Sunday, February 22, 2015

Training, Visiting Scholars, Chinese New Year's, and Macbeth

Yesterday we went blueberry-picking on one of the farms about 25 minutes drive away. It was quite enjoyable and the berries are tasty. D suggested I make a blueberry pie (for me, not him), so I might do that this week. In the evening, we saw an "Open Air Summer Shakespeare" performance of Macbeth. It's one of my favorites and was performed very well.

Job Training

I had six hours of training for my jobs this past week. It is a bit confusing because what their system calls a "tutor" is similar to what we call a "teaching assistant (TA)" in the U.S. And they call the 1-on-1 tutors "peer learning advisors". So it seems like I have two tutoring jobs and it is hard to differentiate them with the terminology. I have never had a TA/Tutor before, so I'm not sure what to expect. I will be tutoring a literature class twice a week, which involves having a smaller group of students than are in the main lecture class in order to be able to facilitate discussion and delve into the material more deeply. At least, that's the ideal. Thankfully, the teachers for the class have prepared the material and some questions for me to use in the sessions, so I don't have to start from scratch.
I have to hold an office hour where students can come in for help with the essays or material. I also will be responsible for grading the two essays that make up most of the students' grade. Admittedly, it is a bit worrying thinking about being in charge of a classroom for the first time, but hopefully it gets easier as the semester proceeds.

The training for the tutoring was basic and emphasized how to create a good classroom environment where students feel comfortable enough to participate. It also included a lot of what not to do. They said students will form an opinion of you in the first 2 minutes, so you have to be careful how you present yourself at the beginning because first impressions are hard to change. The training for the 1-on-1 tutoring had us role-playing with a partner how to go over a piece of writing. My partner brought in her biology lab report and the terminology made almost no sense to me. It was good practice though, because we will have science students coming in for help. She was equally baffled by my Arts essay, saying she can't remember the last time she wrote an essay. It was shocking to hear someone who didn't know what a thesis statement was. It was a reminder of the big divide here (and elsewhere) between the Sciences and the Arts. Without a general education requirement, students don't have to cross over and do something outside of their discipline. And yet, the employers have made such a protest over Science students graduating without communication skills, the school is finally adding a writing component to the Engineering students' coursework, at least. Their writing assignments will be what I grade for my other job.

Visiting Scholars

Professor Charles Husband, visiting from the University of Helsinki, gave an interesting lecture on neo-liberalism and education. It focused on how the current culture of having to do everything for profit is shifting academics away from pursuing research benefiting society and the greater public good. They are now consumed with research grants, marketing their research, and having to tick the boxes on getting publications and prestige to meet their department/school benchmarks. Everything becomes about their own selfish career goals. Academics are increasingly devalued as the jobs dry up and funders don’t want to put money into things that don’t have immediate value. It was all really relevant to what D and I have been dealing with and reading about recently with regards to liberal education and the Arts. We both spoke up about our experiences, and I said that academics are afraid to organize because the employers are in control with so few jobs available. It was weird hearing the professor say that a few decades ago, if you said you were doing a PhD in the Humanities, you would have been applauded. He lamented that faculty increasingly don’t want to socialize with each other or with students, instead holing up and working on research proposals, spending 3-6 months of a 2-year fellowship searching after the next funding (almost like a politician campaigning at the end of their term). I thanked the professor afterward and remarked how different it was now from the 1960s, which were all about protesting, and he agreed that that spirit is largely gone. I know if we end up going in academia, we will have to face the pressure he discussed, and it is a disheartening prospect.

Then the English department had its first seminar since I've been here by visiting scholar Dr. David Gillott on his research interest, Samuel Butler, a Victorian writer who critiqued Darwin and wrote a utopian satire, Erewhon, which I haven't yet encountered. His presentation focused on Butler's anti-professionalism. The main point I took away from it was that Butler criticized Darwin for deliberately cultivating a public persona of a humble "every man" character while underneath being an ambitious, career-oriented fellow. Butler notes that Darwin used a certain kind of language in his writings to endear himself to regular people and make them more willing to accept his controversial ideas on evolution. Butler was also against artists who worked for money and patronage rather than making art because they felt compelled and inspired to. He said that art created in the former way lacked something essential and could never be as good as art for art's sake. 

Chinese New Year's

I finally finagled an invitation to eat homemade Chinese food by our Chinese friend and his girlfriend. They invited us over for Chinese New Year's Eve and prepared six dishes for us (certain numbers are unlucky, so you have to make an even number of dishes; but four is also out because it is associated with death). We had a nice time discussing differences between China and the U.S. For dessert, we brought pumpkin bread and they had bought balls of a gelatine substance coated with coconut and filled with bean paste. We ate one out of politeness, and they were better than the pumpkin things from the restaurant, but still so different than our concept of dessert.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Speaking Up, Cooking Classes, and Denny's


The postgraduate room at school where we go to research is quickly filling up with new students. Most of them are History master's students, a couple Art History. The semester starts next week, and even though postgraduates can start at any time, it makes sense that those continuing on from undergraduate and honours would be starting around this time. It should make for a more lively room.

I had a few hours of work last week for the Academic Skills Centre helping facilitate discussions for English-as-a-second-language students. The staff showed the first few minutes of a funny video on the history of the formation of the New Zealand accent ( I have noticed the different vowel sounds. In the video they say that gradually the short "i" like in milk is turning into a short "u". They exaggerate it for comedic effect, but some people have sounded almost like that here.

