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Two Novelties

A New Job

I wanted to let my wonderful readers know that I have a new (full-time) job, which is why I have been lax about posting for the past couple of weeks.  Once I settle in, I should be back to posting every few days.  For now, enjoy this incredible news:

DNA as Information Storage

A fascinating article from Extreme Tech explains how a bioengineer and a geneticist found new ways to store amazing amounts of information on DNA strands–and engineer the strands in such a way that “address” sections on each segment of DNA allow realignment after sequencing.


A Bias for Action

Not Just an Annoying Management Slogan

Yes, it is true that “a bias for action” is something of a jargon phrase; often, it reflects little more than an attempt to “incentivize” workers toward productivity or to convince stock analysts that the company is efficient and goal-oriented (whatever that means).

But it turns out that a “bias for action” is precisely what our brains do in fact have.  As James Zull puts it in his new book From Brain to Mind, “the brain is a natural transformation machine” that “transforms information into action.”  Zull also cites Richard Thompson (whose book The Brain is definitely worth checking out), who writes that “the purpose of the brain is to produce behavior.”  What all of this means, according to Zull, is that we don’t just want to get information; we want to use it.

Put this together with the consensus, among hiring managers and other IT experts, that what employers are looking for is less what a new hire knows and more what she knows how to do, and you start to see some of the disconnects between “schooling” and the kind of experience-based education that’s important in the working world.

Knowing is Only HALF the Battle

In order to be consistent, let us not stop with this knowledge of the brain; instead, let’s ask ourselves what actions we can now take.  What should our “bias for action” look like given this new information?  I have three suggestions to get us started.

1: Always prepare a lesson or curriculum beginning with the desired action.  Rather than asking ourselves, as teachers or managers or trainers, what the learner should know after the lesson, we should ask ourselves what he or she should be able to do.  As a writing instructor, I learned this myself over the course of several years.  When I finally integrated it fully into my lesson-planning process, I found my classes becoming far more useful to students–and far more fun for everyone.  For example, I began to plan my courses around teaching my students how to write persuasive arguments rather than what argumentation means or looks like.  It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s not; students recognize the difference immediately.

2: Always let students act.  As Zull notes, the brain’s “transformational” bias means that we always want to be moving from passive to active, from listening-reading-watching to speaking-writing-doing.  Any lesson should include enough of the former to provide a background, then enough of the latter to create skills–and then enough repetition of both to create not only learning but habit.

3: Remember that the ultimate learning action is teaching.  Once a learner has progressed to the point at which he or she has read and watched and listened, then acted and demonstrated skill acquisition, the final step to cement learning is to have that learner teach someone else.  Think about the lab science courses you took in college.  The teacher would lecture for an hour or so, and then you would go into the lab and do the experiment.  Finally, you would write a lab report in which you explained what had happened–this was the teaching part.  Every learning process should involve all three of these steps, the effect of which is to move the learner from passive listener/watcher to active doer to teacher.

The brain really does have a “bias for action.”  We must understand this bias and design our teaching, training, and managing around it.  No amount of passive information absorption is sufficient.

Grammar and the Modern Employee

A Hot Topic

A recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog about the importance of proper grammar is more than just a lament on the state of “these kids today and their texting” (although there is a bit of that).  It’s a strong argument for refusing to hire those who can’t use commas correctly or differentiate between “they’re” and “their.”

As a teacher of writing, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue.  While grammar exercises and tests don’t teach much or fully assess a person’s writing competence, proper grammar does correlate with other skills.  As the author of the post puts it,

Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.

The suggestion is that people who care enough about grammar to make sure theirs is correct are the same people who will double-check their work in other situations.  Moreover, the author of the post implies that those who haven’t learned grammar rules by the time they graduate from college have simply not been paying attention.  Certainly, such a lack might indicate that the potential employee is not much of a reader.

It’s a fraught question, especially when the author mentions English Language Learners (previously referred to as ESL or second-language speakers).  But what’s particularly interesting is the heated debate going on in the comments section.  Arguments about what constitutes “proper” grammar, whether it correlates with other skills, and whether it should be a factor in the hiring process are all explored in surprising depth (at least for a comments section).

I have to admit that I fall, perhaps not all the way at the hard edge this author occupies (claiming to deny jobs to those who can’t differentiate between “to” and “too” on a grammar test, for example), but certainly well within the realm of the grammarians.  At the same time, I’ve worked with enough students over the years to know that poor grammar does not always correlate with bad ideas or low intelligence or drive–nor does proper grammar necessarily correlate with job skills, innovative thinking, or content knowledge.

