Learning and Creativity

In an age of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, management theory and approaches to supervision are fixated on the idea of fostering creativity. To do this, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon are celebrated by their ‘minimum specs’ approach; they let the employees do whatever it is they want to do; or at least that is the common narrative surrounding these companies.

Yet, what if our conceptions around creativity, and specifically how to foster it in the workplace, are wrong? What if we should not be lowering paramaters but rather making them clearer and more concise? Those two questions were shooting around in my head as I listened to the newest episode of StarTalk Radio on the science of creativity.

The episode was an interview with the former frontman of the Talking Heads, David Byrne. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson and Byrne talk about a lot of topics, but early on in the episode Neil states something to the effect that in science it is important to increase paramaters as it allows the scientist to engage in a creative approach.

This started my brain in motion.

In supervision, (specifically supervision using the Learning Partnership Model), we talk about lowering paramaters to foster development in students. We think that increasing the control of the process for the learner (i.e. the student) will further their development towards self-authorship. Yet, my thought process has me thinking that the assumptions of the Learning Partnership Model may be incorrect.

In my work in the Office of Residence Life at Miami University, we rely heavily on the Learning Partnership Model in our supervision work. It is the core of the departmental curriculum and values. During training, professional staff (i.e. graduate students and full time resident directors) will discuss the Learning Partnership Model and encourage everyone to create programming models with minimal paramaters for the learners. I have used the Learning Partnership Model for two full semesters in my supervision and have been generally happy with the quality of work the students I supervise have come up with.

And then this podcast.

One thing I have struggled with while using the Learning Partnership Model is that often the students struggle with developing programming. I create minimal paramaters for the students and they are charged with creating programming that supports the learning outcomes of the department. Both semesters, the students I have supervised struggled with this task.

Could this idea that Neil presented in his podcast, the idea that science is at its most creative when there are many specific paramaters, be the solution to the problem I have seen? What if the common narrative of the Learning Partnership Model is wrong? What if minimum paramaters is not the answer, but more, specific paramaters is?

Does this undermine the work of Marcia Baxter Magolda and the Learning Partnership Model? Or, rather, does this just make the common narrative around the Learning Partnership Model incorrect? I think it is the latter.

So what does this realization that the common narrative around the Learning Partnership Model is incorrect? How will this improve our practice? It means more paramaters for students to support their success (and the goals of the department in which they work).

Increasing paramaters could be the key to fostering creativity amongst learners. Instead of simply charging learners with the task of ‘implementing the residential curriculum’ with a few other paramaters, (e.g. one program for each goal, collaboration with peers is allowed), it may mean more specific paramaters will enhance creativity amongst the learners.

In student affairs work, we often talk about enhancing our creativity in the workplace. We need to do more with less. We are focused on ‘the next big thing’ that will enhance our office or division. Yet, what if this creativity bug that we are fixated on because of the rise of Google, Facebook, and Amazon is wrong? What if the idea of minimum specs and few paramaters is just a misunderstanding on our part of how to foster creativity? What if we need to create more, not less, paramaters to foster creativity?

It was happenstance that the subject of this latest episode of StarTalk Radio was creativity during a time where I am rethinking my programming model and supervision practices. I was mulling over how to support creativity and learning amongst the students I supervise while having minimum paramaters.

But now, because of Neil, I will be taking a rather scientific approach to my supervision. I will increase rather than decrease the paramaters for the students. I will reorganize our meetings to further allow collaboration and creativity in our programming efforts. Supervision (and the Learning Partnership Model) may not be about following the lead of Google, Facebook, and Amazon but instead following the lead of science and scientists.




Book Review: Freakonomics

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s famous work Freakonomics is nothing extraordinary, other than the simple questions they asked. Levitt and Dubner ask questions that seemingly have simple answers, but their research reveals that there may be other, hidden, answers.

I read this book after having graduated with a specialization (something akin to a minor) in political economy. Additionally, I listened to the podcast Freakonomics for almost a year before reading the book. I have a pedestrian interest in economics and thus was my experience (and mindset) as I entered this work.

