Thursday, 27 March 2014

Post 11: Preparing for End of Term Marking

As a graduate student done class-work, the realization that my schedule does not align with the experience of undergraduate students comes quickly. While my timeline hasn't really stopped clicking along since last spring when I finished my courses, the pattern of assignment, assignment, deadlines, assignment, midterm, presentation, final exam that undergraduate students typically go through (or some variation thereof) has only been on my radar because of TAing and my proximity to those students.

And - it is that time of year where I'm starting to face a few days away from being landed with a giant pile of end-of-term final project marking.

Let me be clear - I am very much looking forward to seeing how my students' final projects came together. It's been a semester of reminding them and checking on on them, and encouraging them, and asking questions about different components, and offer feedback; it'll be really great to see how everything's taken shape. This year the professor I'm working with decided to make a final presentation mandatory for all the students in class, and I think it's a wonderful way of allowing them to share with each other the work they've been doing in tutorials.

So, where am I going with this? Well, it's mostly to say that if you know you have a giant pile of marking coming up, work hard up to it, and then be prepared to clear some space in your schedule so you can dedicate the time needed to give good feedback and consideration to all of the projects. There's nothing worse than being so stressed out of your mind with your own work, that students' feedback on their projects suffers (as may their marks, without the reviewer's patience to go through the projects).

                               Restoring desire-lines? One of the options for a restoration project.
                               Watch out for that mud! (On campus at UVic.)

The final projects I've got coming my way are going to be long reports drawn up by groups of about 4-6 students. In the past the projects have typically been between 40-70 pages. That is a lot of legwork for the eyes.

It will be several, several days of marking, which is also where it's good to know what's in the Collective Agreement for being a Teaching Assistant, so you know what a reasonable time frame for getting the marking done is, and so you don't unnecessarily slave away in the process. At UVic, TAs are part of CUPE 4163, Component 1. The Collective Agreement is the binding contract that governs how TAs and others in the union are to be treated as workers. It's great that we have this, as it grants us some protection from being completely taken advantage of. At the beginning of the semester the union holds orientation sessions with all of the new grad students to let them know about the union, and that it's there for them should something happen. There are still a number of issues that TAs face all the time. Unpaid extra work (especially attending regularly scheduled class) is one of them.

Anyhow. That's an aside that could use a whole blog post to itself. Fair working conditions as a TA mostly also means that you need to know what that entails. I've had the pleasure of working with a professor who is very open-minded and easy to communicate with. At the beginning of the semester we filled out the form sent to all TAs, discussing my work contract, how the hours would be used, and I've been keeping track of those hours as the semester progressed, too. I'm happy to say I'm right on budget for those hours.

So, pacing is a big part of knowing when and where your hours will be spent. I knew for months already, that I would have a big whack of marking due, and have been able to (try, at least!) prepare for what'll fall in my lap on Monday.

In a way, I am already a little sad about the semester having passed so quickly. I've heard from a few people that working at a university is like working at an Airport—so many people pass through so quickly, and indeed, my time here has been lengthened because of my choice to return for a master's degree, and that will be short enough as is. My students have been great. I will miss them. I look forward to Monday's in-class presentations.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Post 10: Corresponding with Research Participants

Now that I've pretty well concluded my transcribing phase, I'm realizing that the really fun part is beginning: I'm getting to look across all of my interviews, instead of handling them one by one. I am looking at their content and the themes that all the participants were discussing, and getting back in touch with them for follow-up questions, and asking them to explain further what X meant, and what implications they see as a result of Y that they mentioned on page P.

It's also a strange kind of excited stress! I have only positive memories from my research trips to Edmonton and Prince George, and then all the local visits and Skype phone calls with the other scientists I was unable to meet in person. The visits to each of the cities and different landscapes were a blast! Getting to hear firsthand about the process and perspectives on research ongoing behind the scenes that you don't really get from reading the academic and other published articles was in part my motivation for seeking these people out.

                            A slightly different kind of communication: homemade postcards I put
                            together last fall.

