Arbitrary Arbitrators

My dad told me I’d enjoy college; that one day there I’d look around and realize that I – by far – was not the smartest person in the room. He was right; I enjoyed that as an undergraduate, and learned so much from learning with people far brighter than I am. But as a graduate student it’s been much harder to enjoy the sense the I lag far behind my classmates.

In graduate school I’ve had teachers suggest I consider leaving my academic program; reflecting doubts I’ve had. Professors have told me I wasn’t suited to the work; I don’t fit the mold. I’ve failed so many exams that you’d think I did it for fun. It’s hard not to take the comments and poor grades personally, since I’m the one earning them with my performance. But the truth is that while my professors’ statements hurt, their grading should not. Every single professor – so far – has awarded me a passing grade. Sometimes it’s the lowest possible passing grade, but that doesn’t hold me back. As they say, actions speak louder than words. Even though the words sting.

 

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Message that greeted me outside school. Perhaps they shouldn’t give the students chalk during finals week.

Words, on the other hand, also show that how grades are earned can vary on the day. One of my professors assigned each of us to a group of five, and then had those groups both write a paper together and present it as a team. Since it was a group presentation, all of the comments were supposed to address the full group. However, the professor made an exception for me, writing; “Hannah’s presentation was very powerful. She came across as very well prepared and confident. Really grabbed our attention. Very convincing.” This is the same teacher who felt that our paper – heavily edited by yours truly – was “very lively, but at times it seemed a bit overly expressive given the subject matter of the paper.” Same verve, different grade.

So, maybe I can’t win. But I can accept my grades with good grace. While a bad grade may make me feel stupid, it does not mean that I am; it just means that I’m surrounded by people who know more than me.

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Masters in Machiavelli

My graduate school teachers say group projects are where we learn to work with others in a collaborative, innovative environment. In actuality, group projects are where Machiavelli learned to conquer weaker-willed foes. The Prince is gone, the CEO lives – and he’s got all sorts of ticks up his sleeve. Here are the ones I’ve witnessed:

Hard ball: To play hardball you have to hold all the cards. If you’re holding all the cards, why are playing a game? Name your price and get on with it.

Charm: Sure, it’s important to know your audience in order to charm them into complacency. But more important: your silence. Silent enthusiastic agreement is a bridge builder. Say too much and you can set someone off. Silent? You might be thought wiser than you are. May that be the worst thing to happen to you.

Phantom: People don’t like you? Not a problem. Have someone they like talk to them. Even better, explain that a number of people have been suggesting – not you of course, you’d never think to question them – and you want to know how we, as a group, can best incorporate those suggestions. Best to try this one on a day when the sole beloved member of your group is absent.

Planting the seed: The people don’t hate you, yet. Play on their good graces, and make them think your idea was dreamed up by them. Phrase your idea as a question, and when they repeat it, jump on it as though you’d never thought of it. To seal the deal: praise their insight.

Prompt: Skip the planting and go straight to harvesting. Start the conversation by saying that you want to follow up on the group’s earlier idea. Who is going to deny having an idea once you’ve professed how its brilliance won you over – and would they be able to weight in on how you think it could maybe be expanded?

No alternatives: If you can all agree there’s a problem, you’re halfway there. Tell them there are a finite number of solutions, and propose truly horrendous ideas with no redeeming value. Remember, zero redeeming value, because people will fall on a weak idea like it’s a saving grace. Then, make the last option the only palatable one.

Booster club: If there’s a group project and you need a certain number of votes to go your way, cheer the influencers in inconsequential things. “Your hair looks amazing!” “Where did you get that coat? It’s divine.” “You led the last meeting with such a sense of command and insight, could you do so again?” When it’s go time, you’ve already made it clear that the two, or more, of  you are on the same team. You’re halfway there before you start. All that remains is to present your idea as building on something they’ve implicitly agreed to.

Scored earth: Tear down everyone else’s plans by any means necessary. It’s messy and potentially bridge burning. Do so only if the alternative is French occupation of invaded Russia.

Everyone but Me

Everyone is graduating. Except those people who already graduated. Oh, and me: still slogging through school.

My mind knows that there are other people still in school, I just find it hard to believe. There must be toddlers just starting on their academic career, high schoolers eager for college and even more for their senior year, and people I pass in my school’s hallways who have years to go before they earn their degree.

