Monday, February 12, 2018

On humility and reaching for the stars

As we head further still into the great unknowns, ever reaching to touch the hem of God's garment, I am reminded of Ray Bradbury's poem "If Only We Had Taller Been", reminded that striving for knowledge is buried deep in the marrow of our bones, of our collective species history, perhaps written on the stardust traveling deep in the recesses of space and time.

I am also reminded to be humble; reminded that some things may simply be unknowable and that sometimes, sometimes simply resting peacefully in the unknowable may be enough. And yet, other times, many times, curiosity and exploration bring enlightenment.

Three cheers for Elon Musk's, Tesla's SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch last week, for Starman taking us deeper into the great unknowns. Three cheers for knowledge, for curiosity, for science, for philosophy, for the deep interconnectedness that is.

May we continue striving to slake our thirst for knowledge and meaning and purpose while remaining humble enough to keep the insidious tendrils of conceit at bay even while it remind us to ever strive for learning and knowledge, for wisdom in how and when to exercise them, for reaching for the stars while yet being fully present in the here and now, grateful for what is.


"If Only We Had Taller Been"
~Ray Bradbury 1920-2012

The fence we walked between the years
Did balance us serene
It was a place half in the sky where
In the green of leaf and promising of peach
We'd reach our hands to touch and almost touch the sky
If we could reach and touch, we said,
'Twould teach us, not to, never to, be dead

We ached and almost touched that stuff;
Our reach was never quite enough.
If only we had taller been
And touched God's cuff, His hem,
We would not have to go with them
Who've gone before,
Who, short as us, stood as they could stand
And hoped by stretching tall that they might keep their land
Their home, their hearth, their flesh and soul.
But they, like us, were standing in a hole

O, Thomas, will a Race one day stand really tall
Across the Void, across the Universe and all?
And, measured out with rocket fire,
At last put Adam's finger forth
As on the Sistine Ceiling,
And God's hand come down the other way
To measure man and find him Good
And Gift him with Forever's Day?
I work for that

Short man, Large dream
I send my rockets forth between my ears
Hoping an inch of Good is worth a pound of years
Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal mall:
We've reached Alpha Centauri!
We're tall, O God, we're tall!

Watch a video of a tribute to the New Horizons mission set to Ray Bradbury reading his poem - it is remarkable:

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Meetings with your academic advisor - a humorous interpretation

Is it just me or does it seem like there are two very different takes on the graduate school advisor-advisee relationship?! Allow me to introduce you to Bob Wiley - a man who can illustrate all of life's dilemmas. Ladies and gentlemen, a hypothetical (typical?) grad/advisor meeting as illustrated by "What About Bob?" (with a couple other additions).

You, upon bumping into your very busy advisor and realizing it's the perfect opportunity to get a rescheduled meeting on the calendar with them:

Still, seeing an opportunity, you try to wrangle a little time from your advisor's calendar given how many times the meeting has already been reschedule...

...and you'd REALLY like to get a little help with some suggestions for how to free yourself from the tar pit trap you seem to be slowly sinking into - the situation feels a little desperate. The interaction doesn't go exactly as you pictured it going. And now you're worried about how you think your advisor sees this interaction.

Finally, they acquiesce...

...and you get a rescheduled meeting date nailed down:

Fast forward to the day of your meeting. You realize you're not as prepared as you wanted to be (probably from poor planning) you attempt to get yourself mentally ready.

FINALLY, the moment arrives!

You sit down with your advisor for them to immediately note - quite correctly but for the umpteenth time - how little progress you've made in your research over the last few months. Then they ask you - "So, what's the problem?"

Now fully unsure of yourself and how to respond, you come up with some dim-witted excuses to try to absolve yourself of some (all?) of the responsibility, to pin the blame elsewhere, anywhere, on them!

...and my bladder explodes.

To which your already-pressed-for-time advisor responds:

Now you, feeling understandably like a heel, leave the meeting worrying about how messed up you are and wondering if it will ever get better. It feels a bit like the dark soul of night. So, to cope, you fall back into old habits.

...before wisely seeking help from the Counseling And Psychiatric Services (CAPS) program on campus.

Bill. Frickin'. Murray. Comedic genius. And perfect salve for all that ails you.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Taxing the Poor - #SaveGradEd
I urge you to oppose any tax bill that eliminates the tuition wavier provision which allows graduate student employees to afford an education.

