Category Archives: writing

top 15 albums for 2015

This was a pretty good year for music, but what’s most intriguing is how discovery of new music evolves. The superabundance of music dissemination makes it both easier and harder to get into new music than the days we relied on terrestrial radio. Easier because you don’t have to look far to find new music; harder because, as Hicks’ Law posits, the more options you encounter the harder it is to make a decision (trying a new artist on Spotify, for example, is an investment in time that may or may not lead to an investment in money). This year’s top records came to my attention via a mix of avenues that included crowdfunding sites PledgeMusic and Kickstarter (I backed three songs on the list), free music/promotional site Noisetrade, NPR, co-workers and my friends in the Higher Ed Music Critics (read our aggregate reviews on the blog).

But now, on with the countdown …

15. Tom Cochrane, Take It Home. Yes, the Canadian singer-songwriter has continued recording long after “Life is a Highway” became a huge hit. And his records are consistently good.

14. Humming House, Revelries. With a range of influences spanning classic folk and bluegrass to Django Reinhardt, Humming House creates wildly danceable music that defies easy categorization.

13. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. The former lead singer of Drive-By Truckers continues to make a name for himself with smart songwriting and vibrant vocals.

12. Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect. If the lead singer of The Killers released an album reading the phone book, I’d buy it. This is much better than that, but it wasn’t even the best solo record by a member of his main band.

11. Seth Avett + Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. A very good but also polarizing album, as some Smith superfans took affront to somebody recording the late legend’s songs. If you can get past the reworkings, this is a fine record.

10. Tia Brazda, Bandshell. A Canadian singer playing throwback music with a pin-up aesthetic — what’s not to love about that sentence? Some solid brassy jazzy work here, although it feels a bit more restrained than it could be for this rising star.

9. The Damnwells, The Damnwells. One of the pioneers of crowd-funding music, Alex Dezen and his merry band continue to ride the wave of fan support via PledgeMusic to create catchy pop-rock gems.

8. Everclear, Black is the New Black. Yes, that band. After a healthy hiatus, Alex Alexakis and mates went into the studio for this Kickstarter-backed project. Everclear doesn’t skate by on nostalgia entirely, creating a record that fits into its catalog but also pushes it forward.

7. Big Talk, Straight In, No Kissin’. Who’da thunk that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. would have arguably the most impressive solo career among its talented members? Another PledgeMusic crowd-funded record, this shines in its own way in sounding not so much like The Killers as it does the best years of The Cars.

6. Ryan Adams, 1989. It sure sounded like a joke when Adams said he planned to record a new version of Taylor Swift’s mega-bestseller. But this record takes the overproduced source material and pulls out a whole new feel, Swift’s layers and effects replaced by Adams channeling vocals recalling ’80s U2 and Springsteen with heartfelt delivery.

5. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts. Walker recording an album produced by Ryan Adams sounds like fantasy booking, but it’s real and moving. Drawing from the grief of losing his father, Walker records an exceedingly poignant disc with some of his most impressive songwriting and singing to date.

4. Matthew Good, Chaotic Neutral. Good continues his run of crafting political and metaphorical melodies that alternately constrict and soar (while winning award for most D&D-fan-friendly title of the year). It’s his customary serving of intense and catchy music, but the relative predictability of his last few records is what keeps them in the very good category but short of the greatness last seen in his stunning Hospital Music.

3. Pokey LaFarge, Something in the Water. It’s refreshing to see so many artists like The Wiyos, Old Crow Medicine Show, the aforementioned Brazda and Humming House plus LaFarge taking an interest in throwback sounds of almost a century ago. LaFarge is especially successful because his music is so fresh and fun with far-ranging appeal; the band would be equally at home on A Prairie Home Companion and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

2. American Aquarium, Wolves. This Southern rock and blues and soul band came about a finger of whiskey away from disbanding after their previous album, but fan support made BJ Barham and friends decide it was worth continuing. The resulting album shows clever songcraft depicting growing up and settling down in “The Losing Side of 25,” “The Man I’m Supposed To Be” and “Rambling Ways.” Album closer “Who Needs A Song?” is one of the best lyrically of 2015: “Who needs a road if I’ve got you, babe?/How long can you be a rolling stone?/Who needs a road if I’ve got you babe?/The only thing I need right now is home.”

1. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People. The British punker turned punk-rocker turned punk-pop rocker turned pop-rock troubadour continues his evolution as a gent who just plain crafts masterful, memorable tunes. He delivers uplifting anthemic energy in the back-to-back punch of “Get Better” (“We could get better/Because we’re not dead yet”) and “The Next Storm” (“Rejoice/Rebuild/The storm will pass”) but the highlight could be the sad extended metaphor of “Mittens”: “I once wrote you love songs/You never fell in love/We used to fit like mittens/But never like gloves.” Fortunately, everything fits together spectacularly to make this the best album of 2015.

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Customer service: even technology can’t replace a good attitude

ariushat

This is currently my favorite hat, and not just because Arius looks adorable in it. This hat is a reminder that you don’t need oodles of technology and listening strategies to provide good customer service — sometimes all you need is the right attitude.

With Arius’ birthday coming up and also needing to update his wardrobe, I made a recent Saturday trip to the Great Northern Mall (and its outbuildings) and engaged in consumer activity. When I got home and unpacked the bags, I noticed that one item I bought at the Children’s Place was not in its bag. I wasn’t sure if I’d dropped the hat or lost it in the shuffle and while it wasn’t all that expensive (because they have great bargains), I was a little bummed.

But.

Then I checked the answering machine to my landline (which gets little action beyond robocalls) to find a message there from the Children’s Place. I’m a member of their rewards club, so an associate called that number apologizing profusely that the hat somehow didn’t make it into the bag.

While I wasn’t sure what could be done — Great Northern is out of town and not something I visit every day — I called back, and the associate offered to mail it. She apologized that it may not be there immediately because that Monday was a postal holiday (Columbus Day) but I responded that as long as it made it to Oswego before it was too cold (insert expected weather joke), I’d be happy. Lo and behold, the package was waiting on the porch when Arius and I got back from daycare on Tuesday.

I’ve worked retail and I know it’s not always a barrel of fun, especially as the holidays approach. With any transaction and follow-up, there are any number of break points where somebody has reasons not to provide added service, let alone go the extra mile. Yet consider this associate:
1) Realized the packing error
2) Looked up my phone number
3) Found time to call
4) Cheerfully took my return call
5) Suggested mailing it (taking on additional duties and expense)
6) Mailed it right away

If you don’t think that kind of customer service is extraordinary, then you probably haven’t been shopping lately. I commend the Children’s Place for empowering this kind of service and for following all the way through. The store now ranks even higher on my future shopping list.

Now we’re just hoping Arius won’t actually need the winter hat for a while, but if he does, seeing him in it will remind me that simple, good old-fashioned customer service is alive and well.

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Why I’m deleting ‘no cellphones’ from my syllabus

When I started teaching Media Copywriting in fall 2005, the syllabus included a simple “cellphones should not be seen nor heard” line in it, with accompanying mini-lecture in class, that has remained. Until now.

tweetsStarting this semester, I’m fine if students use smartphones in class. I even hope they sometimes use them during class.

It’s a trend popping up other places, acknowledging smartphones as participatory instruments. I’ve never been a big fan of the classroom as one-way lecture megaphone. Yet the establishment position among academia resisted the inclusion of laptops and personal devices in classes. But we’ve long since reached a point where, to borrow a great line from education expert Mark Greenfield: “The question is no longer whether laptops belong in lecture halls, but whether lecture halls belong in universities.”

Consider this: My intern Alyssa (of Alyssa Explains It All fame) takes notes on her iPhone. At an astonishing rate, no less. It takes my stubby, uncoordinated fingers minutes to write a text, yet today’s students like Alyssa could compose a short essay in that time. Who are we to discriminate on what media they use for note-taking?

But smartphones can be worked into feedback and learning as well. I’ve previously given homework assignments asking students to tweet examples, responses and opinions — often with video links — on the #brc328 tag to set the tone for the next class. Why not ask them to tweet in class in response to questions or to use it as another regular feedback and discussion channel?

I’m not saying the first semester doing this won’t be a bit sloppy, and that it won’t require fine-tuning. Will students abuse the privilege and not pay attention while playing games or whatever on their smartphones? Maybe. Their loss. If they aren’t paying attention in class or taking good notes, it becomes apparent after a while and the consequences come naturally in their ability to do assignments and pass the test. I’m giving them responsibility and seeing how they use it. From my experience, I expect students to respond accordingly and receive the grade they deserve.

In any event, I’ll let you all know how it goes.

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Higher ed getting iTuned, and customer service’s role.

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In 2000, Apple’s release of iTunes revolutionized the user experience in music and marked the beginning of the end of record companies’ outmoded model of complete control of recordings. Could a similar shift — decoupling content from a long-established distribution method — do the same thing to higher education? Poor customer service by not treating or students and stakeholders  like important parts of the equation could speed us down this path.

