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Working and leading remotely: Same old, same old.

Many are finding it challenging to work and lead without the benefit of occupying the same space as teammates. I am sympathetic and get it.

I know some are struggling with access to files and technology. Others are finding remote work and leadership difficult because they are missing the important social interactions that comes with working in an office. There are many reasons that people are finding work more challenging, but the concept of working and leading remotely certainly is a contributing factor.

But, in all candor, I don’t really think that working out of my basement storage room is much different from the way I work with my team members all of the time.

I feel like I not only have a level of comfort with all of this, I think I have an advantage.

Here’s why I think I have an advantage.

First, I trust my team members—all of them—admissions, financial aid, communications & marketing, alumni relations, development and the good people at WVIK—because they are awesome at their jobs and always put stakeholders above themselves. When people are awesome at their job, one doesn’t need to babysit them and constantly check in with them eyeball to eyeball. Not seeing people for a month or more isn’t going to diminish the confidence I have in my teammates to do great work.

Next, I am comfortable with remote work because I already manage a number of people who spend a lot of their time working away from campus. I am blessed to have three amazing colleagues who work remotely as regional admissions representatives. I understand their work and how they work and have a level of comfort with it that I can simply extend to everyone else who is now working remotely. Moreover, the very nature of leading an admissions and advancement team requires leading people who are engaged in remote work all the time. I mean, seriously, admissions folks are out recruiting, living out of a car for months, and, great development officers spend more time out of the office than in the office. Heck, my director of international recruitment spends six weeks at a time halfway across the globe. Remote work isn’t really new and there are plenty of mentors to help those who don’t have as much experience.

Finally, over the course of the past few years, when I took on responsibility for two large administrative divisions at the college, I started splitting my time between two different physical offices on campus. I guess I’ve been a bit of a remote leader for some time. And, I don’t use remote to mean disengaged or distant. But, the fact is that I am not always present for someone to pop into my office and see me face-to-face. I’ve had to figure out ways to be fully present, even when my presence isn’t with those who may need my attention. This is a lot like what I’ve found myself doing for the past two weeks from my bunker in my storage room at home. The chats, Zooms, Google Hangouts, texts, calls and emails don’t seem a lot different to me. My level of comfort of leading remotely has grown considerably and may even result in better, more timely responses to members of my team and other colleagues, than when I am tied up in meetings that could have been handled by a phone call.

I kind of like all of this, because it’s not a lot different for me than a typical day “in the office.” What I do miss is my near-daily ritual of making my rounds around Seminary, Founders and Sorensen Halls saying “good morning” to all of my amazing colleagues. But, I am learning to interact with everyone else in the same way I’ve been working with my regional staff and all of those hearty travels over the course of the years.

What I’ve learned in my first week of working remotely: My team is awesome

Today marks one week working remotely. I’ve set up shop in the storage room in our basement, which has me surrounded by lots of treasures—antiques, painting the girls have done and lots of photography props (I have a superhero backdrop for video conferences).

I’ve settled into a nice routine and feel like I am getting important work done. And, I feel like I am dangerously close to regaining a sense of normalcy; I think that will come when the senior leadership team starts to back off of 90-minute conference calls first thing each morning.

My first week has reinforced some things about my team members that are worth sharing.

Below are a couple of observations about the good people at Augustana College, who work in External Relations (admissions, advancement, financial aid, communications & marketing and WVIK—Quad Cities Public Radio)

My team members are incredibly nimble—I have been incredibly impressed by how flexible, nimble and responsive everyone in External Relations has been since we received word that we’d be working remotely. People figured out what they needed to get their work done and continue to make a meaningful and impactful contribution to the effort. Nothing was overlooked. People loaded up their cars, bags, backpacks and reservoirs of goodwill to make sure our work continued without disruption. Whether it was designing new processes, packing the gong, loading materials to print and process offers of admissions, getting notecards and envelopes, or bringing a desktop computer home to set up, this crew showcased that they can go with the flow and make it all work. (I have another phrase I often use to describe this, but will keep it clean).

My team members will step up when asked—To a person, members of the External Relations team have stepped up when asked to do so. Honestly, they’ve often been there before being asked to step up. Several members of the team helped check students out of residence halls last weekend. New (and awesome) communication channels have emerged. New content has been produced to tell Augustana’s story. Team members have stepped in to familiarize themselves with new technology—chat functions, Zoom, Zoom breakout rooms, Google Hangouts and lots of other things that we’ve all had to learn on the fly.  

My team members say “yes”—Team members are getting new and unusual assignments and they are saying “yes!” I haven’t heard “maybe” or “can’t someone else do this?” I’ve heard nothing other than “yes.” Yes has translated to taking charge and we can do it.