The tax bills currently moving through Congress threaten support for graduate students, colleges and universities, and tax fairness. The House Republican tax plan (HR 1) would force graduate student employees to pay hundreds (or thousands, in my case) of dollars more in taxes by treating the value of their tuition waivers as taxable income, leading to a tax bill graduate student employees can’t afford on the salary of a graduate research or teaching assistant.

If graduate tuition waivers were taxed, in-state graduate student employees at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example, could be taxed on an additional $22,000 of income (and that amount doubles for out-of-state and international students) while receiving the same income they currently make. That number increases for graduate student employees at private institutions with higher tuition, and will hurt grad student employees across the country. This would simply put graduate school out of reach for all but the wealthiest students, and would significantly harm our institutions’ missions of providing high quality undergraduate education and world-class research.

Graduate employees, in addition to preparing for careers in teaching and research, are on the frontlines in college classrooms and laboratories every day, helping undergraduates succeed and performing ground-breaking research. Even with a graduate assistantship and tuition waiver, too many of grad employees are forced to go into debt to do this important work and obtain a graduate degree.

Support graduate students, colleges and universities, and tax fairness – oppose any tax plan that eliminates the tuition waiver provision for graduate student employees and that cuts other education benefits.

I urge you to vote NO on the current tax bills. If these bills pass in their current form and I am unfairly taxed on income I never received (i.e., graduate tuition waiver), I will be forced to withdraw from the PhD program at CU-Boulder and can no longer help people and communities in Colorado and across the United States learn how to live more safely with wildfire. That would be a double tragedy.

I urge you to oppose the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is a massive redistribution of wealth to the already rich at the expense of educators, first responders, homeowners, union members and our local communities. This bill is bad for our public schools, bad for our communities and bad for a majority of Americans.

The tax bill would replace one system that is unfair to the majority of Americans with another. It would hugely cut taxes to big corporations and hedge funds while making the poor and middle class pay more.

This bill takes away deductions that have reduced the tax burden for homeowners and working families. For example, the House bill would eliminate the $250 tax deduction used by the 99.5 percent of educators who spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on their classrooms and their students. Millions of middle-class families would see their tax burden increase under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

The bill would also repeal the century-old state and local tax deduction for individuals. However, in a slap in the face to working families, corporations will still be allowed to take this deduction. Overall, the proposal would hurt property values and every community that uses tax dollars to invest in essential services like schools, firefighters, police and sanitation.

It is clear that the purpose of eliminating deductions that help middle-class families reduce their tax burden is to fund tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, which the vast majority of this tax plan’s benefits go toward. This bill’s preference for the wealthy over the middle class and communities is blatant. While undermining unions and state and local government services by eliminating those deductions, it does the exact opposite when it comes to big corporations, hedge funds and the already wealthy: It reduces the corporate tax rate by 15 percent; helps hedge funds and others reduce their true tax liability by paying a much-reduced “pass-through” rate; weakens or repeals the estate tax for the wealthy so they can pass on their inheritances tax-free; and keeps all sorts of loopholes, like carried interest, that Trump promised to get rid of when he was campaigning.

We’ve seen this plan before, in Kansas, where Republicans slashed taxes for the wealthy and corporations and shrank government, promising it would usher in an economic boom. It didn’t. The five-year experiment caused state revenue to plummet, the deficit to explode, and painful spending cuts to be made—including cuts decimating public schools.

A bill that undermines public services and raises taxes on millions of middle-class families, all to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, does not deserve your support. I urge you to reject the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Revisiting some things core to me

I love that Facebook routinely dredges back up posts and pictures from years past. The picture Facebook brought back this morning reminded me of a couple of core, foundational aspects of who I am, of my true heart - nature inspires me and I love sharing that inspiration with others, with you.

Eight years ago today, on a tiny creek in the Willamette Valley just outside of Corvallis, Oregon, on a cold and blustery Fall day, I was warmed inside by the fascination, curiosity and inspiration I saw in the faces, minds and hearts of a bunch of homeschooled children and their parents (short photo album) as we explored parts of nature they had rarely seen or interacted with - it's one thing to know about something; it's another thing entirely to understand it, to feel the connection to something broader than our own private spaces. The collective fascination we all held that day was captivating.

I've mused about this sense of awe and wonder, curiosity and inspiration a lot over the years - still regularly do. I wrote this blog post (reflection) shortly after one of these field trips.

...then wrote about a related notion a few years later - fostering a sense of place.