If you bought music before the turn of the century, you did so totally on the terms of record companies. You’d hear a good song and either could buy the single (with a B-side that was usually a throwaway track) or, if you were like most consumers, pay $16.99 or some inflated price for a CD or album. Maybe the album was great, perhaps another decent track or two helped you rationalize the purchase, or the rest of the album could be junk. Chances are you couldn’t listen to the album to know for sure, so you shot blindly and hoped for the best. Musicians were almost completely at the mercy of record companies, signing exploitative contracts that Steve Albini ably covered in the eye-opening essay The Problem With Music.

iTunes changed all that. You could listen to samples of all the songs on the album and, if they were all killer/no filler, buy the whole album. If everything outside of the single sounded awful, you could just download the track you wanted for 99 cents — saving time, expense and mental anguish. Some record companies battled this development, but the power and partnerships of Apple meant they brought enough players to make the model viable … and those on the outside could only hold out for so long. In the succeeding years, the tide has turned as bands have created their own distribution models, the most radical in 2007 involving Radiohead releasing “In Rainbows” online and allowing consumers to pay what they wanted. Today, many bands use models such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic where fans fund their recordings and help mold the musical experience.

In all the discussion of massive online open course (MOOC) education, the hope, hype and hyperbole converge to paint a potential picture not unlike iTunes for the future of higher education. In the best-case scenario, MOOC promoters see a world where consumers are in charge of where, what and how they learn, with some body, alliance or institution aggregating the courses taken into some kind of credential or degree. Courses, professors and colleges become commodities where the best offerings attract students while market forces marginalize inferior professors or obsolete coursework.

And while some critics seem exceptionally gleeful about the end of the higher ed world as we know it, I don’t buy into all the doom and gloom. College is about growth, self-discovery and independence perhaps morseo than the credential. The world will always have parents who will want their kids to get an education and take on greater self-sufficiency (read: move out of their house and learn how to do laundry). Every semester, I write an article about what our students are doing after graduation and things like internships, learning to work in teams and getting involved in campus leadership roles come up over and over as helping them get jobs. The current college climate can still provide a superior environment for success. But …

… and it’s a big but: Colleges that do not provide good customer service for students and potential students will dig themselves the biggest holes. Perhaps even graves. If you work at a college and don’t realize that poor customer service has caused you to lose students, and is making some other students consider transferring, you’re living in a fantasy. If you don’t care about it, you’re part of the problem. Sure, admissions offices may be great at getting students in the front door, but subsequently treating students as numbers instead of humans will end up a negative on your enrollment balance sheet. Just as the record companies didn’t foresee or address the conditions of a market where consumers are in charge, colleges that value a position of power over students instead of a partnership approach will face an uphill climb as student mobility becomes ever greater.

Brace yourself: The future is coming. Fortune favors those who adapt, and who realize emerging models will place a greater priority on serving and satisfying students. When consumers can shop around more, the market favors those with the best goods and services. How would your college fare?

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Living in silos: Blindness, elephants and higher ed customer service.

Few poems or fables seem to describe higher ed dysfunction better than “Blind Men and the Elephant,” best known via John Godfrey Saxe’s 19th-century translation of a story from the Indian subcontinent about intolerance. Yet the tale in which six sightless men encounter different parts of the pachyderm and make assumptions about what it is (a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, a rope) also aptly describes one of the biggest elephants in the room hurting higher ed customer service.

Around the time Saxe was penning poems (and even stopping in Oswego long enough to marvel over the public library being built), educators like Edward Austin Sheldon were looking to fix education via radical methods that fused ideas based in science, experimentation and hands-on learning. In founding the Oswego Primary Teachers’ Training School in 1861 (the forerunner of SUNY Oswego), Sheldon saw transmitting the best techniques and content as the key to success — training teachers even as they took active roles leading classrooms of young students in the then-booming city of Oswego. The passing of knowledge was active on-the-job work that aimed for a seamless experience. Of course, he didn’t have big admissions, student affairs, alumni relations or other staffs … in part because the first training school class only had nine students, who took their pedagogy lessons in a cloakroom.

