Understanding Entrepreneurship -- Part II -- New Beginnings

Whenever I teach this JTerm course on entrepreneurship, friends and colleagues often ask me “do you miss it?” Meaning do I miss the business world. The answer has always been, “yes, but I love teaching even more.” This year the answer is different, this year the answer is… “yes, and I’m excited to tell you that I’m leaving Luther to start a new company!” Spring Semester of 2018 will be my last semester as a full time faculty member at Luther. I have accepted the separation agreement offered by Luther, and I’m really looking forward to the next chapter in my life and career!

This was not an easy decision – I have enjoyed my time at Luther, and Jane and I could not have asked for a better place to raise our family. JTerm is always a powerful reminder of how great our students are, and how much I enjoy getting to know them beyond the classroom. But, Kaia and Josh have both graduated from college, Kaia is married, in grad school, with a house, and three dogs in Sioux Falls, Josh has a great girlfriend, and a job he likes in Wisconsin. In short, they are launched (yay us!).

We are ready for the next phase of our lives. So, the house in Decorah is for sale and we have a down payment on a condo in downtown Minneapolis! We close and move in September of 2018! The bike trails are out the back door, we have a view of the Stone Arch bridge, the Guthrie is three blocks away, the light rail to the new MNUFC (Loons) stadium is a four block walk! It is a 15 minute bike ride to our friends Brian and Holly for happy hour! What could be better? – Well, if we could convince a few Decorah friends to move to Minneapolis that would be perfect, but we try not to be greedy.

Runestone Interactive, LLC

So, this January I’ve been listening very closely and thinking about how all of these great stories and advice apply to a guy in his mid-50’s. I’m leaving a tenured faculty position, at a college I love dearly to start a new company. Here is what I take away.

We heard the following from a lot of different people: “follow your passion!” Well, I admit I’ve told my students this many many times (although I could write a full post on the perils of telling 19 year olds that they need a passion.) But I have to say that for as much as I enjoy teaching at Luther College, Runestone Interactive has definitely become a passion. Runestone has grown from a small project for 30 Luther students few years ago, to supporting over 20,000 students each day from over 600 institutions around the world. This growth has all happened through word of mouth. No advertising, No booths at trade shows, no sales force, no full time development team! I really think that Runestone could be 2,000,000 students a day with focus and full time effort. – Yes, former students, that is what I think about in the shower in the morning!

The separation incentive offered by Luther gives me the opportunity to start a new company, incorporating what I learned from all the mistakes I made the first time around with Net Perceptions, and all of the experience I’ve gained in the last 15 years of teaching. It gives me one year to figure out if there is a business model that will keep the basic features and the books of Runestone free to everyone, while allowing me to build a small business that pays a salary, and hopefully allows me to bring others on board to work on this with me. It allows me to (1) follow a passion, (2) make the world a better place and (3) to play my part in “righting the wrong” that is textbook publishing today. Yes, $300 for a paperback textbook is a wrong! Wow, count them, that is three awesome reasons to start a company!

Democratizing Textbooks for the 21st Century

In our discussions of Guy Kawasaki’s books during JTerm we talked about companies needing a mantra. I think that the Mantra for Runestone is “Democratizing textbooks for the 21st century”. This could be another whole post, but I’ll just say that there is a huge need for computer scientists and there are a lot of well meaning, (but potentially under-prepared) teachers out there who we can help teach computer science. This is true at the high-school level where computer science is getting traction again, as well as many small colleges where it is almost impossible to find a computer science PhD who is willing to work for what small colleges can pay.

The second piece of Runestone is in the interactive nature of the books. Textbooks should not be static, read-only, words. Textbooks in the 21st century should engage the reader in interactive learning. Textbooks should also give instructors insight into what their students understand and what their students are struggling with… Textbooks should help answer the question “How can I maximize my time in the classroom today?”

Get Uncomfortable

We heard a lot about seeking opportunities that make you uncomfortable. It is through these uncomfortable experiences that you grow. For the last 15 years this has happened through teaching (especially new courses), and traveling to new places (many times with students) and experiencing new cultures. Leaving my faculty position – where I have almost total job security – is definitely a move in an uncomfortable direction. Especially for someone over the age of 50. But, I am convinced this is the right thing to do.

