How To:

on May 21 | in Featured | by

By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Hollins faculty members possess a wide range of expertise on a variety of timely topics. Several share their advice on addressing some of the common challenges we encounter in our daily lives.

How to prepare for retirementProfessor of Economics Juergen Fleck believes saving for retirement comes down to one crucial question: “How much risk are you willing to take? If you’re a young person, you can take more risk in the stock market because you can ride it out and have time to recover if it drops. At some point it will come up again.” But “the closer you are to retirement, the more you should protect your money and limit your exposure in the stock market. Under normal circumstances, you should take as little risk as possible; however, interest rates on money market accounts are currently so low that some people in or nearing retirement may want to keep some funds in the stock market.”

Regardless of how much you are willing and able to gamble with your retirement savings, Fleck has two pieces of advice. First, start putting away money for retirement as early as you can. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. Save first and then think about spending. If you can afford it, contribute as much as possible to your employer’s retirement plan, particularly if your employer matches it. Even a little goes far over the long run; the earlier in your career you start, the more you can accomplish, thanks to the magic of compounding.”

Juergen FleckFleck says setting a goal of saving “15, 20 percent, even more if you can” of your income for retirement is desirable, but admits, “that’s easier said than done,” especially when factoring in that for many people, a significant chunk of their savings goes toward purchasing a house (“a good investment if you buy a house you can afford”) and paying for their children’s education. He believes the key is watching where your money goes. “If you skip going out to lunch once a week, your average saving is 10 bucks a week, 500 bucks in a year. That’s equivalent to a five percent return on a 10,000-dollar investment. Skipping a lunch is a whole lot easier than trying to invest 10,000 dollars to get that return, and where can you get five percent nowadays?”

Second, Fleck encourages hiring a financial advisor. “Don’t try to beat the market yourself. Go to somebody who knows what they’re doing and follow their advice. Make sure they work for a fixed fee rather than on commission—the latter will mean a lower rate of return for you.”

Fleck also suggests taking a thoughtful look at “defining your retirement. When are you going to retire? What do you want to do in retirement? For some people it means starting their own business. Others want to travel, and many enjoy having the time to read books and pursue hobbies or volunteer work. Think about that and then ask yourself, ‘How much of my current income do I want to have if I retire?’ You want to cover your expenses and have a little bit extra. And remember, the healthier you are, the longer you’re going to live, so the longer your retirement.”

Fleck also advises people to become financially literate. To get insight into the workings of the stock market, he recommends Burton Malkiel’s book, A Random Walk Down Wall Street. “It’s understandable to everybody, and it also has a ‘sleep scale’ that tells people how to invest based on how well they’d like to sleep at night.”


How to read and write poetryWhether you’re reading or writing in the genre, “poetry is hard work,” says Jeanne Larsen, professor of English and director of the Jackson Center for Creative Writing. Yet the benefits are enduring.

“Poetry can teach us to read and think more fully and deeply. It can help us look between the lines and beneath the surface of much of the discourse that exists today and become more peaceful and connected.”

Larsen believes reading poetry is much more rewarding when “we slow down and don’t jump to interpretation. Get to the first level: What’s going on here? What’s the story? Where are we? It seems so simple but we’re so quick to jump ahead.

“Then, stay open. The best poem for me is one that is variably interpreted. I feel the most successful discussion of poetry happens when one person says, ‘I see this going on in the poem,’ and someone else says, ‘No, I think it’s that.’ Often we see that both perspectives have some validity. In fact, they’re pointing at something larger and more complicated about the human condition.”

Jeanne LarsenNursery rhymes are a wonderful way to introduce poetry to children, Larsen says, but she emphasizes it’s never too late for adults to enjoy the genre for the first time. Going to poetry readings, memorizing poems, and reading poetry out loud, while walking or in bed at night, are all ways she endorses “to go to the richer, deeper part of the self, think about what a poem means, and achieve a holistic, associative sense that embraces the playful and the emotional.”

Larsen is convinced reading poetry is essential in training the mind to write poetry. “If I want to get into the poetry zone, I’ll flip through an anthology so that I get a variety of voices,” she explains, and recommends “every poet on the Hollins faculty. I’m incredibly grateful to have such wonderful colleagues. Read Cathy Hankla. Read Richard Dillard. Read Eric Trethewey.” She adds that listening to music, and exercise, can also help “get us into the world of rhythm and association” and thinking about the sound of language.

