16 December 2014

Running at Fort Dix

Having arrived in New Jersey from the Arabia Time Zone, I find myself awake at 3:00 am the first few mornings, though the time doesn't correspond with anything that suggests I should be waking up at that time eight hours ahead. But I take advantage by running.

It's colder here than in Kuwait.

It had been snowing lightly a couple of hours before. A film of snow dust glimmers on the cinder track. Ice on the roads makes a lonely morning run dangerous.

A bitter cold in my face, Dennis Lehane still in my ears. I log three miles.

Two nights later I run less precariously, and pay more attention to the place. My memories of Fort Dix are limited, but clear. We were here for six weeks in the spring, and my fetish for Army Basic Training left me with an unfulfilled craving for some Fort Dix history.

So I run to explore. Past the old basic training barracks that shelter us now. Past the famous water tower on 16th Street. Past a minimum security federal prison that occupies buildings and yards where trainees undoubtedly slept and trained a generation ago.

I run away from main roads to avoid being seen. I am a grown man, trying to get a work out, but I am irrationally fearful of someone who outranks me calling me out for wearing headphones. They are unauthorized, you know.



There is an unused road just west of the prison, near a water retention basin and a wooded area. It has been chewed up and spit out by the elements, and weeds find their way through infinite cracks. It curves around as if it once smiled on idyllic officer quarters, but no buildings remain. I can only guess what might have once stood there.

Another night I run by the old Walson Army Medical Center, which is supposed to be haunted. It's darker over here, which is convenient for the souls who do the haunting. When I nearly trip over a branch I am convinced it is a ghoul grabbing at my feet.

All this running makes me wonder what Fort Dix was like in its heyday. There is a museum here, which also may be haunted, because no one is there when I visit. Eventually I meet Mindy, the very friendly curator. She sent me the photos.

As is the case with KAF, BAF, and Arifjan, I am unlikely to run here again. If I do, you'll get the report.


13 December 2014

Eight Simple Tips for Better Army Presentations

Why is it so funny to watch people fall asleep when they are trying to stay awake? I have a video of my then-two-year-old sitting upright and falling asleep. His head bobs down, wakes him up, and his eyelids smoothly lower again. Hilarious!

Adults are even funnier, though the motions are the same. It happened yesterday during what the Army calls "briefings." To form, the presenter wasn't particularly skilled at gaining attention, keeping it, or getting us "gazers" involved in learning.

Now I'll admit, having congressionally mandated classes with attendance enforced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice isn't a recipe for classroom innovation. But for those of you who want to be effective at dispensing knowledge that your students will actually take away from a class they might appreciate and remember in a good way, here are eight super easy tips to incorporate into your military presentations. If you're Army, you might even say they're "too easy."

1. Don't Apologize
I hear this all the time-- instructors say they're sorry the students have to sit through this. They wish they didn't have to, but those darn bureaucrats have insisted this class be given, and that it last six hours. They are admitting defeat up front, and if the presenter doesn't believe in the material, then students probably won't either. If you apologize for the course material or for having to teach it, you've lost an opportunity to make an impact. Sell your material!

2. Move Around
"The sage on the stage," is how we refer to it in the civilian world, and derisively so. No human wants to watch you talk in front of them for hours on end. Most people can barely handle a concert for more than two hours, and Taylor Swift puts on a quite a show, I'm told. What's her secret? She moves! So should you, it makes a big difference. Try pacing up and down the aisles. You can talk just as easily from the back of the room as from the front, so mix it up.

3. Follow the 20-minute Rule
Also mix it up by shutting up. Just as we don't want to see you in the same spot the entire class time, we don't want to listen to you the whole time, either. Don't do the same thing for more than 20 minutes. There are various rules of thumb for how long different age groups can pay attention, but 20 minutes has been a good limit in my experience teaching. It's not that you aren't a subject matter expert, it's just that you don't need to prove it. Remember, your objective is for your students to learn something. After 20 minutes, most people are just going to stop listening. Unless you're Taylor Swift.

4. Track your Teacher-Student Talk Ratio
But if other people are talking, your clock resets, so get others involved. If a student can say the same thing you would have said, let her. And other people can read, so let them. And there are quite a few experts among these classes. You're not teaching calculus, so get over yourself and let others do some of the teaching. I like to keep the student participation level at about half the time, and I can tell if I'm hogging it because attention starts to wane. So track and adjust.

5. Ask Questions
One way to get students involved is to ask questions. It sounds simple, because it is! But I'm always amazed at how seldom presenters do it. One teaching model demands that teachers ask questions about five times a minute! That's hard, and it might be excessive. But generally more is better. And your questions can be leading, so make them part of your teaching, as in, "What are some things you can do to improve communication with your kids?" I'll bet that all the answers in the textbook will be identified by the audience.

6. Trigger Various Learning Styles
The reason people fall asleep in these classes is because they are just sitting there! It's harder to fall asleep if they are doing something. And, crazy thing, doing is a better way to learn. Just ask Taylor Swift. (Okay, going a little long on the TS references.) Learning styles are probably arbitrary constructs, but they help good teachers vary their instruction. Have students talk to one another. Have them write. Have them read. Have them watch. Have them move. You'll activate various strengths with each activity, and your students won't have the opportunity to fall asleep.

