One Surefire Way to Improve Mental Health

Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University psychology professor, argues that smart phones are contributing to Millennial’s worsening mental health. The data is concerning.

Here’s her Atlantic essay (hyperbolically) titled “Have Smartphones Ruined a Generation” and here’s an interview with her from yesterday’s PBS NewsHour.

In summary, the less tethered young people are to their phones, the better their mental health.

Of Speeding Basketballs and the Tyranny of the Urgent

In my second story home office, I look out a window at a basketball hoop, the Black Hills, and our suburban street winding downhill to the west. Today, I was watching a neighbor shoot hoops with his five year old son when the ball careened down the long semi-steep hill. It was comical when the boy gave chase because he was gradually losing ground on the ball as it gained speed skimming along the curb.

Saturday I began teaching a class on leadership for school program directors and principals-to-be. One thing I will impress upon them is they are the five year old boy because school administrators struggle mightily to get ahead of their daily “To do” lists. If they don’t learn to manage their time in ways that allow for creative thinking about the larger purposes of schooling they’ll never be inspiring or transformational leaders.

I know this because my “To do” list garners way too much of my attention. I fool myself into feeling productive when I shrink my list which ebbs and flows with the same predictability as the tides. Here’s today’s, Monday, February 8th:

• org 583 readings/desk

• finalize 563B syllabus—Lenny, 90m

• 563B sllyabus to Diana

• 2/9, Monday, Dept mtg, 9-10:30a, Search, 12:30-1p, interviews 1-2:30p and 4:30-6p

• prep 563B sessions 1 & 2

One wonders, can I get my swim workout in and get to work in time to “org 583 readings/desk” before the 9a department meeting? What a model I am for transformational leadership, my overarching goal for the day is to check off as many of the five items as possible. Instead of asking, “Did you leave the department, the teaching credential program, and/or the U in a better place?” or “Did you touch anyone’s life today?” My dinner companion tonight might ask, “How many bullet points did you manage to delete today?” Your “To do” list any shorter?

In my position, I regularly hand teary-eyed student teachers tissues and help them make peace with my faculty colleagues, their cooperating teachers, their supervisors, and their students. While helping resolve their problems I often think, “If we don’t find the time to fix the underlying flaws in our program’s design that repeatedly give rise to these crises, we’re going to be distracted in perpetuity by time consuming cases like these.”

If he made it a priority, the five year old’s father could take two or three shooting sessions with his son off to build some sort of barricade or contraption that would prevent errant balls from rocketing all the way down the street again. With more quiet, uninterrupted, big picture/program design time, I could greatly reduce the total number of student crises needing my immediate attention. Of course though, program design is a collaborative process, so I’m dependent upon all of my colleagues getting in front of the speeding basketball too

And in this era of information and sensory overload, it’s every plugged in man, woman, and child for themselves. I could be much more disciplined about regularly unplugging from the internet to be more reflective and thoughtful about what’s most important at work and in life. Maybe, as a first Bill Murray-like baby step, my leadership students and I need to follow this advice.

Fear is Contagious

Recently, inside the MVCoho, halfway between Victoria, British Columbia and Port Angeles, Washington, I had an epiphany. The more peaceful those around us are, the more manageable our fears.

One day, I remember, the GalPal got exasperated with me for not being more sensitive to some fear of hers. “You don’t have any fears!” she lamented. If only. Among my fears I’m afraid of turbulence while flying, rough seas while boating (detect a pattern?), and what Tom Brady might do to the Hawks if the Superbowl footballs aren’t inflated properly.

Halfway between Canada and the United States, the MVCoho started rocking and rolling in a heavy metal manner. So much so people couldn’t walk. Outwardly, I was masking my inner dread. The inner dialogue. “This is stupid. I’m probably one of the stronger swimmers on the boat. Yeah, but that won’t matter. Hypothermia will set in so fast, I’ll be toast just like everyone else.” Closing my eyes didn’t stop the rocking.

