Friday, 26 September 2014

Post 33: My Newfound Joy: A Writing Group!

Phew, September has WHIZZED by faster than I can account for! (Which isn't that unusual.) :)

As a graduate student who's had an office in a building located on the margins of campus (right by Mystic Vale, for those who know it), I spent much of the last eight months alone there. Of the four people that I shared an office with when I first moved there in August of 2013, one had graduated by November, another graduated in the spring, and starting in January of this year, had decided to work primarily at home (which is fair). But, the result was that I spent a lot of time in isolation, being a little bit (and at times a lot) overwhelmed by the impostor syndrome, not realizing that's in large part what I was dealing with (unsuccessfully at the time), and it took a number of things changing in the past few months to really get a grip on what it's meant for me.

One of the biggest breakthroughs was starting to talk to people about my despair, and quite continuous feelings of insecurity, doubt, lack of confidence, and that general feeling that someone would walk into my office and say, "Hey, that doesn't count as research! You're a fraud! You don't belong here!" (Oh yes, wonderful.)

Another breakthrough was when one of my colleagues, Garrett, started to spend his days full-time in our building, and when we started to simply have lunches together, what began as conversations about things we both enjoyed, became some thesis related discussions that proved to be incredibly valuable for me. As a PhD student, his perspective was very insightful and helpful, including strategies for various ways to approach writing different thesis section. (SO GOOD!)

There was also a different power dynamic when I was speaking with Garrett: I didn't have the usual fear and trepidation I sometimes have with professors, who also, admittedly, are often further in time from doing thesis-related work than a PhD student who recently completed their MA/MSc. I realize that obviously professors are doing research and publishing all the time, and that those are the skills (some of them) that we're learning in grad school, but the dynamic was incredibly close-knit and collegial.

Last few days of summer weather exploring downtown: this little water taxi
parked down by Wharf Street!
Another conversation with another colleague produced these two golden-advice nuggets: write the smallest amount necessary. Master's theses are expected to be between 75 and 100 pages. Not more. Considering that my monograph thesis won't be published in its current form, perhaps this is even more applicable advice. I'll be doing a fair bit of re-writing to get anything down to a useful size for journal article publishing, and if it'll become a book, then that'll need a good deal of rewriting, too!
Her second advice-bit was one that changed my perspective: she told me that I had done certain things (a whole lot of reading, lots of writing, conducting interviews and journaling, in my case), and now I had to stop doing the continuous reading, and write about what I did! In the past tense. Which was SO helpful! Without realizing it, I had been caught in this continuous slide of "I haven't read enough here, or here", and "I need to find out more about this..." and was stuck in this endless loop of reading further and more, instead of stopping to finally try to account for what I had already done.

Now, I've joined a writing group, and it's been fantastic! We're a group of grad students from across campus. Usually, 3-6 show up, due to availability. The group runs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. While we're all writing different things, and really are in different stages, it's really nice to have a productive space carved out. I've found I'm much more motivated to work in this supportive atmosphere. This afternoon we really actively engaged in doing successful Pomodoros, with one person setting a timer, and us standing up and doing a few stretches. We drew a picture on the whiteboard for every successful Pomodoro done.

Pomodoro day! And yes, can you guess what the weather was doing? 
I'm enthusiastic about writing again, my perspective has shifted to feel more positive about how do-able my thesis is, and I have started to get really engaged with what I need to do in order to write successfully on my thesis, such as writing downhill, so that when I stop at the end of the day, I know what I'm starting with the next day again. What that means is that I'll write a short note about the next paragraph in the section that needs putting together. As well, though, the amount of time (so far) that it's taken me to break into the writing phase has decreased. It now only takes me a few minutes of mental groaning before I can commit to a good writing session, which has been very helpful outside of this group, too.

Revisiting the Joan Bolker book that my colleague Maddy shared with me was also useful to mine for some more writing tips, like: "Write one day at a time" to deal with any guilt or negative feelings about having missed a writing day. Wahooo!

If you get a chance to make a writing group come together, do it. I joined a small group that was already underway before me, and it's evolved in the past week as well to include more new people. It's a very supportive and productive space for me, and I really look forward to going. Especially when we can book a nice 4-6 hour period in a row.

Now, cheers to more writing!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Post 32: Making Finances Easier: The Graduate Student Tuition Income Offset Plan

I didn't hear about this until last year, I think, when I somewhere along the way stumbled upon the Graduate Student Tuition Income Offset Plan. Essentially, you can arrange to have your tuition payments paid in 4 equal payments over a semester, for an entire year (3 semesters), instead of having to pay your tuition in one giant schwack right at the beginning of each term. It only costs 25$ to set up the payments, and requires one void cheque (unless you know your financial institution information).

According to the form, it's "intended to better align... to the receipt of fellowship and employment income" that many grads get. I'll agree with this, and say that I found my finances a lot better to plan knowing what my regular monthly payments would be, and when they would be taken out of my account.
For our dose of local plants and colour: Gorse (Ulex europaeus), which smells so divinely like coconut! 

