On Teaching

With budget cutbacks and bureaucratic interference facing educational programs at all levels, it is not an easy time to be in the business of teaching. While these two blog posts from 2011 won’t alleviate those challenges, I wanted to share them with fellow educators as reminders of the good that we can do in the fundamental activities of teaching and mentoring:

1. The “butterfly effect” and working as an educator (2011) — A commentary on the role of teachers in people’s lives, inspired by Stephen King’s bestselling novel, 11/22/63.

2. Working as an educator: Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach (2011) — A few words about a great book for anyone who teaches.


Also, here’s a short op-ed piece I wrote back in 2004 for the Boston Globe, “Note of Understanding,” that describes how my experiences in an adult education singing class (which I’m still taking!) have informed my approach to teaching.

Does the term “collateral damage” help us to understand how some organizations treat workplace bullying?

“Collateral damage,” according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is an “injury inflicted on something other than an intended target,” especially “civilian casualties of a military operation.” It’s also a term that helps us to rationalize the suffering of noncombatant civilians as the inevitable (and thus vaguely justifiable) costs of war.

Though most commonly used in a military context, the term resonates with my understanding of how some organizations regard the mistreatment of employees, especially bullying, harassment, and discrimination. No organization, explicitly or implicitly, considers bullying and abuse of workers as its main objective. (Okay, a few seem to come close…) Rather, in identifying organizational priorities, we’re more likely to hear about productivity, competition, innovation, and profit.

However, when bullying or other forms of mistreatment occur, bad organizations often regard the targets of such behaviors as collateral damage. Hey, bad stuff happens in the rough and tumble world of work, and occasionally some really bad stuff happens — that is, to others. Organizational leaders assume that everything is going well, except for this distracting problem.

In lousy workplaces, a target who complains about wrongful treatment — perhaps someone who previously was regarded as a solid or even outstanding performer — suddenly becomes the expendable other. This especially is so if the aggressor is a popular and/or powerful member of the management team.

Once the target is pushed out, the whole incident is treated as an unfortunate and regrettable annoyance. What a shame, it just didn’t work out because of a personality conflict. The main business of being productive, competitive, innovative, and profitable may now go on as if nothing had happened.


Google it

Apparently many others associate collateral damage with workplace bullying. Do a Google search using the terms together, and you’ll see what I mean.

Related post

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory (2011)

Working Notes: Business Week on workplace bullying, a “New World” concept paper, and a blog facelift

Some items of note:

1. Business Week on “Taming the Workplace Bully” — Adam Piore’s article examines the topic from a business standpoint — it’s even filed under the heading of “Competition” on the magazine’s website —  and closes with an anecdote about a bullying target befriending her aggressor. Still, it covers a lot of ground and presents a variety of perspectives, including the legal aspects on which Gary Namie and I were interviewed.

Here’s a snippet:

For decades researchers have used questionnaires known as Machiavellianism (or Mach) scales to measure an individual’s capacity to engage in the manipulative, amoral, and deceitful behaviors espoused by the 15th century ends-justify-the-means diplomat. Recently psychologists found that those who score high on the 100-point Mach scale are also among those likeliest to engage in office bullying.

2. Evelin Lindner’s 2008 concept paper on societal transformation — In December 2008, Dr. Evelin Lindner, social scientist and founder of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) Network, presented a terrific think piece paper, The Need for a New World, that calls for a global society grounded in sustainability and human dignity. Here’s the lede from her concluding section (p. 25):

The problem of our time is that the emperor has no clothes, that we, humankind, are the emperor, and that almost nobody dared, until recently, to admit to our nakedness. It needed an economic meltdown to expose this nakedness in shocking ways. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan said that he was “in a state of shocked disbelief” and had been wrong in thinking that relying on banks to use their self-interest would be enough to protect shareholders and their equity. Still, many don’t see the emperor’s nakedness even now.

Evelin gave this paper just months after the economy imploded, at the annual HumanDHS workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict at Columbia University in New York. Four years later, with so many people still hoping that things will return to some form of “back to normal,” it remains a very relevant piece of commentary. Evelin will be talking about her book, A Dignity Economy, at an open program offered as part of this year’s workshop, on Thursday, December 6, at 5:00-8:00 p.m (flyer here).

3. A new look for the blog — I gave the blog a quick facelift. WordPress.com offers a variety of themes for its blogs, and I found this one, titled “Elemin,” and thought it would provide a crisp and appealing new look. I hope you enjoy it.

