Friday, 30 January 2015

Post 42: Whipping through marking... what a festival! And a week's mish-mash! And a StandStand Review!

So many assignments to get through, so many words to read, writing lots of comments/feedback, and trying to be fair while assessing student work.

Now don't get me wrong: I love my students to bits, and it's very very fun getting to meet them all (and trying to remember all their names!). They are a delight. And while it wipes out the majority of the energy that I start the day with, especially teaching 3 hours in a row, it has been great so far. I really do enjoy marking, but as this is my first time TAing an introductory-level course, and there are quite a few factors that are different in TAing one such course, as opposed to an upper level course.

For one, this is some of the first times that students are taking on the assignments that they're taking on. So for example, some of them don't yet know that hand-written work is not acceptable for university assignments (and some seem to have ignored that it was stated in the syllabus).

Ah yes, speaking of: a good many students don't read the syllabus. So you have to keep reminding them to go back to that thing, which is really the contract for the class.

My Dotmocracy in action: Students in my fourth tutorial voting for small scale food production
as their theme to research for the semester. 
On that note: repeat everything at least twice, especially important information, or you'll find out exactly who wasn't paying attention when you said it that one and only first time.

My students are learning how to engage with the research process right now, and we've gotten the first assignment out of the way: making a bibliography of 8 quality sources (on the topic we've specified), and explaining why each source is authoritative.

A lot of students don't yet know what makes a source authoritative (which makes sense; if they did, they wouldn't be here), and while some of them get half way there, it's clear they don't yet understand what peer-review is, and how to dig into how good journals really are, or what reputation a newspaper's specific journalists have... well, that is the fun sleuthing that they are starting to learn. From what I've noticed, many seem to have trouble differentiating assessing a source's credibility, and for now are simply writing a summary of the article. (Hence the reminder to go read the assignment outline). So I think we'll be revisiting some material next week.

For this second major assignment, we're asking our students to put together summaries of about 150 words on each of the 6 articles they've chosen from their original 8 (or swapped out with better sources from peers or researched new ones). For these, they will answer the question: "What is the author arguing/talking about?"

Awesome participation as my students wrote themes from their initial stab at researching their theme;
this one on the 100-Mile Diet. 
I'm really hopeful that they'll do well with this one, because quite a few of them have already been doing summaries for the first assignment, which means they won't do well there, but hopefully they will on this next one.

Through all of this, I've had the most excellent company for marking! I've teamed up with Edward White, the TAC from Sociology, (whose workshop on surviving marking I completely enjoyed last semester at the TA Conference, and blogged about here) whose delightful company has made getting an early start on my marking a real delight. This week on Wednesday he spoiled my colleague C— and I with the most delicious rice pudding: super rich, creamy, and with real vanilla... MMMMMMM! We snacked on this through the afternoon, and I wasn't hungry until 8PM! Plus, it's really great getting his seasoned reasoning and opinion on how to mark certain work. It's been great.


Aside from the marking, I've really been enjoying the Christmas gift that I bought myself way back in the fall. It arrived just before Christmas when I was home in the Kootenays, so I got to open it when I got back: it's called a StandStand. And I love it!! (Or I really did, once I had added a bit more glue to one of the little knobs that holds the three pieces together when its dissembled; it kept falling out. BUT -- it was a very simple fix, and after a night's drying, was ready to go again.)

My work desk with my StandStand deployed! :) 
I simply don't have the money for a standing desk like the TableAir  ($2200) or NextDesk (which rings in at about $1500 for the base model). For those interested, on top of a great summary of the health problems that come from sitting too much (sedentary lifestyles), Mark Lukach at the Wirecutter has had a ball testing out standing desks alongside his coworkers, which you can read about here. I am aware that Colin Nederkoorn has come up with a 22$ IKEA DIY, but I am neither near an IKEA, nor have the time to wander out and get these materials, so in the fall last year, spending about $65 on this Kickstarter project seemed like a good idea.

The StandStand has been really really great! I love how portable it is, first and foremost, and because it's so lightweight, I can easily switch between standing and sitting, which research supports is a good thing to do (too much standing = bad; too much sitting = worse). It's suuuuuper easy to assemble and dissemble, which I also really love. My little StandStand has been really great, and definitely an investment suitable for my lifestyle and income right now. :) (Though I am glad to see the price of standing desks falling; one of the most affordable, the Stand Desk now comes in at about $500. )

And the best part of it is that I'm starting to get a lot more comfortable using it. I've started to pull it out when I'm with my colleagues at work, and I even used it this past Wednesday when I was marking with Edward. :)

The semester is already whizzing by; I can't believe it's already January, but I have 80 lovely students to keep me from dwelling on the time. Back to marking I go!

