Category Archives: Uncategorized

Richard Bland College chews up and spits out another generation of higher education professionals

Last June, I decided to leave my job at Richard Bland College of William and Mary after three difficult and somewhat rewarding years. One aspect of work at RBC is that the school administration only offers one year contracts to new staff and there is always a threat that someone’s contract won’t be renewed. As the months have passed since I left I’ve stopped by a few times to check in on friends and former colleagues. My replacement staff member, Steven Christian, started around the same time students returned to campus in the fall. By the time I met him, he told me it felt like Richard Bland was like the M. Night Shyamalan movie, “The Village,” in which a group of people live in fear of the outside world, disconnected from normal society. I felt like he had hit the nail on the head. The school has a way of placing very high expectations for staff without the structures to accomplish the goals. Every respectable higher ed professional knows it takes years to build a program.

Today, I found out that after 9 months on the job his contract was not renewed.

I was told by another current staff person that my former supervisor, Dr. Corey L. Scott, Assistant Provost for Student Life, was also not asked to return in the fall. He started in spring of 2016 after his predecessor suddenly left mid-year. I don’t know why his contract was not renewed, but after I left the school did two things that confused me. First, they took my position out from under Student Life and moved it into the Campus Events branch id the college managed by the Director of Grants and Partnerships and ultimately led by the Chief Development Officer. Very strange move to position student development as a wing of find development. Second, the college moved forward with a dubious renovation project that provided a third residence hall while the current two residence halls were already very far below capacity. At the end of the fall semester, around the time the William & Mary Board of Visitors attended a ribbon cutting for the building, all the students living in the new dorm were told they had to leave and move across campus to one of the other two residence halls. Removing Dr. Scott feels like a scapegoat situation where the failures of top leadership are being blamed on middle management.

Finally, Takeya McLaurin, Director is Human Resources, has announced she will not be returning to campus in the fall. I can’t express the size of this loss for the college as Takeya has been a highly competent professional after highly incompetent predecessors. As Director of HR, I’m sure Takeya knows more about about the inner workings of the college than most staff.

During my three years at Richard Bland, there was a spending freeze every year, sometimes as early as December. Every year I had to wait until October or later to receive the students activities fund for student organizations and events. Every year we lost staff in key roles and struggled to find suitable replacements. Every year I wondered if I would be asked to return.

I left on good terms with so many amazing people and students. But when I heard about the most recent wave of staff leaving (and there are certainly more on the way) I was surprised by my own frustration. What is Student Activities without a budget and where does all the money go that students pay in their student activities fee? Why hire a new staff person and move them under someone that has never managed that role then fire them within a year? Why ask the General Assembly for funding to renovate a residence hall when the two existing buildings are far under capacity? What about IBM Portal, the company that RBC paid untold thousands to create predictive analytics then quietly distances themselves from after the project fell apart. Every year there was a new “innovation” that moved everyone in a new direction only to be forgotten and dismissed. It’s one thing to ask incompetent people to leave when they can’t do their jobs, but it’s another thing for a college to move staff around and change the rules so much that no one can ever become proficient.

Not that anyone really wants to get good at living in disfunction.

Butterflies in SoCal

The population of butterflies on wildflowers outside L.A. right now is incredible:

Richmond, we need to do more

If you have not read about the latest UN assessment of human impact on the environment, it is your homework assignment for the weekend. The NYTimes review can be reached here:

Humans are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace

The photo below will link you to the full report summary for the overachievers:

In short, not even considering Climate Change, humans are ruining habitats and driving plants and non-human animals toward extinction. In Richmond, we need to do more to create and preserve habitats for the species that have long called this place home.

The City of Richmond and it’s constituent parts (RRHA, etc.) control vast stretches of land in the city that for the most part are empty save for rusting structures, parking lots, and mowed weeds. Entire farms exist on less. Here’s a fine example near the East End landfill:

These properties need to be cultivated in a restorative way that creates habitat (food, shelter, water) for insects such as pollinators as well as birds, small land mammals, amphibians, and other native species. I recently visited a small town doing amazing things for its pollinators, this could easily be done in Richmond:

As the caretakers of the Falls of the James and the vast James River Parks System, Richmond should also look into improving this property as a habitat which might include planting more native flowering and fruiting plants, building structures for habitat, and working to limit the negative impact of human activity such as pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and pollution. This includes the sewage that overflows into the river every time we have a hard rain.

