out beyond the dorms and was too shy to join on-campus clubs and groups. But after returning from the trip, when I was faced with an opportunity that I was nervous to attempt, I would remind myself that I had just climbed a mountain, and now anything seemed possible. It gave me the confidence to step outside of my shyness and embrace new challenges.
I joined the campus first aid team and the departmental undergraduate society. In time, I took over both groups and lead my peers through successful tenures as Operations Coordinator and Society President respectively. I committed more fully to my studies, and continued my education into graduate school. The friends I made on the first aid team lead me to a job in the gambling lab as a field researcher. It also lead me through the same connections to volunteering for a local non-profit board and working with the local Community Foundation. Those experiences then helped me get my first full time job at Conestoga College, where I currently am employed.
I’m not saying that I wouldn’t be where I am had I not been in the DofE program. However, I can draw a strong link through each of these personal developments that traces back to a decision I made one day to join in when a friend told me about this fun opportunity to travel abroad. And while I don’t often remind myself anymore that I climbed a mountain when I’m trying to convince myself to be brave, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for being a part of something that pushed me to grow beyond what I thought I was capable.
Kurt Hahn was a mentor of Prince Philip who provide inspiration for what would become the DofE program. He is known for saying that “there is more in us than we know if we could be made to see it; perhaps, for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.” Without realizing it, these words infused themselves into who I am as a person, and I didn’t understand what it meant or its impact until the passing of Prince Philip.
Rest in Peace, His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
On the weekend, I hit my 1,000th consecutive day of language lessons in Duolingo for German.
One hundred days ago, I gave an update and reflection on my experiences at the 900th consecutive day of learning German. I noted that a large part of the competency I felt was attributable to pattern-matching, and I feel that is largely still the case. I am reasonably adept at visual pattern-matching based on context when reading the language prompts. I am less adept at auditory matching due to me often using the app with the sound off. I can’t comment on my skill at writing, though I pair that with my skills in speaking, which is hard to judge because I’ve had so little practice at speed. There are a few prompts from the app to attempt speech, but outside of my trip to Germany in 2019, I’ve had no practical exposure to speaking German in a way that provides immediate feedback.
There is one other note in my use of the app over the last few hundred days that I would like to share. Once I reached the end of the new lessons in the app (that is, I completed all language levels and earned a level ranking at least once) I stopped most of the novel practice and switched goals to improve my ranking on the weekly language league board. This changed my interaction with the app dramatically – I optimized for experience point accumulation rather than language mastery in order to earn a high enough ranking on the language board to progress through the various levels until I sat in the diamond league for a few weeks. I will fully admit that this was not language learning but instead gaming the system. I would only practice low-level lessons where I maxed out my level to earn experience point (XP) bonuses for the lesson. When the app was updated and new (more difficult) lessons were rolled out, I switched to completing the same language story each day to reliably hit my XP requirements. Eventually, after sitting in the diamond league for many weeks, I felt no motivation to maximize my weekly XP grind, and so I allowed my league ranking to fall, and instead focused on the bare minimum maintenance of maintaining my streak.
Obviously, this is not language learning as was intended by the development of the app. Thus remains a question: if I’m not intending on using the platform as it was intended, is there any reason to keep the streak? The short answer is yes – I’ve built up enough of a pride in the raw number that to break the streak I’ve built over the last 1000 days (almost three years of consistent work) would make me feel terrible. So I plan to keep plugging away at the streak for the time being.
But I do feel it’s important to return to the intent of the app – to practice the skills and develop better fluency in the German language. I’ll keep with German for now so I can continue to impress my wife’s family overseas, though I should probably also devote time to learning French as it’s an official language of my country.
If my streak were to end today, I would feel happy with what I’ve accomplished. Even if I haven’t reached a point of truly feeling conversational, I had learned enough through the app to be able to contribute somewhat meaningfully when I was speaking with family overseas. That alone justified the investment of time I made.
Last week, I gave a highlight of the best books I read in 2019. Below, I present what I read in 2019. By comparison to 2016, 2017, and 2018, last year was a paltry year in reading for me.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Bullet Journal Method
Trumpocracy – The Corruption of the American Republic
Daniel H. Pink
The Gift of Failure
Better – A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
The Graveyard Book
Built to Last
Right Here Right Now
Stephen J. Harper
Complications – A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science
J. Michael Straczynski
A Game of Thrones
George R.R. Martin
Scott H. Young
Reader Come Home
Andrew G. McCabe
The Path Made Clear
I have a few thoughts as to why my reading rate dropped off significantly last year and what I can do about it in the year to come.
Last year had a few significant pressures on my life that might have affected my desire to read. We started basement renovations early in the year, only to discover our basement’s foundation was cracked, requiring us to source quotes and opinions for repairs. This delayed our basement renovation, which didn’t finish until the summer. The protracted project weighed heavily on our minds throughout the year as we questioned whether we were making the right decisions for our home repairs, or whether we would need to make additional fixes later down the line.
Another big change for me was a change of my job at work. While I wouldn’t say it affected me as strongly as the basement renos, it disrupted my routine enough to impact my desire to focus on reading when I came home from work. Couple that with another full year as Board Chair for the non-profit I head up, and it left me with less cognitive bandwidth for self-improvement.