Creating a culture, charting your own course

We heard from a lot of people that had worked in both large and small companies about how great it was to be part of a small organization. in a startup, everything you do is important. From making the coffee in the morning, to setting strategic direction. I get that. I remember those early days from Net Perceptions. I miss those days. I miss that sense of ownership for the whole enterprise. The “shared governance” model used by most small colleges is about as far from agile as you can get.

This course reminded me, yet again, why I admire Jeff Bezos and the culture he has built at Amazon. I was blown away that all of the young people we spoke with at Amazon understood and could talk about many, if not all of, the 14 leadership principles. If you don’t know them here they are:

  • Amazon’s Leadership Principles

    • Customer Obsession

    • Ownership

    • Invent and Simplify

    • Are Right, a Lot

    • Learn and be Curious

    • Hire and Develop the Best

    • Insist on the Highest Standards

    • Think Big

    • Bias for Action

    • Frugality

    • Earn Trust

    • Dive Deep

    • Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

    • Deliver Results

You can get more detail on each of them here. But I can only fantasize what a great company Runestone would be if I put these into action. I also think that higher-ed could benefit from all of these principles, but the conditions are so hard to make this happen!

So as I finish up this post, I have a week until Spring Semester classes begin. Am I sad that this is my last semester? Of course! Luther College is such an integral part of my life – I’m an alumni, a parent of an alumni, a faculty member, and a donor. I’ll only be losing one of those four tags. I look forward to finding new ways that I can serve the college in the future. I’ll also miss the students and all of the energy they bring. I’ll miss watching them grow and develop into the successful entrepreneurs, developers, and managers that so many of them have become. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy my final semester to the max. I get to teach two of my favorite classes, and I’m eliminating non-essential committee work to go out on a high note!

Understanding Entrepreneurship -- Lessons Learned (part I)

The students are on the plane home, and I am now in Napa taking a few days of R&R and thinking about what I learned during the month of January. TLDR – Lots! But the two things I would like to focus on are the answers to the questions:

  1. What can we do better to prepare our students for the real world in the computer science department at Luther College?

  2. What stands out the most to me from all our meetings? This was also a question that some of our hosts asked of the students in the closing days of the course; and one I hope they will reflect on in their final papers. So, it seems only fair that I do the same.

I’ll do this in two parts. This is part I.

Redwood Hike

How can we (Luther CS dept) do better?

One of the best things about this trip was the number of alumni we got to meet with, several of whom are alumni of this course. I’ll take a brief diversion to brag a bit – We have alumni at Amazon, Microsoft, YouTube and Google. We have alumni at small companies like SafeGraph and Benetech. All of them were super gracious to meet and host this latest group.

Another standout lesson revolves around continually improving. We heard lots of great testimonials for “lifelong learning”. I think this is one of the consistent themes I’ve heard at Luther over my 15 years at the college. As a department, I think that is one of the things we have done well over the years too. Asking the question regularly about how we can improve.

We asked the Luther alumns a couple of questions each time we met with one. What advice do you have for the students as they move on from Luther? What do you wish you had learned at Luther that you did not?

The answer to the second question was nearly unanimous, and quite surprising to me. It is just two words: Unit Testing. How interesting, I don’t know that I had an answer that I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. But as I reflect on other things we heard it makes sense.

Companies are definitely trending away from the development team composed of X number of developers and k*X number of QA people. Now, testing is part of everyone’s job and unit tests are a big part of that. I think there are a number of ways that we can incorporate this into our curriculum at Luther. The Runestone textbook already uses unit tests to automatically grade a lot of assignments. But I think adding them to project based courses like Internet Programming and even the Sr. Project will go a long way toward helping students learn to write and use unit tests. The biggest obstacle is helping them understand the why.

One of the wisest things I heard on the trip came from a young engineer at Amazon who said, “It’s important to remember that unit tests are not for you – you know your code works. Unit tests are for the people who come after you and have to make changes.”

I have been thinking a lot about unit testing lately as I think it has been a real hinderance to the Runestone project. People who contribute to open source want to know that they are not breaking your stuff, and the best way to help them over that hurdle is to have a big suite of unit tests. My new years resolution, which I’m doing pretty well on, is to write a unit test every day until June.