But I’m in my senior seminar. In the fall, every other person in that room will head out to work in the morning and home at night. They will not stop at school on their back. Instead, they’ll leave the office, go straight home, put on pjs, and fall asleep. Or maybe they’ll cook themselves a hot dinner. Or – possibly only the craziest among us – will leave their offices, drop their worries, and go out on the town. They’ll see a show! Get dinner with friends! Run through a sprinkler!

Meanwhile, come fall, I’ll go to work and will leave only to head back to school. I’ll have another semester of cold dinners – the kind that I cook on Sunday and hope aren’t rotten by Thursday. I’ll do all my errands on the way too, from, or at, work. Weekends, and any free nights, will be dedicated to homework and projects, and on those few precious weeks when I don’t have something due, grocery shopping.

One day, with god’s help, I’ll have those things again. Till then, run through a sprinkler for me.*

 

*I’m not actually a sprinkler-runner, but I’m happy to encourage fancy-free behavior if that’s your thing.

 

Keep Ya Head Up

My teacher asked me to meet with him to discuss my midterm. While I found his grading, and class, absurd, I was happy to comply; I hoped to glean some idea of how to prepare for the final. The meeting was as unhelpful as his classes. He told me what he didn’t like about my answers and refused to address any questions. The only thing he let slip was that the final would be different from the midterm. I thanked him for his time, and was packing up my papers when he started talking again.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying this, and I assume you already know,” he began. “I’m sure you’ve been told this before, but in case you haven’t I thought I should mention it. You speak with confidence.”

I stared at him curiously. I generally speak loudly, but that’s more a reflection of my impaired hearing than confidence. He kept talking, so I didn’t interrupt to explain.

“You really shouldn’t speak so confidently. It makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about. You sound certain, and it makes people believe you. I believed what you said last class. I thought I was right, but you sounded so certain that I backed off. And you were wrong and now you have egg on your face.”

During the prior class the teacher had brought up the legal structure of a local government agency. Since I work closely with the agency I had corrected him and assumption of the article he’d quoted. I’m still pretty sure that I was right, since I’d discussed the exact issue with an employee at that office the prior week. But now – I’m questioning myself.

“You speak strongly. I can’t tell if this is intentional or not but the way you speak makes you sound dismissive of other students when you say things which counter what they’ve said. I’m only saying this to help you. You should find a way to say things so that when you’re wrong you don’t wind up with so much egg on your face and disregarding other people.”

Believing my teacher had his students best interests in mind when giving that rebuke, I took his words to heart. Once I was done crying, I told my sister the story.

“He would never have said that if you were a man,” she said bluntly. “Or if he did, it would be as a compliment.”

I’ve never felt anyone behaved criminally against me because I’m a woman. But there are actions more insidious than crimes. Actions which we must first recognize as wrong before they can be stopped. Circumstances can only change if we, as sisters and brothers, stand against them.

Because as 2pac – who, despite his gross misogyny, conviction for sexual abuse, and other crimes, had the occasional discerning idea – sings,

But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up/

Forgive but don’t forget, girl, keep your head up

 

It is so easy for those of us who can no longer remember not being surrounded by professional people to take this simple truth for granted: You cannot imagine and dream what you haven’t been informed of.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

He complained that I wasn’t responding in class, which was true enough because I didn’t know what the hell was going on. “But damn it,”  he concluded, “you served your country, and that’s what counts!” He gave me a B and I stayed away from accounting for the rest of my life.

– Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

Backup Plan

Leave a place cleaner than you found it – that’s the Boy Scout motto.* However, since I was never a boy scout, I never adopted their motto as my own. Instead, as a diligent girl scout, I embraced their motto instead: Be Prepared.

When I was a girl scout, I carried a medical kit with me everywhere. I still do.

When I started college, I carried writing supplies with me everywhere. I still do.

When I started working, I came up with a backup plan in case my career fell apart. Rather, Special Correspondent Ellen came with a plan for the two of us: we could work at Trader Joe’s and wear the Hawaiian shirt uniform. The job would keep us in health insurance, food, and cheery clothing. Moreover, we’d live longer thanks to the constant core  workout of lifting heavy boxes. Unfortunately, Trader Joe’s switched out their hawaiian shirts for crew-team tshirts a few years ago. Ever since, I’ve been searching for a new backup career.