Now, I know that I read somewhere, some student financial advice that doing the monthly budgeting is smarter financial planning but can't for the life of me find that any more (didn't think at that point earlier in the summer that I would be posting about this, apologies), but making the monthly payments is a bit better, says someone out there! :)

You can start in any of UVic's three semesters, though the dates very according to the term. Make sure to get this form in by September 15th for this semester; for January, it's also the 15th; or for the summer semester on May 15th. All coverage would go until the end of August. And, as I've found out from this year, you renew the form and again pay the 25$ to set it up for another year.

Hope this helps!

Updated note: I should also mention that very very helpfully my department sent out an email the day before I wrote this post, which I hadn't noticed because I hadn't opened it yet, but I'm glad that they did send it out! As grad students, we should definitely know about these kinds of helpful resources, and I'm grateful that my department is helping to raise awareness about them.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Post 31: Final TA Conference Workshop

I'm writing an extra post for what was my final workshop to wrap up the TA Conference, because it was FANTASTIC!

I'll confess that when I wrote my previous post, I questioned whether I was going to make it to the last workshop. It was about surviving marking essays (in particular), and I hummed and hawed about: it was late Friday afternoon after an already trying (though fun) week, and I was tired. Did I want to sit through another 1.5 hour workshop?

Well, am I ever ebullient that I did!

Edward White, the TA consultant (TAC) for the Department of Sociology, was one of the funniest, most cynical people I have ever met. It was clear from his opening introduction, where he handed us a well-researched, and EPIC 17-page document (as he put it [sort of paraphrasing here, based on my bad memory]: "Yes, I do believe that more is more.") that covered everything from differentiating between objective and subjective marking, to best principles of marking (always mark to a rubric), to different ways to handle usual problems that come up with marking (the list we made on the board and subsequently discussed included such things as engaging with professors, plagiarism, justifying a grade, giving a failing grade, time management, CUPE and saying 'no' to work, and more).

Wacky photo I took looking up into the roof of a bus-stop near campus! :) 
An idea that Edward talked about was marking to 75% of the grade for accomplishing the requirements of the assignment (that's where it's handy to have the rubric); then the other 25% should be reserved for the students who go above and beyond the assignment requirement. If they want those A range marks, they need to strive for them; at university we ask more of them than anyone did in high school. Taking the time as well, to engage with both the professor and the students (meeting them, making announcements and explanations of this kind of idea in class ahead of the assignments), and essentially investing the time to build rapport so they understand you're interested in their education and developing their scholarship skills, was certainly something that Edward emphasized.

Another main point that came out of the workshop, too, was that as TAs, we aren't marking the student or person doing the work; we're marking their scholarship. By externalizing their work, it becomes easier to engage with them without making them adversarial or antagonistic. When discussing the work they produce, and the scholarship they put into their assignments, it becomes a much better way to have a constructive conversation and talk to them about ways to improve their work.

Overall, it was an excellent workshop, and I'm so so glad that I went!! If any of the ideas very briefly sketched out above interest you, find Edward through the LTC and contact him for a coffee and to follow-up on some of these ideas. This is one very knowledgeable chap!

If you get a chance to attend this workshop next year (or in the spring if it's offered then), DO IT. No hesitation.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Post 30: Okay: The TA Conference was Fantastic Beyond My Remembrance!!

I have had an absolute blast at the TA Conference (run by the Learning and Teaching Centre [LTC]) over the past week! I attended 2 years ago during my first year, but last year didn't go as I was still undertaking interviews for my research. In reflecting on my experience at the conference, it's clear that all of the presenters are people who care very much about how we can be better TAs, better professionals, and ultimately, better instructors.

In this post I'll briefly highlight the workshops I attended to give you a sense of why it's valuable to attend the workshop and develop your professional skills as a graduate student.  If you weren't able to make the Fall TA Conference, there is one held in early January, too, so fear not! As well, workshops for TA and Graduate Student professional development are also run all year long through the LTC. (I also recognize that there's only so much that I can put into a post, and express my excitement for the workshops; far better that you try to attend a few in the spring!)

I attended 7** workshops over the past week. Tuesday was the big day, where the most concurrent sessions are held, and where, as a byproduct of the structure of the conference, you'll miss a lot of the others. For this reason, repeat workshops were held for the rest of the week (or at least, a lot of them had repeats). And wow—very glad to be inside on Tuesday after our epic monsoon-like showers and thunder!

Clouds reflected in a rain puddle, near the Library! 
So on Tuesday, I attended two workshops whose theme was 'Preparing for a Teaching Career in Higher Education.' For one, that was the actual title, for the other, it was a discussion about the LATHE program, which is a 2 year certificate specifically focused on learning and teaching in higher ed.
The first workshop focused on the importance of preparing a teaching dossier: a document that includes all sorts of supporting documentation to show how effective an instructor you are. Some of these components include an evidence-based teaching narrative (replacing the older teaching philosophy), syllabi, TA experiences, course evaluations and reviews, guest lectures—all the things that comprise the evidence that shows that you would be a great instructor to hire! The LATHE certificate program (which will show up on your graduate certificate) is geared towards officializing that commitment to great teaching even more. Predictions from the panel of presenters (the instructors for the three LATHE courses) reiterated a couple times that while this type of certificate is an emerging phenomenon, and that it only makes sense: to teach at the secondary and elementary levels, you need to do a separate degree in that; why not for teaching at the post-secondary level, too?