I was not disappointed. The book, true to its reputation, was engaging and thought provoking. It was a pleasant respite from the normal works of fiction I spend my time reading. Yet, I was perturbed by how simple the book was. The podcast of the same name is highly more thought provoking and interesting than the book. Of course, this could be because you can do more in a podcast than you can in a book, in that you can present material in multiple ways in a podcast that you can in a book.

Yet, this minor annoyance that the book Freakonomics saddled me with, I enjoyed the book. I am still mulling over the implications of the last parenting chapters (what impact do parents have on children’s success? and what does a name mean?)

Dubner and Levitt created a fun and accessible way for the masses to engage with the field of economics and economic thinking. Well done and must read.


Book Review: The Tommyknockers

In what will hopefully be a semi-regular occurrence, I will review books that I have read. I just finished Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. There will be spoilers, so be warned.

A Stephen King novel normally takes a bit to really get going; King takes awhile to set the stage. Thus was my mindset as I kept trudging through the first third of The Tommyknockers. The first third of the book focuses on Bobbi Anderson and Gard Gardner. You learn their important histories and flaws. You also begin to get a peak at the unreal discovery that Bobbi found on her Maine property. I got excited; my mind full of possibilities of what exactly Bobbi could have discovered.

Yet, just when the picture (and excitement) started to form, King switches gears. He begins to tell of how the discovery is impacting the townspeople of Haven Maine. This third of the book is incredibly disorganized, jumping from story to story with little coherency. Any and all excitement that King was able to draw out with the initial third of the book was violently removed as I read this section. But I had to continue, because King could pull it all together as he normally does; right?


Sadly, King never really pulls the threads of stories he has told into one masterful tale. The Tommyknockers reads like a collection of stories loosely connected around one central theme (an alien spacecraft discovery). King’s attempt at telling multiple stories does not seem to work with this tale. The tale reads as if King was trying to do multiple things at once, but ended up doing all of them poorly.

The most frustrating part is that this book was long and that it never got to where it could have been. It never captivated me and made me eager to see how Bobbi and Gard ended up (everyone dies). The book reads more like a chore than an enjoyable escape from reality.

Many complain about the ending; that was the best part as this slow monotonous chore of a read ended.


Bibliophile Gift Guide

The end of 2015 is rapidly approaching and that means the season of (gift) giving is about us! I am a firm believer that books make a wonderful gift for a variety of reasons (that could should be its own post!)  but most importantly because books are a gateway to expanding the mind.

So, here are my top ten books that you should give as a gift this holiday season:

10. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Admittedly, it has been awhile since I have read this book (read summer 2009) but it is one of the few books to have stuck with me. This disturbing tale takes a bit to get used to, due to the slang that Burgess creates (tip: read the first chapter twice) and the graphic violence that the characters of Clockwork perpetuate are all unsettling. This dystopian novel is a haunting tale of the power of choice and leaves the reader thinking about good and evil embedded within humanity.

9. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The story that started Sherlock Holmes, this tale is one of the lesser talked about tales in the Holmes cannon. Yet, this one is a pleasant adventure which shows how Dr. Watson and Mr. Holmes first met. While there are certainly better Holmes tales, this one is a must read for any mystery enthusiast.

8. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. I am biased, as this tale is my favorite non-Dark Tower King novel. However, this book is King at his best. The haunting narrative of a small Maine town overcome by the ultimate evil is enticing and a joy to read. The imagery that King crafted while writing this book is particularly terrifying and leaves the reader worried about the bumps in the night in their own life.

7. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I have never been to Cannery Row in Monterey California, but the way Steinbeck wrote about Cannery Row, I feel as if I am intimately familiar with the street. This novella is a masterpiece and the characters are vibrant and engaging. The final chapter in the novella leaves the reader at a loss and with a great sense of loneliness. It is a shame that this is only seven on this list!

6. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. Dr. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most chillingly evil characters in all of literature. Yet, Thomas Harris has a great ability at making Dr. Lecter both evil and someone the reader wants to get to know more of. This first novel in the Hannibal Lecter series (made popular by the Academy Award Winning movie Silence of the Lambs) is exceptionally good. It is a quick read, leaving the reader on the edge of their seat with every new chapter. While very graphic and violent, the book is surprisingly complex and engaging. The only thing missing is more scenes with Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

5. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. A Western in the true sense, McCarthy’s (arguably) greatest work is incredibly complex and has a great deal of commentary on human nature. This book caused me to need to write my thoughts down on what the characters mean and what McCarthy is saying about humanity. It is a dark tale and the characters are exceptionally raw. McCarthy’s command of the English language is powerful as he weaves together this story.