Last week my search ended in an unexpected way. My professor, for a class in which I’ve done little work, and spoken even less, declared I had a future his field: speech-writing. Actually, it took some time and my badge to convince him that I wasn’t already a speech-writer. Apparently, this line from my essay was the tip-off,

…From the ivy leagues of the east coast, to the state colleges of the prairies, from those delving into tax to those fascinated by bankruptcy…

I took the teacher’s compliment with good grace and thanks. I did not point out that the eloquence of my essay had more to do with realizing I needed to produce 500 words 35 minutes before it was a due – an occurrence which encourages repeated phrases, lyrical descriptions, and – for me at least – cribbing the writings of civil and labor activists from the last 100 years. Because when you’re going for wordy bombast, the best people are those who have nothing other than words between them and despair.

So, words at the ready, I typed out 489 words in 30 minutes. My teacher was pleased enough to suggest an alternative career for me. Unfortunately, while he liked my prose, he took issue with my lack of detail. The grade: B. Though, as he pointed out, many of my classmates didn’t deserve any grade. I don’t mind the grade. What I do mind is that he undermined my message. He cut my last line,

Yours in unity and fortitude,

I’d like to think that that line would have made the girl scouts proud. Now, I guess we’ll never know. But as a consolation prize, an alternative career isn’t half bad.

 

 

*According to Dad. Not independently verified.

The Ice Ceiling

The clock stuck midnight and a winner was declared; “The Ice Ceiling” is officially the title of my project.

As a thank you for giving me a title, I give you the first assignment in the project:

Executive Summary

Many people feel that ice cream makes their lives worthwhile. For others, ice cream’s worth is what makes their livelihood. The population that enjoys ice cream remains stagnant, but the population of ice cream sellers has shifted in recent years. Increasingly, the people behind the counter – designing recipes, dreaming up marketing schemes, and strategizing for the future – are women. Women, across the globe, are making ice cream their business.

However, nothing comes with a cherry on top for the women of ice cream. Their growing numbers have uncovered the slimy underbelly of this delicious industry. The ice cream business, as we know it, was not made for women. Currently, worldwide, the business is organized by large corporations with vast distribution networks. Every few years, a new company – invariably lead by a man – takes its place in that established ice cream field. But women don’t want to work that way.

Women are not trying to take the ice cream world by storm, but with a gentle flurry. Rather than dominate the entire market, their focus is on specific niches of the business which interest them. What unites these female entrepreneurs is a mind-set: using their individual skill set to make the world of ice cream their own. The resulting businesses are as varied as an ice cream shop’s display case – socially-driven companies, custom-flavored pints, and local establishments. But they are united by a belief that utilizing their natural skills and interests elevate their ice cream game. These new ice cream queens – running subscription services, non-profit shops, and truck stands – share one element: their businesses appeal to both the owner and their self-selecting audience. Because these women know their ice cream, and know you do too.

Ice Cream: Name is the Game

Help is at hand. From you. I’ve been presented with a challenge and I need your assistance to succeed.

It started with my teacher. He is pretty smart, but he made one mistake. Though it’s his first time teaching, he’s managed to keep everyone engaged and productive from 8:15pm – 10:15pm, twice a week, for a month. That takes a force of will, sharp wits, and a drive to educate. He needs all of those to make it through a class, and the effort has worn him down so that he forgot one key ingredient to success – foresight.

Our teacher assumed that because we’re in a business communications course that we would want to focus on business issues – finance, marketing, account, or maybe management. So, he told us that for our final project we could deviate from the assigned topic – business issues in 2016 – and instead work on whatever topic we wanted. His instructions fell on hungry ears. Rather, I strained to hear his directions over the rumbling of my stomach. It’s no coincidence that my topic came to without any thought.

Ice cream.

I’ve written out my essay, cited my sources, and I’m nearly ready to lecture the class about it. But I have yet to choose a title. The story, as it has come together is about ice cream, women, and the challenges they face in business. From Rwanda to Milwaukee, women are selling ice cream in new and novel ways. And my classmates will be hearing all about it. To capture their attention – and an A – I need a title that hooks them from the get-go. Thankfully you’re here to provide it.

 

Worms, Cheese, and Freedom From Prejudice

The early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second – or third, or fourth – mouse who gets the cheese

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This is what they are teaching at business school. I suppose it’s helpful for those who don’t already know that all movements have precedents. But they all do, including the civil rights movement we celebrate today.

Rosa Parks was not the first woman who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. She was not the second. But she joined the NAACP to make sure she’d be the last person who was told that she had to give up her seat due to her skin color. Thanks to Claudette Colvin, Rosa Parks, and all those who got up early to seize the day, I wish you a Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!