I decided to study other people’s faces to assess just how bad the situation was, and lo and behold, I couldn’t find a single person who even looked distracted by the experience. I let their calm wash over me. Everyone’s nonchalance convinced me we I was going to be alright. I considered giving each person a hug once we anchored, but I’m too introverted (fear of strangers?).

The Pew Research Center has published an interesting study about the relationship between social media use and stress. They conclude, “Awareness of stressful events in others’ lives is a significant contributor to people’s own stress.” The opposite of my boat experience. If you look around and everyone is panicking, your anxiety will increase.

It’s not a direct correlation, but the more people use social media, the more aware they are of stress events in others’ lives, and the greater their own stress tends to be. This is especially true for women.

My recent experience on the high seas and the Pew study make me think maybe we should be more intentional about surrounding ourselves with people who are less afraid of what frightens us most easily.

Life (Right) After College

Hurray, the eldest is a college graduate. And I’m happy to report that apart from wearing shorts to the commencement ceremony*, and getting caught mostly naked (I had my watch on) in a co-ed dormitory bathroom**, I didn’t embarrass her too much.

I’m proud of her. A religion major, she wrote an excellent senior thesis on how Martin Luther King’s notion of the beloved community changed after the Watt’s riots. After reading it, her grandfather crowned her the “best writer in the family”***. Also, her college experience started out pretty rough, but she persevered, and in the end, flourished. She swam, co-hosted a groovy radio show, learned to write, and gained lots of confidence, meaning dinner conversations are more contentious now. Which is good. And she made lots of close friends.

That last point seems to be the all important one. Her friends and her seemed way more focused on close interpersonal relationships than my college classmates and I ever were. Maybe that’s explained by gender or because I went to a large public university, but I suspect there’s a lot more to it. Psychologists who study happiness recommend all of us do more to build community in our lives, but one significant trade-off may be less certainty about what to do after graduating.

Most of my daughter’s classmates’ plans were nebulous, meaning going home to work for the summer while trying to figure out the medium-long term. The Good Wife, my older sister, and my brother in-law and I and thought and talked about this throughout the weekend. My sister insisted that her friends and her all had permanent full-time jobs lined up right after crossing the stage. She said there was a stigma attached to returning home.

Here’s the problem, my sissy and I, like all fifty and sixty-somethings, fall into predictable traps when trying to make sense of our Millenial offspring.

Predictable trap one, our memory fails us; consequently, we accentuate our successes and downplay our challenges. Simply put, we forget about our parents’ continuing help, our struggles, and classmates who didn’t have jobs, who did return home, whose paths to independent adulthood were circuitous at best. When comparing ourselves with others, we almost always cut ourselves more slack. That’s why we routinely get angry at other drivers, but forget our own sudden lane changes or thoughtless maneuvers.

Predictable trap two, our selective perception contributes to an unhelpful, collective impatience with new graduates who aren’t sure what they want to do. We want our twenty-two year olds to be independent tomorrow morning even though, in all likelihood, the transition to complete independent adulthood will still be running it’s course during the next World Cup. Our impatience results in strained relations and dissension.

Predictable trap three, we routinely resist change. It’s difficult to understate the effect of social media on this generation of college grads, the pace of economic change, and the consequences of our more liberal parenting. Baby boomers label Millenials slackers for lacking gumption. That knee-jerk criticism is a predictable result of these mental traps. If social scientists ever quantify a generational gumption deficit, Boomers like me will have to take responsibility for it.

Predictable trap four, we overgeneralize from our lived experience and project our accomplishments onto others. Because we overcame “x” and accomplished “y”, others should be able to as well. As a result, we lack empathy for others, including recent college grads. For example, a close friend always struggled in school because of dyslexia. He overcame it with tremendous grit and now he’s often angry at others for “making excuses” for their relative lack of success. He writes off others without factoring in extenuating circumstances such as poverty, institutional racism, or neighborhood violence, because he didn’t experience those things.