Its not just newcomers either, its also me in my role as maintainer. When someone comes with a cool new feature that also changes a bunch of existing code I get seriously anxious. After all, there are people (teachers and students) that rely on this to work, and I hate to disappoint.

If you are a former student and are reading this I would love to hear from you. Do you agree? What else? What do you think is the best way we can incorporate unit testing into the curriculum?

In Part II I’ll talk about my own takeaways from our three weeks.

Who Are We?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately and I know others have been repeating this question as we struggle through the strategic planning process.

It struck me the other day when one of my colleagues, a person I know worked on the current mission statement for Luther college, answered this question by referring to the mission statement. I guess it never occurred to me that reasonable people would consider this a settled question due to the existence of a “mission statement.” Maybe that is the case for some, but I think this is a question that needs to be revisited with some frequency, and the fact that this “who are we?” question keeps coming up over and over again, makes me think there is much more to talk about.

In an effort to make progress in my own mind I copied the mission statement reread it a couple of times, and decided to take it apart paragraph by paragraph to see if that helps me.

In the reforming spirit of Martin Luther, Luther College affirms the liberating power of faith and learning. As people of all backgrounds, we embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community, to discern our callings, and to serve with distinction for the common good.

Here are the items from the first paragraph that stand out, and my take on them.

  • Reforming Spirit — Yes we must always be in a reforming state of mind. We can never say that we are good enough. We must always be wondering whether we should change with the times or resist change for good cause.

  • Faith and Learning — There is no getting around the fact that Luther is a college of the Lutheran church. We need to define what that means. I remember well, a conversation a friend (former Luther prof) and I had with a woman in a ski chalet in Colorado a couple of years ago. She made a whole bunch of assumptions about what we were like because we were a “christian” college. Lets just say that the fact that our student congregation is a reconciling in christ congregation would have made her head explode. Yes we are a “christian” college but not a fundamentalist college.

  • Embrace Diversity — I think you might be hard pressed to find a major with more diversity than CS. We have lots of international students from many different countries. I think it is really important that we have a diverse student body, but I worry that we:

    • Define diversity too narrowly: Race and ethnicity are important forms of diversity, but so too are differences based on class, political ideology, and gender/sex identity.

    • Need to think through the implications of diversity carefully. If increased diversity means more financial aid, and more student services to support an underprepared population then we need the financial resources to back that up or we are just setting ourselves up for disaster.

  • Learning in community — I’m definitely an interactive learner, I need people to talk with and bounce ideas off of. Interdisciplinary programs feel more like community to me, and I would like to see more of them.

  • Discern our callings — This is a Lutheran hallmark, and I miss the sense of vocation program and the emphasis that this brought. I don’t think we ever have been or ever should be the kind of Liberal Arts college that says “don’t worry about jobs and outcomes, just study the humanities and you can do anything.” That is not the kind of place students and parents are looking for in 2017. It is OK for us to care about outcomes and careers and helping students find their calling and vocation in life. It is also a real source of pride that Luther is the kind of place where a student can come and figure out who they are and what their calling is without getting lost in the shuffle. Many times these discoveries happen because a professor makes a little extra effort at just the right time to really connect.

As a college of the church, Luther is rooted in an understanding of grace and freedom that emboldens us in worship, study, and service to seek truth, examine our faith, and care for all God’s people.

  • I didn’t really understand this one very well until my colleague Jim Martin-Schramm provided the following list in an email the other day:

    • Lutheran higher education offers a third way between the polarities of sectarian fundamentalism versus purely secular education.

    • Lutheran colleges see no contradiction between faith and intellectual freedom, which means no questions are considered off limits from vigorous debate and discussion—even questions about religion and the nature of God.

    • The Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith is the foundation for Luther College’s commitments to hospitality and inclusivity.

    • We are freed to question the most basic and even sacred assumptions because to do so deepens our understanding of the world and our place in it.

    • A theological marker that defines Christianity in general, and Lutheranism in particular, is the notion of paradox, which enables us to resist dualistic, either/or ways of thinking and easy answers.

    • While many understand vocation as a job or career, Lutherans understand vocation as a calling from God that encompasses all of life.

As a liberal arts college, Luther is committed to a way of learning that moves us beyond immediate interests and present knowledge into a larger world—an education that disciplines minds and develops whole persons equipped to understand and confront a changing society.

