Sphere College Project

A New World of Learning

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Classes Continue

We had another very interesting class on Thursday night. We had planned to discuss the first chapter of Looking for Spinoza, but we never got around to it. Usually when something like that happens, it’s a very good class. Instead, we ended up using the entire time discussing two primary things: our transition to a new structure for Phase I: Self and Other, and use of the phrase “free or pay-if-you-can college”.

The new structure comes about for multiple reasons:

  • The College has not yet attained a state in which income exceeds expenses.
  • Michael is in the process of developing his business and writing a book.
  • Richard must seek income in order to continue to support himself and the College.
  • With feedback from class discussions, the Steering Committee has adopted a structure that will provide us with a more tangible entity that gives us all more of a feeling of direction.

The new form of the College will be as follows:

  • Marking the transition there will be no class on Thursday, July 29. Instead we will have a Reflection and Recognition Potluck Dinner at Michael’s home on July 31.
  • We will move to quarters of 12 weeks with 10 classes, leaving time to breathe and prepare for the next quarter. The first class of the first quarter will meet on Thursday, August 5. Plans are to continue in the Colonial Theatre, but they will soon need us to begin paying for the space so we may be hunting for another location.
  • Topics treated in the next quarter will be determined ahead of time. The subject matter will emerge from both the class facilitator—most likely, me (Richard)—and from suggestions from students.
  • As always, we are soliciting feedback from the students about how this new form of the College is working for them and we will work to incorporate their suggestions.

The discussion about use of the phrase “free or pay-if-you-can” was a very open, honest discussion emphasizing the importance of language and thinking clearly and as thoroughly as possible about the implications of a move like this. Instead of trying to recapture all the positions and nuances of the discussion here I’ll just mention that we really felt as though we were getting into important concepts. For example, we began to come to grips with what our ideals really are, and what we do when they come into conflict. I also felt as though we were actively putting into practice the material we recently discussed in the classes, Crucial Conversations, which made me feel quite proud. And as we discovered great differences in how people reacted to the phrase under discussion we were also learning a great deal about Self and Other, which is part of the point of what we’re doing. This, too, made me feel proud. So to my mind the College is working, albeit not exactly as I had envisioned. But things never really turn out exactly as one expects, do they?

Meanwhile, since I appear not to have learned enough about how to raise funds for such a forward-thinking insitution as Sphere College (I really thought it would be a lot easier—I mean, it seems to me that people are ready for real change that can only be brought about through a more compassionate, thoughtful population!), I’m putting myself on the market for a software management position that can help me support my education habit. So if you know of anything in the Phoenixville area, please do let me know.

By the way, we didn’t come to a conclusion in the class about the phrase “free or pay-if-you-can”, but we do have a great deal more to discuss in the next Steering Committee meeting. And this week we’re taking a break from the class since the Colonial Theatre needs the space for their biggest event of the year: Blobfest!

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New Directions

Ok, big update here: the College has not yet become financially viable. It will, but it hasn’t yet. It seems that everyone is playing it safe. This is understandable in the current economic climate, but it makes it hard for new, innovative ideas to flourish.

In the meantime, I’ve got bills to pay and have to remain solvent, so I’ve begun looking for work in the software industry. My preference is for short-term part-time project work in C/C++ and/or moderate-term software management. If you know of anything, let me know: jrichardliston AT gmail dot com.

This doesn’t mean that I’m abandoning the College, BTW. Quite the contrary: it means that I’m doing everything I must in order to take the College to a place where it is self-sustaining. Although I’m not thrilled about shifting my energy away from the College, perhaps I’ll make enough income to hire someone to handle some of the tasks that we need done.

Another change is that the students and Steering Committee have opted to move to a “quarter system” for the Self and Other classes. 12 week sessions of 10 classes with a little break in between so we can prepare for the next quarter. Also, Michael Reddy is taking a leave of absence until we can find the funding to support his participation. These changes will take place at the end of July. Now I’m off to write up an information sheet for the students explaining the details of the transition.

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Crucial Conversations

Last night we had a wonderful class. As I mentioned yesterday, we are working with the topic Crucial Conversations. These are conversations in which there is something important at stake, opinions vary and emotions run high. It is in these kinds of conversations that our minds tend to shut down, and it happens right when we need to be operating at our highest level!

Michael created and distributed a very useful graphical representation of the flow of these conversations, shedding light on the process. Students really opened up to share their experiences and allowed some dissection of what had happened. Another student and I even volunteered to participate in a crucial conversation, with comments from the class from time to time about the effectiveness of how we were conducting ourselves. In discussions afterwards, students indicated that they found the class to be enlightening.

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Thanks, Dad

My, how time flies! I was updating this blog quite regularly and there was a regular following, then apparently I dropped off the face of the earth. What’s a bit surprising is that this blog still gets a number of hits per day, averaging around 30 and spiking up to 60 or so even when I’m not updating it. There was a time in the beginning when 30 hits in a day was very high!

My primary reason for taking a blogging break was that I must shift my focus to more effective forms of fundraising for the college. The truth of the matter is that the college must experience a significant increase in donations—either in size of donation or number of people giving small amounts, or both—in the coming weeks or we’ll be closing our doors for a while. I must seek an income for myself so that I can meet my personal financial obligations and continue to support the college as we figure out how to take the college to the next level. I haven’t perceived that the blog has contributed significantly to the income of the college, and was planning to write a blog entry stating that I was going to take a hiatus.

