Global Perspectives

On the Eve of Departure: GPP

I have been hesitating to write this post because I planned to have so many things off my plate before it came time to leave which, as it turns out, are still there. I head out in six days. There are so many things I am looking forward to – visiting a friend in Wales en route to Switzerland, the program itself, and a trip with my partner afterwards through Geneva and down to Rome. I am looking forward to getting to know the other participants better and I know that Dean DePauw has planned some excellent meals. In Wales, Paul has managed to arrange for us to see a medieval ship. Christjahn and I will walk across Liechtenstein and up Monte Testaccio in Rome (or as I like to call it, Trash Mountain)*.

I am also scared. I was supposed to have defended my thesis nearly two weeks ago so that this would be a stress free victory lap. I planned to brush up on my German so I can get through a sentence without accidentally switching over to Swahili, bargain hunt for a better luggage bag, get some rest, and start a summer job at a local catering business to support myself over the summer. I did start the job, but due to a few surprises and a bit of poor communication I am also working on my thesis. I won’t have the spare time my committee would like for me to use to work in Europe, so I know that my travel will evoke as much guilt as joy. I am worried that I won’t be able to make the most out of the Global Perspectives Program. I am afraid that my guilt will pass on to my partner and make the trip which was supposed to celebrate our graduations worse. On the eve of departure, less than a week to go, I have not packed. Six days out from a month abroad, I am sick for the third time in two weeks. On the eve of departure, I am sitting down to work for the evening having recently gotten off a shift at my summer job, not practicing German or spending time with my family.

I tried to think of a way to talk about what I was excited about and ignore the other parts of my life to make a more positive post today. I think that would be dishonest and I am sure some of my soon-to-be traveling companions are also experiencing fears and disappointments in the days leading up to our program. To those people, I feel you. Let’s try to crank out some good work before we go so we can learn from and enjoy this opportunity to the fullest. Let us eat raclette, meet new colleagues, and see mountains which may well put our Appalachians to shame.


*It should be noted that these are my destination highlights and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my traveling companion who will make sure we see more classic destinations on our trip, too

Global Perspectives

Introducing the Global Perspectives Program

After I defend my Masters thesis this spring, I will be heading out on what I hope will be not only a novel educational experience, but also a bit of an exciting, fun, and enlightening academic victory lap: The Global Perspectives Program.

I have taken courses for a certificate here at Virginia Tech focused on preparing future faculty for some of the parts of academic life and work which aren’t the focus of our research training in graduate school. As an extension of the title course for this certificate (Preparing for the Future Professoriate) I will be traveling with a small group of other Tech graduate students to Switzerland this summer to expand my knowledge on University structure from just the United States to a few locations in Southern Europe.

There are of course a lot of things about this program to be excited about – unlike undergraduate study abroad programs, it is affordable. Very little of the cost passes onto the student, making it accessible to a wider range of people. Also, for people like me with a bit of a no-nonsense streak, we will be following a rather rigorous schedule in our time in Europe. We will still eat good food and see beautiful sites, but in a group focused on cross-cultural learning. I may well have been selected for this program due to a note in my application letter that I am far above average at spotting ice cream shops, even outside of my native country, but I also look forward to a new opportunity to apply some of the skills I developed as a Peace Corps volunteer to a new academic pursuit.

Posts related to this program will be focused on higher education rather than on my research work, and will be categorized under “Global Perspectives.” I’ll be writing throughout this semester as we prepare for the trip as well as during and after my travels, so keep an eye out.

GRAD 5114

GRAD 5114 – Who are you as a Teacher?

This week in Contemporary Pedagogy, we’re taking some of the first steps in the long process of putting together a teaching statement. I, of course, have a number of years to develop my teaching philosophy yet, but I’m looking forward to the practice. I’m aware that the things I love in a class are not what many students thrive on (my ideal course as a learner is a well thought out series of lectures without powerpoints but with an associated lab for practical application), and the range of classes I could have the opportunity to teach in the future is rather vast as paleontology straddles biology and geology.