  • What I hear in my head when I read this is: Life-long learning — This is a big one for me, because its a way of life in my field. We help our students build a solid foundation in computer science recognizing that much of what we teach them, at least in terms of specific technologies, will be obsolete in a few years. They need to be equipped as lifelong learners, embracing all forms of learning including on-line as well as face to face.

As a residential college, Luther is a place of intersection. Founded where river, woodland, and prairie meet, we practice joyful stewardship of the resources that surround us, and we strive to be a community where students, faculty, and staff are enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning.

  • Residential, but a place of intersection — I think this word intersection gets lost in the woodlands…. The real point of intersection is to encounter others and I would argue that in the 21st century we need to embrace encountering others in ALL ways. Face to face as well as electronically. As Friedman says, “the world is flat”, and its getting flatter. In my own research work I routinely interact with people on other continents at all times of the day, through email, various forms of chat, and definitely face to face via Google hangouts or Apple FaceTime. We need not fear that we will somehow destroy the residential nature of Luther college by integrating online learning as a way of enhancing and enriching the student experience.

  • Practice stewardship of our resources — I fully support our sustainability initiatives as well as our environmental studies program. But to me we cannot lose site of the fact that the mission statement admonishes us to practice stewardship of our resources, which must include our financial resources. This means we need to think carefully about what programs should continue and what programs need investment and nurturing. Just because we have had a program in place for some years does not mean that it should be here forever and always.

  • A community enlivened by the exchange of ideas — Its too bad this one comes last, because I think as faculty engaged in shared governance we need a lively exchange of ideas. We cannot cast the administration in the role of “other” this governance cannot and should not be a we versus they contest. We need to be able to disagree, maybe even sharply, but at the end of the day we need to come together and pull in the same direction. If we can’t do that then we’ll tear the college apart. The best groups I’ve ever worked in have had lots of disagreement — loud, marker-throwing disagreement even — but at the end of the discussion it was the best ideas that rose to the top and were implemented, and fully supported by everyone no matter what “side” they may have taken during discussion. More, at the end of the day we saw each other as people and colleagues, not as representatives of a faction or rivals.

This certainly is not the definitive answer to the question “who are we?” Each of us will bring their own experiences and ideas to their own answer. It was a fun exercise and I encourage you to give it a shot too!

Fending Off “Day 2” at Luther College

I’m a fan of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, whether its because he “got it” and was the first customer of Net Perceptions or because of his fascination with space or just because I admire him as a leader. It doesn’t matter, I pay attention to what he has to say on a lot of things.

The building at Amazon where Jeff has his office is called Day 1, even when he moves to a new office he brings the name of the building with him. This is because he is always reminding himself to act like it is Day 1.

This morning I read his latest letter to the shareholders of Amazon in which he was asked what does Day 2 look like. Here is his short answer: “Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

In the letter he goes on to expand upon his ideas for how to fend off Day 2. I’ll give you his one sentence synopsis, and in the rest of this post I would like to share with you how I translate his ideas into the context of Luther College.

Here’s a starter pack of essentials for Day 1 defense: customer obsession, a skeptical view of proxies, the eager adoption of external trends, and high-velocity decision making.

Its not a surprise that customer obsession is number one on his list. The amazon mission statement is pretty simple: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” I am not a fan of viewing students as customers, but I think student success is a good substitute. So here is a lightly edited version of what Bezos had to say, plugging in student success where appropriate.

Obsess About Student Success

Staying in Day 1 requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see student success. A student success obsessed culture best creates the conditions where all of that can happen.

That statement pretty well sums up the lens through which I view the discussion we have had on campus lately regarding program eliminations and reductions and how we evolve as a liberal arts college in the 21st century. We have to be bold and willing to try new programs at Luther. But we must equally be willing to accept that something we have tried did not work as well as we had hoped, and when that happens we should move our resources somewhere else. If we are student success focused then we can view moving on as a victory for the students rather than a defeat for a particular program of study. If we are student success focused then this frees us from endless debate about whether a particular subject is “central to the liberal arts.”