“Lincoln” on political leadership

The movie “Lincoln” is getting so many kudos right now that I’m a little embarrassed to jump on the bandwagon. But I can’t help myself: This is a fascinating historical piece and a dramatic civics lesson built around America’s 16th President and the legislative battle to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg, provides us with what may be the definitive screen portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. Although media accounts tell us that Spielberg — not wanting the movie to be interpreted as an overt political statement — intentionally withheld release of the movie until after the election, it is hard not to watch Day-Lewis and to wonder how Mr. Lincoln would do as President today.

Indeed, while “Lincoln” is a great film standing on its own, it also is a modern-day telegram to the current American President — and I’m sure that Barack Obama was always Spielberg’s desired recipient. President Obama is said to be enamored of Mr. Lincoln. However, during his first term, Mr. Obama all too often resembled George B. McClellan, the superbly organized but overly cautious Union general who frustrated Lincoln to no end and ran against him for President in 1864.

The takeaways of “Lincoln” to the President? I can think of at least three: Fight smart and bold, seize the moment when it presents itself, and get your hands dirty with the grime of politics when necessary.

Unlike our current chief executive, Mr. Lincoln had little formal education. And yet, beneath his outward folksiness, Lincoln was one of our most cerebral Presidents, having absorbed the likes of The Bible, Shakespeare, Euclid, and Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. He blended with his intellect a feel for people and a willingness to throw himself into the bloody war of politics.

President Obama has wowed many with his intellect, but he needs to do much more. He must translate that eloquence and intelligence into strong leadership. America and the world are still reeling from the economic downturn, the effects of climate change appear to be previewing even scarier things to come, and international armed conflicts abound. If the President needs a role model, he would do well to emulate his hero.

Walmart workers organizing for better pay and working conditions: Black Friday strike planned

It’s easy for me, a single guy with a decent income, to preach the evils of shopping at Walmart and other big box stores to folks who may be struggling to make ends meet, so I’ll pass on doing that.

Rather, I’ll simply suggest that we support workers who are sticking out their necks to create better jobs for themselves and for others. This includes a thumbs up to Walmart workers who have been engaging in labor actions to protest their low pay and poor working conditions.

Black Friday strike

Groups of Walmart workers are planning a Black Friday strike, the results of which also may signal the prospects of future union organizing at Walmart stores. I wish for them great success in sending their message.

To learn more

Watch the short video above and listen to the voices of Walmart workers asking to be compensated and treated fairly.

For an assortment of Huffington Post blog pieces about the significance of the Walmart labor actions, go here

For a mainstream assessment of what the Black Friday strike means to Walmart workers, the company, and its customers, see this Washington Post piece by Renee Dudley, here.


Monday, November 26 followup — The Black Friday labor protests fell well short of being a large scale walkout, but Daily Kos blogger Laura Clawson’s post summarizes actions taking place across the country.

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work

I’d like to share with you a disturbing, heartbreaking, and important new documentary, “Set for Life,” that tells the stories of Baby Boomers who have lost their jobs and who are trying to find work in the midst of our recessionary economy.

“Set for Life” is the work of journalist and producer Susan Sipprelle, assisted by filmmaker Samuel Newman (bios here). It centers on the ongoing sagas of three fiftysomething individuals searching for work, supplemented by interviews with experts and information that put their stories in context.

Introducing Joe Price, Deborah Salim, and George Ross

Sipprelle introduces her three main characters in an October Huffington Post blog post:

  • “Joe Price, a third-generation steelworker from Weirton, West Virginia, has been laid off seven times over the course of his 25-year career in the mill, but his most recent two-year layoff, which began in 2009, appears to be permanent.”
  • “Deborah Salim, of Conway, South Carolina, worked for 15 years in the records department at a local community college until she lost her job in 2008 due to government budget cutbacks.”
  • “George Ross, a Vietnam veteran and an information technology project manager in Livermore, California, lost his job in 2008. He searched for work until he was notified that his son, Jason, a Marine, had stepped on a buried mine in Afghanistan while on patrol.”

Having worked hard and done many of the right things, they believed that they were “set for life.” Sipprelle observes that recent years have taught them a harsh lesson to the contrary:

While the three main characters in Set for Life search for work in today’s daunting job market for older workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt, and health concerns. Thrust by the recession into a quest they never expected to face late in life, they ponder deeper questions that are relevant to everyone: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?

The bottom line? For many workers, the American Dream is no more. The assumption that working hard and playing by the rules would lead to a relatively comfortable retirement has been demolished.

Discrimination and bullying

It’s not just the bad economy that is doing a number on these workers. Not uncommonly, people in mid-life face age discrimination in their job searches. In the documentary, some of the laid-off workers express concerns about not getting a fair shake in the hiring process due to their respective ages. (In fact, I wish there would’ve been more expert commentary to put that topic into focus.) I’ve heard many similar stories in recent years.