Today, I was reminded these things are core to who I am as a person. And I love sharing this with you all. All of this from a simple Facebook reminder of an image I posted eight years ago today. Sometimes the little things remind me of something much larger - what a marvelous little big reminder today. Thank you, Facebook, for reminding me of this memory...and of something much larger.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Five keys to an effective team

Image credit: Google Finance

The Google re:Work project team spent two years studying one hundred eighty teams looking for the secret formula for success. What they found was quite different from what they expected.

The most successful shared five traits, four of which may be familiar to you. Team members:

  • believed their work mattered (what the re:Work team called "impact"),
  • were working on things that were personally important to them (meaning of work),
  • had clearly defined goals, roles and plans to carry out the work (structure and clarity), and
  • could count on each other to do quality work on time (dependability).

The most important team characteristic or trait the Google re:Work team found, however, was the surprise to them. Any guesses on what the fifth and seemingly most important team trait was - the cornerstone and foundation of the other four?

The team worked in a space where they felt they could take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other without fear of judgment, reprisal or being cast in a negative light (what the re:Work team called "psychological safety").

You can check out the original Google re:Work post about this research, here.
Image credit: Google re:Work

As a researcher examining the effectiveness of social learning networks, I've seen all of these characteristics or team traits play out in the network setting. And it doesn't surprise me they are important in successful network dynamics as social networks can sometimes act, in many ways, like large teams.

What struck me about this fifth and most important team characteristic, however, was the degree of similarity, the complementarity of something I see appearing time and again in discussions and interviews with learning network members: when there is little fear of reprisal (or the opposite, encouragement of "risk-taking") and team leaders actively create safe spaces for sharing, the best forms of creativity, innovations and novel approaches often emerge.

That's not to say that whole host of other factors are not important. In fact, they often are and work strongly in conjunction with each other (e.g., connectedness to and familiarity with others, trust, shared passion and interest, belief in what you're doing will make a difference, shared identity building, etc.). But this DOES underscore the importance of safe spaces to speak your mind about things without fear of reprisal or judgement.

In my work, I have been calling this characteristic - this safe space or place where network members seem to be very engaged, productive and successful because they feel they've been given the freedom to take risks, to try new things, to experiment and fail - a feeling of the "freedom to fail". And in this place where there is freedom to experiment (and fail), it seems effective network teams are fostering conditions where the most creative, the most innovative and novel solutions emerge.

Have you noticed a safe space or the freedom to take risks (and fail) creating productive and successful conditions in the spaces you work in? I'd love to hear more about your experiences in the comments, below.

#makeworkbetter #takerisks #safespaces #freedomtofail #creativity #innovation #learningnetworks #socialnetworks #solutions

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A reflective thought for the morning - life's path and a PhD

"Wonder" - flickr user Jeremy Isaacson
Fifteen years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago, I would see PhD opportunities come through my email stream almost daily and I'd gaze at them, wondering if I could do it, longing to try, to test my mettle, yearning for more learning.

A little less than five years ago, at the encouragement of my partner​, we decided the timing was right to at least see if this path was one we wanted to take. After lots of discussion, even more prayer, and so. much. time listening for answers - the answers came in. And they came in by the shipload. It was clear that I was being called to teaching and education. In what capacity, I didn't know (still don't). But a PhD was THE next step to take.

Trusting in those assurances we were heading in the right direction, but not seeing/knowing the outcome - where would it lead me, what sort of job would I eventually be in, where would we be living, etc. - was incredibly difficult for me...because I'm a planner and like the control of my own destiny. But I soon came to realize I was focusing too much on the exact path and where it took me rather than lifting my head and looking around, appreciating the moment and everything around me. And it's glorious! I'm still working on honing this new perspective for me, but it's lovely, this horizon line.

After swallowing the collective lumps in our throats, steadying our nerves, and trusting in the ways that are right and just, we stepped off into the the great unknown. And what a journey it's been. It's not always easy - in fact, many times the path is fraught with troubles. But I'm so grateful to be in this PhD program, in this moment in my life, with such remarkable support from friends, family, and my partner and children.

All this, and so much more, came immediately bubbling up when I saw an email in my inbox this morning for a PhD opportunity at Iowa State University. While I have taken to passing over these PhD opportunity emails (at least for the time being), for whatever reason seeing the email this morning struck me quick. And helped me realize just how grateful I am to be here. If I wouldn't have listened to my heart, listened to trusted friends and family around me, nor had my head up and eyes and ears open to all the signs pointing me here, I may still be sailing troubled waters.

Funny how these things happen.