What do you think?  Is grammar a fundamental skill?  Does the inability to learn how to use “it’s” after 20 years of schooling indeed signal a learning or motivation deficit, as the article suggests?

How important is grammar, really?  What “counts” as proper grammar?  And who should get to decide, especially if it might cost you your job?

Teaching from the Top

Lessons from Breakers of the Glass Ceiling

While it is true that only 12 of the current Fortune Global 500 CEOs are women, it’s interesting to hear what those barrier-breaking women have to say about what, exactly, they do.  It’s particularly interesting to me because so much of what they do involves teaching and learning.

For example, Virginia Rometty, the first female (and current) CEO of IBM, notes that leaders have to be uncomfortable, have to constantly live in a place of discomfort–otherwise, they’re not learning and moving forward.  “Growth and comfort,” as she puts it, “do not coexist.”  For those of my readers who have studied psychology or learning theory, this probably seems reminiscent of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” the period during which one is aware of a deficit in one’s current knowledge or skills, is moving toward new knowledge, but has not yet acquired what is needed.

Perhaps even more important, the “zone of proximal development” is always one in which we feel discomfort; we may even wish to return to our safe ignorance.  So it is a period, a space, in which we need others.  Good leaders, then, know how to keep themselves in a learning space, to overcome the discomfort–and to seek out others who can help them move to the next stage.

The CEO as Teacher

Although none of the female CEOs featured in this week’s article “Career Advice from Fortune 500’s Women CEOs” explicitly claim that the CEO is a teacher, their statements about what makes them good leaders sound an awful lot like what makes a good teacher (in addition to the fact that most of them mention constant learning as a necessity for the role).

Several of them mention, for example, that what they really do is model good behavior.  As Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, puts it, “The fastest way to create cultural change is to start acting the way you wish the company would start to act, and very soon it starts to catch on.”  In a similar vein, Angela Braly of WellPoint argues that “To move an organization forward, to get it from where it is to where it needs to be, you have to live the change you want to see in the organization.”

Sound familiar, teachers?  Put “students” in place of “organization” in Braly’s statement, and you have the manifesto of the dedicated and successful instructor.

Another aspect of the CEO’s job that might sound eerily familiar to teachers is these leaders’ sense that they can never be the ones to relax, that they always have to be thinking through the possibilities, planning the next move, and pushing toward the next idea or change.  Patricia Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland is one CEO who takes this kind of contingency thinking very seriously.  As she puts it, as a CEO you have to “stay on the edge of your seat, even if it’s tempting to lean back.”  CEOs–like teachers–can never be the passive recipients of the activities, changes, or new directions in the company; these leaders must always be thinking about what will need to happen next, what can be built on what’s already been accomplished.

For those of you who have a teaching background, this starts to sound like scaffolding, right?  Scaffolding, the process of building each lesson, activity, or concept as a basis or foundation for the next, so that that one can serve as a foundation for the next, and so on, requires a great deal of planning, as well as constant evaluation of whether the scaffold is working and whether students are ready for the next level.  No rest for the weary teacher, indeed–or for the effective CEO either, apparently.

Not too surprisingly, leadership looks similar, whether it’s at the top of a Fortune 500 company or in the relative calm of the classroom.  Looking ahead, modeling good behavior, and not letting anyone get too comfortable are the hallmarks of learning and teaching at any level, and it turns out–yet again–that learning and teaching are what top-level managers are all about.

Renaming the Box

Thinking Outside “Boxness”

We’re told, again and again, that if we want to be creative we have to think “outside the box.”  While this is a phrase whose meaning is never really clear (except, perhaps, when someone is told that they don’t do it–I think then they’re pretty sure what it means), it is something we have all been taught to aspire to.  But this week, Scientific American offers a brief article that tells us to go one step further, to take apart the box and rename its parts:

To become more inventive, new research suggests, we should start thinking about common items in terms of their component parts, decoupling their names from their uses.

In other words, as the article goes on to explain, we have a tendency toward “functional fixedness,” or rigid understandings about what things “do” or “are for.”  To really think outside, or around, or instead of the box, we need to take apart the box itself and understand what else it could be.

Not Just a Material Worldview

While the Sci Am article certainly focuses on rethinking material objects, there’s no reason the same idea couldn’t be applied to writing and texts, people, and ideas.

For example, when we look at a budget, we see rows of numbers and explanations of those numbers.  We see a text whose purpose in life is to tell us how much money we’ve spent (or can spend), and on what.  But break that down and it tells us something different.  Take each item out of the budget, along with its description, and see what it does for us as an explanation of our values and beliefs or a statement of communal purpose or even a promise to others, a contract.