However, during my recent visit with my Dad in Brevard, NC I realized that he has been following the blog all along, and has been disappointed in the lack of updates. This is a serious oversight on my part, since if it were not for him the College simply would not have lasted this long at all. I have borrowed large chunks of money from him to support the College, and it has not been easy for him to do this. He has his own financial obligations, including medical expenses. Although he has insurance, his medical bills are high like everyone else’s. So to say “Thank You” to my Dad for his support I pledge to begin blogging again.

So Dad, along with the other members of the Sphere College community, I thank you.

To catch others up on some things that have been going on recently, here’s a bit of news:

I spent last week in Washington, DC attending a Buckminster Fuller Institute event announcing the winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. At the event I met many fascinating people who are doing good work in the world according to principles outlined by R. Buckminster Fuller. I also had the opportunity to meet with (and stay with) several of my former students from Ursinus College. It was great to see you!

The Sphere College classes continue, led by Michael Reddy. We are currently discussing the book Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler. It’s a difficult and important topic, and it is our hope that increasing our skills with this kind of conversation will significantly enhance our ability to have the kinds of conversations that are inevitable while building an organization.

There’s so much more to say, but there’s also much to do, so I’m off to do some writing and connecting. Stay tuned!

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A Pound of Flesh

On the heels of the first anniversary celebration on Tuesday night last week we had a fantastic class on Thursday night. The discussion was about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

Why are we reading/discussing Shakespeare? Well, for several reasons. My former students at Ursinus College have been doing book drives collecting texts that Sphere College students can use. In fact, I have stacks of texts in my kitchen waiting to be handed out: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Galileo, Genesis, The Qur’an, The Bhagavad-Gita and more. In Sphere College we go in the direction students choose to go given our interests and the resources at hand. I had a stack of Merchant, and a number of the students thought that it would be a good experience to approach Shakespeare, so there we go.

Shakespeare proves to be a very rich source of material for exploring ‘Self and Other’. Our discussion included gender similarities and differences, the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law, the nature of bargains, morality questions related to charging interest for loans, what the implications are for an economy based on loans for growth, how social norms in one society can affect social attitudes in seemingly remote societies, and other topics.

We’ll be continuing with Merchant this Thursday night, then move on to something brought in by one of the students.

In the meantime, I continue working to build the infrastructure of the College during a time of economic difficulty. But hey, I do love a challenge—particularly one that will have such a huge payoff in its affect on our society: a practical program of education for adults that allows them to go through the transformation they wish to go through. Frankly, I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t think of anything at all that would have greater positive influence. Stay tuned! Help out!

And as always we welcome your financial support. It doesn’t have to be a huge amount—any amount will help. Just visit the DONATE! page and make a small, tax-deductable contribution. It will help us pay for the people who are making this possible (right now that’s me, Michael and Virginia), it will help defray costs for creating and printing brochures and mailing materials, for purchasing supplies, and it will pay for our memberships—we belong to the Phoenixville Area Time Bank, and we very recently joined the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia!

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We’re Almost There!

In just two days Sphere College will reach its first anniversary. We’re celebrating with an event at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville.

It’s been a rewarding, difficult, exciting, growing, bonding, and fascinating year. After the reception at 6pm I’ll be giving a speech at 7pm. I’ve been thinking a lot about the form and content of the speech. I’ve observed many speeches of this kind, but never given one.

Ok, I’ll admit it: giving speeches has never been my forte. To give this kind of speech I have to step very far outside my comfort zone. But this is exactly what I’m asking my students to do in pursuing their education, so I know I must rise to the occasion.

Actually, my greatest concern is not being able to individually thank the many, many people who have made it possible for the College to make it this far. But it is not possible for me to do this. It would end up like those Oscar acceptance speeches, where the actor or director goes on and on. It would be tedious for the audience to hear a list of names of people they don’t know. But there truly are so many people I’m indebted to who have given their time and energy to this seemingly impossible project. So I’m going to have to strike a balance. I’ll do my best.

We do hope you’ll join us for this celebration. Come, share some food with us, meet the students, meet Michael Reddy, meet the members of the Steering Committee, the Advisory Group, the Fundraising Committee, and all the other people who are supporting Sphere College in so many ways. Enjoy the entries to the first annual Sphere College Short Film Contest, and the feature film, Living in Oblivion—a comedy with some fantastic acting. And hey, why not bring a little cash so you can purchase tickets for the very fine raffle items collected by members of the Fundraising Committee, and provide some financial support the ongoing activities of the College?

We look forward to having you celebrate with us on Tuesday night!

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Passing the Baton

Really great class last night. And it was the first night I got to participate completely in the role of student!

I passed the baton to Michael Reddy, who is taking over responsibility for the Thu night class. What a relief to have someone so capable of managing a discussion! And I get to learn along with the other students. That’s a large part of the idea here: a college administration that understands that we’re all learning together.

The discussion last night was a reading, suggested by one of the students, involving the metaphor of the earth as Divine Mother. We learned a lot about Self and Other in the process.

Next up, we’ll consider masculine/feminine in the character Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

DON’T FORGET: Join us for the Sphere College First Anniversary Celebration? It’s Tuesday, April 20 at the historic Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville. Reception at 6pm, presentation at 7pm, screening entries to the Sphere College Short Film Contest at 7:30, feature film, Living in Oblivion at 8pm. Here’s the press release. Come on out! Bring friends! Bring enemies! bring random strangers!