As we consider our carbon footprint, we should evaluate ways to bring nature-friendly hydroelectric power generation back to our energy mix. I’ve been fascinated by small-scale generators such as Turbulent. Click the photo below for a video demonstration:

When you look at our city, essentially our human habitat, and compare it to a state or national park, it’s not hard to imagine the negative affect humans have had. We should require/incentivize every city block to include de-paved sections with native plantings for habitat, beauty, and the added benefit of water table recharge and less run-off in our sewer system.

We need to encourage more dense development to be sure we are fully utilizing our utilities (water, schools, emergency) as well as public transit. The denser development will ideally lead to cheaper cost of housing as supply increases and less distance that we all have to travel to get to work and recreation.

It’s overwhelming to read the research, but I’m convinced the best thing we can do is appreciate nature and do all we can to listen to what it needs. The answers will come to us as we go. For starters, I am personally working toward removing poison (insect, plant, rodent, etc.) from use and I believe as a city we need to find better ways to manage nature that don’t cause lasting and generic harm. I have planted a “mini-meadow” that I’ll be watching grow (and hopefully bloom) over the next few months. If this is successful, I’d love to plant little patches of wildflowers elsewhere in the city. Truth be told, it’s the first time I’ve planted from seed so I’m still a little skeptical, but it’s shaping up. I’d like to look into solar power, composting toilets, a greenhouse, wind turbines, electric razor scooter for commuting, and more. I’m limited by the cost and also questions about how things are regulated. I am ALWAYS taking in ideas and happy to hear that something can be done more efficiently.

We need to do more and we will also benefit from the beauty of nature, the health benefits of fresh food and an active lifestyle, and we can share our time with new friends we make along the way. If the pending environmental doom stresses you out, time in nature might just fix that too.

Missing insects

For the past nine days, the only thing I’ve really wanted to talk about is an article in the New York Times by Brooke Jarvis titled, “The Insect Apocalypse is Here.” I had noticed the article on the homepage for a few days, but last Saturday I finally sat down to read it all the way through. I was not prepared.

The story follows scientists and “amateur” etymologists mostly in Europe and the United States who are all arriving at the same conclusion: populations of insects are declining at an exponential rate.  The study that first alarmed the scientific community calculated a more than 75% loss in total flying insect biomass in 63 German nature preserves over the past 30 years. Similar studies of monarch butterflies, honeybees, moths and others have corroborated this research. Worry is growing that the insect kingdom will eventually disappear entirely. The consequences are expected to be catastrophic.

Beautiful headline graphic from the NYTimes article by Matt Dorfman.

The article hit a nerve very close to home for me because for the past year or two I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and watching videos about permaculture design. I’ve come to believe that nature can heal itself with the right combination of human interventions. I’ve begun to follow Jeff Lawton, Colette O’Neil of Bealtaine Cottage, and Toby Hemenway of Gaia’s Garden. My YouTube homepage is full of recommendations for videos about swales, cob construction, and food forests.

The creativity and optimism of these teachers has given me some hope for the future, but this article reminded me that their endeavor is more urgent in more ways than I had realized. Insects are integral to the creation of soil, the fertilization of flowering plants, the decomposition of all living organisms, and the foundation of the food chain. What is permaculture without insects?

I started to look more seriously at how humans have shaped the environment, not just through the lens of permaculture vs. monoculture, but also from the perspective of insect habitat. We’ve taken our flowering meadows and replaced them with grass yards and immense
monoculture farms, we’ve chopped up dense forests into subdivisions, we’ve dammed rivers and prevented them from flooding surrounding lands with their nutrients. We have replaced every known habitat with asphalt roads, parking lots, sidewalks, and other impermeable surfaces. We have removed elements of insect habitat everywhere: pollen, rotting trees and animals, feces. We have cleaned up our environment in every imaginable way and we are left with something monotonous and ugly in contrast to diverse and natural beauty like this alpine meadow that I experienced this summer, shown in the photo below.

Or this Hill Country valley next to Enchanted Rock from last winter:

As I continued to read, I remembered another article from February of this year, “Let Your Winter Garden Go Wild,” that taught me for the first time how insects, birds, and small mammals all rely on dead plant growth from the summer months for shelter during winter. Some insects burrow into the ground, I learned, while others “like ladybugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps spend winter in the hollow stems of old flowers.” For three years, I drove to work past farms south of Richmond, and every season I watched as plants were harvested and removed entirely from the environment: no rot, no hollow stalk for hibernation, no insulation for production from the wind and snow.