My team members are creative—My team members, across the entire division, have been two or three steps ahead of me for the past two weeks. They seem to anticipate everything and have multiple ways we can respond. I have been humbled by their creativity and out-of-the-box responsiveness. They are not waiting for permission. They are trusting their instincts and moving forward. They are addressing every obstacle with creativity and a confidence that is truly remarkable.

My team members seem to be excited by new—There is new energy that I sense every single time I engage with members of the External Relations team right now. I know some of that energy is because folks know what an awesome responsibility we have to ensure Augustana College weathers this storm. This crisis has provided team members with the latitude (and attitude) to try new and different things to recruit students, engage alumni, raise money and communicate clearly and compellingly. New and different has unleashed excitement and an entrepreneurial spirit that I sense in every engagement I have with my team members.

My team members have continually placed care for others above all else—Perhaps what has impressed me most, though, is the care for others that my team members have showcased throughout. Calls, video chats and emails to student workers have created a much needed connection between the college and our students. Outreach to colleagues who need a little TLC in setting up some of the needed virtual tools has become a norm. Periodic check-ins just to see how someone is holding up have become part of the daily routine for many. And, all outreach that team members are doing to prospective students, parents, alumni, donors, influencers and the public begins with a commitment to caring for others.

I previously joked that, for someone in my role, there is not enough vodka and Tums to get through this unknown period of time that includes the conclusion of the student recruitment cycle, the kick-off of the cycle for next year, fiscal year-end and the last six months of a comprehensive campaign. But, having an amazing group of people surrounding me and showcasing daily why and how they are so awesome helps. #AugustanAwesome

A few thoughts about working from home.

* I sent this to my team members early in our time working remotely.

Colleagues,

First, thank you for your support, patience and cooperation over the course of the past few days as I’ve worked with fellow Cabinet members to chart new territory. You’ve demonstrated uncommon understanding and I am very grateful to each of you. Thank you.

I also want to thank you for already getting creative and preparing new and different ways to approach our collective work. Your ingenuity and willingness to do different makes me very proud. You have my full gratitude.

If you are anything like me, you might be struggling with routine right now and getting into a work rhythm. Uncertainty, concern for the safety of our students and family members and lots and lots of interruptions have me off my game. And, a new work environment is likely to further complicate this. So, I thought I might offer a couple of thoughts for you (and me).

1. Establish a routine immediately that is as close to your typical workday as possible. If you work out in the morning, work out. If you enjoy a cup of coffee before work, have that cup of coffee. If you usually catch up with a couple of colleagues each morning as part of your daily routine, schedule a call or Zoom or check in by phone. Don’t let this disruption change your routine and what you do to be energized.

2. Approach work from a distance in the way you do going to the office. Get up. Shower. Get dressed for work. Find a home office in which to work. We need full and complete engagement from everyone through this crisis. This is not a snow day.

3. Make a daily list of what you plan to accomplish and add three additional things to your initial list each day. Without interruptions, you will be more productive. But, you must have goal-focused work. This daily list is also a good tool to share with your supervisor, too.

4. Approach this time as an opportunity to do something that never gets above number five on your to-do list. Now is our chance to get ahead in prospect development, student recruitment, a deferred project, customized outreach and thank yous. We have an amazing opportunity to out-hustle others and I know we can do it.

5. Believe it or not, this is wonderful opportunity for collaboration; take advantage of it. People are not traveling or vacationing and should be available in different ways for collaboration. Let’s work together. 

I am writing this while on the elliptical this morning as part of sticking to my routine and maintaining my health. I hope you will find safe and productive ways to take care of yourself, too.

Please know I am here for any of your questions and am happy to hop on the phone, etc. Our work and our efforts are going to be critically important to how well the college makes it thought this crisis.

Classroom Sessions: Introduction to #Anthropology: “Be good people” #liberalarts #highered #augustanacollege

When I attended Dr. Adam Kaul’s Anthropology class, I knew from the moment I sat in my seat that this was going to be different from any class I’d visited so far this fall. 

