Tuesday, February 28, 2006

More Thoughts on Essay Writing

Last year, I wrote extensively about the mechanics of the essay, the purpose, pacing, and the scoring of the essay portion of the exam, which are still useful, but don't necessarily require restating.

This year, however, on the eve of the 2006 virtual essay prep session, I wanted to highlight a few thoughts and concepts that I found to be useful last year. In 2005, the SAT was altered to include an essay section. Although the SAT is neither administered nor scored by ACT, there are many similarities between it and the essay section of the FSWE. On March 11, 2005, NPR's Morning Edition interviewed two individuals, one of whom helps score the essays, and a second who was instrumental in developing the scoring rubic.

The first interview, with Bernard Phelan (scorer), discusses the importance of using narrative and self-experience to build and strengthen the essay. He notes that [people] "are always writing, but not always thinking." Deserving special consideration is the admonition to avoid throat clearing, where you "don't know what you're going to write about, but you'll put words down until you know."

The second discussion, with Noreen Duncan (who helped develop the SAT scoring rubric), shares three primary considerations to bear in mind when writing (or scoring) an essay: 1) clarity of thought, 2) facility in the language, and 3) demonstration of critical thinking. She explains how they have set grading standards to achieve consensus and avoid subjectivism on the part of the scorers. Toward the end of the interview, she discusses the tendency to add in a few so-called Hundred Dollar Words: "just throwing words in doesn't make your writing any better; you're trying to get a point across to the reader....it doesn't make us judge it any differently. We're looking for your development of an idea, from beginning to end, smoothly and clearly, with as few errors as possible."

Good luck in your preparations!

Monday, February 13, 2006

FSWE\BIO -- Management Experience

The Biographical (BIO) section is perhaps the most enigmatic section of the Foreign Service Written Exam (FSWE). None of the available FSWE Study Guides address it adequately, and the non-disclosure agreement disallows any systematic attempt to reconstruct it. Perhaps the best source for sample practice questions at present is the FSWE Study Guide.

The BIO portion of the actual exam, however, is much more in-depth (and stressful) than the sample question might indicate. According to the Registration Guide, "The biographic information questionnaire measures the candidate’s experience, skills and achievements in school, employment and other activities." As such, the only real way to prepare for this area is to actually take the exam.

For myself, I found myself stumbling over managerial-type questions--not due to the lack of experience, but because I lacked a familiarity with the technical terms/jargon and their associated concepts and techniques.

The best source I found was a book entitled Principles of Management. This CliffNotes Quick Review quickly and succinctly provided the overview I was needing (you can view the table of contents on Amazon). On the 'real life' level, (lacking true management 'training'), I found it to be extremely useful in improving our departmental productivity and problem solving.

The section on 'Staffing and Human Resource Management', interestingly enough, appeared to parallel the FSOA to some degree, as well as the entire candidacy process. Let me excerpt a few sentences, and see if they sound familiar [skip the FSOA parallels]:
  • "Application forms provide a record of salient information about applicants for positions, and also furnish data for personnel research." (pg. 105)
  • "Testing is another method of selecting competent future employees." (pg. 106)
  • "Knowledge tests...measure an applicant's comprehension or knowledge of a subject." (pg. 107)
  • "An assessment is a selection technique that examines candidates' handling of simulated job situations and evaluates a candidate's potential by observing his or her performance in experiential activities designed to simulate daily work." (pg. 107)
  • "Assessment centers...evaluate candidates as they go through exercises that these candidates would confront on their jobs. Activities may include interviews, problem-solving exercises, group discussions and business-decision games. Assessment centers have consistently demonstrated results that accurately predict later job performance in managerial positions." (pg. 107)
  • "Another...technique is the interview, a formal, in-depth conversation conducted to evaluate an applicant's acceptability." (pg. 107)
  • "Reference checking and health exams are two other important selection techniques that help in the staffing decision." (pg. 108)
  • "Once employees are selected, they must be prepared to do their jobs, which is where orientation and training come in." (pg. 108)
  • "Supervisors complete the orientation process by introducing new employees to coworkers and others involved in the job. A buddy or mentor may be assigned to continue the process." (pg. 109)
Thoughts? The SD website states that OA "is an examination, not a job interview"—which, although it parallels typical staffing strategies, both are significantly more intensive than a simple interview.

Additionally, I did find a few websites to be helpful in rounding out my management terminology. Googling the term 'management' will return over three billion hits! You could narrow your search terms, but I'll save you a little time:


Value Based Management

Beginner's Guide to Management

Harvard Business School (with newsletter)

If you stumble across any sites or references that have been useful to you, please include them in the comments. Thank you!

