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.

GRAD 5104

Grad 5104 – International Education Systems: Tanzania

For the last two weeks in PftfP, the international students in the class have been discussing the education system in their home countries. I was born in, live in, and have completed all of my schooling in the United States, but I was a secondary school teacher in Tanzania and am familiar with some the topics my classmates from around the world have discussed, so for this post I’ll run through what I know about the Tanzanian education system. I will try to just present structure here, but there are a few places where it is important to understand the impact on the students – a few aspects of the system that seem to set up many students for failure – and I will draw some attention to these.

Main points
Tanzania was heavily influenced by a slave trade and colonialism – and the education system is based on the last of these external powers before TZ’s independence: the British.
– Teachers hold a very powerful position over students and are rather respected – the greeting of respect you use for those older than you is often used for teachers (I was often greeted shikamoo by people in their 30s-50s, despite being 20 & 21 in TZ)
– There is a chronic shortage of teachers – especially in Math & Science. More teachers are available for subjects such as Kiswahili and civics. It is not uncommon for schools to have insufficient or even no math and science teachers (English teachers, too)

Primary School
I had host-siblings in primary school in TZ, and lived within sight of a primary school, but did not teach in one, so my knowledge is somewhat limited here.

Standards (grades) 1-7
Medium of instruction – Swahili
Classes taught – Kiswahili, English, Maths, Science, Social Studies, Religion
Must pass a national exam – the NECTA, or National Examination Council of TAnzania – to proceed to Secondary school
Strong focus on health and the environment
Students typically go to the school nearest where they live, but there are private schools and even English-medium schools available in some populous areas of the country

Secondary School
I taught O-levels, so this is the area I am most familiar with.

Forms (grades) 1-4 (O-levels)
Forms 5 & 6 (A-levels)
Medium of instruction – English
Classes taught – Kiswahili, English, Maths, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Civics, History, Religion (and there may be some I’m forgetting)
Must pass the NECTA to pass Form 2, 4, & 6. Form 4 exam determines if you can proceed to A levels. NECTA is in English!
Grades I-V
Your Standard 7 NECTA results determine not only if you go on to secondary school, but where. Same with Form 4 NECTAs and A-levels
Schools can be co-ed, all girls, or all boys
Schools can be government or private
Schools can be boarding or local
School fees were abolished while I was in TZ. Before their removal, a year of public secondary school could cost around 300,000/= or $150 US. I heard of some schools where fees were over 1,000,000/=
The schedule for students runs from 5 or 6 am (depending on whether there is exercise or mazingira (cleaning up the school) until evening on Monday through Thursday, and the day ends early for Ijumaa so students can attend Mosque

Notes containing more opinions:
– The switch in medium of instruction is extremely difficult for students and presents a series of issues. One of these is that if a teacher uses a lot of Swahili to teach, the student may learn the material better, but be unable to understand the NECTA exams. If a teacher insists on English, they may compromise learning of the material but students have a better chance of understanding exams.
– A student must succeed in a subject in school to become a teacher of that subject in the future. Since there are insufficient science & teachers, even successful test takers may fail at these subjects – so if they want to be a teacher they cannot teach science and math, continuing the cycle of insufficient teachers.
– Students in urban areas generally have access to much better education than rural students.
– Women face a variety of challenges in school that boys do not. These vary by school and by geography. Some of these include risk of harassment or assault, expulsion due to pregnancy (this means permanent expulsion, they cannot return after the birth), high chore load at home limiting study time, expectations of passiveness leading to low classroom involvement, parent choice to pay for male children over female to attend school if they have insufficient money to send all children, expectations of in-school chores steeper for girls, expectation of marriage and child-bearing at a young age, and lack of access to pads/menstrual products leading to missed schooling or illness if unsanitary alternatives are used.
– Boys also face some unique challenges. The one I am most familiar with is the vijana stereotype. For those who fail their NECTAs to go to secondary school, opportunities for employment are often lacking. There is a stereotype of these youth lazing on street corners or around town that seems to predispose others to accuse them of crimes – for which opportunities to prove innocence are lacking & punishment can be extreme.

My knowledge here is severely limited. I know that teachers colleges train students who attend them in the subjects they were successful at in school. I believe this only requires an O-level education. There are some technical schools around the country. Fundis (craftsmen) can also train the next generation of carpenters, tailors, shoe-makers, etc. There are universities in Dodoma and Dar es Salaam for what I believe is more typical higher education from a western perspective, requiring graduation from A-levels. I assume there must be others in large cities like Moshi, Arusha, Morogoro, & Mwanza but couldn’t say for certain what options these would offer. Exam scores determine which of these a student is eligible to pursue. I know of one teachers college which offers a Masters in education with specialization on special education. Many wealthy students study abroad.


Great News – My first Grant Funded!

I am the proud recipient of a GSA grad student research grant! This is my first grant proposal to be funded, and I am over the moon that they saw how exciting this project will be.

This grant is providing funding for chemical analysis of the samples I will collect in China this summer. My travel and some of my lodging is already paid for for the museum & field visits I’ll be doing there, now we’re just waiting to see if any of my other grants for that work come back positive.

This is all for my thesis project – a taphonomic study on features of a quirky, well-preserved dinosaur from Northeastern China. Exciting stuff!