7. Use Examples
Knowledge has to be generalized. I get it. But people don't think in generalities. They think in terms of specific, unique circumstances. Use those examples to make your point. Most people do this, but some instructors need a reminder. So here's an example: the guy giving a financial management class today talked about "when a company was overvalued, the stock did such and such..." Which company? How about telling us what happened to the value of Apple stock in 1997? Or, since you're taking my suggesting to heart (#6) ask a participant to share his example of a particular stock purchase and describe what it meant. Taylor Swift would approve (alright, that's enough!)

8. Give an Assessment
Instruction is one of those things that should be measured. Administer a quiz or survey, or some other tool that will help students evaluate whether they got something value from it.

Most people will have to present at some point. Please, for the sake of our vets who have served, let's get these post-deployment presentations on track. Something about Taylor Swift should emphasize my point. 

12 December 2014

Reserve Soldiers Eager to Fight the War on Christmas

Thousands of National Guard and Army Reserve troops are frustrated that they will not be able to deploy in support of operations associated with the "War on Christmas," according to military officials.

The National Guard Bureau and the United States Army Reserve Command have both been inundated by questions about upcoming deployments. 

Many reservists (which include Guardsmen) relied on lucrative deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan for their livelihood. With deployments to Afghanistan slowing to a trickle and a large mobilization to Iraq unlikely, these soldiers are facing the prospect of real jobs in the civilian sector. 

"We have systems in place for individual Guard members to volunteer for overseas and stateside Title 10 deployments," said Lt. Col. Tiara Coley. "But we've been swamped with calls and online requests for information about deployments in the War on Christmas," she said.

Title 10 refers to the section of the U.S. Code that puts reservists in active-duty status. 

Coley said she is "a little confused" about why Guard members think they can serve in the war.

Sgt. Travis Winston, a combat engineer with the Colorado Army National Guard, said he was disappointed to learn the "War on Christmas" wasn't a real war.

"My first sergeant told me to check it out, but when I started making calls, I was told that the war was metaphorical. Must be some new type of warfare that doesn't require boots on ground," Winston said.

Winston was hoping for a deployment, mostly for the money.

"With seven years in, I could stash away like $5000 a month," he said. But if they don't let me go, I guess I'll just get a seasonal position at Costco. "Plus I really like Christmas, and I don't think we should let the terrorists take it away."

Winston is not alone. Operations officers at the National Guard Bureau say that in the past three weeks they have received over 6,000 requests for information about how to sign on for the War on Christmas. At the Reserve Command, officials didn't give a precise number, but confirmed "an unusual interest" in an operation that doesn't even exist.

"We haven't received any mobilization orders from FORSCOM (U.S. Army Forces Command) for such an operation," Coley said. "I think these soldiers are watching too much Fox News."

But Coley didn't entirely rule out a future mobilization. "If the chiefs or the president issue the order, we'll be ready," Coley said. "If there is a war that America can get behind, our soldiers will be ready to fight it."

11 December 2014

Organizational Time Wasters—What Are They?

I'm struggling to describe a phenomenon that is acute in the military, but it must exist in many other organizations.

The realization came to me more than five years ago, while deployed to Kosovo. I found myself spending inordinate time doing tasks that merely kept me in good standing with the Army bureacracy. 

Some might be tempted to call these things maintenance or compliance tasks. But they were more wasteful than the former implied, and less a bow to outside authority or regulations than the latter suggests.

They were things like updating this or that form, verifying the accuracy of a piece of data by resubmitting several pages of data, and giving information to a new person in charge because the last person in charge has been reassigned.

A classic one is redoing an online "cyber-awareness" training module because you haven't logged into your network account for 30 days.

It has only got worse. For instance, our demobilization rituals here at Fort Dix include completing medical forms eight or nine times, all with the same information. It will clearly speed things up for the medical personnel who have to see us, dozens after dozens, but this is information that a) is simply repeated on several similar forms, and b) the military already has! A junior high drop out could come up with multiple ways to get that information replicated and delivered to the right people, all before I show up in the flesh.

You know of our travel adventures. Did you know that we did pre-deployment stuff here in New Jersey for six weeks before landing in Afghanistan? And once we got there it was at least two weeks before we were really up to speed. The flip side of that is two weeks to a month before leaving theater most units start scaling back operations in order to accomplish the dauntingand I used that word advisedlyjob of major movement. So in a seven-month deployment the Army might get four and a half month's worhth of solid woork out of me.

I understand that the two things, the time-wasting tasks and the ramp-up and ramp-down time that bookend operations, are different. But they lead to the same thing: inefficiency. And it really comes down to this: Soldiers spend less and less of their time and energy doing the work the Army hired them to do, and more time and energy on simply being in compliance with broader organizational requirements.

Anyway, I'm trying to find out more about these maintenance tasks in the organizational literature. And I can't. Someone has had to come across this.

What would you call it?