Friday, October 31, 2008

No More Reading

The rough draft is complete. As of 10:48 p.m. last night, my comps paper checked in at 9,072 words and just shy of 30 complete pages. And that's without the 112-item reference section.

Now, nine separate sections of thought written over five months need to be read together, as a sanity check before seeking advisor's approval, and to figure out what on earth the conclusion is (what? was I supposed to actually remember everything I wrote over so many months and be able to tie it together?). I do not know and do not care if these efforts bring the paper to the magic 10,000 limit, or if the word count shrinks as a I strike all the wishy-washy "may", "could", and "possibly" text.

I'm not entirely sure I want to send this to my advisor. Then I might have to read and write some more. I'd rather send it to my entire committee as a fait accompli. Here it is, as good as it gets, and judge based on that. Perhaps I'll feel differently by the time I get comments back, but no guarantees.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Grad Student Budget

Surviving on a graduate student budget has mixed success. I considered being upset with myself when I saw that I'd already spent my entire October paycheck with a week left to go, and then I had Quicken pull up a report of what I spent money on. Oh yeah - a $400 plane ticket home for Christmas. It was purchased in September, but got pushed forward to the October calculations because September already had a $300 plane ticket for Thanksgiving. That ticket was purchased in August, but August already had health insurance and a plane ticket for my grandmother's memorial service.

November will have my brown belt test (hopefully). December will have my annual dental cleaning and X-rays, no doubt with a conversation with my dentist about how I came in to find cavities, but not to fix them at $250+ apiece. January is another health insurance premium (why, when it doesn't cover dentists or optometrists? Because the University requires it). February will be new glasses (1 prescription out of date) and sunglasses (2 or 3 prescriptions out of date, and functionally useless). I haven't gotten out as far as March, but I'm sure something expensive will come up - and it won't be Spring Break.

Throw in the fact that I'm currently overpaying my taxes (payroll adjustments for the August overpay are after-taxes, so I'm paying taxes on that income twice until I get my annual refund), and it's completely understandable that I'm dipping $50 into savings this month. Heck, the fact that this is the only month I've gone over, and should be the last one (as long as I keep the find-not-fix dental rule in place), means I should be congratulating myself. I haven't gone grandiose, I just don't intend to sit in my office and work on holidays, or let my health deteriorate. At least I am not in the ranks of college students applying for food stamps. I can still splurge a little on my organic Honey Crisp apples.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Future

I didn't go to grad school so I could use the degree; I went to grad school so I could get the degree. It wasn't an attempt to lay the foundations of a career, although that was certainly a possibility; it was because it was a challenge and the topics were interesting and I had nothing else pressing to do. I refuse to be trapped by my education. If I decide I want to write children's books, become a police officer, join the peace corps, learn carpentry, start my own dojo, teach kindergarten, work for a non-profit, or run for political office, it is not a "waste" of or disservice to my education. Doing something just because it makes use of my PhD would be a waste of or disservice to my life. I can only assume that anyone who says otherwise stayed on a lifelong path set by a decision made in college and thinks everyone should suffer the same fate.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Real Life vs. Research

For the most part, my real life doesn't interfere with my research - there isn't all that much of it, really; I read, I take pictures, I workout. Recently, as my "workout" karate has progressed closer and closer to black belt (a much more achievable goal than the PhD, since I started karate and grad school at the same time), the risk of injury has increased.

First I sprained my finger. It sounds like a completely ridiculous injury, which it is, but it's been 7 weeks now and it still hasn't healed. The doctor's estimate was six to twelve...months. Fortunately, I only had one week where typing was problematic, so it's more a minor annoyance than a real hindrance to research progress.

Yesterday, I banged up my knee. Karate again - the same person's shin making unfortunate contact with a fleshy part of my anatomy, actually. The knee joint is fine, but a specific portion of my right quadricep is bruised, swollen, refusing to assist in extending my knee, and otherwise whining.

Naturally, this occurred the morning of the day I was going to spend the afternoon on campus programming, and instead wound up spending the afternoon in bed communing with an ice pack. Naturally, this occurred the day before I have three hour-long events back-to-back in completely different buildings on campus, one of which is a teaching presentation to the graduate teacher program that my faculty mentor (not the same person as my advisor) will be evaluating. The facts that I volunteered to do the talk and have it evaluated are not helping, and are in fact making it worse.

I see workouts as a vital means of combating a sedentary research lifestyle, relieving stress associated with comps and the rest of graduate school, and feeling like I do something with my life that doesn't involve staring at a computer. I'm holding on to the belief, completely unfounded (it's not my area of research), that the long-term benefits of my more active lifestyle are worth the short-term costs of injuries that impair my research progress. All the same, I think I should write off any productivity for the rest of the day following a karate workout.