4. The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. Much has been written on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin Germany. They were the coming out party for Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. Yet, the story of the Olympic Rowing Team from the University of Washington is a captivating story about the boys from the West and their desire to earn respect for themselves, their team, the University, and the United States. Brown has a special ability to tell the story of many of the boys in the boat coupled with the build up to the 1936 Olympics in a way that leaves the reader engaged and wanting more.

3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov is one of the more celebrated authors and Lolita certainly makes clear why he is celebrated. The disturbing tale of a grown man falling in love with a young girl, Lolita leaves the reader questioning why they are reading a book about a pedophile. Yet, that is the power of Nabokov’s writing.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This American classic is a excellent true crime novel. While there are questions as to the total accuracy of Capote’s reporting, In Cold Blood (and Capote more specifically) provides a strong lens to look at a violent crime. Capote has a way of writing that is able to seem neutral, even in the presentation of the killers. A wonderful read that is gripping as it is disturbing.

1. A Prayer for Own Meany by John Irving. It has been some time since I read this book (late 2008-early 2009) yet this is a book that I recommend to everyone. The semi-autobiographical tale of John Irving is incredibly gripping and the characters leave a long lasting impression. At its core, A Prayer for Owen Meany is a coming of age tale. Yet, more importantly the story grapples with the themes of friendship, family, religion, truth, and faith. This book is an excellent gift that will captivate the reader.

I Learned Something Today

In the bustle of a busy work day I shuffle between meetings, checking my phone nervously for where my schedule says I need to go. The discussion in the Living Learning Community meeting was good, but the memory of the discussion quickly heads to the back of my brain as I mentally prepare for a conduct meeting with a student.

The rest of the day is full; only ten minutes between meetings which I use as prep time to mentally reset and gather the needed information for the next meeting. Such is the life of a graduate student and a student affairs educator. There is little time to sit and take in what was actually said in a discussion. Most meetings I can look around and see my peers barely engaged in the meeting as they busily respond to email and surf the internet; I myself am often doing those activities too in meetings. The richness of the discussion is notably lacking due to the things we permit ourselves to be distracted with.


“Why did you just say that?” a friend asks me as we walk away from a meeting about assessment.

“What? What did I say?” I ask as I pull out my phone to respond to the text messages that I did not answer in the meeting.

“That you learned something today. Why did you say that? What did you learn?” my friend persists.

I do not have an answer to either of these questions. Why did I say that? I shrug off the comment and move the conversation on to the next meeting we are heading to.

Later that night the statement I learned something today sticks with me as I am heating up soup for dinner. I cannot seem to get that question out of my head.

What did I learn today? I ask myself as I sit down with a steaming bowl of soup.

This straightforward question has perplexed me ever since that day full of meetings. Whatever the reason was that I initially said the statement, I learned something today, I have routinely kept saying it. I do this to ensure that I am noting what I learned that day.

Our society is incredibly fast paced and does not take time for reflection. (I know sound like a 65 year old yammering on about back in my day…) We have to quickly submit our reports and be productive. Yet, taking time out of our day to note what we learned is just as important as being productive and finishing work on time.

Highlighting the importance of noting what one learns in a given day is not surprising. As an educator, the core of my work is thinking about what the students I work with are learning. Yet, do I fixate on this idea of learning with myself? My peers? No; not as much as I should.

Taking a minute every day to think about what I learned during the bustle of the busy day is important. It keeps me grounded. Reflecting on the lessons of the day allows me to be a better educator and ensure that I do not miss out on any learning opportunities throughout my day.