One more awesome photo: a mixture of lichen and stonecrop from a romp in
East Sooke Park this past weekend. I love the colours!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Post 41: Everything's ramping up again! Writing Group, TCG and TAing!

Phew, what a busy last few weeks it's been!

My writing group is starting up again this semester, though in a markedly different capacity than last semester. This time it'll be a once-a-week, Tuesday afternoon, dig a hole for myself in the Grad Student House date right now, with a few of my colleagues. Format-wise, it'll be very similar to last semester, with everyone bringing work independent of the others, but working together in a very supportive space. And - Matt at the GSS has enabled me to book a regular afternoon time for the WHOLE semester in one shot, so that's really helpful, too!

I'm also trying to sort out a meeting time with another colleague who can't make the Tuesdays, so it looks like J— and I will be trying to make Monday afternoons our writing time.

This is really great, and I'm very excited for having the structural support of writing time.

Awesome rainy evening walk! I love the light spiderwebbing in the tree! :)
I'm staring down the calendar for my first tutorials (3 in a row!) tomorrow morning, which is going to be tiring, but I'm really excited for them. I love meeting my students for the first time, and it's great that it gets to happen every so often. Today my fellow TAs and the instructor for the course met to discuss tutorial themes (the course is looking at environmental issues through food) and a layout of the assignments the groups are doing for the next few months (we met last week to discuss this already), and now I'm even more excited. The themes we're taking to the tutorials include:

Industrial agriculture (meat production, grain production, animal ethics)
Organic foods
100-Mile Diet
Traditional food systems
Industrial Water Use
Small scale food production systems (family farms, permaculture, community gardens)
Food Waste Management
Aquaculture (fish farms, oyster farms, fishing)

There's so much to talk about in each one! Each tutorial will take one theme and students will specialize within the theme, and will do a series of assignments building skills around critical thinking and assessment over the semester. And the big challenge: the tutorials are only 50 minutes in each tutorial.

So I've planned out my icebreaker, and we'll be doing nametags as well, and to choose a theme (I'll bring about 5 to each tutorial), we'll have a Dotmocracy to pick a tutorial theme after a short pitch for each one. In this case, I think the Dotmocracy will work really well for choosing, because it doesn't take too much time, it's very participatory (everyone partakes), and we already have the themes to choose from. There also aren't too many of them, which I think is helpful. Normally, the full Dotmocracy procedure would include ideas being contributed through the session and then being voted on, but we won't quite be doing that here. We'll also be reflecting on the 24-hr Food Journals that they were assigned from last week, which is a great assignment to start students thinking about their food choices, where their food comes from, it's production, and all sorts of things related to what they specifically are eating. I think it should be great fun. With a little bit more prep tonight, I'll be ready to go!

Beautiful evening sunset, looking out from the McPherson Library. 
Work with the municipal Environmental Advisory Committee I've been a part of since September, has been busy busy busy over the past few weeks. In October we started talking about putting together a presentation for Council, expressing just how important we think it is for them to adopt a climate change lens (both on mitigation and adaptation), and then we were trying to balance that with other environmental initiatives and projects that we think are important. So over the past few days we've been finishing the two report documents that we had to get them today by 3PM. It's great to see everything come together, and now we'll sit and wait a bit to see Council's reaction.

And my lovely Thesis Completion Group has started up again. This semester's different again, too, as I joined the Friday group (on Tuesdays I now TA), and it's so great just to chat everything through, get off my heart what I'm anxious about, and how to work through those worries, so I can get closer to finishing this degree and thesis.

Speaking of! Time to get going and clearing the decks so I can get more writing done!

Monday, 5 January 2015

Post 40: The 3 Minute Thesis Competition!

I know this is my third post in three days! I've been having a really productive time finalizing my conference presentation for the International TA conference, and today when I was taking a break and checking my email, I saw a call (once again) for the 3 Minute Thesis Competition (3MT), and wanted to get a post up ASAP, because the deadline to apply is this Friday, January 9th!