What I kept returning to while thinking about the concept of the “authentic teaching self” – as this week’s topic was titled – was balancing approachability, care for students, cultivating respect, and authority. This is a difficult thing to manage for new instructors, and even more complicated for female faculty, who are often expected to go out of their way to accommodate students and possibly still be rated by students as inferior to male colleagues independent of teaching quality.

When I taught in Tanzania, I received a deal of respect for my position as a teacher, but I did have to navigate gaining student respect as one of the few teachers who wouldn’t consider corporal punishment. Being the disciplinarian to large classes of teenagers was outside of my comfort zone, but I certainly have higher expectations of my university-level students. As a Graduate Teaching Assistant here in America, I have not yet had a student venture out of line with their expectations of me.

I hope to be able to be friendly and approachable to my students. When I present, I prefer to sit at the table with the class and encourage questions and discussion. I make a point of being very clear about what I will and won’t tolerate in my classrooms (feel free to speak up with a question if I don’t see your hand raised, and I will strictly enforce punishment for  any form of cheating, no exceptions). Thus far, this has been plenty to ensure acceptable behavior. Still, I could certainly stand to add more tools to my belt in this area, as I’m sure situations will arise in the future which require more.

GRAD 5114

GRAD 5114 – Engaging Mindfulness in Learning Environments

Two main things were on my mind while I read this week’s written works (here’s the link to Langer 2000) and watched Ken Robinson’s TED talk on Mindful Learning throughout this week.

  1. A question: Is this mindfulness as I know it?
  2. A class I’ve just started: Communicating Science

These two things were on my mind because I have quite a bit of experience with the concepts of mindfulness from practicing yoga in some capacity for the last 14 years of my life and because the course, which first met on Thursday, actively asked us to be mindful of our bodies, thoughts, and feelings during class.

In a classic mindfulness activity “paying attention” is taking note of distractions, discomforts, and unrelated thoughts and then letting them go, like watching a passing train.

The way mindfulness is being employed in Communicating Science (coincidentally, the third class of the same certificate I’ve been blogging in classes for so far) is certainly mindfulness as I know it. It is taking stock of your condition mentally and physically to engage fully in the activities of the class. This was facilitated in our first meeting by writing out these checks on an index card throughout class when we did new activities and when we were informed we’d be on the spot to speak to the whole class about our research. I found this application of mindfulness in a learning environment very pleasant and helpful, and I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on whether this application of mindfulness fits into the concept of mindful learning discussed in our readings.

I think that what Langer and the others mean by “mindful learning” was a bit different, but fits well with mindfulness as I know it. The idea of mindfulness in learning here is, essentially, enhancing the learning experience by stimulating questioning. In many of Langer’s studies, the research team sought to avoid absolutes and encourage students to actively consider “exceptions to the rules” in the content they were consuming.

The herbivory example, block quoted below, stuck with me because this is so common in biology. I recall in Comparative Chordate Anatomy in undergrad (a ridiculously fun class) we talked about mammalian vertebral counts, and a statement along the lines of ‘almost all mammals have 7 cervical vertebrae’ grabbed my attention. I immediately wanted to know which ones DON’T have seven, and can say with some considerable certainty that most of them have 7 years later (yes, this includes humans AND giraffes). This certainty of a possibly hard to remember little fact becomes much simpler because of manatees flooping about with only 6 and sloths not being able to make up their minds for the world on how many they should have.

So mindfulness in a learning environment seems to be managing the environment so that curiosity is roused.

“Facts are typically presented as closed packages, without attention to perspective. Scientists know that research results in findings that are probably true given the context in which the work was tested (e.g., most of the time, under the stated circumstances, horses are herbivorous). When these findings are reported by teachers or in textbooks, they are translated from probabilities into absolute statements (e.g., horses are herbivorous) that hide the uncertainty.”
 – Langer, E.J. 2000. “Mindful Learning.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 9, no. 6, pp. 220–223. (JSTOR link above)

GRAD 5114

Grad 5114 – What Should Learning Look like in 2051?