It was lively, and the rapport between Dr. Kaul and the students was genuine and warm. There was quite a bit of banter as students entered and settled in the classroom. It felt like a safe space for students to exchange ideas without judgment. I am quite sure this is, no doubt, in part, because of this statement in his syllabus: 

“In this class we will discuss social issues that might be deemed sensitive (e.g. religion, race & racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, etc). For a variety of reasons these topics might cause discomfort for some people. A reasonable amount of discomfort is actually good for the learning process because learning should always challenge our assumptions. That said, you should never be expected to tolerate unreasonable discomfort, and certainly not when it is inflicted upon you from your classmates or teachers. I do not tolerate intentionally disrespectful language or behavior in my class. I expect you to treat one another with civility and decency, and I will absolutely do my best to treat everyone with the utmost respect. Here are some group rules for respectful class participation:

  1. Begin by acknowledging and respecting each other’s differences. This is called “tolerance” and it is not enough.
  2. Go beyond tolerance. Try to understand each other’s differences. This requires “active listening” and empathy.
  3. Give yourself and others permission to make mistakes. There really are no dumb questions.
  4. Give yourself and others permission to self-correct and change your/their minds.”

Kaul expects students to prepare in advance and engage actively and deeply. In fact, there’s no space for a student who doesn’t do the work. This was obvious to me as I listened to pairs of students discuss the book-length ethnographies that each student had selected to read during the first 10 weeks of the semester. During the 10-minute discussions, I overhead both curiosity and connection, and didn’t once witness conversation about something other than the ethnographies. These students were into their reading, whether it was culture related to World of Warcraft, Second Life, sex workers, aboriginal peoples, the incarcerated, the drug addicted or Native Americans. 

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Throughout the session, Kaul continually reminded students about the importance of context—whether while listening to different dialects from the British isles or discussing access to healthcare. He did so in a gentle but very effective way. I can’t imagine any student completing this class without the valuable skill of being able to assess context. 

Awareness of and curiosity about context is one of the superpowers of a liberal arts education, and I was pleased to witness such deep emphasis on it. 

Kaul also spent time emphasizing the importance of agency. He asked questions about agency during discussions on the ethnographies and skillfully described the difference between choice and assimilation related to culture. He used meaningful examples to ask students if a marginalized culture had any choice or agency in responding to culture change. Kaul is planting the seeds for this group of students to consider whether one is empowered by or suppressed by dominant culture, and what it feels like to not have agency—something I am guessing that most in this class had not actively considered previously. 

Finally, in this intro class Kaul made a compelling case for all of us to become sociologists. Here’s what Kaul recommended, which might be relevant for all of the liberal arts:  

Go out and see it! 

Listen and learn! 

Interpret! 

When in doubt, cite it! 

The 75-minute class session flew by for me. But, just as everyone was leaving, Kaul yelled out, “Have a good day and be good people.” I don’t know if this is a common farewell or conclusion to each class session, but I was struck by his words and stopped in place to write them down. 

I am quite confident the teaching and learning occurring in this class will ensure that these students are becoming and will be good people. And, frankly, that’s exactly what I expect from a liberal arts education. 

You can learn more about Dr. Kaul here.

Classroom sessions: A private music lesson: “There can be no right or wrong when you are living your life through art.” * #highered #augustanacollege

I had the privilege of sitting in on a private voice lesson with Dr. Sangeetha Rayapati and a senior preparing for her senior recital. My presence in this intimate setting was a remarkable and emotional experience for me. 

I was able to watch first-hand the personal attention that a student musician receives at Augustana. I listened to the vocalist (and her roommate, who will be singing in a couple of duets) warm up, using a “yippy dog,” exercise and then I heard them sing two gorgeous duets. Rayapati worked these two students hard for about a third of the lesson and then coached the senior preparing for the recital. 

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Rayapati teaches by example—and occasionally by a look, as she was accompanying on the piano. As a teacher she is constructive, affirming and direct. She clearly has high expectations. Most importantly, she has fun and encourages her students to do the same. 

In many ways, this one-on-one teaching and learning experience was a remarkable example of the wonder and promise of a liberal arts education. Here are some things that stood out: 

Effective storytelling – Throughout the lesson, Rayapati continually emphasized that singing and performing, when done well, effectively tell a story. The whole session was about refining the story that will be told at the recital. 

Conquering challenging material – This student will perform music in foreign languages at her recital and will push her voice range—both high and low. One could tell that the numbers she chose and the diverse genres are intended to challenge her in every conceivable way. 

Learning to work together – Listening to Rayapati coach and the two students work together to blend their voices was an example of the type of teamwork that I hope we teach here. There was plenty of give and take and there was compromise. 

Connecting with an audience – Rayapati really emphasized the importance of reading the audience and making a connection. She encouraged the student to place the audience above herself and to think about what they want and need from her performance. A great liberal arts education encourages students to reflect on their impact on others to build a deeper connection.  

Building confidence through challenge and support – A senior recital is intended to be a culminating, capstone experience. During moments of uncertainty on the part of the student, Rayapati skillfully built the student’s confidence with an encouraging word. I also saw the student respond with an “I got this” attitude that only a senior, with countless hours of practice and performance experience, could have.  