A third workshop by Jill Harvey from the Department of Geography covered transitioning from being a TA to being a sessional instructor and also emphasized the importance of readying a teaching dossier, because by the time you're applying for teaching positions, it should be ready to go. You will be asked for it at some point during the hiring phase. She also included a quick discussion on pitching your own course, and why that may be useful.

The last workshop I attended Tuesday was about experiential learning with David Barrett, the TAC from Geography, and how TA's can incorporate all sorts of activities into their tutorials or lessons. Experiential learning is fantastic because it speaks to all of the major types of learners: those who primarily learn through visuals, those who learn through auditory means, and those who are kinesthetic learners (hands-on). A few examples of experiential learning (there are many) include role plays, field trips, interviews, debates, using equipment, field schools, and more.

WEDNESDAY, I learned a lot about CourseSpaces (the new Moodle) that facilitates running a class online, sharing teaching materials, and engaging with students. Last year I sent all my tutorial materials to the professor who posted them onto CourseSpaces. I learned so much more about having a run-through trial, and as a TA, saw that we can actually do a lot on the course page! Very very good. And the facilitator, from the Technology Integrated Learning folks on campus did a great job! She also pointed me to what seems like a fantastic resource: a number of support videos and other documents to help professors (and TAs) get familiar and comfortable with CourseSpaces if we haven't before. A similar set of resources exists for students

I also learned about puzzles, artefacts, and art—three different activities that can bring to life the materials that we present in class, with Iryna Matiyenko from the Political Science Department. These activities were also centred around the Kolb learning cycle, to again, make sure that we reach different kinds of learners. I found this workshop extremely engaging and found myself thinking of much more creative ways to get students engaged with the materials I would be teaching them.

THURSDAY, yesterday, I attended a workshop led by Caroline Winter from the English Department, on how to encourage students to edit their own work. The main point was simply to mention it to them, since undergrads may not know that editing and revising is a big part of writing. The LTC encourages the 40-20-40 writing model: 40% researching and planning and brainstorming, 20% writing (first draft, usually), and 40% revising and editing. This model shows just how big a part of writing the editing and revising stage is. It's one I've encountered previously, through another workshop held by the LTC. (The LTC really rocks!)
A tip here as well: maybe include one short grammar lesson as part of your tutorial every so often (as an alternative to spending an entire tutorial/class/session on a big grammar dump) especially if students will be producing reports or writing essays or other writing assignments during the semester. Even covering some of the most common errors in writing that students seem to make (according to the presenter) such as comma splices and run-on sentences and knowing how to use colons and semi-colons correctly would be great. :)

This afternoon I have one more workshop on 'Avoiding Death by Paper,'which is tips and strategies on how to survive essay marking. Very much looking forward to it.

But yes: I am definitely, definitely am very glad that I participated in the TA Conference! And, as one of the presenters mentioned: it's a great way to network and meet other TAs in other departments who also care about the things you do. :) I know I met some lovely grad students in some of my workshops!

** I made sure to attend at least 6 workshops not only because they are fun, but because on doing so, the LTC will print out a certificate of participation that you can include on your CV or as part of your work history. Being able to demonstrate that you have an interest in teaching and continual learning and skill development can be important for your work.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Post 29: TACs, and our new one!

The first day of the TA Conference yesterday was fantastic, and I'll post a short review very soon. In light of the conference and all things themed TA, let's talk about TACs! What are they, what do they do?

A TAC is a Teaching Assistant Consultant. They are an immense resource for all the TAs and graduate students in a given department, and regularly offer workshops for graduate student and TA professional development during the year. They undergo a fair amount of training at the Learning and Teaching Centre, so they are able to expertly share their knowledge and help graduate students learn more about teaching and TAing, and generally, professional development in academia. Her first workshop will be next week on Monday, September 8th, from 2:30-4:00PM, and will be "Facilitating discussions and establishing positive tutorial dynamics." Location: In the Dry Lab.

In Environmental Studies last week, we all received an introductory email from our new TAC, Anita Girvan! Anita is an interdisciplinary PhD student who is also a TA in The Environmental Studies Department.

Our lovely TAC: Anita Girvan!
A couple of words from her welcoming message:
"My name is Anita Girvan and I have the privilege of being the (first ever!) T.A. Consultant in the School of Environmental Studies for the 2014-15 academic year. This is a position supporting in part through the Learning and Teaching Centre at UVic.

My role is to support TAs  in diverse ways including (from the job description):
'Developing discipline-specific seminars designed for TAs in department; facilitating their professional development; helping with one-on-one consultations; providing advice and referral to appropriate campus resources; liaising with faculty.'"

Many departments have their own TAC; some don't yet. Have a look at the list of current TACs for 2014-2015. If you see that your department doesn't yet have one, have a passion for sharing knowledge and experiences, and you are an experienced TA, consider starting a discussion with Cynthia Korpan, who director of the LTC to see if you might be a good fit for being your department's inaugural TAC!