Furthermore, although “Set for Life” does not examine how older workers confront workplace bullying, I can attest that many people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s have been savagely bullied out of their jobs, with lasting consequences for their careers and financial well-being. Anecdotally, it appears that single women, especially single mothers, are especially vulnerable to being targeted.

Missing piece

Despite its significance, the underlying narrative of “Set for Life” was largely neglected by just about everyone during the recent political campaign season. We heard the usual platitudes about making college more affordable for the young and preserving Social Security for seniors, but nothing examining the confluence of factors that has smacked around this demographic group so brutally.

Maybe “Set for Life” resonates so strongly with me because it is largely about my generation — that group of late Boomers caught in this horrible recession during what should be their peak earning years. Their stories of hardship, desperation, and heartbreak are playing across the nation, and shame on us if we do not take them seriously and demand that America’s employers and policy makers do the same.


To order a copy

“Set for Life” has been screened at independent film festivals and other programs, but if this subject interests you, I strongly recommend buying the DVD from the website at $19.99 including shipping and handling. For a short preview video, go here.

Facebook page

“Set for Life” also has a Facebook page, here.


For a review of “Set for Life” on the Next Avenue blog, here.

Working Notes: Atlanta Journal-Constitution on workplace bullying; previewing a handbook for bullying targets in MA

Here are a couple of items for your perusal, sent on a cool November day in Boston:

1. Atlanta Journal-Constitution on workplace bullying — As a followup to the Fulton County (GA) Commission’s adoption of a workplace bullying policy covering all county workers (blog post here), AJC editorial page writer Rick Badie pulled together a package of op-ed pieces on workplace bullying by Gary Namie (Workplace Bullying Institute), Sameer Hinduja (Florida Atlantic University), and yours truly. Here’s his lede:

Last week, Fulton County banned bullying in the workplace, making it a firable offense. The director of a workplace institute praises Commissioner Bill Edwards, who proposed the rules for addressing the harm bullying inflicts on victims and the work environment. While a criminal justice professor applauds anti-bullying policies intent, he says they aren’t an instant answer. And another professor suggests that Georgia adopt legislation geared to deter bullying.

2. Coming attraction: NWI handbook for MA workplace bullying targets — Early next year, the New Workplace Institute will release a short handbook for workplace bullying targets in Massachusetts, containing basic information on employee benefit programs and obtaining legal advice. Kimberly Webster, a Northeastern University law student who is interning with the Institute, is the lead researcher and author, with editing and drafting assistance from me.

The handbook will provide information on workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, Family and Medical Leave, Social Security disability, health care coverage, and legal options, as well as guidance on sorting through these possibilities. As the numerous disclaimers will make clear, the handbook will not substitute for obtaining legal advice, but it may lead people in the right direction for accessing available assistance. Also, because much of the relevant information is state-specific, the handbook will be of limited use to people in other states.

The employee benefits and legal situation for bullying targets is far from ideal. However, we hope that this short handbook, which will be available for a nominal fee, will illuminate the options. We also hope that it will serve as an example for those in other states who wish to develop a similar project.

Georgia’s Fulton County draws from Healthy Workplace Bill in adopting anti-bullying policy

The Commissioners of Fulton County, Georgia, by a 7 to 0 vote, have adopted a workplace anti-bullying policy that covers county employees. Under the policy, suspension and termination are possible sanctions for those who engage in severe bullying behaviors.

The Fulton County measure draws its definition of bullying from the Healthy Workplace Bill, model legislation I drafted that is serving as the template for bills introduced across the country. The policy prohibits abusive conduct such as repeated derogatory insults and epithets; conduct of a threatening or intimidating nature; and the deliberate sabotage of someone’s work.

The policy initiative was spearheaded by County Commissioner William Edwards. Fulton County is a major governmental entity; it encompasses most of metropolitan Atlanta.


This is yet another sign of growing receptivity to legal protections against workplace bullying in the U.S., and it serves as a tacit endorsement of how the Healthy Workplace Bill has defined workplace bullying. It also helps to validate our strategy of building support for workplace bullying laws by using the states and local governments as laboratories for legal reform.

This approach, in turn, is helping us to build national visibility for our movement. This was exemplified last month by a successful news conference about the Healthy Workplace Bill at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., hosted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and featuring speaking appearances by national labor and civil rights leaders.

The Fulton County measure follows a string of successes by healthy workplace advocates during last month’s Freedom from Workplace Bullies Week. Not only did the week include the aforementioned Washington news conference and a successful program in Boston, but also it resulted in some 100 proclamations of support from county and municipal governments across the nation.


For more on the Fulton County policy, go to Dr. Gary Namie’s blog commentary here. For the full resolution and policy, go here.