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego's Penfield Library Special Collections

Jimmy Moreland teaching freshman English, 1949. Courtesy of SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library Special Collections

But the development of specialty roles and the profusion of offices didn’t occur until much later in the 20th century. I’ve mentioned before the remembrances of Oswego legend Jimmy Moreland, who passed away in 1950. Jimmy — and that’s what he asked students to call him even in the more formal time — was a man of many talents for the school:

He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community. … Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

Flash forward 60+ years, and I cringe at the runaround students receive today — passed from one office to another when no one has an answer or because another office needs to approve something that should be common sense. Of course, colleges and their populations are much bigger, regulations more complex, services required and requested more extensive, technology constantly evolving and structures so different than the 1950s or the 1860s.

But if different offices can’t find a way to work together to help students, we’re not doing our jobs. Period. An army of specialists who can do one or two tasks but cannot help a student with the big picture — of college, and of life — does students a disservice. Higher ed is not an assembly line; it should be more like a community barn-raising where everybody does whatever necessary for success. The Admissions Office isn’t the English department which isn’t Career Services … I get that. But when a student has to run several obstacle courses just to register, pay their bill and deal with the hurdles we throw up as organizations — and anyone can only help with one piece of the puzzle — then a bigger army really isn’t better.

Moreover, do employees think of themselves as supplying customer service or just another cog in the machine? This is a management issue and an attitude more than a staffing issue. If a freshman at your college has a bad experience, rest assured hundreds of other colleges would happily take her on as a customer. Portability is an increasingly popular feature of the college experience — especially with educational disruptions where students can learn anytime, anywhere from any institution — so for any college to think they are the entity in the control, as opposed to students controlling their own destinies in increasing ways, is an arrogant and archaic attitude.

Another problem is see is in the array of software “solutions” students have to conquer like levels on a video game. Colleges use an array of “solutions” to create separate communities or systems for potential students, freshmen, registration and academic progress, student organizations, internships, career plans, alumni activities and myriad other pieces. With the number of software programs they’re asked to learn, accounts they’re asked to create and communities they’re impelled to join, it’s like we make them change planes seven times to get from Syracuse to Schenectady. All these “solutions” tackle various specialties and tasks, some better than others, but it’s miles away from even approaching a seamless, customer-friendly system.

The answers don’t need to be rocket science: Cross-training more employees. Collaborating. Communicating. Solutions (true solutions, not software “solutions”) could offer many benefits. If offices get together to create that online community or install that software package that solves problems across many areas, functions and student tasks — instead of everybody running out to buy their own niche “solution” — not only will they save money and increase efficiency, but they can provide a better student experience.

But more than anything, it’s a mindset. An attitude. A willingness to work with others to truly put students first. Jimmy Moreland figured out how to do that more than 60 years ago without consultants, vendor pitches or sophisticated software. What I wrote after reading about his amazing life speaks toward how his positive, people-based attitude transcended the system we’ve set up in the decades since, yet could guide us in our future plans:

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

You wonder indeed how we’ve made something simple as good customer service so complex. We can’t see the elephant in the room unless we think as a team.

Next time: Higher ed getting iTuned, and the role of customer service

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The trouble with personal branding.

In the film “Miracle,” the story of the underdog USA hockey team that struck gold at the 1980 Olympics, there’s a running theme where coach Herb Brooks asks his players their name, their hometown and who they play for. For the latter answer, they say “University of Minnesota,” “Boston University” and so on, to Brooks’ stoic consternation.

After a lackluster performance in an exhibition, Brooks has had enough and has the team skating suicides for hours, to the point where they’re exhausted and heaving. Finally, eventual captain Mike Eruzione yells out his name and where he’s from.

“Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.

“I play for the United States of America!” Eruzione replies.

Brooks has finally heard the answer he wants, and tells his players they can finally call it a night.

Now this scene comes to mind every time I hear a college (mis)use the term “personal branding.”

If you mean “personal branding” as making sure a Google search first finds the good things you’ve done, your LinkedIn profile and positive impressions — instead of just photos of you at a frat party — then I agree. If you mean “personal branding” in terms of finding things you enjoy and can do better than just about anybody, and trying to figure out how to do that for a living, then I applaud.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 9.14.25 AMIf you mean “personal branding” as the equivalent of “make sure everything you do puts your own marketability and brand first,” then you’re doing students a disservice. And in the process, you’re contributing to the customer service shortcomings facing the higher education industry.

The fact of the matter is unless you go straight from college graduate to running your own startup (a very tiny percentage), ultimately you’re servicing someone else’s brand. Whether you’re a pro basketball player, reporter or cashier, putting your own need for branding ahead of your team or employer is not a successful formula. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t infuse personality, but ultimately you’re a part of a bigger brand.