So, a part of me is excited again to be emailing them and looking forward to hearing back from them; another part of me is terrified and cautious about the phrasing that I use in each sentence in the emails. Tone is something that is always difficult to discern in email or online, so I try to be very careful and accurate about expressing myself in these written mediums.

If you are a social scientist and are stressing about getting back to your research participants, here's my tip:

Take your time with composing the emails (or whichever your mode of communication). Handle each one with care; spend the time to review the transcript, to compose (or add to) the follow-up questions you've been making, and to be as clear as possible. Go carefully through the notes you've been keeping to sort out the important follow-up questions. The interview was the fun part, but it doesn't stop there.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Post 9: Celebration! And Qualitative Research Explained -- Short (and necessarily incomplete) Overview.

I thought that I would have had a celebratory burst of a post to say that I have finished transcribing last week, but that little bubble burst quickly after I realized the next big thing: analyzing my data!

So I'm using this post as a recap on the celebratory stage that'd already passed. I spent months transcribing 16 interviews that ranged from 1 hour (the shortest) to 2 hours (the longest). Typically, the ratio ascribed to transcribing is 1 hour of audio will mean 4-5 hours of typing, depending on how proficient you are. So, there were a lot of hours in there...! Between my shoulder injury due to poor office ergonomics, I wasn't able to perfectly transcribe, and it's very likely there are other things that influence the pace of transcription, such as other obligations (aside from just life), like teaching, TA-ing, attending conferences and workshops, seminars and talks, meetings, being a loving partner, eating well, and exercising. So, in a perfect world, this part of my research would have gone a lot faster, but I am also happy for the time to reflect and nudge my thoughts around my research project.

For this short celebratory recap, however, I did a short and rough little tally:

I have 539 pages of transcripts, excluding all the pages of follow-up questions and responses;
and a total of 221,956 words that were expressed during those many hours of interviews.

Amazing! I think it really speaks to the generosity of all the researchers who I interviewed. They shared their time, their ideas, their perspectives, and their knowledge with me, and I feel very grateful to each and every one that agreed to participate in my study.

                                       Some pretty awesome graffiti! Very fun. Love the grin.

Now, on to making sense of what all was said!

What I've described above (interviews, transcripts, follow-up questions) is all part of what's called qualitative research. Qualitative research opts for small sample sizes, which in my case is the 16 scientists that I interviewed. This allows for gathering rich and detailed data, which are not representative of the views of all scientists in the community researching the mountain pine beetle. Qualitative research can help me understand and build a complex and detailed understanding of the implications of the mountain pine beetle outbreak that recently happened in BC, and spread to Alberta.

The in-depth, semi-structured interviews that I conducted help me to gain perspectives into the worlds of the scientists - sharing their stories and ideas and perspectives with me are exactly the kind of information that's not readily available in professional, published journal articles. I see this research as lifting the lid and letting me understand what happens behind the published research.

Qualitative research is a fantastic was to explore a problem or issue. And in my case, I wanted to understand what's happened for scientists as a result of the mountain pine beetle outbreak; and second, I want to understand if in this case of significant ecological change, there is evidence of the spread of the concept of 'novel ecosystems', even if researchers weren't explicitly using that terminology.

A great resource (and there are many) to further understanding what qualitative research is, can be found in this book: Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches, by John W. Creswell. 

Monday, 10 March 2014

Post 8: First Time TA-ing and Preparedness

Remembering back when I was a first-time Teaching Assistant (TA) brings back my worries, but also a good dose of excitement: that feeling of, "I've been waiting a long time to see if I will like this."

My first gig as a TA was for Ecological Restoration, a third year class in the School of Environmental Studies, and the class for which I am currently the TA again. It was a class that I had taken in my undergrad, and it was being taught by a first time sessional instructor. 

In preparing for the class, there were a number of emails sent back and forth between the instructor. We clarified what my main tasks were going to be, when and how the tutorials were to take place, and some main things to focus on, between the class material and the tutorial material. The tutorials essentially revolved around a major term project that I would be marking at the end of the semester. 