And don’t underestimate the power of rituals when writing—burning incense, making a cup of tea, or in Larsen’s case, wearing her “lucky writing shirt” (as she is doing in the photo)—or the qualities of a particular environment, be it a special corner of the house or the local coffee shop. “The goal is inducing a spacious, flexible mind and getting away from analysis.”

Larsen feels intellect plays a role when finally putting pen to paper, but only later in the process, “when you become your own editor,” and you need to rework stock phrases or clichés.  She cautions fledgling poets, “You can’t be a bossy parent to a poem. I think the best, richest poems come from when we let the poem itself take on its own life in some way. Don’t try to control where the poem is going but watch what is unfolding. Learn to let the poem be what it is rather than forcing a meaning to it.”

At a time when we are often overwhelmed by technology and the desire for instant gratification, “one of the great gifts poetry gives us,” according to Larsen, is focus. “In the 21st century, the actual act of attentiveness becomes all the more precious and beautiful.”


How to relate to an audienceAssistant Professor of Communication Studies Jill Weber teaches courses in public speaking, interpersonal communication, and debate and deliberation. She has years of experience of addressing groups both large and small, and she moderated last fall’s highly anticipated appearance at Hollins by social activist Sandra Fluke.

Still, Weber admits she always gets nervous before a talk and empathizes with those who dread speaking before an audience, regardless of size. The keys for overcoming one’s fears, she believes, were first introduced in a 1968 paper by Lloyd Bitzer of the University of Wisconsin.

“‘The Rhetorical Situation’ features six components that can be connected to every speaking environment, whether that’s one-on-one or in a larger context,” she explains. “The first, and in fact the most important aspect of communication in general, is understanding who your audience is, where they’re coming from, and what their views are. If you have a sense of who you’re speaking to, it will shape everything else you do. Do your homework about your audience—that preparation is really the best way to combat your fears and tailor your message.”

Jill WeberAt the same time, knowing yourself and your own goals and values is essential to connecting with your audience. “If your goals are completely different than those of your audience, you’ve got to figure out a way to bridge those together. Otherwise your message will fall flat.”

Weber says the third component is “looking at the actual context for the situation, the larger environment. Going into a place where the audience is already hostile or already friendly may impact your message.”

Getting a sense of the constraints that may be facing you is also important. “The lack of a microphone, for example, might require yelling. If you are not a shouter, that might make you nervous. But again, doing your homework in advance will give you time to figure out how to relate to that environment.”

The fifth component involves centering on an exigency, the reason you are giving your talk. “I’ve had instances where I’ve left a presentation and thought, ‘What was the main idea? Why did we just have this conversation?’ Think about why you’re speaking to this group or this individual. It will help you shape the message, and addressing that up front is a great way to relate to your audience.”

Once you think about where you and your audience are coming from, the barriers you need to overcome, the context you need to address, and the exigency—a process Weber describes as taking a “macro-level look at every message you’re conveying”—you can focus on the final component of  “The Rhetorical Situation,” the text itself. And, she notes, “You will feel more prepared, you will be more prepared, your message will be much more effectively tailored to the audience, and you will feel more confident in your presentation and your delivery.”

A handy reference tool Weber favors is A Pocket Guide to Public Speaking, Fourth Edition, written by Dan O’Hair, Hannah Rubenstein, and Rob Stewart, and published by Bedford/St. Martin’s.


How to reduce your carbon footprintMaking your home more energy efficient may create some short-term financial discomfort, but over time, investing in everything from Energy Star appliances and replacement construction to wind and solar power pays off—for you and the environment.

“It’s hard when you see one refrigerator is $500 and the energy efficient model is $750. That $250 could stay in your wallet,” explains Paula Pimlott Brownlee Professor of Biology Renee Godard. “But in four years, not only will you have gained that $250 back, you’ll start making money. Even if you’re not worried about reducing your carbon footprint, from a purely economic perspective, energy efficiency saves you dollars.”

Godard says to start by replacing refrigerators that are older than five years (“their efficiency is much less than new refrigerators today”) and “anything else that stays on a lot. Front-loading washers use a third of the water needed for a top-loader, so you’re saving water plus the energy needed to heat it.