Its easy to view starting a new program as “planting a seed,” and as we heard over the past few weeks, when we do try a new program we must commit to making that program a success. As teachers and mentors I think we are always planting seeds in our students. Some of those seeds sprout quickly others need to be protected an nourished patiently over the course of three or four years. At the end of an emotionally draining faculty meeting Dean Krause gave us a great reminder that that we can and must challenge our best students as well as our weakest students.

Of course we could probably have a long discussion about what it means for our students to be successful. Some might define it in terms of outcomes, or jobs at the end of four years. Others might define it in terms of creating a “well rounded” person. For me, this translates into my classes in a different way. I have a pretty minimal syllabus with a set of goals and topics for the semester. How fast or how slow I go, how many of the topics I cover depends on the students in the course that semester.

Resist Proxies

As organizations get larger and more complex there is a tendency to manage to proxies. Bezos mentions two proxies in his letter than resonate strongly. Process and Surveys. Here is what Bezos has to say about process:

A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us?

Bezos goes on to talk about a second dangerous proxy: market research and surveys. We cannot let surveys become proxies for our students, faculty, staff or alumni. Good teachers and administrators deeply understand their students and programs. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys.

I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering.

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

These big trends are not that hard to spot (they get talked and written about a lot), but they can be strangely hard for large organizations to embrace.

What big trends are we fighting against right now? Here are a few I might suggest we think about, I’m sure others can add to this list.

  • The trend to develop alternative revenue sources?

  • The trend toward online learning?

  • A more diverse student population?

High Velocity Decision Making

Day 2 companies make high- quality decisions, but they make high-quality decisions slowly. To keep the energy and dynamism of Day 1, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions. Easy for start-ups and very challenging for large organizations.

First, never use a one-size-fits-all decision-making process. Many decisions are reversible, two-way doors. Those decisions can use a light-weight process. For those, so what if you’re wrong?

Second, most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.

Third, use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes. This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too.

Fourth, recognize true misalignment issues early and escalate them immediately. Sometimes teams have different objectives and fundamentally different views. They are not aligned. No amount of discussion, no number of meetings will resolve that deep misalignment. Without escalation, the default dispute resolution mechanism for this scenario is exhaustion. Whoever has more stamina carries the decision.

“You’ve worn me down” is an awful decision-making process. It’s slow and de-energizing. Go for quick escalation instead – it’s better.

I think we can learn from all of these examples. But I especially worry about the second and fourth with respect to our work in faculty governance.

Note: I originally wrote this post for Luther’s Ideas and Creations blog

If you are interested you can find the full text of Bezo’s letter here: This is the Jeff Bezos playbook for preventing Amazon’s demise - Recode

saying goodbye to malta

These are my shoes. I bought them for the great adventure of 2015, I started to wear them on January 1 when we left the USA. According to the health app on my iPhone they now have 647 miles on them. Much of that has been accumulated during our time in Malta and our travels around the Mediterranean with Angel, Ben, Emma, Erika, Ethan, Jenna, Katie, Meredith, Meredith, Olivia, Rachel, and Tricia, hereafter known as our kids, or our Malta students. What started out as a funny offhand comment, referring to Jane and I as Mom and Dad has come to feel more true over the few months.

I’m starting this post on our penultimate weekend with our group, I am in Rome with Jane and Josh to take in an AS Roma football game tonight. Some of our students are in Florence for the Nordic choir concert, and some of them are back on Malta (behaving themselves). Its good to have a bit of physical distance to help put things in perspective.

I have also been reading each student’s final journal or blog entries, and I must be turning into an old softie (good thing I have the summer to fix that) but I find myself choking up about something that each student has written. It is true that these past few months of living and traveling together have turned us into an odd sort of family. I’d be happy to adopt them all if I could get that guy in Marrakesh to make good on his offer of 20 camels apiece. I’ve spent a bit of time lately looking back over all the pictures we have taken. I put together this gallery of our group photos. If you look at the first group photo in Malta and in Rome, and compare that to the last group photo this week, can you see the difference? Look at the group in front of the pantheon, this group was just getting to know each other, barely acclimated to the Mediterranean time zone. Now look at the later photos, photographic evidence that we have come together as a family.

So, what have I learned about myself this semester? What are my own conclusions? This heretofore unpublished entry written in Cambodia sheds a bit of light on the recurrent theme of living simply.