Podcasts and Music
If 2016 was my year of purchasing books, 2017 saw me start to utilize Libby to access the library, and 2018 was an all-out race for me to go through as many audiobooks as my brain could absorb, I felt a greater push away from books in 2019. Instead of working my way through 8-15 hours of content for one piece of work, I found the shorter format of podcasts more satisfying on my commutes. I enjoyed the variety in topics, shows, and voices.
However I also found I was drawn back to listening to music instead of information. With the sheer volume of books I’ve consumed in the last three years, it was nice to go long stretches without a goal of getting through books (or trying to learn new things) and instead allow the melodies, riffs, percussion, and lyrics sweep me away.
Overall, my rate for the year was a bit varied. I started slow in January and February, then picked back up in March. April only saw one book completed, then I found my footing again through May onward. However, October is when my wife and I traveled abroad for our honeymoon, and I never recovered my reading habit for the rest of the year.
Given that I spent most of the last three years focusing on business, personal development, and productivity books, I didn’t feel a strong desire to read those books in 2019. Even among the books I did read from that area, I found looking back that I don’t remember anything of note from those books. Neither the book’s theses nor the examples they offered have stuck with me as I enter the new year.
I’ve mentioned a few time the concept of the animated bibliography on this blog, and I think I’ve hit peak saturation for the genre. I’ve read the canon, and find that reading new books in the genre is resulting in diminishing returns; that is, I’m not really seeing a lot of new insights being offered that leaves me wanting more.
In my list last week, I commented that the books that I’m drawn to now is starting to shift away from business and productivity and more towards moral lessons found in fiction, biography/memoir, and journalistic explorations of current events. That’s not to say I won’t continue to be tempted to pick up the latest book that promises to fix my life, but it does mean that I’m intending to be more selective in what I choose to prioritize.
Assuming I continue to live a somewhat healthy life that is free from accidents, I figure that I have around 45-50 more years of life left. If I read around 3 books consistently per month, I will get another 1,650 books in my lifetime (4 per month is 2,208 books, and 5 books per month is 2,760 more books before I die). While that sounds like a lot, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of books that come out each year and the books that have already been written. There is more to life and learning than being more productive or seeking more meaning in one’s life. I’ve grown to appreciate the value of storytelling this past year, and there are a lot of stories out there to sink into. If I only get access to a few thousand more stories, I should make sure they count.
During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses. For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board). Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board. Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.
The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.
The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach. Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble. Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies. Policy documents focus on the “ends.”
On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed. Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate. Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out. They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system. While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.
I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching. It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success. In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble. Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why. This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking. It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there. By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make. This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.
I recently took over as Chair of the Board for the non-profit I sit on. So far, I’ve chaired two meetings and I have to admit I feel out of my element. I don’t mean that I’m not able to carry out the job – I seem to be doing alright by the feedback I’m receiving from the other board members.
It’s one thing to sit as a board member and evaluate how a meeting is being run, spotting pieces here and there that could be run more efficiently, or structured different, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually run the show. I think the past Chair did a fantastic job, so when I say there were things that could be more efficient, I don’t mean it as a criticism. What I mean is, when someone else is putting things into motion, it’s easy to see various areas where something could be done better. But when you are the one putting things into motion and steering the ship, you spend so much time keeping things going that you don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to evaluate things in real time and adjust for efficiency.
Before, I would receive the agenda, figure out where I could contribute to the discussion, show up and sit in as part of the group (which sometimes amounted to sitting back and letting others run the discussion). Now, I make the agenda and set the tone, then I have to be the one to get the discussion rolling. It falls to me to manage the Board’s caseload, and lead any strategic directions we choose to go. In time, it’ll also fall to me to work within my mandate from the Board and start the generative process of strengthening the organization and planning for the future.
Based on these last two meetings, it’s going to be a long time before I’m leading in any meaningful sense of the word. The best way I can describe my performance is managing how much force is getting applied to the flywheel to ensure momentum isn’t lost. When I reflect on my performance, it feels awkward and a little weak (wishy-washy, as opposed to done with a sense of conviction).
My default state is to excessively talk and look to the body language of others to see if they are receptive to what I’m saying. If I sense they are not understanding me, I keep talking and hope that if I throw everything at them, they’ll understand what I’m saying. A friend once likened it to a faucet. Where I should be dialing things back, I instead open the valve and give them a fire hose of information. Of course, this is the opposite of what I should be doing as a leader of a group like this. I should spend less time talking and more time listening to the wisdom of the group.
The good thing is that it’s early in my tenure so there is plenty of time to get more comfortable in the role and learn how to settle into a groove. Like I said, I’m not doing a bad job. The rest of the group is fine with how the last two meetings went. This is merely my critical self-reflection coupled with my desire to do better.
I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching. I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year. I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.
One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments. I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade). In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:
comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
(most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.
That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material. Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right. For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%. If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.
It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students. If I simply told them what they got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time. I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills. Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.
Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much. Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers. I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).
If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester. Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.
I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:
I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.