Renee Godard“If you don’t have a large family, you can purchase an on-demand hot water heater. Most homes have water heaters that contain gallons of water that you’re keeping at 110 degrees or wherever you set your thermostat. With on-demand heaters, no large reservoir is heated. Instead, a small box rapidly generates heat and water is sent through it. You’re not spending energy to keep water warm 10 to 15 hours a day.”

Installing energy-efficient windows and adding attic insulation can help considerably with heating your home in the winter and keeping it cool in the summer, but open fireplaces generally aren’t energy savers. “Most of the heat that you build in a fireplace goes up the chimney rather than out in the house,” says Godard.

Also beware of “energy pirates,” electronic devices that individually draw small amounts of energy but combined can generate significant usage. Godard compares energy pirates to “dripping faucets, which look tiny, but if you actually stick a bucket underneath one, you could collect a gallon of water every night.” At bedtime, turn off personal computers and power strips that supply televisions and their accessories, and unplug cell phone chargers. “Anything that has a light displayed where you immediately punch a button and it’s on for you is constantly drawing power,” Godard says.

Despite their large up-front costs, solar panels and wind turbines can become economical after five to seven years. But, Godard cautions, those sources of energy may not be practical everywhere. “If you live in a Gulf Coast state, solar power is feasible because you have the sun for longer periods year round. That’s not the case in upstate New York. Owning your own personal wind turbine doesn’t make a lot of sense either unless you live where there is a lot of constant wind.”

Godard concludes that even your landscaping can be impactful. “A lawn with no trees is likely more energy intensive than a lawn with trees. With no shade from the sun, grass is going to grow faster. It requires more water, and that takes energy. Then you have to mow it more—that also takes energy. If you think about a yard with more trees, as they grow, they’re absorbing carbon through photosynthesis. So just planting a tree can make a big difference.”


How to improve your memoryWe’ve all experienced those frustrating and often embarrassing moments when we encounter someone we haven’t seen in a while and can’t recall his or her name, or go to the mall and forget where we parked the car. But are those memory lapses something to be concerned about, especially as we get older, and is there any way to help our brains function more efficiently? Professor of Psychology George Ledger, who has done extensive research and study into memory and how that system “works as an enormously well-organized library,” says there’s good news on both fronts.

“Forgetfulness happens all the time to everyone, and we just tend to notice it more as we get older because we’re worried about it,” he explains, adding that as we age, “the brain is prone to taking longer than we expect to get the information back to us. We’re used to retrieving things in a second, but now, sometimes we call and there’s no answer. If we’re already concerned about our memory, we start to panic. That’s not going to help.”

In those situations, Ledger counsels patience. “If you just allow it to work more slowly, the brain will do its job. Be quiet for a bit and wait for your memory to work—sometimes pausing even makes you appear wise,” he laughs.

George LedgerTaking care of your brain and ensuring your memory is functioning properly is a lifetime project. “Your brain weighs just three pounds, but since it runs continuously it’s a very expensive organ requiring a lot of oxygen and glucose—in fact, about a quarter of what our bodies take in overall,” Ledger notes. “If you exercise regularly, your brain is going to have the oxygen and glucose it needs, and if you eat a diet rich in potassium and protein, your brain will have the protein to grow new neuronal connections and the potassium to ensure that the neurons fire efficiently.”

Ledger recommends mental as well as physical exercise, beginning at an early age. Children in infancy should be given stimulating activities to process, such as a mobile above the crib. As they get older, parents should “talk to them, but don’t talk down to them. Explain things. Even if they don’t understand what you’re trying to convey, they’re learning the language and picking up new words. When they are old enough to have abstract thought, the world opens up for them remarkably.” Even video games can be “good memory work” as long as they’re played in moderation and aren’t used as a substitute for interacting with real people.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Ledger touts lifelong learning as “good medicine for your memory. Doing puzzles, reading, or learning how to play an instrument keeps the brain used to laying down new things all the time and functioning as well as it can.”

At any age, Ledger says, how you store the information you receive will help you remember it. “I know people who have excellent memories and it’s not because they were just born with it, but when something occurs they think about it afterward. ‘Why did that happen? What was that person really trying to tell me?’ If you get into the habit of putting new memories into a meaningful context, the process becomes effortless and your ability to lay down new memories will improve.”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.

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