In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life,” Nilofer Merchant perfectly explains that “the brand follows your work,” not vice versa. Any brand is what you do, who you work with to make it happen and what you care about. Creating a “personal brand” is a byproduct — not a determinant — of doing things the right way.

The “personal branding” interpretation is especially a challenge at many institutions where every school, department and office wants to “express themselves” and in turn hire graphic design students they encourage to “express themselves.” They run off and design logos that don’t use the right colors or fonts … or even the name (or right name) of the institution. (And they often are quick to design logos and slow to design useful content.) The main identity of the college is lost in countless subbrands that distract and confuse, diluting and contradicting the idea of working across the institution to better serve students.

Often departments will contact us to say they’ve hired an art student to “redesign their page” (we have a CMS and an aim for a common look and experience across oswego.edu), and ask how they get started. Besides training, we tell them to start with content. An awkward silence tends to follow. Signing up an art student to “make a website pop” without a content strategy is like repainting a restaurant without giving any thought to what’s on the menu. I don’t go to a restaurant because of its design, I go because I want a good meal. (I also feel like the “any art student can build a professional website” is demeaning to the industry. I wouldn’t tell the art department to just hire an English major to teach their courses because he must be good with words. This isn’t a dig against art students but a statement: Web communication is about subject matter and knowing how to tell your story, not merely making pretty pictures.)

If you’re looking for the ultimate example of the personal brand damaging the institutional brand, look no further than Syracuse University’s Twitter account earlier this year. At the end of the final regular season home game, a mysterious tweet under the university account appeared to be coming up with one of the biggest sports scoops of the year:

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The link was to a blog by a local community college student full of speculation but empty of reliable sourcing. At that and just about every subsequent news conference, Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly and with increasing exasperation denied he planned to retire, and he hasn’t. Why would the SU account — an official and popular representation of the institution — start a rumor so wrong and detrimental? Is it possible that someone trying to make a name for themselves in the business saw this as a great chance to put over their personal brand? Even if it was at the expense of the university trusting them enough to gain this valuable experience?

When I hire student bloggers, vloggers and videographers, I encourage them to show personality and honesty, because our students are our top brand ambassadors. But they ultimately understand this opportunity is also about supporting and enhancing the college brand. I would hope all of our employees at every level are about helping our students more than their own “personal brand” or creating a “personal brand” for a department or office that runs counter to what we’re trying to accomplish across campus. Helping students should be a core part of any college’s brand in the first place.

So ultimately: Who do you play for?

Next time: Blind Men and the Elephant, or how silos destroy customer service

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A customer relationship management (CRM) tool is NOT customer service.

Technology is good. It enables connections, conversations and communities. It can fulfill business and personal goals. It can solve problems. But not by itself. Never by itself. Any technology or software “solution” is nothing without competent and caring people.

So I bristle when I hear about a college or company purchasing a customer relationship management (CRM) tool and declaring it a customer service solution. Because it’s not. A CRM tool, however sophisticated, is a cookbook. Without someone to do something with all the ingredients, there’s no meal.

It’s interesting to see what colleges do with their CRMs, which usually key on databases with tracking and reminder ability. Almost no institution I know of has ever set up all the expensive features in their “solution.” Some do a pretty decent job of tracking and interacting. Some limp along and do a passable job with their sunk-cost albatross, not notably improving the student experience. Others give up entirely when — surprise — the CRM actually requires them to do a whole bunch of work they thought it would obviate.

Put simply: If you’re not committed to customer service, don’t buy a CRM.

The best customer relationship management you can have is the willingness to interact with your stakeholders and help them along the way. It’s not about software, it’s about soft skills. If you’re helpful, responsive and flexible, you will provide better customer experiences, period. Sure, a CRM can tell you who’s inquired about your college, how far they’ve made it in the inquiry process, their student status and maybe their degree progress. But almost every student encounters questions and challenges along the way, and if you’re not there to help them (and no, an FAQ page full of questions no one has actually asked doesn’t count), then your “solution” doesn’t really solve anything.

(On a related note, those who use HootSuite or other social media tools only to blast their audiences with messages but don’t listen and respond to posts on their colleges or brands aren’t really taking part in “social” media. Anti-social or perhaps sociopathic media is more like it. But I digress.)

And while CRMs can allow you to collect data about students and their progress, are you using that data in some way to make the experience better? If not, then you’re not thinking about customers, relationships or management. In my blog series quest for how colleges can better deliver customer service, I know CRMs can play a role. But only if used in tandem with humans dedicated and driven to provide real solutions.

Next time: The trouble with ‘personal branding’ at colleges

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