One thing that I know from my undergrad and that it was important to me to get 'right' in the first tutorial was finding some kind of ice breaker whereby I could learn the students' names, and where they could get to know each other. The former is more important than the latter; many of them will get to know each other because they'll spend time together in class twice a week, and then further in their group projects. I, however, would see each group of three students only once a week. Getting to know their names shows you care, and are invested in their educational experience. 

My go-to game is one that gets students making sounds and actions by passing a pulse around a standing circle. It also gets them laughing, because there will always be some students more than happy to make some very creative sounds! The goal is to get the pulse moving around the room as quickly as possible, with five different possible actions. I include an elimination round to raise the stakes. This game easily adapts to pass names around, as opposed to a pulse. I modified it from a game way back in high school theatre. Regardless of which game you end up choosing, it's good to make sure that you choose one appropriate for the size of your groups, and consider the time that you have. I also had a lengthy presentation to go through, which was phenomenal for me, because presentations are straightforward to prepare for: you rehearse them and familiarize yourself with the material so that you can present it despite the nerves you might have. 

So, my main message about being a first time TA for that first class, is that of preparedness. I went ahead of time to check out the classroom and make sure that I knew how to use all the equipment I needed, and where all the light switches and on/off switches were. Everything that made me feel like the only thing left uncontrollable were the students and the kinds of questions they would ask. 

In short, my experience as a TA has been nothing short of awesome. The students are great. My relationships with them have been pretty well what I want: one of being supportive to their learning, while giving direction when needed, and establishing a direction for them to go. 

For marking, giving feedback in an important part of some students' learning. Including a few comments to help them understand why or where they lost marks is always good, as well as a few suggestions as to what could be done better in the future. 

Finding a way to manage myself and my emotions and nerves has been the best way to relax into and have fun with TAing. Overall, my stress level as tutorials approach has gone way, way down, and I very much look forward to seeing my students. 

Friday, 7 March 2014

Post 7: Technology in the Classroom

I remember being terrified of being the person at the front of a classroom full of students, red-faced, becoming increasingly flustered and panicked as I struggled to figure out exactly why the project in the room wasn't posting my presentation on the screen. Time was ticking, it was already 7 minutes after the class's start time, and I was going no where.

I used that fear as propellant to ensure that that didn't happen to me. Because I also remember distinctly that feeling of powerlessness when it comes to technology that I don't understand, I'm happy to help anyone who asks, which also recently included a sessional instructor who posted their help request on one of our mailing lists.

Technology is awesome, and when used to your advantage, it can be a very powerful tool! Knowing how to link up to projectors and audio can allow you to show Powerpoint, Prezzi, Incite and other presentations; you can include YouTube videos, songs, movies, show materials on websites and anything else on the internet... essentially, anything! Learning how to use it, and feeling empowered and comfortable to do so is one of the things I consider myself lucky to know. (It certainly came in handy for a recent presentation that I had to do in a small boardroom.)

So first, you need to know your equipment.
I use a MacBook Pro from 2011, and knew from previous observations that it needs a VGA adaptor in order to connect to the standard equipment on campus. Older macs have different adaptors, so make sure you get the right one. If you have a PC, the requirements are slightly different. Some come equipped with a port that can be hooked into right away; others may need the appropriate adaptors. Google can be your best friend in helping you to determine what your needs are.

One of our local, native, and endangered orchids:
a spotted coral root (
Corallorhiza maculata)?
Next, go to the classroom ahead of time to check out the setup there. It's fairly similar in all the rooms, but you never want to be thrown off by the projector screen being at the back of the room near the light switches and needing to hunt for it, instead of it being up front (where it would be more useful)! Typically, the data cable and the audio cable are connected on the presentations stands at the front or sides of all classrooms. So you just need to make sure that you can connect to them on your side.
You'll also quickly realize that if you're on campus as UVic, you need a key to open the equipment drawer; in our department, Lori is the Keeper of the Keys.