Developing a deep appreciation for beauty — I admit there were two moments during this session when I had to swallow pretty hard and look away from the others in the room. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the music and the gifts these musicians have been given and are sharing with the world. 

In addition, there was a moment that symbolizes what I hope happens all the time on a campus like Augustana’s. 

On the student’s program for the weekend is “Ave Maria.’ The student was struggling to convey the emotion because she professed to be non-religious. It was an interesting moment, but Rayapati didn’t miss a beat. She immediately asked two questions: When have you been in a religious setting and what did you witness? And, what is the context for people praying? The student reflected on both of these questions in a very thoughtful way. Then Rayapati shared advice she once received from a friend who is an opera singer: Singing is really about “doing something for other people.” 

For me, it was a magical moment that reminded me of how important it is for all of us to help our students think about the impact they have on others, and—perhaps in this moment of i-everything—to place others before self. 

This one-hour private lesson went so far beyond simply practicing the music for the weekend’s recital; the session emphasized all of what I would expect from a rigorous liberal arts education. 

Long live the arts and liberal arts education! 

*From the playful duet performed at this senior’s recital 

You can learn more about Dr. Rayapati here.

Classroom (science lab) Sessions: How about a little research with some really talented students? #liberalarts #augustanacollege #stem #highered

Earlier this fall when I’d asked Dr. Kimberly Murphy of the biology department if I could attend one of her classes, she urged me to attend a lab session rather than a lecture. I enthusiastically agreed, with visions of a white lab coat and goggles! 

I am confident that I was in this lab with some of Augustana’s very best students and an outstanding “guide by their side” in Dr. Murphy. I didn’t follow everything, since the last biology class I took was in 1988. There were words like protocol, plasmid, E. coli, controls, pellet and supernatant, and instruments like a centrifuge and vortexer. 

But, what I saw really impressed me and I left with some thoughts that shape my observations about the serious science that is happening in Hanson Hall of Science at Augustana College: 

Side-by-side teaching is awesome to observe—I don’t think there is any better example of side-by-side teaching than what happens in a lab. Murphy spent time with every single student. She was coaching, clarifying and querying constantly. I think it’s important to note that Murphy is not a graduate student or a lab assistant working with these awesome students…. She is a tenured member and chair of the biology department. Think about that! 

Augustana’s science facilities are amazing—Hanson Hall of Science was built in the 1990s, but this building and facilities are excellent. The labs are spacious and have the equipment needed to do serious benchtop research and experiments. Like a good Hootie & the Blowfish song from the same era, Hanson Hall holds up very well. 

Student interactions in a small lab are powerful—Watching lab partners work together is a thing of beauty. These teams of two or three are learning how to work together, negotiate, interrogate and solve problems. They have to work together—no soloists here—and they have to communicate. Lab partners did their best to find a solution together before engaging Murphy. I also noticed that students serving as lab partners seemed to take a genuine interest in their partner’s, and others’, success and learning. 

Real scientists don’t simply follow directions—Murphy carefully described the steps for the experiments, but I don’t think the object was for students to just follow directions. Murphy and the other lab instructors for Biology 130 are using this lab session to teach students about failure and success and how to navigate both. Through teaching about process and testing and retesting, these students are learning to conduct serious research and what it takes to succeed. 

Murphy contextualized what the students are expected to do in lab within her own pursuit of outside grants. She skillfully connected the task in lab that day to her own need to illustrate the value of her research to others, articulate the reasons for her research and the controls she uses. She implied that anyone can follow directions, but she wants these students to be scientists. 

Active, hands-on learning in the sciences is critical—in higher ed we talk a lot about hands-on learning, but a lab session is where the rubber meets the road. As an observer, even I got ridiculously excited when the experiment that was described at the beginning of the class actually came out exactly the way it was supposed to. I found myself thinking about that TV credit that has the audio of “I made this.” There is no more powerful learning than doing something for yourself and experiencing success. This is what we do at Augustana College! 

Perhaps my favorite part was overhearing two pre-vet students talk about a study-away opportunity in South Africa. One told the other about a $3,000 stipend available (in addition to $2,000 with Augie Choice) to bring the cost down. When one of the students brought up the fact that only 8 spots were available, the other replied, “Well, really, only six, because there is no one more qualified than the two of us.” 

I liked their spirit. This was a great reminder of the confidence that a liberal arts education builds in young people. These two are bound to have a great experience in South Africa!  

The lab was awesome even if I didn’t get to wear a lab coat. Maybe next time. 