I also felt a very personal sense of guilt as I thought about the ways that I have waged war on insects on my own small part of the world. Insecticide, in addition to climate change, is seen as a major determining factor for insect population decline. When we moved into our current house, I sprayed a general insecticide all around the place. I don’t even remember what exactly I was trying to kill, probably ants, but most likely out of some irrational fear. I remembered when I was young how my dad would fog the back yard of our house with an insecticide a few hours before my parents had friends over in order to control the mosquito population. What does it say about the product if we children weren’t allowed go outside for an hour or more after he sprayed? In just the past year I’ve poisoned rats with kill boxes, I’ve trapped flies by the thousands, and I’ve killed wasps burrowed into the dirt around our house. Although annoying, these wasps are actually harmless and we’ve never known them to sting. The insecticide revolution (along with fertilizer) allowed for modern farming to proliferate, but also created a world inhospitable to insects.

“Hans de Kroon characterizes the life of many modern insects as trying to survive from one dwindling oasis to the next but with ‘a desert in between, and at worst it’s a poisonous desert.’ Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, neurotoxins that were thought to affect only treated crops but turned out to accumulate in the landscape and the consumed by all kinds of nontargeted bugs.”

Brooke Jarvis, “The Insect Apocalypse Is Here”

Even small amounts of these toxins have been shown to wipe out insect populations. Jarvis writes that one of the theories about how neurotoxins affect bees is that it prevents them from finding their way home. Lost, the bees die alone and entire hives are found, not full of dead insects, but mysteriously empty.

Considering the insect apocalypse also reminded me that one morning in September of this year, while waiting for the bus, I had been excited to see a bumblebee floating from flower to flower on our purple heart plants. I was so excited that I even took a photo (below) and watched it for as long as I could. What I didn’t realize at the time, because it is so difficult to notice, is that my excitement was borne not of the presence of the bumblebee, but of the overwhelming absence of all other insects in the garden.

Jarvis writes that we are exceptionally good at forgetting how things used to be. “The world never feels fallen, because we grow accustomed to the fall.”

As I have now been made aware of this acute loss, my last response has been to imagine ways that I could contribute to insect habitats. I found a lovely British organization called BugLife that created the following diagram for gardening with insects in mind.

Big Life guide to Wildlife Gardening

This diagram includes food, water, and habitat for insects to grow and survive all four seasons of the year. One of the core lessons that BugLife seeks to share is that in order to support insect life we need to do more and we need to do much LESS. We need to stop keeping our farms, yards, and gardens so tidy and we need to keep a much wider variety of flowering plants than in a traditional garden. Essentially, we need to return our small portions of the earth back to a more natural environment and we need to learn to see beauty in way that each element serves to benefit the other.

I’ve also been daydreaming constantly about buying a small parcel of land that’s for sale near my house and fully living into my permaculture fantasies. It’s a densely wooded area perched above a ravine on one side while bordering a neighborhood and an old semi-industrial area on the others. It looks like there is enough run-off from the street to feed a small pond or two on the property and enough room for a house and multiple outbuildings. While many trees would need to be cut down, the entire property could eventually be reshaped into a self-sustaining and diverse ecosystem of wild prairie, forest, ponds, as well as gardens and living spaces. I’ve imagined the houses incorporating sustainable design such as cob construction, passive and active solar, rocket stove mass heaters, and composting toilets.

Of course, I don’t know how to do any of these things and I can’t quit my day job, but it’s still fun to dream:

Until then, I will be actively swapping my anxiety for action with small changes to make the natural world around me more interesting, more wild, and a little more hospitable to our little friends.

When I think about Hallowed Halls … the Temples of Angkor Wat are a prime example. Even photos of these buildings are so breathtaking that they feel more George Lucas than reality. The trees are also remarkable. I will go here some day. I have never reblogged something before, but these photos are amazing and definitely deserve a wider audience. Enjoy!

Lee Phelps Photography

Two days straight.  It’s 3:50am.  A strange noise steals our attention to sleep.  The first day it was the alarm waking us to make sure we made the bus to Incheon Airport.  Any other mornings only the apocalypse would be worthy of such an early rise.  But we had to make it to Cambodia.  Twenty-four hours later, the alarm made sure we made it to Angkor Wat.  It was imperative that we marked watching the sun rise over this iconic temple off our bucket list.

When we arrived in Siem Reap last night around six pm,  the guesthouse we were staying at arranged our pick-up from the airport with Mr. Tong.  After spending a day on planes and in airports, it was refreshing to sit in the back of the tuk tuk while the cool evening air welcomed us to a jungle climate.  There’s nothing quite like changing seasons in twelve hours.  We left…

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When Giving Matters Most … is When it’s Matched :)

There’s something remarkable about matched money. When your employer agrees to match your retirement savings you think to yourself, “I’d be a fool to not take that offer.” When someone anonymous agreed to match my donation to a remarkable community in Richmond (of which I’m blessed to be a part) … I felt the same way.