Conclusion number one: I can live a more simple lifestyle and live “in the moment”.

As I read over my early posts, and remember back to the end of January when we first arrived on Malta, I am going to admit that the following thought crossed my mind: Leave this flat NOW, and check-in to the Meridien until it is time to fly home (business class). I am very glad that I did not do that. Living in the cold, damp, drafty, loud, and then warm, humid, dusty, loud, almost-but-not-quite-a-place-I-call-home has been an important experience. Now that the end is in sight, I am glad that I had the experience of these last four months.

The elves at must be worried about me, as I haven’t ordered anything from them since December! I have lived with the same ten shirts and six pairs of pants for the same period. Other than going out to eat the material expenditures we have made so far this year are extremely minimal. OK, I am not totally reformed as I have a new Apple Watch waiting for me back home. But it was a good experience for me to not consume for a while. Hopefully this will carry over back home where the temptation of Amazon Prime second day delivery makes the accumulation of stuff all too easy.

What does it mean to “live in the moment?” For me it means accepting life as it happens. It means taking the time to enjoy each moment as it comes along, rather than always thinking about what is coming next. Because I have not had daily class responsibilities, I really have been able to live in the moment for most of the last four months. OK, I am still a worrier; I am always thinking about the worst case scenario, and what to do if said scenario becomes reality. I am a planner, and a goal setter, I am always thinking about next week, next month, When will my next exam be? What do I need to do for class next week? But this semester I haven’t really had any of that to think about. I did worry about some parts of our travel (Morocco, Istanbul…) But, our evening meals were typically planned at about 15:00 when I walked to Meats and Eats to buy whatever we were going to make for dinner.

My time during the day was spent walking back and forth to the University. I have subscribed to several podcasts and am now a regular listener to them. I’ve never had time for podcasts before. I don’t know why. I spent time in class, listening and soaking up lectures on Maltese history and current issues. I spent time in our flat, and in my office at the IT Faculty building sending countless organizational emails and working on projects and hacking.

Conclusion number two: Follow your passion.

While this may not be a discovery of the semester, it was certainly a strong affirmation of this oft espoused philosophy. I like to tell the students in Senior Project that: “If you don’t wake up in the morning thinking about what you want to accomplish during the day, you ought to be thinking about finding a new job.” Now, showers aside, I think that every day in Malta I did wake up and have a great excitement about what I wanted to accomplish during the day. Some days it was the excitement of a field trip, other days it was waking up in Morocco or Istanbul know that a day of discovery was in store, but even on the rainy days of February I had research and thinking to do that was very exciting.

In fact maybe one of the best things about our time on the island was that it gave me time to think. I spend a lot of time doing back home, and it is hard to carve out time to really step back and rethink things. Good things happen when you take the time to think instead of do. I feel like all of the projects I have been working on Skulpt, Runestone Interactive, and the classes I will teach next semester have reaped the benefit of taking time to think.

Conclusion number three: Push yourself outside of your comfort zone, good things will happen.

I have written a lot about pushing myself beyond my comfort zone in the last six months, but it has been very exciting to see the students do likewise. They have all grown this semester, becoming more self confident, more self reliant, and maybe more willing to take a risk. Whether that be jumping off a rock into the Mediterranean, or immersing themselves in other cultures. For me it may have been simply embracing my part-time role as a student of history and current issues of Malta this semester that pushed me to a new appreciation of history and culture. It was also surely the experience of living in a flat that is much less luxurious than back home.

Conclusion number four: Be thankful for the people who support you.

Jane and I joke that we are excited to get back home so that we have more adults to talk to. Not that our students are not adults, but we don’t have the same conversations with twenty two year olds as we do with our fifty year old friends. In some ways this has been a bit of an isolating experience for the two of us. But we have grown used to it. The silences are OK, as we know we simply don’t have anything else to say at the moment.

But, through it all Jane has been a fantastic partner in keeping this program working smoothly. The work she has put in on our travel plans is, extremely detailed, thorough and time consuming. Planning a trip takes patience and hours of research. I know I appreciate it and so do the students. It always amazes me when we arrive somewhere and she knows exactly where to go and which direction to turn, while my head is swirling in confusion. My advice to Ethan and Ben is to follow my lead and “marry above your station.”