I wish that by describing these traps, I was immune from them. In actuality, I can describe them because I’m so susceptible to them. As just one example, I’m as impatient as they come. Can I make it to the next World Cup? Truth be told, I’ve written this to myself. If you find something that helps you on your journey, all the better.

Postscript: Do NOT read this.

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* Someone has to establish the sartorial floor. And I probably should come clean that I did do one thing that greatly embarrassed, or at least “weirded out” both daughters. Cycling season = shaved legs. Way better for sunscreen and massage, way worser for father-daughter relationships.

** Fortunately, while getting into the shower, I was caught by my roommate, the Good Wife. “What was I supposed to do,” I protested, “undress standing in the tiny shower behind the curtain?!” To which she emphatically said, “YES!” New rule co-ed college dormitories, if you want me to undress in private, provide a door and a small bench before the shower curtain, like in Watson Hall, otherwise, be on guard for the Full Monty. Also, why the urinal RIGHT NEXT TO the door?

*** first signs of cognitive slippage

Why the Donald Sterling Fiasco Won’t Initiate a Dialogue on Race

The headline read, “Hall of Famers expect league to support Sam”. Of course the league will support Michael Sam, the all All-American defense lineman at Missouri who is the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.

But not because NFL locker rooms are especially progressive places. Some players are sensitive to people’s differing sexual orientations, others are decidedly not. As the Donald Sterling illustrates, social media will silence the Decidedly Nots. Sterling went from owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to a pariah in 72 hours. Similarly, any player caught communicating homophobic things about Sam will immediately feel the full weight of instantaneous social media. And any hope for commercial endorsements will be dashed.

One thread of the Sterling coverage has been “If anything positive comes of this, we need to initiate a discussion on race”. There’s little chance of that because social media tends to create a mob mentality with everyone racing to tar and feather the offending homophobe or racist. That creates a chilling effect on what would help initiate a discussion on race—each of us reflecting honestly on how we pre-judge people different than us. Instead of introspection, we pile on the offending person like an unthinking football player ignoring the official’s whistle.

Unlike social media, education depends upon dialogue and dialogue requires that people trust their point of view will be respectfully listened to. The key is to distinguish between racist or homophobic thoughts, words, and actions. Excellent teachers learn to work sensitively with homophobic thoughts and words, but when it comes to hateful actions, of course people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Excellent teachers learn to work with racist or homophobic thoughts and words by exploring their underlying root causes by asking students questions such as “Why do you believe that?” They know that seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. They expand students’ worldviews by introducing them to unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and sometimes travel. And by teaching students to substitute curiosity for negative preconceived notions, so that they too learn to ask others, “Why do you believe what you do?”

My Daughters are Funny

J is in her first year of college, A in her last. Most college students exchange texts with their parents daily, but not us. We stay in touch via email and every week or two throw in a video phone call to remember what they look like.

Here’s my daughters’ email response timeframe:

• Months. Any message having to do with Ukraine, textbook receipts, tuition details, or federal taxes.

• Weeks. Any message having to do with family birthday reminders, travel planning, or the future more generally.

• Days. Any message having to do with popular culture generally.

• Hours. Any message that includes a picture of their dog or a video clip of laughing babies.

• Minutes. Any message having to do with television comedy, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, or the movie Bridesmaids.

Case in point, this morning I sent A this message:

I admit, yesterday’s episode of New Girls (viewed while spinning this morning) was pretty good. And amazingly, one reference to crack, but none to alcohol. Brooklyn 99 was good too. Spoiler alert—Cwaazy Cupcakes.

She must have been swimming or stuck in a small class with a kick ass professor, because it took her one hour and twelve minutes to send this reply:

Fact check: She (Zoey Deschanel) was actually crying while drinking from the minibar bottles because they’re so tiny. And YAY glad you’re watching B99 (that’s what insiders call it).

Electronic quirks and all, I love them.

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What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.