And what about people?  Too often, I think, we allow the people we work with to become “functionally fixed” by their job descriptions or titles.  We look at the “VP Sales” or the “technical writer” or the “press assistant” and think, in the same way we do with objects, that we know exactly what this person is, their function and purpose.  And if we see that person over and over again, we fix our understanding of them so firmly in our minds that we no longer see a person with skills and interests but the fixed function we associate with that particular face.

And what about ideas?  What, for example, about a mission statement or goal?  We have the same tendency to sink into functional fixedness with these conceptual “objects” as with material ones.  What happens if we forget that we “know” what a mission statement is, does, and is for; what if we break it down into its parts and say, “What could this idea (say, collaboration or innovation) be doing if it weren’t always doing what we’ve come to expect?”

It is incredibly easy to slip into “functional fixedness” about the objects around us, whether they are material or intellectual.  This is all the more likely when something has become, and is used as, a “whole,” an entity made up of many parts that all work together to some particular purpose.  The more we can break down and rename or re-imagine those parts, the more we will get out of the whole.

If you really want to think outside the box, unmake the box itself and rename it.  Reassign its parts.  A box, in other words, might also be a collection of useful boards for building a platform, or a stage set for a puppet show, or several pieces of cardboard for making prototypes from.  Don’t think outside the box–unthink the box itself.

Classics for Modern Business

Dickens for Distributors?

In a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Blair Labatt, CEO of a large food distributor in Texas, talked about his background as a Ph.D. in English and former English faculty member.  He strongly disparaged the idea that the two tracks of his professional life–the academic and the corporate–were unrelated.  According to Labatt,

A manager who grows should always be reading. I try to be the one directing people to what Matthew Arnold called “the best that is known and thought,” sometimes in unexpected places. For example, I think that the best way of understanding the overpopulation, the pollution, and the class warfare of Mexico City today is probably to read Bleak House.

This statement made me think of a piece I read several years ago by Stanley Bing (that’s not his real name–he is an executive for a Fortune 500 company who writes humor under the Bing pseudonym for Fortune and other publications).  He wrote, tongue in cheek as usual, some similar advice to new graduates:

Read a book now and then, stupid.  […] Read some fiction, why don’t you?  Dickens is good.

He goes on to suggest Dostoyevsky also.  But it struck me as interesting, especially in light of my previous post, that both of these authors mentioned Dickens.  Perhaps it’s not too surprising, given not only the huge volume of work that Dickens produced but also his fascination with businessmen, the power of money to do both good and bad in the world, and, yes, lawyers.

Beyond his own work, though, this synchronicity of Dickens references leads me to wonder what other classic works of literature can best inform the modern, and busy, business world.  What do these works still have to offer us?  If a friend were to ask for a single recommendation, what would we point them to?

Three Must-Reads

In true English-major fashion, I find that I can’t follow my own injunction to choose just one work to recommend, but I will limit myself to three.

The Way We Live Now: Trollope’s greatest achievement, and a highly readable work that will compel you through its nearly 1000 pages, The Way We Live Now is absolutely the best explanation of the 2007-2008 financial meltdown that I have yet read.  That may seem odd, given that it’s more than 100 years old, but this work offers an eerily familiar description of the intimate lives and public shenanigans of a group of high-powered, politically influential people who allow their ambitions to overcome their scruples.  A tense story of near-success and monumental failure, this classic survives because of its continuing timeliness.

Middlemarch:  Yes, this is my favorite novel, but I recommend it not only because I happen to love it but because it offers some of the greatest extended psychological profiles of any work ever written.  Each individual in the provincial town of Middlemarch is delved into in great detail, from the ambitious and brilliant scientist-doctor, to the ne’er-do-well who wants to change his ways, to the giddy young wife, to the introspective young woman who inspires through her dedication and intelligence–and on and on, through dozens of central characters.  It would be a highly unusual person who could read this masterwork and not find him or herself in it, along with both the nuisances and the inspirations of his/her acquaintance.

Of Human Bondage: Sommerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical work takes the reader through a dozen universes: the British public school, the expatriot art world in Paris, medical school, diners and cheap night clubs, department stores and art departments, and finally the private practice of a doctor in the English countryside.  The always-coexisting glories and sufferings of the human beings in each of these worlds is explored in depth, along with the often painful but finally redemptive sufferings of the unlikely hero.  If you ever need to remember that our working lives are the results of chance, failure, and serendipity as well as hard work and personal devotion, this work will remind you.  And it will remind you, also, of the nobility there is in work, whatever its circumstances.