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Caricatures & Embassies (revised)

The publishing of several Political cartoons last week allegedly depicting the Islamic Prophet Mohammed was greeted by violent demonstrations throughout the Middle East. Denmark (where the cartoons were originally published) has faced the brunt of the violence, with two embassied being burned, one in Syria and the other in Lebanon.

Despite President Bush and Tony Blair's condemnation of the decision to publish the cartoons, the protestors demonstrate an astonishing lack of geographical savvy, targeting Norwegian, Austrian and even the U.S. embassy in Surabaya. A handful of people in various countries have died as a result of the demonstrations--Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia. On the geopolitical front, Iran has broken off ties with Denmark over the incident, and Norway is demanding compensation from Syria for the burning of their embassy, which had shared a building with the Danish embassy.

Is it a free speech issue? Sure it is. Newspapers in many countries have the freedom to publish openly, without fear of government reprisal. The governments cannot and should not be held responsible for the actions of an individual or organization exercising their rights of self-determination. That would be the equivalent of the USG coming under fire for 'allowing' the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl!

Are there double standards at play here? Undoubtedly. Various deities and other religious and historical personalities are frequently depicted in cartoon, despite certain religious traditions that state that God, Yhwh, Shang Ti, or any number of other deities who "cannot be seen or depicted".

Extremism? Definitely. These religious admonitions were set in place to avoid idolatry, or the worship of a physical object in lieu of the actual, unseen being. Going to the extreme of avoiding a cartoon on the premise that someone might be tempted to worship it is absurd, almost to the point of lunacy.

So what's the bottom line? As Prince Roy pointed out, the Danish papers were not plotting to offend the [small] Muslim community in Denmark, but rather to illustrate just how outrageous a fringe element can be. They had every right to print the photos. Likewise, the local Muslim community had legal options available to determine whether the cartoons in question were discriminatory. Similarly, the offended Muslims (internationally) have the right to disapprove, and perhaps the right to demonstrate (depending on individual country laws), but not the right to vandalize, or target innocent institutions that had no influence or responsibility regarding the matter. The Danish Government is right to underscore the right of it's citizens to free speech.

A further wrong, according to the Gateway Pundit, is that much of the controversy appears to have been inflated by a Danish immam who traveled extensively throughout the Middle East not only displaying copies of the published comics, but adding even more offensive (and unpublished) ones to the collection.

It's been said that there should be "no tolerance for intolerance", but that attitude lowers us to their level; being intolerant of their strictness goes against the very freedom that we espouse. They have a right to their restrictive views and values, but they have no right to force (or frighten) us into compliance. Likewise, we have a right to hold more permissive views and values, but we also have no right to force them out of their shell, so to speak. Freedom is all about individual choice: one can choose to live on a mountain top, or under a rock. We can seek knowledge to our hearts content or bury our head in the sand. Set your own limites. No coercion, no arm-twisting.

This is where education, experience, and an open mind can contribute the most to cultural understanding: becoming sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of others worldviews.

As we move about the world, the conscientious traveller goes out of his or her way to 'fit in' with the host culture, removing our shoes when visiting their temples or homes, not leaving our chopsticks standing in the bowl when we are finished eating, wearing long pants and long sleeve shirts in public, or not sticking out our thumb when we want to hitch a ride.

As we continue to roam, this sensitivity moves from the physical to the cultural and the psychological: we don't ask for steak in India, Pork in Iran, alcohol in Saudi Arabia; nor do we tell a Chinese woman that she has "carrot legs".

The problem is that many of us have a 'glass ceiling' on our sensitivity. For some reason, it's quite difficult for people to move beyond 'cultural sensitivity' to 'metaphysical sensitivity'. For example, let's pretend that Person A believes Zoroastrianism is a bunch of rubbish. Every time 'A' meets someone who follows Zoroaster, he/she will disparage them, consciously or unconsciously, for believing in 'nonsense'. The same goes for Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Wiccan, etc.

We wear shoes in our own homes. We eat steaks, hamburgers and porkchops (well, some of us anyway). Some of us look better than others in shorts, tank tops, and bikinis. We don't bow or press our palms together when we greet someone. We don't usually bring gifts when we visit our friends, or buy souvenirs for them when we travel abroad. We can hold our liquor.

If we are so willing (eager even!) to set aside our personal habits when we travel, why is it so difficult to step outside of our personal belief system, just for a little while? It doesn't mean that we are denying our faith, or subscribing to the other religion; it demonstrates our sensitivity. Certainly, it's acceptable for us to have the opinion that one belief system may be better than another--it's just not acceptable to intimate as much.

And who knows? The world is full of wonderful things--we might be surprised to find a few of our rough edges smoothed away. ;)

PS: For a highly detailed timeline of events surrounding these cartoons,
please also visit the 'Informed Consent' blog.