I would also like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Corby Preus and Jon Lund in the Center for Global Learning back at Luther for all of their support. Corby does an amazing job of helping with paperwork, and re-answering my questions about pretty much everything she has already explained to me at least once, and sometimes twice.

Here in Malta I would like to thank Dr. Emanuel Buttigieg for coordinating the History of Malta course, I know I have learned a lot this semester, and it takes a lot of coordination to organize all of the lecturers from many different departments on campus. And finally to Rachelle Mifsud for whom there is no request too large or too small for her to help out with. Scheduling transportation at the last minute, or helping with final exam schedules. Thanks!

Conclusion number five: Focus on the good

I think this is a nice one to save for last, and it is a fairly recent conclusion, and clearly one that will take some practice for me. The last Paideia lecture we did an exercise where we had to think about Malta from the perspective of each of our five senses. What stands out:

  • sight – yellow limestone buildings, dog poop on the sidewalk

  • sound – honking horns, the “angry” maltese language

  • smell – Pizza and the salt air

  • taste – Maltese wine, Wild Boar Pasta

  • touch – rough limestone, and cold tile

Many of us commented after class about how negative most of the things we came up with sounded. Even though the native Maltese professor came up with his own similar list. Familiarity breeds contempt as the saying goes?

But I think the important lesson was summed up by a couple of the students in their own final blog posts in which they said. “I do not want to remember Malta for the dog poop on the sidewalks or the horns honking outside my bedroom window” Rather they , and I, will choose to remember Malta for the good stuff: The crystal clear water, the blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, St. Peter’s Pool and Golden Bay, the majestic cliffs of Gozo as viewed from the Ocean or the cliffs of Dingli from the land. The Neolithic temples of Hagar Qim and the mysterious Hypogeum. The beauty of the Auzure Window. The brightly colored Maltese boats in Spinola bay. And, yes, the ever present yellow limestone of Sliema and Valletta. This is the way to remember Malta.

Don’t sweat the small stuff my dad used to tell me. Let the unpleasant annoying pet peeves fade away.

Not Goodbye

Although this will be my final post from Malta, this is not the end of the blog. In less than a week, the students will be on their way either home or to european travel for part of the summer. Meanwhile Jane and I will be finishing up our own Mediterranean experience with a few days in Lake Como and then a Cruise from Venice down the Dalmatian Coast and through the Greek Isles, ending in Istanbul. We planned this as a celebration of the end of our time in Malta, and I’m sure it will be, but right now we are both facing this last part of the journey with mixed emotions. The call of home is very strong, and I know that if we simply boarded a plane to Minneapolis we would be ecstatic. But the comfort zone of home will have to wait another twenty days. Its really not all that much when you consider we have been gone 159 days already, and more adventure awaits us, you can be sure I’ll continue to write about it here.

unexpected adventures

Morning Climb to Castelmola

Since the students were planning on sleeping in this morning, Jane and I decided to explore on our own a bit. High above Taormina sits the little town of Castelmola. You can’t drive there, you have to climb. And so we did. But when we arrived in the little town we were rewarded with a spectacular view up and down the Ionian coast.

After enjoying the view we decided that a Cannoli and Cafe were in order before we started the hike down. At the end of one small street we found the perfect place. Maria, the proprietor of Gallo Cedro was cutting tomatoes on the terrace. “Prego,” she said by way of invitation to come in and sit down. The Cannoli’s were first rate. She stuffed them fresh for us and added some chocolate chips and pistachios to top off each end. Perfecto. We were about half done with the Cannolis when she unexpectedly appeared with two shot glasses and a bottle of almond wine. Well it was only 10AM, but we figured when in Sicily… So we had a little digestif to help the cannolis go down.

Gole Alcantara

We returned to the Lemon Tree (the name of our apartments) around 11 and everyone was out of bed and getting themselves awake for the day. We had some discussion about what we might do this afternoon. The gorge, known as Gole Alcantara, sounded like an interesting short hike and there was enthusiasm among the group for a stop at a Sicilian winery.

We made our way to Gole Alcantara and after making a donation to the parking attendant we set out on our short walk down to the gorge. It was beautiful. Of course many of our “kids” wanted nothing more than to play in the water which was quite a problem since we had not brought beach towels or anything for them to dry off with.