Friday, October 17, 2008


The comps wordcount passed the halfway mark at approximately 9:15 p.m. last night. This is the point where I finished refining a paragraph from disjointed notes into a coherent statement, and Word told me that my cursor came after 5,063 words. The cursor was sitting just over halfway down the 17th double-spaced page.

No, I am not going to force myself to get to 10,000 words, the lower limit of the "expected length" range we were given. I am going to make the points I need to make, citing as many of the 116 journal articles on my reading list as I can. My advisor's inevitable requests for clarification may put me into the proper range, of course, but I prefer to keep to concise statements rather than try to make an arbitrary word count.

The most frustrating thing about a theory paper is that I have no idea whether any of what I'm saying is true, or even reasonable. Have I somehow missed huge swathes of the literature, or misread critical points? I try to take comfort in more senior grad students' assurances that I won't be failed as long as I demonstrate some competence in theoretical arguments, but I can't help but cringe at the potential expectation that this be publication-worthy. I have enough confidence that it's accurate to base my dissertation work on it, but not to let anyone who actually knows this field look at it. Wasn't I supposed to be feeling like I had a good grasp on this topic by now?

Meanwhile, the current status of the paper is 5,459 pages, spread across a full 18 pages. Add all the notes I have on sections that are not ready for proper writing yet, and the word count is 7,234. It'd all be in good shape if it didn't have to make convincing sense.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Can You Really Get A's Without Trying?

On the whole, I'm pleased with the student reactions to their first grades. The class average was a C (median C+, mean C-, or something like that), which makes perfect sense to me because "C" means "average" and I don't expect great things out of the first written assignment - that's why there are three of them, to give students room to improve. I'm very conscientious about marginal and summary comments, with the summary comments being an explanation to them and reminder to myself of why they got the grade.

My greatest fear was of the two students who got F's; the one who barely put together a paper said nothing, and the one who plagiarized the entire summary from the journal article e-mailed me to say she was surprised/disappointed but had reviewed everything I highlighted and understood.

There was, of course, the anticipated line of students wanting me to answer questions after class. This was a 50-50 split. Half of them were on the issue of plagiarism; many students had what I accepted as "accidental" plagiarism that was marked and didn't affect the current grade, but would affect later grades (I declared one letter grade deduction for each plagiarised sentence). I reviewed what counted as plagiarism with each of them. The other half were the "I shouldn't have received such a bad grade". I had no problems sitting down with students to explain why their summaries, critiques, or proposed follow-up studies didn't meet the levels spelled out in the rubric they received with the assignment. I was not moved by the "I've never gotten that grade in my life" or "I get A's in my other classes without trying, how can I get a C here when I did try?" arguments.

Can you really get A's in your other classes without trying? Which classes are we talking about here? I have certain expectations of what a junior or senior taking a lab class in their major should be capable of doing. If you got a C, it's because you just barely met those expectations. People who are about to graduate from a respectable institution with a bachelor's degree should understand the difference between a prediction and a finding, not say that researchers "expected" to find something that wasn't a prediction; they should also understand what a paragraph is for and be able to use it properly. Am I the only person in this university who expects that? Are the standards for writing in our field really so low that we accept vague, unclear, uncritical analyses and give them A's because - what? because the classes are so huge in our popular major and TA's so unwilling that stamping anything with an A really makes sense?

I'm forced to wonder if students think they're paying for an education or if they're paying for a good transcript. On one hand, I feel bad because they signed up for a class with the most entertaining (if not that effective) teacher in the department, and got stuck with me in charge of a third of their grade (and lab sessions didn't start until after the drop deadline, either). On the other hand, I don't think my ideas of what these students should be capable of are unrealistic, and certainly don't intend to compromise on the grounds of some vague student-stated standards.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were some general agreement, with supporting examples, of what students are supposed to be capable of producing? If you want to earn a bachelor's degree, you must be capable of this, and it's not just me who will hold you to that standard, it's other people as well.

Naturally, this whole issue comes up two days before I lead a department workshop on grading and less than a week before I present to the general graduate teacher program on incorporating writing into non-English classes. I practice what I preach, but practice doesn't necessarily show that the preaching is correct...

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Sound of Your Advisor's Voice

Is it a good sign or a bad sign when you don't recognize the sound of your advisor's voice?