A common element in science fiction / speculative fiction is an advanced form of learning – the matrix has its super fast virtual reality programs and 2001 has a similar accelerated information transfer system which allows David Bowman to have the knowledge of three “modern” (re. 1968) specialists. These advances all speak to what is treated in our readings (look under 9/5) as an obsolete concept of what learning is – per “New Culture”‘s second chapter, “A tale of two cultures”:

“The ultimate endpoint of a mechanistic perspective is efficiency:
The goal is to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.” – Thomas & Brown

If this is obsolete, what is the new form of advanced learning? If any of the authors we’re reading this week were to write an idealistic novella, novel, short story, &c. set in the future, how would their characters be learning?

The year is 2051. Zawadi Bowman (obviously, the future is female but it still has to be as American as possible, so we’re keeping Bowman) is embarking on an Odyssey and she has the experience of . . . what?

The focus of our readings is essentially on massive cooperative chatrooms – technologically facilitated places for conversation. Does Zawadi literally have the experiences of 3 or even 3,000 specialists at her neural fingertips? Perhaps she hosts the consciousnesses of a massive diverse team of highly experienced individuals in her bionically modified super-mind. Her strength and general physical rigor along with her own exceptionally varied life experiences and personal perspectives have contributed to her designation as Captain of this cloud. She can delegate subsets of her team of consciousnesses to very dexterous robots when more “hands” are needed on her vessel. The access is what matters. Her education is instantaneous and also the result of many lifetimes of experiences. Oh, and no-longer-baby-Dave is somewhere out there detonating warheads at will and floofing about as a cloud. Is this the future?


ps. Did anyone notice how WoW took heat from Carnes as essentially beer pong but its concept was widely celebrated or it was explicitly celebrated elsewhere in the readings?

GRAD 5114

GRAD 5114 – Online Presence

Since this is the first post in a series which will run the length of this semester I will start with a short introduction of what Grad 5114 is and why I am writing blogs for it. Grad 5114 is a course called Contemporary Pedagogy which I am taking as part of the “Preparing for the Future Professoriate” certificate I am pursuing along with my masters degree in paleontology. As with the title course of the certificate, this class will utilize blogging to promote communication between the students on the topics we’re discussing. In addition to this, the course presents us the opportunity to put together teaching statements, diversity statements, and other useful pieces of writing for the future when we start to look for employment in academia.

This first week was left very open. Other weeks there will be prompts, but a series of media were provided for this week’s blog entry and next week’s discussion. The theme which stood out to me was use of social media and blogs to promote an online presence as a researcher. I recently joined “science twitter” so this was, of course, at the top of my mind as I read the thoughts of Tim Hitchcock on the social media and blogs and a short list of rules for engaging on the web.

(Additional media provided here and here)

I am, as evidenced by the fact that I joined twitter at all, aware of the outreach potential of social media. It is a very low energy input high potential output way to publicize your work and your field. Twitter gives paleontologists a weekly opportunity to share what’s so cool about our field (the fossils, obviously) through the #FossilFriday hashtag each week. Another area where social media could benefit scientists is in promoting transparency in how research works – what does a scientist do day to day? Letting the non-scientists of the world see us spend days writing – grants, talks, abstracts, papers – provides a window into a part of our job that isn’t discussed widely in press releases on new research. The cover photo is taken at our lab bench, not at our rock-strewn paper-scattered desks.

My non-scientist partner frequently says “science is nothing like I thought it would be in school.” Work-related activities of mine that have elicited this include cleaning the bones of the duck we had for dinner in our kitchen sink and baking volatiles off tin foil in our oven. Our social media allows us to share this experience outside our families by sharing some of the unexpected parts of our job; it lets the world into our actual labs and into other spaces of science, like our kitchens.

Most of my teaching experience has been in a very low-tech environment, so I’ll look forward to seeing what pedagogy-related thoughts my colleagues have. I also look forward to picking up on how to get more utility out of this website and the media it makes available to me in terms of visibility of research and outreach. One measurable outcome: this week got me to finally link my twitter feed up to this website, so feel free to check out my and many other paleontologists’ #FossilFriday from around the world.

GRAD 5104

Grad 5104 – Coping with Stress

I had been considering writing another post related to my previous post “status by exhaustion”, when one of my advisers sent out a link to this article filled with advise for grad students. It is great and you should check it out (really, in lieu of this post even, I don’t mind). The author covers a range of sub-topics from data storage to self-care, the latter of which I’d like to expand on with some of my experiences and opinions.