Dr. Murphy joined the biology department at Augustana in August of 2011. Her interest in science has been life-long. Her desire to teach and mentor students developed from observing her father’s interaction with students as a professor and from the excitement of her undergraduate professors. 

In class, in the teaching lab, and in my research lab, she aims  to help students understand how science works, how to think like scientists, and to cultivate excitement for learning.

Her personal research has strengthened her abilities to develop scientific skills in students, and her current research projects are designed to include undergraduate students.

Dr. Murphy earned a Ph.D. in Genetics and Cell Biology from Washington State University.  

Her current research activities include identification and characterization of genes involved in fruiting body formation and motility in Myxococcus xanthus.  M. xanthus is a model organism for studying bacterial biofilms. In addition, her research includes annotation and analysis of a microbial genome from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and a third project on how amphibians use agricultural landscapes to move among wetlands.

Dr. Murphy’s personal interests include hiking, travel for pleasure, watching sports, and time with my family and friends.

Classroom sessions: History 300: What do you mean Lincoln didn’t really do anything? #liberalarts #humanities #augustanacollege #history #highered

Is history objective or subjective? That was the question Dr. Brian Leech posed to the dozen students in his class at the beginning of this Monday morning session in Old Main on one of the first days that really felt like fall at Augustana College. 

What a provocative question to set the tone for a fast-moving discussion. 

The class session was divided into two portions. First was a thought-provoking lecture and discussion, and next was a student presentation. I’ll share a bit about both, but want to begin with a couple of take-aways. 

  • Feedback helps shape the discussion of history—The first question Leech asked was about the text students read in advance of class. They thought it was “too dense” and complicated. Leech agreed with the observation, but pushed back a bit and asked for a few take-aways, which the students provided. I think everyone was reassured of the value of the text. The constant refrain of “what did you think of…” forced the students in this class to move beyond a superficial response and think. 
  • Leech’s teaching style invites a feeling of familiarity—I was very impressed with how comfortable the discussion was. Everyone contributed and I even heard a “hell yeah” at one point. During the student presentation, Leech sat down at a student desk and surrounded himself with the class. It was pretty clear to me that he encourages the type of in-depth discussion and deep learning that one could expect in an upper-level history class. 
  • No one gets off with a weak explanation or position—Leech is tough and strategically inserts information to make the students even tougher. The number of times that a clarifying or impossible-to-ignore follow-up question was asked reminded me how important small, intimate classes are to honing and improving communication and problem-solving skills. Everyone held each other accountable, which was the case when one student posited: “President Lincoln didn’t really accomplish much.” After the gasps, there was a rich discussion of Lincoln’s presidency.  

Leech’s lecture on whether or not history is subjective or objective revolved around the viewpoint of what he described as “positivists, idealists and postmodernists.” He asked students to vote on how they view most historians. Ten voted for idealist and two for postmodernist.

Leech’s lecture posed questions like the following to get these students to really think:

What is the impact on history if only certain peoples’ records are preserved?

What if documentation is limited? 

Does one really know about XX or just what was written about it? 

I could see these students really thinking about whether or not history is objective or subjective, and am quite sure Leech accomplished his task. 

The second part of the class involved three students leading a discussion of a reading on the Midwest as a region. There is too much to discuss about the content, but the assignment was clearly intended to help students understand how to organize information, work in a team, think critically and communicate persuasively. 

Small, upper-level courses like Leech’s are essential to a liberal arts education—not just because of the content, but because of the skills developed through complex reading, challenging and engaged discussion, and on-stage student presentations. Attending this class was a great reminder that no class of 100 or 300 students can build the skills needed by today’s and tomorrow’s leaders like this class of 12.

Brian Leech teaches courses in the first-year sequence about food studies and images of the natural world, as well as courses for the history department on modern U.S. history, oral history, public history, the environment, and health.

Students in his recent courses have researched health care artifacts for the museum at Palmer College of Chiropractic, developed a digital historical map of the nearby Keystone Neighborhood, and crafted an oral history of the local WWII homefront with the help of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Leech also serves as a first-year advisor and teaches an advising course. 

A native Montanan, Leech uses his personal research as an excuse to return to the mountains. He recently has published a book about the intended and unintended consequences of open-pit mining in Butte, Montana.

The book is “The City That Ate Itself: Butte, Montana and Its Expanding Berkeley Pit” (University of Nevada Press; Feb. 28, 2018). In this podcast, Dr. Leech discusses the book and his interests in history with Christina Lamberson, assistant professor of history at Angelo State University.

He also recently has started research on a couple of new projects. One looks at the portrayal of mining in popular culture and another investigates the history of speed limits in the American West.