If YOU have ever been curious about graduate school and want to chat, I'm happy to - leave a comment here and we'll connect. If you're looking for a listing of federal jobs, check out USA Jobs. If you're looking for graduate school jobs, check out NatureJobs and ScienceCareers. If you're a recent graduate of college, or a current student, check out this job board. Looking for a fisheries career, check out the AFS jobs board (THE most visited page on their website). Looking for a wildlife career, check out TWS jobs board. Looking for academic jobs, check out Chronicles of Higher Education's job postings. Looking for non-academic jobs, check out VersatilePhD.

Thank you for sharing this reflective moment with me. Now go follow your heart.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Gun violence, regulation, and love


Meriah Calvert prays during a candlelight vigil on Oct. 1 in Roseburg, Oregon.

Until this world is made new, violence will not stop. Until then, we pursue love...

Some may scoff at such things, but since about 11am Mountain Time, I've been in knots about something...something that felt both distant and near. I couldn't place my finger on it. But it was as real and tangible to me as the keyboard on which I type. Then this. Do you recall the "life force" that Yoda talks about in "Star Wars", the the force or influence that gives something its vitality or strength, the spirit or energy that animates living creatures? Being plugged into this has been something to which I seem to have been born. And a piece of it, a piece with a distinct signature (my hometown), was not right. Now I know why. But knowing why doesn't take the pain away nor make sense of the senselessness. God, please let love flow. Please help us to keep hatred and malice and blame away. Please help us to see this world made new. Please help us to love...
Get this image from the Ford Family Foundation

In response to a recent mass shooting at the community college I attended and where I met my wife, I was recently asked about my 'take' on open carry policies at schools.

I'm still not fully sure of my take.

I don't believe gun violence is the problem. The violence is symptom of larger, more deeply-seeded issue(s). Issues of poverty of mind/soul/bank accounts, people feeling unloved and in utter despair, mental illness, lack of belonging, and so many others!

I  support open and concealed carry, both. I regularly carry during hunting season and when playing in the woods (familiarity with firearm use is tremendously important, in my mind). I think a policy of MANDATED  carry is problematic (e.g., the timid/uncomfortable are probably better off not carrying). Neither do I want children carrying.

Safety is illusory. And fleeting. And the risk of something happening to you/me from a deranged shooter is so minuscule (our chances of being struck by a car are so many orders of magnitude higher) that putting guns in the hands of many more incompetent handlers without some sort of training or regular check-in on their competency levels gives me considerable pause. We don't balk at mandatory hunters safety courses before we are allowed to hunt. We don't balk at having regulations on the dairy industry keeping blood and puss levels below an "acceptable" level in our glasses of milk. We don't balk at having regular check-in with drivers license or for aged drivers. We don't allow children to drive. I don't think I have many issues with making gun ownership more rigorous (e.g., required education programs, safety, handling, situational scenario play, routine relicensing, etc.). Yet, I also worry about someone keeping track of my guns (or any of my belongings; strange that we largely find it acceptable for businesses to keep track of our purchasing/browsing habits, though; whole other topic).

Would I rather have more rigorous gun ownership requirements (presuming there is sufficient public oversight so as to keep from government overrun) than not? I think so. It would depend on the likelihood of such requirements thwarting potential attacks. The gun lobby is tremendously powerful and has ensured our right to continued bearing of arms. Sadly, I find the gun lobby and its message to have been mostly hijacked by a few individual businessmen bent primarily on profits. I get economic motivations. I like to make money, too. But profits have taken center stage over values (to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). We cannot serve two masters (God and money).

Navy Yard Shooting, Rick McKee, The Augusta Chronicle
I don't see this as an all-or-nothing issue (everyone with a gun vs. nobody or just police/military with guns). It seems like there IS common ground (public opinion polls bear this out). But our governance system is so in shambles and public confidence in it at all-time lows, I'm not sure new policies would be as effective at addressing the ROOT(s) of the problem (mentioned previously) as they should be. Too many policies, in my mind, do less about addressing problems as they do addressing symptoms. If I have a cancerous tumor, I don't want to just treat the pain it brings. I want the cancer itself treated and gone. Sadly, I don't think enough policies have this sort of focus. Well-intentioned, maybe (probably?). But still missing the mark.

Long story even longer, I'm still not how to get to B (less gun violence) from A (here). But neither unregulated access nor complete lockdown seem to be viable options (either end of the spectrum). There is a middle ground, of that I'm sure (very few issues have simple yes/no, right/wrong answers). How to get there, however...another story.

But I leave you with a poem that - upon re-reading it today - struck me particularly deeply: Wendell Berry's The Peace of Wild Things. (or hear Wendell read it)

Rest in the grace of the world, and be free.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.