The 3MT is fundamentally about science communication and being able to compellingly communicate your research story to a general audience. I forewent this last year to participate in the SSHRC Storyteller's Competition, and which I'll probably try again, this year.

UVic provides a few training sessions in mid/late January:

Tactics and Strategies for 3MTJanuary 19, 2015  - 2:00-3:30 pm, University Centre Bldg. Rm A180andJanuary 23, 2015 - 10:30 am - noon, University Centre Bldg. Rm A180

Very usefully, UVic also provides sample of what the 3MT looks like, by showing the winners from last year's competition.

I texted with my colleague G— as I was filling in my registration earlier today. Here's a link for the form.
I hit "Print" and saved a .pdf version of the filled out form, which needs to be emailed to Ms. Carolyn Swayze at Again, the deadline is this Friday, January 9th! 

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Post 39: Reflecting on My Writing Group

In early December I participated in a panel discussion at UVic's first Thesis Writing Bootcamp, which was meant to give graduate students an opportunity to write and have a great space and supported atmosphere in which to make headway on their thesis writing projects. I thought this was a great initiative, and several members of my thesis completion group attended.

For the panel, I'd been asked to reflect on a couple of questions:

1. How did you decide who to invite to participate with you?

2. How often do you meet?  for how long each time?

3. What 3 things have contributed most to your group's success?

4. What advice would you offer people thinking about starting their own group?

I thought that for this blog post I'd re-state some of my answers, since it's a new semester and it's time to try to build a new group, as two of the members finished their thesis projects, as well as emphasize some of the themes of the panel discussion, which were very complimentary to my own thoughts on having a writing group. 
Rainy UVic campus leaves—beautiful if one pauses to enjoy them! :)
As for my own responses, briefly: 

I was essentially adopted into the writing group that I now have. The writing group core existed, and by good luck I was invited to one of the writing sessions, and invited to stay. I very quickly became one of the organizing members, actively seeking meeting times and locations, and helping to make the writing group work well. The writers were graduate students, a mix of PhD and master's, all of whom wanted to make progress on their thesis i a supportive environment. We had the agreement to do Pomodoros together (perhaps not every session), but the goals each time were to either make progress on a piece of writing for our theses, or clear the plate on some of the necessary things that we needed to address in order to set ourselves up for writing on our theses. While there was a small core group of the membership, we invited others to join us with great flexibility, including colleagues, and other members from other thesis groups. At our largest, we had about 8 people come to a session.
Our meeting times were variable; we tried for 3-4 times a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, about 12PM to 5 or 6 PM, and sometimes on Sundays. Wednesdays there's free coffee and goodies at the Graduate Student Centre in the morning at 9:00AM, so we'd try to make it there for that for an earlier start. 

Some of the main things that contributed to the success of our group include the environment that we created: it was supportive, welcoming, positive, and flexible (flexibility is something that was consistent among the comments of the panel members). We wanted to get Pomodoros of thesis writing done, but if someone had to write emails or read some journal articles, or do some edits on a chunk of writing, that was all really great. 
Having our scheduling fairly consistent (the three days a week), even if the venue changed. And having that planned up to a week in advance, or at least having a good way of communicating to the group when and where we were meeting (we used Google Calendar).

Two of the members of the core group from last semester have finished up their thesis projects, and I am so happy and proud of them! We had a very small celebratory meet at the end of last semester, and I got a holiday email from one of the two of them. I wish them all the best with their future endeavours (one has moved back home already), and hope that I'm able to make these friendships last (and even if they don't, I am content that there are two more wonderful people with great ideas out in the world, and I'm grateful for the time we were able to spend together). 

And advice that I'd pass on to other people thinking of starting their own group: go ahead and do it! But be clear about the goals and intentions of the group. It was great to have a group of people that were committed to hard work and getting things done, and we were able to stick with that, have breaks throughout, and build friendships from the group. 

A few of the members of the panel had writing groups that were structured differently: in one, it was very small (3 people) who shared writing, met every 2-3 weeks, and there was an expectation that writing that was shared would have been read, and that when the group met, they would discuss the writing, and set up who would submit next. What really made that group work was the commitment to it (also it's flexibility if they were unable to meet in 2-3 weeks), but recognizing that it had a very set structure and required the members to follow through with their commitments to the group.  

I would also add that it only takes a little bit of leadership to get a group going. I have a few people that I'm going to reach out to in order to make my writing group this new semester get going, and I know that it's an email's send away to start setting up writing dates. 