Some of the leading minds in management remind us that fiction–especially the classic works–can offer us insight into the work we do and its place and function in the larger world.  What other works do you recommend?

Don’t Be a Dombey

Dickens’ Dombey

Many of us have read–or at least heard of–A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations.  Dombey and Son is not so well known, perhaps for good reason.  But despite not being Dickens’ greatest work, this relatively obscure novel offers a cautionary tale that applies to the sharing and growing of ideas both in and out of the university.

Mr. Dombey is a hard man, a typical Dickens character; he is unreadable and cold, loves his only son and neglects his daughter, and suffers for his pride and arrogance.

Dombey is so keen to have a son to fulfill the “And Son” role in his firm that, when the boy is finally born, Dombey is jealous of every affection the boy shows for anyone besides himself.  In his pride, Dombey is mortified by the love his boy shows others, particularly his nurse.  Embittered because the boy doesn’t automatically love his father best, Dombey takes the first opportunity to fire the nurse so as to have the boy to himself.  As a result (in true Victorian fashion), the already weak son becomes ill and fragile, then dies.  Dombey has literally killed his son by begrudging him sustenance from any hand (or body) besides his own.

Ideas Need Sustenance, Too

Like the poor little Dombey boy, our ideas need sustenance to survive.  And they need it from many places, not just the repetitive actions of our own minds.  While an idea that springs into existence through our own inspiration or reading or hard work often starts out strong and vigorous, nursing it in silence within ourselves forever without sharing deprives it of needed nourishment.

In the academy, for example, it is so imperative that every scholar be working on a unique idea–that everyone “find something no one else is doing”–that we tend to hold our ideas in ourselves, secreting our best thoughts until they have been fleshed out in full article (or at least conference paper) form.  This may be more true in some areas of the university than others, but it seems to me too true in all areas.

Only through open interaction with other minds, other minds stocked with different ideas, different connections, different knowledge of books and concepts and histories, can a good idea become truly “fleshed” out into health and vigor.  Just like a child develops immunities not only through its early milk nourishment but also by being exposed to other children in infancy and early childhood, so too do our ideas develop strength through interaction with other ideas, even oppositional ones.

Moreover, if one of the goals of writing and thinking about ideas is to argue for them, to send them out into the world to do work and not be instantly slain by criticism, we must submit them to be handled, even roughly, by those around us.  An idea that has been tumbled about from one mind to another, subjected to the workings-over of both proponents and opponents, is one that will survive its harder journey through the larger world of scholarship.  And this is true for ideas in the world outside the academy as well: an idea that has been harbored by a single mind, jealously guarded from any other human’s touch, will fare as poor little Paul Dombey did: it will be weak and may not survive.

I Learned This The Hard Way

Early in graduate school–the beginning of my second year, I think–I was engaged in an email conversation with a new friend, an older grad student in another department whom I looked up to and admired.  When she asked me what I might be planning to write my dissertation on, though, I suddenly felt threatened.  Without quite realizing it at the time, I felt that if I “gave away” this idea, I would either lose it or never have another.  So I wrote back to her and said, “I don’t want to say what I’m writing on until I have it better fleshed out.”

I’ll never forget her reply.  She said that she’d found that people who were afraid to share their ideas didn’t have as many, that sharing was how to GET ideas, not to lose them.

Out of pure shame, I didn’t email her for months.  Fortunately, she wasn’t one to say one thing and do another, and she sought me out again later when she had a project she thought I’d be interested in.  We worked together, and I got to watch her share her ideas far and wide, with anyone who would listen and comment.  I saw that she got feedback that improved her projects, that she made connections with people who furthered her goals, that she added value to others’ lives while receiving value in return.  She had overcome both the isolation of grad school and the fear of “never having another good idea” through a simple rule: share, share, share.

Because of her, I began to make connections all across the campus.  Because of her, I found myself involved in projects that were outside the bounds of anything I would have thought of simply sitting by myself with my books.  And because of her good advice, I now share my ideas with others (for example here in this blog).  And the return has far outweighed the effort.  I’m no longer an Idea Dombey, starving my best thoughts by stifling them with a combination of pride and fear that doesn’t nourish.

Ideas, like children, flourish in interaction and thrive in a community.  Don’t keep your best ideas to yourself; share them, let others critique and add to them, build them up to be strong and viable through the push-and-pull of debate and teamwork.  Don’t be a Dombey!