My advisor made a cameo at the (mandatory for grad students) department colloquium today, newborn in tow and toddler presumably left at the nanny. I didn't notice this before the colloquium began, possibly because she was not yet there to notice; she and her husband have a history of arriving 5-10 minutes late, but I myself was only just in time and was focusing on finding an empty seat rather than documenting attendees. So when questions began, there was a moment of puzzlement: That voice sounds familiar, but I can't quite place it. Even when I turned around, identified my advisor, and tried to make the connection, the voice sounded just a little off. It's only been six weeks or so since she last came to lab meeting, and I don't recall any such oddity when she returned from her first pregnancy. I had no problem identifying her husband's voice, which I'm much less used to, but then that voice is distinctive (read: loud).

The extremes of bad advising would seem to be when you cringe in fear at the sound of your advisor's voice, and when it is completely unfamiliar. This falls somewhere in between, on the side of unfamiliarity. Am I happily independent, or slightly neglected?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Not Plagiarism Again...

I am a very careful grader. I have only 22 students in my one lab section, not all of whom turn in every assignment, so I can afford to be generous with my time. Prior to coordinating with the other lab TA this afternoon (we give the same assignment, and will review the papers together to make sure students neither gave nor received unauthorized help from someone in the other lab), I was just going to read through the papers once, with no pen or intentions of marking anything. I just wanted to get a feel for what the students had said, and sit on that for a while before starting to mess, however slightly, with their GPAs.

My intentions were lost by the second paper. In the very first paragraph - because I foolishly thought it unnecessary to go over such things as "introductory paragraph" - was a sentence that just couldn't be right. I hadn't even read the journal article they were reviewing yet, for this first pass, and yet I knew it couldn't possibly be the students' writing. It was in the vocabulary, the use of acronyms without explaining them, and a certain sinking sensation. The student wrote three pages of "summary" that are more properly described as "blatantly plagiarised recitation of the methods and results, with a bit of introduction and conclusion added for variety".

After my fiasco with plagiarism last year, in which I decided "they're juniors and seniors, they know what plagiarism is and I can just say 'don't do it' ", I spent an entire lab session on research ethics, including a group activity on plagiarism. So far - I've only read through half the papers - it seems that the only person who didn't get the message was someone I'm pretty sure wasn't there that day. I should be encouraged by this; there's just no way to reach students who don't come to class. But all I can think of is that my careful planning changed nothing, because I'm still caught in the web of figuring out what to do.

Last year's plagiarism fiasco resulted in one student completely pissed off because she got a D (the plagiarism wasn't so extensive, and I was impressed enough with her evaluation that I gave her credit for everything but the summary) and one student who got a 0 with an option to rewrite that he didn't take. I am still sitting on the paper, decided how much credit, if any, to give. I'm inclined to do a 0 on principle. I could give some credit (like 20%) for attempting the evaluation, but I can't decide if that's based on any principles or just on not wanting another student confrontation in my office. I'm also trying to decide if perhaps I should buy a six-pack before I actually grade these things.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Mental Preparation for Teaching

Just as I consider doing a bit of my nascent mindfulness practice before going to teach, I see that PhD Comics has its own commentary on the need for mental preparation before teaching. The sad thing is, abandoning hope isn't all that far off from my goals before setting out to teach, mindfulness or no.

The aim is to be in a state where I am no longer personally attached to whether my students enjoy my class, whether they participate or fall asleep, whether I sound like a knowledgable professional or can't avoid saying "uh" and "um" every few sentences. You might say that I'm just getting rid of the stress that makes "what if I do a bad job?" a self-fulfilling prophecy; or you might say I'm abandoning all hope that the class will go well. It's all a matter of perspective.

Monday, October 6, 2008

What Am I Doing With My Weekends?

Recent posts on ScienceWomen about striving to find balance between work and the rest of life dovetail nicely with my own ponderings this past weekend, about what work I had achieved and whether it was sufficient.

My obsessive time-keeping experiment is over, so the weekends are no longer a push to get up to the theoretically correct hours of work done for the week. Instead I try to focus on accomplishments, starting each day with a short list of things to accomplish and trying to manage it despite whatever comes up during business hours. Still, there is a temptation to see weekends as "wasted" time: time that could be spent in the lab coding on computers that are suddenly free from people, or working on comps in chunks of time uninterrupted by visitors, meetings, and incoming email.

Overall, I have no hard concerns about the balance I am achieving in my life. If I am unbalanced, it's in favor of "life" not "work". This comes of having no ambition whatsoever, a "maybe I'll just join the Peace Corps" philosophy to what I'll do after graduation and what I'd do if I left the program. I have no stress over working on weekends because I know I'm spending a decent chunk of my weekdays on things unrelated to my research - either teaching, which my advisor is not going to see as particularly productive, or doing something completely unrelated to graduate school.

So I spent my weekends not working, and feeling like I should because I also spent some of the weekdays not working, which is an entirely different take on "I didn't get enough done this week!". I could just declare my "weekend" to be Thursday and Saturday - the typical days for getting no work done - but I think the five-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week schedule suits both my ability and my will for getting work done.