Having a writing group makes the entire experience much more real, much more doable, and really shifted my perspective to feeling very positive about the writing I was doing. At some point, it would be great to share my writing with a colleague, my partner, or someone else from my department before I send the next chapter off to my supervisor, but I know that even if I don't manage to make that step happen (which is more personal preference than anything else), then my supervisor will provide great feedback, much as he has done in the past.

So here's to starting off a new writing group, and new semester! 

Friday, 2 January 2015

Post 38: New Year, New Semester, Setting Perspective

Happy 2015! Wishing everyone health, happiness, a small dash of good luck, and many good times with friends and family for the new year.

I got into Victoria with a bit of a bang last night; my flight was delayed by about an hour and a half due to mechanical issues with the plane, and to top it off, the baggage folks ran out of room at the back of the plane, so we had to take on some of the bags at the front of the plane! So in total, the travel time from home was once again, over 9 hours. It is, at the best of times, a challenge to get out of the Kootenays. This post is more personal than any of my previous ones, on account of it just having been New Years and Christmas.

My hometown, Kaslo, as it sits on the banks of Kootenay Lake, slightly hidden from view by the trees.
It's rainy in Victoria—quite a different scene from the white snowy world of the Kootenays that I've been immersed in over the past 2 weeks, visiting my family. The break was great: I did a little bit of work while I was home, but between walking Laika, my parents' dog, shovelling a bit of snow, bringing in firewood, and helping with my family's business, it felt really good to take a bit of time off. I should also admit I was forced to take a bit of a break: my sister's fiancee came back from a visit to his folks out east with a horrible cold, which he gave to my sister, which I seem to have picked up from her. So, bogged down with a stuffy nose, head cold and headaches, I wasn't doing much for a few days, but that was fine, too.

Laika, bounding through the snow, always in action. 
Back in Victoria, I'm staring at my calendar. I have a few days before I lead a 1.5 hour conference session at the TA Conference here at UVic. I also want to wrap up my edits to my third chapter, my methods chapter, in the next week or so. TAing will start in the next two weeks, so it's good timing to be thinking about how to start first tutorials again, and what my relationship with a new class and new batch of students might be like. There are a couple of other small things on the side of that: I have a few hours to make up from my second research project, and for that project, an abstract is due in about two weeks for a conference at the end of May. For the same project, I've also to go download and figure out how to use HyperResearch, a qualitative data analysis program similar to NVivo (look for a post on that coming soon!) It feels like a very different world from one at home where I was walking the dog every day, and finding someone to play cards (mostly Skat), or having tea with my whole family, where I'm listening to my grandparents reminisce about their drives around various parts of Germany or surrounding countries.

I'll admit I'm a bit stuck on my memories of home, so this post will have quite a few photos of my time there. Laika, my parents' dog, is fantastic company. I got out almost every day because she needs a walk, and she paid me back by staying up with me later than most people in my family (my parents are bakers, and rise very early). She was an almost constant companion. I really enjoyed my time with my sister and her fiancee, and my brother and his girlfriend and her son, my grandparents, and my parents. Everyone. I miss them a lot when I'm not home, and while sometimes it's easier to forget that I miss them, it's that much harder when I go back home. And of course, there are always the mountains and the landscape of the Kootenays. What a phenomenal corner of this province I was lucky enough to grow up in (and here chime the sentimental bells...).

On a mini-hike up a ridge about 5 km outside my hometown; looking across Kootenay Lake.
I'll say it's a bit difficult coming back while still getting over a cold. I spent the day in today, tidying around the small apartment I share with my partner, putting clothes and presents away, catching us up on some dishes, accepting vegetable soup from his mother, and doing a little bit of reading. It's been a quiet day, but I haven't yet felt up for more. Perhaps tomorrow will be a day for getting more work done, and for facing the rain. Here's a photo from earlier in December here, with Oak Bay Avenue light up by Christmas lights (below). I hope they stay up for a good bit longer, as Victoria usually faces a good stretch of grey this time of year, which is arguably the toughest to face.

Oak Bay Avenue, at night, with Christmas lights!
But, I am very fortunate to have had great company to pick me up starting at the airport, where my lovely partner, Mike, came out to greet me.

So here's to starting off 2015 right, and readying for a great conference presentation taking place in under a week!