The organization I work for in Richmond is a part of a 36 hour competition to encourage support and awareness of non-profits doing work in the region. Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT) has a chance to receive thousands of dollars in new donations (over $20,000 at my last count!), a $10,000 bonus for winning the competition and an anonymous donor has committed to matching all donations including the grand prize!

Please consider giving to an organization doing work in Church Hill that I wholeheartedly believe in. CHAT is an organization, but more importantly it is a community. CHAT invites engaging people to Church Hill and holds together a community in Church Hill that supports and challenges one another to grow. The fact that we are in second place for donations (and by far first for amount donated) is a testament to the number of people who believe in this organization. Besides, when else will your dollar go this far?

Here’s the link if you’d like to donate or check out the leader board for other great organizations: The Raise is On!

The Place of Learning

An ordinary room can become a place of learning, imagination, creativity, and new ideas. But it can also become a place of chaos, frustration, depression, stress, anxiety, fear, and resentment. When I was young, I didn’t really appreciate the work it takes to transform a room into an environment that encourages learning. In about a month, that will be my new responsibility.

As a teacher, I’m basically charged with the responsibility of a room and a group of high school students. My students and I will both enter that room with expectations and apprehensions. Will I succeed? Will I look dumb? Will others respect me? Doesn’t matter how old you are … these questions go through your head when you prepare to do something you’ve never done before. And I, the person charged with sharing new information in this room, do have these and other questions to ask myself. Rather than continue to focus on my responsibility, tantamount to my success will be the ability to convey the idea that we (the “teacher” and the “students”) are all charged with turning that anonymous, empty room into a place of learning.

To me, a “place” is essentially an ongoing communal project within a given space. People talk about “creating place” and I think we may be talking too much about buildings and trees. The way I see it is that places are created and sustained by a group of people. The murals and cafes are the positive effects of an engaged group, but not the goal itself. Some people involved in creating a place of learning have more responsibility than others, but one person cannot create a place on their own. I’ve drawn a few power map doodles to discuss my ideas of education and teaching. Above, I’ve included a doodle of a “traditional lecture” model of teaching. This model is employed in many traditional hierarchical organizations such as the military, fraternities, churches, corporations, many low-income schools and some universities. In this model, the teacher (the circle at the top) is the dispenser of information to the students. Whether they understand the information is not readily apparent because they are not encouraged to react or “translate” the information into their own perspective. They are not given the chance to apply the information to what they already know.

In my second doodle, “Classroom Discussion,” the teacher (again, the top circle) introduces an idea to the classroom (1) which then elicits a response from a student whose response then resonates with another student and so on. Then the teacher introduces a second idea (2) which engages a previously unengaged student whose response resonates with the last student in the classroom. This discussion encourages students to enter into the process of turning the classroom into a place of learning. It engages them and provides the opportunity for the students to inform the classroom with their own lived experience and perspective. As Surowiecki argues in The Wisdom of Crowds, a diversity of opinions in a room is far more worthwhile than the perspective of one person. Even if that person is a “teacher.”

The third doodle, “Mediated Discussion,” is a more realistic version of the classroom discussion. Sometimes, students are not fully committed to transforming the room into a place of learning. Sometimes students aren’t willing to give up the goal that they had when they entered the room: Perhaps to make a name for themselves or create a little chaos. In the mediated discussion (right), the teacher introduces an idea (1), this idea resonates with a student whose response then continues the chain and encourages other students to share their thoughts. At the same time, the teacher extends vested power (2) and prevents two students from asserting their ideas on the rest of the class. I am fiercely democratic, but I also understand that strong leadership has a place in the classroom and elsewhere. Not everyone is always on board with the goal.

I recently watched the movie Buck and it was an inspiration. I never thought a horse movie could ever teach me so much about people and teaching. What Buck Brannaman discusses in relation to horses finds a direct parallel in the human experience. “Your horse is a mirror to your soul,” says Buck, “Sometimes you might not like what you see … sometimes you will.” I think the same could be said for your children and your students. In fact, everyone you affect with your wake tells you about yourself (Idea cite). I hope that in creating this place of learning I will be patient and understanding like Buck. He understands where horses are coming from — their fears, apprehensions, and previous experiences — and invites them to trust his correction and accept his leadership. I look forward to learning how to teach effectively, to drawing more doodles and to hearing more theories on how to improve. Here’s to trial and error.