Now, taking care of yourself is, interestingly, one of the more difficult things for people who learn to do as they disentangle from their family and take on more responsibility for themselves. This is evident in phenomena like burn-out or in the stereotypical body type of a pre-tenure faculty member (not everyone, but it is common). It is extremely easy to overlook your own health (mental and physical) when committing to other goals, like academic success.  I have lived under a variety of stresses at this point, and had the benefit of others with similar experience walking through a plan of self-care with me. The following are three aspects of a self-care plan it is good to consider, and a few examples of how I approach care. The first two are things you can do, and the last is composed of people & things that can help you. In really tough times, these practices may become coping mechanisms, so I’ll note here that there are good and bad coping mechanisms. What is good in some circumstances can be bad in others & vice versa. Bad coping mechanisms that come to mind: drugs & alcohol, manipulation of people in your support network, giving up, self-harm, refusing to listen to your body & emotions, or pretty much any ‘good’ mechanism in excess.

Physical Health (a lot of overlap here with mental health)

  • Sleep – the article linked above mentions getting enough sleep, and I discussed this in a previous post
  • Exercise
    • Go on a walk in the middle of a long day or every morning (with a dog?)
    • Stretch your upper body when spending a long time at the computer
    • Make a regular plan to walk, hike, run, do yoga, lift, bike, do pilates, go to a zumba class, swim, etc. You can choose whatever you like and whatever the place you live allows. Making it a weekly thing helps me to keep doing it.
    • Acquire a partner to hold you to your schedule
  • Food
    • Cook for yourself – pick at least one evening you have time to make your own food
    • Eat your leftovers for lunch
    • Be selective about the free food offerings – pizza isn’t that great and free doesn’t make it much better (easy for me to say, though, I can’t eat most of it)
    • Shop at the outside of the store and go into the aisles with a plan
    • Treat yourself to delicious ice cream sometimes
    • Eat enough food – don’t limit excessively out of guilt from living a more sedentary life
    • Eat different kinds of food – spaghetti is awesome and quick & popcorn is delicious, but one cannot live on these things alone
  • Be mindful of the drinking culture in your program – it varies but don’t be pressured to match the culture if it is not safe or healthy

Mental Health

  • Allow yourself to socialize
    • Make different groups of friends – it’s fun to have lab friends, but only ever talking lab stuff is probably not enough
    • Have potluck or rotating dinners
    • Schedule game nights
    • Go out to do things on weekends (hiking for where I live, but maybe it’s biking or something else available to you)
    • Form a Dungeons & Dragons campaign (or some inferior group activity)
    • Watch sports? (or do something better, like playing D&D)
  • Make time for yourself
    • This could also be an activity like yoga, running, tai chi, etc
    • Cooking or baking
    • Reading outside of your dicipline
    • Reading fiction
    • Coloring / real-artist art (I am just a color-er)
    • Do puzzles (but be prepared to have one on your table for months since these activities don’t get to be your main thing)
    • Baths seem to be a trend if you live somewhere with lots of water available
    • Take naps if you’re into that
    • Enjoy a show or movie
    • Play with your pets or other people’s pets
    • Light a bunch of candles and just relax
    • Do a chore you’ve been putting off (I’ve been in many apartments of students at all stages of school, so I can say with authority that this means clean your bathroom)
  • Take care of your finances – if you plan ahead you’ll be surprised & anxious less often
  • Seek whatever additional services you need if you’re not neurotypical &/or if you have special experiences that need to be addressed (the attached article goes into this more)
  • Pay attention to yourself so you can tell when you need these things

External Support-Structures (choose at least two, pets & professionals only count for .25 each, otherwise you’re being unfair to someone)

  • Aforementioned exercise partner
  • Life partner, boy/girlfriend, spouse
  • Family (parent, grandparent, aunt uncle)
  • family (sibling, cousin, niece/nephew, kids)
  • Pets (yours or other peoples)
  • Mentors
  • Colleagues
  • Friends
  • Professionals
  • Neighbors if you know them

As I think about self care, it is good to list out what/who you like/have so you have some things in mind when you need them.