The only real question is whether I'm productive enough in my focused time slots. Tick tock; the semester's deadlines for data collection and comps defenses are rapidly approaching.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Enthusiastic Teacher

A fellow TA once suggested I consider the mid-semester check-up. We've gotten this far, now what do you like about the lab, what do you want to see more of, what do you want to see less of? Although this advice is over a year old, I finally implemented it this semester. With any luck, I would get some feel for how the class was going - it's just hard to tell whether silence and the occasional sleepy student are reflections of my teaching or of the general atmosphere immediately before lunch. As an added bonus, hopefully the students would be encouraged by my show of interest in their opinions and progress.

In general the results are about what you expect from an anonymous survey. Actually, as I think about it they must have been relatively good. Everyone in attendance (18/22 students) wrote something. Almost half - 8/18, or 44% - either said nothing needed to change, or left the question blank (which I'm taking as "nothing" in another form). Four people just told me to move the class along faster, five people made specific requests on content and activities, and one person told me to be more enthusiastic.

It's the enthusiasm question that gets me. Everything else is either easy (make some group exercises, no problem) or out of my control (I've made an effort for the readings and topics to be interesting, but I can't guarantee interest for the entire class). It's the enthusiasm I don't know how to change. I received a few similar comments on last year's FCQs - one of my students had no comment other than "smile more!"

I can't say for sure I'm the most enthusiastic TA in my department, because it's huge and I don't see most of them as they teach, but I know I'm somewhere up there. I care about teaching. I asked to teach this semester; I didn't have to, I wanted to. I spend time on my lesson plans, picking topics and readings that I hope will be interesting, planning how to get them involved. If I stay in academia, it will be in a teaching-focused rather than research-focused position. So I know I'm enthusiastic. But how on earth do I convey this to my students?

It's hard to be bubbly and smiling when you're standing in front of 20 pairs of eyes that always seem more jaded or sleepy than bright, trying to figure out what to say next and how to keep their attention. I count myself lucky that I (probably) don't have stricken deer-in-the-headlights look. I'm there; I know what I'm doing is important, I have a point I want to convey, I usually have a specific moment I hope will go well, I devote all my energy to engaging the students in the discussion and making my topic real to them. I even make an effort to make sure I'm smiling. I really have no idea what to do beyond that. All the other things that come to mind that demonstrate enthusiasm, like fast talking, are not conducive to good teaching.

Perhaps this one student is the only of his or her class who thinks that an enthusiastic teacher more like the lecture professor, who jokes non-stop (at the cost of the lecture material, but that's another story). If that's the case, I probably shouldn't obsess over the comment. I've just had assorted mentors tell me about the importance of your students perceive that you actually want to be there, and I'm not sure how to do it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Where Do Universities Keep Their Money?

The news world may just be determined to help me rethink my position on credit, bailout, etc.

The popular perception is that, with the outrageous pace of rising tuition, universities have more money than they know what to do with, and should spend more of their endowments rather than jacking up tuition beyond inflation every year. I've ignored that argument, for the most part; legislating what universities spend isn't going to take much hold when people are willing to take on such burdens of debt to attend the prestigious places regardless of how little of their endowment they spend.

But where exactly are those endowments? They are obviously not piles of cash in the basement of the administrative building; in fact, they're in a lot of places that seem to be just as affected by the current economic situation as the stock market is. I'm not sure I'm convinced that Wachovia's decision to limit withdrawals from a common college fund is going to do much more fiscally speaking than give assorted payroll & benefits services more than a headache from resource juggling, but in the long run it will be extremely interesting to see the effects on the tuition argument.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What Economic Crisis?

The latest PhD comic might explain why I don't see a financial crisis and oppose the bailout bill. After all, I have less than a thousand dollars in stock-based savings (quite lot less than a thousand than I had a few weeks ago, I do admit), I'm nowhere near to graduating and needing a new job. I have plenty of reason to take the extremely long view, which says the Great Depression only lasted a few decades and I have four or more to go before retirement.

On the other hand, it's also possible that trying to live on a graduate student budget with a minimum in student loans means that I have a greater appreciation for fiscal responsibility than most 20-somethings or Congress in general. I'm trying to accept arguments that letting go of credit can't happen at once, but it can be very hard to see why people despair of lost credit cards and mortgages when I've manged to live fine (in my single, childless, practically lifeless academic way) on a relatively meager budget with no reliance on and minimal use of credit.

That minimal use of credit does include student loans. I'm trying to figure out if that makes me a hypocrite or not. But student loans, and whether or not they're worth it, are a complex and lengthy matter for an entirely different post.