As we enjoyed the area, we checked our email to see if we would be able to visit any of the wineries. Unfortunately none of them could accommodate us that afternoon. So… We decided that we could do our own wine tasting back at the Lemon Tree.

Red and White

The wine tasting preparation required another stop at the supermarket where we put a strict limit on the price of wine to be purchased for the tasting. Our goal was to keep it under 100 euros while recognizing that with 13 people each of us would just get a taste of each different bottle. It was quite the production to get six of us to agree on what wine to select. I will say that the Italian construction workers who were supposed to be building another set of shelves in the middle of the aisle we fairly amused/distracted by the blonde haired blue eyed wine aficionados.

While we were in the wine aisle another group was in charge of meat and cheese and fruit. As you can see we put out a pretty good spread. We also agreed that we were “in for the night” as there was no way we were going to drive our mini-vans down or up the winding hill to the Lemon Tree after wine tasting activities.

The wine and cheese went remarkably quickly. Even with a seventh inning swimming stretch between the reds and the whites. I guess it was inevitable that after a bit of wine, some of the people were going to end up in the pool fully clothed.

With the reds, gone, people were in the mood for movies or whatever, and then “the munchies” set in. We had been told that there was at least one Pizzeria that would deliver all the way up the hill, and that Paula would take care of calling and ordering for us. After much trying however it was determined that the pizza places were closed on Monday night. The horror and sorrow of a hungry group of students without pizza. We were totally resigned to a pizza free night when Paula knocked on our door to inform me that the pizzas had arrived! We were saved. And for some reason she was convinced that the students needed a nightcap, and so brought them a complementary bottle of home made limoncello!

climbing mount etna

The van arrived right on schedule, 4:45 AM, and we were all in the courtyard in front of the flat on Triq DePiro ready to go. This is our last group trip together with the Malta students, Spring 2015 edition. It is a bonus trip in the sense that because Jane saved us a bunch of money by doing so much planning for our trips to Rome, Morocco, and Istanbul, that we were able to afford the plane tickets and lodging to get everyone to Sicily. Of course with budget travel comes early morning flights, but nobdy seemed to mind very much. We were, after all, heading for Sicily. What nobody guessed was that we have a distinctly non-budget view from our lodgings for the next three nights!

The flight to Catania is ridiculously short is is just over 100 miles and takes less than 30 minutes, we barely got above 11,000 feet before we started our descent. Our departure time was so early that once we arrived in Catania we had a good hour to wait before the rental car agencies opened up. Yes, we are driving in Sicily. Its part of the plan to keep costs low for this trip. Two mini vans for the group. The plan for the day was to meander our way north to Taormina stopping along the way at Bronte to sample some Pistachios and at Randazzo to check out lava as a building material in a Medieval town.

The highlight of the day was to do some hiking on Mount Etna. It is amazing that there is still snow on the volcano in mid-May and even more so when you consider that the volcano is quite active right now.

We started out together as a group and enjoyed the break from the busy urban vibe of our home in Sliema, stopping for a group photo in this cool clump of trees:


Eventually the group splintered with varying degrees of adventurousness, and an unfortunate bruised thigh for Jane due to a loose rock. Some of us persevered up the side of the volcano until the winds became so strong we thought we would blow away. Climbing through the lava is a lot like climbing up a giant sand dune. It is very hard work. It also reminded us of the scenes of Frodo and Sam climbing into Mordor in Return of the King. As we were scrambling our way up, a helicopter flew overhead and hovered over us for a few minutes. I think we all expected to hear a loud voice tell us to turn around and get out of there, but I guess they decided we were harmless and not in harms way as it soon moved on. After we reached our goal we were tired and happy to be there if only for a few minutes to enjoy the view.

If you look close, you can see part of the group on the plateau in the middle right of the picture.

As we began to descend our shoes soon became filled with sharp little pieces of lava. This made the descent quite painful and necessitated a few stops to empty the shoes. At one point I was really glad Emma was standing behind me as she remarked. “I wonder who’s glasses these are?” Of course they were mine having just fallen out of my pocket as I was emptying my shoes. That would have been a loss, and impossible to find one pair of transition lenses hiding in miles of black rock.