For Veterans Day: Leadership and heroism

In honor of America’s Veterans Day, a couple of recent posts and an older one recognizing leadership and heroism by those serving in uniform:

Cuban Missile Crisis 1962: Cooler heads prevailed on and under the sea, as well (2012)

Great leadership rarely appears overnight (2012)

When your job requires courage and sacrifice: Here’s to the Fighting 442nd (2009)

Our sacred places of the mind: Libraries, universities, and the Internet

Bates Hall reading room, Boston Public Library, Central Branch (photo: David Yamada)

I’m what some labor economists call a “knowledge worker.” In other words, I make my living via the consumption, intrepretation, creation, and presentation of information and facts. I’m hardly alone with this designation; millions of people also make their living via one of the knowledge trades.

Of course, I’m also a geek. I love books, reading, thinking about stuff, tossing around ideas, and hanging around places where others are doing the same, in person or virtually.

Indeed, I can identify with the late Carl Sagan, who once said that if he could travel back in time to a single place, it would be to the ancient library and museum at Alexandria, Egypt. Until its destruction some 1,700 years ago — most likely ransacked and burned in the midst of violent religious conflict — the library held almost every book known to humankind. The museum was a storehouse of the history of world civilization. It also served as a research institute and school, providing a home for the world’s leading scholars to think, write, experiment, and teach.

My fascination with such places has led me to ask: What are our contemporary sacred places of the mind, those entities that preserve, create, and share knowledge?

I nominate as my top three: Libraries, universities, and — yes — the Internet.


I enjoy working at the central branch of the Boston Public Library, especially in the beautiful and historic Bates Hall reading room (pictured above). I usually sit at one of the long tables, with laptop open and surrounded by various papers. On occasion I’ll look around and wonder who might be working on the next great novel, groundbreaking historical work, or scientific breakthrough. Even though my own tasks are of comparatively modest ambition, I feel a quiet kinship with these serious library denizens.

Libraries, especially public libraries, rank among our greatest inventions. Even with the vast resources of the Internet, we must preserve these repositories of human accomplishment that freely open themselves to people thirsting to consume and create knowledge. A public library card remains a ticket to a free and thrilling adventure. We cannot forget what that means.


Especially in the U.S., institutions of higher learning are under fire these days. Tuition has been soaring for decades, and now, with an economy still struggling, the job market has been turning away many people who have invested time, money, and energy into earning a degree. With countless learning opportunities available for free or at little cost through independent study and the Internet, the basic utility of a college education now is being questioned.

In the meantime, too many academic workplaces have moved toward over-specialization, insularity, and elitism. In terms of scholarship, graduate students and new professors are encouraged by their mentors to research and write on narrow, esoteric topics. Linkages between scholarly research and the real world increasingly are becoming frayed.

However, I cannot imagine a world without our universities. They remain our best providers of higher learning, places where knowledge transmission to (mostly!) willing minds takes place on a daily basis. They continue to provide space for research and scholarship, free from the dictates of commercialism and short time frames. Furthermore, the presence of a college or university usually has an energizing ripple effect on the cultural and intellectual life of its surrounding city or town.

The Internet

Oh my, there’s so much junk and unsavory stuff on the Internet that it may seem plain wrong to call it a sacred place. The bottom end of the Internet captures some of the worst of our culture and behavior.

And yet, the Internet is a stupendous human achievement, even if it’s too raw and new for us to regard it as such. Aided by powerful search engines, it is the most expansive storehouse of knowledge, information, and exchange in our history. And while it may be true that many of us spend too much time on it, we have yet to exhaust its possibilities as a communications medium.

Barring some cataclysmic meltdown, the Internet is primed to become our library at Alexandria, only more comprehensive and universally accessible, and with greater promise to create and share knowledge.

Yes, sacred

I realize that invoking the term sacred in connection with a good number of secular institutions may raise eyebrows.

But I use the term carefully. These three entities house and nurture our civilization; they help to ensure that our words and deeds are made available for current and future generations.

When I read about the destruction of the library and museum at Alexandria, I am struck by the tremendous sense of loss. Thousands of years of collected knowledge were taken from us, as scholars continue to lament the works of history, science, mathematics, philosophy, and poetry that will never be recovered.

The disappearance of our libraries, universities, and the Internet would be as tragic and haunting as what happened in Alexandria many, many years ago. We must safeguard and protect them.


If you’re as geeky as I am, some recommendations:

Ian F. McNeely with Lisa Wolverton, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet (2008)

Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern Mind (2006)

Jacques Verger, Men of Learning in Europe at the End of the Middle Ages (2000)

Diane Asseo Griliches (photos) with Daniel J. Boorstin (essay), Library: The Drama Within (1996)

Julius Getman, In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education (1992)

Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (1987)

Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of Universities (1957)

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