At the end of the day, how do we ensure we are taking time out to reflect on what we learned? These three tips could be a way you ensure you are reflecting on what you learned:

  1. Keep a journal. Sure, this old fashioned suggestion is not original nor is it surprising it is first on this list. Yet, that is because journaling is a useful tool (and has some useful health benefits!) So take a few minutes every day and journal on things that you learned.
  2. Verbalize what you learned. This one is a bit strange, but I have begun stating on my commute to the next meeting what I have learned. Sure, it means I have to talk to myself and the passerby will look on with judgmental faces as I am muttering to myself. Yet, this has helped me keep up on the reflection between meetings. This exercise makes me feel productive between meetings and on my walks, just as if I was responding to text messages.
  3. Make it a part of meeting wrap-up. This may be specific to student affairs work, but make stating what a person learned a part of wrapping up a meeting. A good meeting should end with a summary of the action items that folks are assigned with (and these other tasks). As educators it is important that we ensure learning occurs, and thus providing a few minutes for everyone to go around and share what they learned is one way to ensure that folks are having the time to be reflective and think about what they learned.

The busy bustle of every day work is not conducive to reflection. But we know that reflection is paramount in being self-aware and has some real benefits. Thus, it is important to take time and reflect on what we learn throughout the day and how we can take those lessons learned and apply them to our next task. Next time you leave a meeting, make sure to ask yourself what you learned.



The Beginning of the End

Today marks the end of my third semester of graduate school. It’s a bit surreal that I am five months from graduating with a masters degree; it feels that I just started my studies a few weeks ago. Yet here we are, about to complete the third semester.

Studying student affairs in higher education (SAHE) is no easy task. While the studies are not as intense as chemistry, economics, or astrophysics, it is challenging in that I am also holding an assistantship in the Office of Residence Life. In this role I supervise eight Resident Assistants and manage a building (alone) of 264 students. It’s a lot of work, I sleep little, but I enjoy it.

As I reflect on this semester, I think it’s appropriate to comment on my favorite memory, biggest challenge, and most useful lesson learned.


Favorite Memory: I served as the President of the SAHE Graduate Student Association this year. The leadership team and I would often go out to dinner for our meetings. One time we wanted to go to Krishna, a local Indian place, but were tight on time. We called a friend and asked to borrow their car so we could go eat delicious Indian food. The dinner was very exquisite and the company of my friends was even better. I do not remember anything super specific about the dinner, but just remember feeling happy while there. Dinner with friends is always a highlight and this was just a ridiculous trip to our favorite restaurant.

Biggest Challenge: This year I doubled my supervision load (four RAs to eight) and increased my student load (180 to 264). Navigating all of this this semester was really tough and I often felt that I was not able to give this role 100%. I often felt rushed and hurried to complete work and was not always proud of the work I did. Yet, as I look at our residential experience survey, reflect on the year, and work with students I must have done something right. I have more genuine connections with students this year and know more than I did last year. This increased workload was incredibly challenging but I somehow made it work.

Most Useful Lesson Learned: This semester I had a lot of confidence in my work as a educator. With that, I learned that it is okay to not only stick to my position but really advocate for that position because I have a voice at the table. Without going into specifics, knowing that I can (and should) advocate for ideas and thoughts that I have is essential to being a successful educator in higher education. Coupled with that, I learned that I need to pay close attention the people I surround myself with and not let negative people hinder my passion and work as an educator. Negativity hinders my ability to be an advocate as a educator.

This past semester was a whirlwind. The work was challenging, the coursework intensive and enlightening, but it was all worth it. Nights were short and days were long with the packed schedule. There was little time for me to relax and just watch TV without feeling guilty. I tried a few new things (e.g. teaching a course) and better focused my efforts on areas of student affairs and residence life that I am actually passionate about. Confidence in my role as an educator has grown and made me ready (and eager) to enter my final semester and end on a high note.

It will be a quick semester next spring, but one I am looking forward to. The lessons I learned and experience I have had up until now have prepared me well for a final semester of graduate school that will have me encounter the programs comprehensive exam and a job search. The beginning of the end is starting and I’m ready for it!

Serial is Out!

Well, the most millennial thing occurred this morning. I woke up and did my routine of checking my iPhone to see what updates I missed in the night. In my email inbox was an email from the folks at the Serial podcast. The new season had launched!

I jumped out of bed and listened to the first episode. For those that do not know, the podcast is about Bowe Bergdahl and his imprisonment with Al Qaeda forces his desertion of the United States military. The podcast tells the story week by week and you, the listener, learn the details just after the journalist learns them. Season one was phenomenal and based on the first episode, the folks at Serial have not lost their magic.

Now when does the second episode come out?