Next locate the on/off buttons for the projects. And make sure to select the correct one between video and data. I made that mistake at the beginning of this semester, and panicked for a minute, but I knew that the Audio Visual Services on campus has immediate classroom help, so I gave them a quick call, explained what was going on, and learned about the difference between the two video and data buttons in the equipment desk. That number at UVic: 250-721-8292. Speaking of -- Audio Visual Services offers in person training to show you how to use the classroom equipment. Depending on the kind of learner you are, that might be much more effective than this short blog post.

If you are playing something with audio, don't forget to plug the audio cable into the microphone port of your laptop. Otherwise, the only sound will issue from your laptop.

So, after you have your key, you know your equipment, you have your presentation/movie/song lined up, you should be good to go. Classroom technology is not that difficult, and really, it's about knowing how to turn things on, connect things, and turn up the volume.

And of course -- making sure to turn off and lock up when you're done. No sense in wasting energy. Once you have under wraps the technology you need, you can teach more effectively, relax and think about the content that you want to present, and go back to having the fun that teaching really is.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Post 6: This Is Not Quite the Celebratory "I've Finished Transcribing!" Post... Yet!

So I've caught up on all my transcribing! Yay! Finally! However, I have one more interview scheduled with an awesome scientist tomorrow morning, and so can't quite celebrate yet, but it feels awesome to have caught up. Now, I'm spending the afternoon sending out transcripts to all the wonderful people who took the time to sit with me and share their thoughts and perspectives.

Before I hand Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" back to the library, I want to revisit one particularly relevant theme for today.

Undoubtedly the powerhouse essay of this collection is "The Land Ethic", where Leopold establishes what he sees as the best way to respect nature, and criticizes relationships with the land that could best be described as parasitic an unethical. He writes in 1948:
            "There is as yet no ethic dealing with man's relation to land and to the animals and plants
            which grow upon it. Land, like Odysseus's slave-girls, is still property. The land-relation
            is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations" (218).

He goes on to describe the kind of ethic he sees will counter the economic-only relation with the land, calling it the 'community concept':
            "All ethics so far evolved rest up on a single premise: that the individual is a member of
            a community of interdependent part. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in
            that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there
            may be a place to compete for).
                The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters,
            plants, and animals, or collectively, the land" (219).

While it may at first glance seem like an awesome ides to extend our system of ethics to nature and the land as a blanket case, I think it may be difficult to convince some people that soils deserve to be intrinsically valued. It's hard to drum up sympathy for a hoe slicing through the earth, when the organisms and networks of relationships between fungi, bacteria, and other practically invisible things being disturbed are intangible.

Now, this isn't quite the space to dive into the problems of charismatic animals getting all the conservation energy, but for my own research, it's hard for even me to consider the mountain pine beetle as an animal. It's an insect. I will need to pursue further how insects relate to other animals in the great chain of life.

                                      A lovely trillium found on a hike last fall. Gorgeous!

I think what rings most true to me in what he wrote was the recognition that valuing primarily economic relations to the land, as opposed to social, ecological, environmental, (or indeed, even ethical) relationships to nature, is very important, and very much relevant to today. We see global capitalism/neoliberalism monetizing essentially all relationships, and determining their value based on the revenue or worth they have. It's silly, it's damaging, it leads to oppression, and an erosion of our ecological capital for money. For green dolla dolla bills. It's sad.

When he later writes that: "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in" (230) that at the same time resonates with me, but also worries me: every individual cannot and will not develop relationships with nature to the point where they can understand, feel, love, or otherwise have faith in many of the components of nature we have. It seems like indeed, that's one of the main failings of a society today that becomes increasingly urbanized and detached from the natural resources and nature that underpins much of what we are able to do. In other words, when handling a laptop or sitting in a chair, it's difficult to attach the materials mined and extracted and needed to produce those tools that really make our lives more comfortable and wonderful.

So, while I'm not sure that he hits the ball out of the park with his idea of extending ethical relationships to include the land and it's components, the intent is certainly a good one, and the criticism behind that idea is also on par.

Next, I'll write a post about class room technology and knowing how to use it, followed by one about methodology!