ALA Annual Conference 2014: Stan Lee, Comic Relief, and Training-Teaching-Learning  

July 1, 2014

Before Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Hulk, and all the others, there was “VD? Not Me,” Stan Lee (chairman emeritus of Marvel Enterprises, Inc., writer, and former instructional designer for the U.S. military) said during his keynote address American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Annual Conference here in Las Vegas.

“I had a funny career in the army,” he explained as he retold a story documented elsewhere. “Just before being shipped off [during the second world], I was taken into the training division in Long Island to write training manuals and films for the troops.”

ALA2014--LogoThe challenge, he recalled, was to create materials “in clear language” so that the time required for training could be decreased. He and his colleagues, for example, prepared materials teaching soldiers how to disassemble and reassemble guns: “We were able to increase the speed of the training by about 30%…I never told you, but I practically won the war [single-handedly]… Everybody knew how a gun works because of me!” he said with the obvious sense of hyperbole that made his presentation so engaging.

And then there was “VD? Not me!” Responding to the need for training on how to avoid or recover from sexually-transmitted diseases, Lee and others worked on training films and campaigns to attract soldiers to prophylactic stations where they could be treated, and one of the posters, he recalled, used that “VD? Not me” slogan to foster more awareness of resources available. A comic character he created was part of the overall training in what appears to have been a very early use of gamification in training: learners followed the comic character from one place to another in the training materials by answering questions correctly.

For those of us who grew up reading the stories that Lee and others cranked out with amazing regularity, watching Lee in action here in Las Vegas was a wonderful combination of hearing the recollections of someone who did much to entertain us while encouraging our reading habits and, at the same time, making us aware of how much we could learn from him as a fellow teacher-trainer-learner-presenter.

His awareness and mastery of how to address and draw members of his audience into what he was doing was obvious from the moment he walked up to the microphone and looked out at all of us in that huge, packed conference-center ballroom: “I was asked to talk to you about reading,” he began. “That would be like going to a banker’s conference to talk about money. What the hell can I tell you?”

Stan_Lee

Stan Lee

Then, as if having second thoughts and wanting to live up to his obligation to address the assigned topic, he relented by giving the topic all of four words: “Reading is very good.” But not quite done with that mock revelation, he added one more thought: “…and you can quote me!”

There was plenty more said about the relevancy of comic books to reading, the importance of creating individual characters—the heroes and the villains—to draw readers into the narratives so many of us loved and continue to love; and how people at parties used to turn and flee when they learned he wrote comics, but now would rather talk to him at a party than be caught talking to the president of the United States.

But what was most striking to me was the example he set for all of us as trainer-teacher-learners. Regardless of how serious he allowed himself to become in responding to questions during the presentation, he routinely and continually peppered his comments with amusing asides and the sort of self-effacing comments that made us feel as if we were insiders—partners rather than observers in the presentation. And those of us who gave in to the invitation to laugh with him while also remaining aware of what he was doing to keep us engaged walked away not only with cherished memories of spending a bit of our conference time with a wonderful trainer-teacher-learner-presenter, but stronger for the reminders of what it means to incorporate engaging narrative into the presentation and learning process.

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ALA Annual Conference 2014: Ernie DiMattia and Learning Moments That Change Our Lives  

June 28, 2014

Conference attendance, whether onsite or online, can be transformative. The planned and unplanned encounters with colleagues, the vendors with whom we work, the authors we adore (or are going to adore after encountering them and the work they produce), touch and change us in ways that sometimes are immediately evident and at other times require the passage of time to geminate and bear fruit.

ALA2014--LogoWe seek, come across, and learn from people whose work we have avidly followed in print or online, and sometimes are stunned to find that they just as avidly following and learning from ours. We have unexpected, intensively personal conversations in spaces like the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference Networking Uncommons and, in the process, deepen relationships with people we might otherwise not have come to know. We learn how much more challenging and rewarding the conference-as-learning-experience can be when we learn how to blend our onsite and online participation via the conference backchannel.

Relishing the collaborations that produce significant results through our volunteer service on committees or through participation in efforts like ALA Membership Development’s Ambassador program is just another part of mining conference opportunities for all they are worth; they help us understand how welcoming and supportive the ALA community can be—and is.

And even though the size and scope of the ALA Annual Conference has us sharing space with more than 20,000 colleagues, it’s amazingly easy to find the individual members of our community we want to find—and equally stunning to realize how much the absence of even one cherished colleague can affect us.

I had known that Ernie DiMattia, the chair of the ALA Publishing Committee, would not be with us here in Las Vegas this morning for our semiannual onsite meeting. All of us on the committee had been notified earlier this week that he was dealing with “ongoing health issues.” But I had had no idea, before arriving at the meeting, that he had been in the final stages of a long-time battle with cancer and that he had passed away last night.

Ernie_DiMattiaThere was a moment of silence as we all, in our own individual ways, struggled to absorb the news that this gentle, literate, vibrant light in the ALA community had been extinguished. And while I can’t speak to what others were thinking, I found myself reliving the moment, a couple of years ago, when Ernie approached me during an orientation session we were both attending, asked me how I was doing, was insightful enough to ask a thought-provoking question that significantly changed my perceptions about what all of us were learning to do in that session, and, as a result, sent me down a very productive year-long path as chair of an ALA advisory committee that completely changed the way it did its work.

Ernie’s simple question at the moment I was about to become a committee chair: “Who will you be serving as a committee chair?” And the obvious answer—ALA 2012-2013 President Maureen Sullivan while working with (rather than for) ALA staff—inspired a series of interconnected partnerships that was rewarding for all of us and the larger ALA community we served.

When my year-long term came to an end and I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the Publishing Committee with Ernie as chair, I continued to learn from the inclusive, collaborative approach he took to our work. I appreciated the fact that he went out of his way to stop and chat whenever our paths crossed in those wonderfully expansive conference hallways. I admired the way he fostered productive partnerships with our ALA staff colleagues to help craft a forward-looking strategic plan that will continue to make ALA Publishing an essential part of the ALA community’s operations.

I wish I could say that I knew Ernie better. I wish I could say we had numerous lovely and inspiring conversations, but they were far too few. And as I walked those Ernie-less halls today, I knew they would never again feel quite so vital as they were through Ernie’s presence. But I also sensed that they would remain important, comforting, and essential to all I do as long as I continue acting upon and sharing all I learned from Ernie’s unofficial and very informal mentoring.


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