I composed a short survey to send to postgrad students as part of my effort to build a better community and ran it by the professor I had the meeting with in December. He sent me back a really nice email saying that thanks to that meeting, he had made postgraduate support one of three strategic priorities for the year and was assigning someone to implement the Year of the Postgrad in 2015. How awesome is that! I figured he was working on things behind the scenes, so it is really nice to know that my speaking out was worthwhile. I also spent some time last week emailing an academic science fiction association in the U.S. about how it really needs to do more to support postgraduates and get with the times in terms of Facebook groups, organizing helpful materials, and attracting the younger generation of scholars. We all know how institutions that can't keep up end up fading away.


I've completed two classes of the four-session cooking class I signed up for through a community center. In the first one, we made Osso Buco (beef stew with red wine and tomatoes) and Pan-fried Tofu. This was my first time having tofu. It wasn't too bad. Kind of a strange texture unlike anything else. The stew was a bit too sweet for my liking, but it was my first time cooking with wine, so I think I'll try experimenting a bit more with that. In the second class, we made fried noodles with bok choy and spring onions and steamed chicken with shitake mushrooms. All the vegetables were new to me, and I am proud to say I tried all of them and even actually liked the mushrooms! They weren't as mushy as the little ones that are normally dumped in food, although they still look weird. The teacher is from Malaysia, so she knows how to make good Asian food with the right sauce combinations.

We finally found a cheaper restaurant option here, and it is good old Denny's, classic American diner. It is celebrating 25 years in New Zealand this year, although the Christchurch one just opened recently. It has the usual items like pancakes, French toast, omelettes, skillets, and sandwiches. No waffles though! They are not as big into waffles here for some reason. We both ordered French Toast and then chocolate peanut butter lava cake with ice cream and whipped cream, and hot fudge cake with ice cream and whipped cream. Needless to say, we were stuffed. No tipping required, and we were on our way. This kind of American dessert contrasts so much with the Chinese dessert of "pumpkin cake" we ordered at a Chinese restaurant that we could only take a bite of: sesame seed-covered pumpkin shells filled with black bean curd. Not what we were expecting to say the least. We wondered how many other people ordered that not knowing what it would be.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Arts and Fireworks

School & Work

Admittedly, I haven't done much for my research since the trip to Queenstown. I've been working on several editing projects and planning upcoming trips to the North Island and Australia (finally booked our flight to its east coast -- very much looking forward to it!). The English PhD student in the cubicle next-door who is rarely there and never speaks finally talked to me and actually offered me a grading job for the semester! Also found out that her research is something to do with Star Trek television shows. She needs a group of people to grade papers for the one writing class that engineering students have to take (because employers complained that recent grads couldn't communicate). Add that to my other three part-time jobs and I will have quite a schedule when the school semester for undergraduates starts on February 23rd. Of course, I don't have a schedule yet because everything is done so last-minute.

There were two research presentations on-campus by the two candidates for a part-time English faculty position, so it was interesting to see this part of the job interview. The first just received her PhD last year and is looking at representations of women in horror films; the second is an American who moved to NZ over a year ago whose research is on contemporary women's representations in literature and film through the lens of literary theory. They were very different, so I have no idea whom will be chosen. The first was a graduate of the department, so there could be some bias there, although the decision-makers might also be looking for a fresh perspective.

D and I have been having several discussions about arts education, and a particularly intense one after I read aloud parts of this long but informative article on liberal-arts education (link below), how it has changed, what people think it means, and whether or not it is still valued/valuable in various societies. I haven't yet formulated an essay on the topic, but I feel like one is in the works in my mind.
The Chronicle of Higher Education's "The Day The Purpose of College Changed"

In a similar vein, one of the reasons I nominated myself to be on the committee of the university's feminist society/club was to help ensure there are opportunities for education on women's issues and civil rights on-campus. Along with the recent cutbacks in many of the school's Arts programs (including American Studies) was the removal of the Gender Studies programs, which means that currently there is only one class on gender, in the Sociology department, which is only offered occasionally. This seems odd for a well-regarded university of over 14,000 students. So I was successfully voted in and will be doing my part this year to incorporate educational events for interested students into the club's schedule.


We went on a hike in the Port Hills which was particularly hard because it was a hot day and all uphill. The hills were brown but we still enjoyed good views of the ocean and harbor on either side at the top.

Another day we went on one of the trails at Halswell Quarry Park. The blue-gray Halswell Stone from there was used to build many of the city's buildings. The city has done a nice job of preserving the history with several boards around the 30-minute trail. 

For some reason, Christchurch likes its fireworks shows. The third show since November was on January 31, called "Sparks". The Christchurch Symphony Orchestra played movie themes for two hours beforehand. The weather was bad -- it drizzled the whole time and was windy -- but that didn't deter them from lighting off the fireworks.


D had a packet of San Francisco sourdough yeast mailed to him and, after days of prep, successfully made a loaf of bread with some of that sourdough tang he so enjoys. Later, he made another batch and will keep the starter going in the fridge to help it become even more sour-tasting. This kind of bread-making is definitely an intensive process. I made pumpkin pie (with a homemade crust) for the first time for a friend's going-away board game party. It turned out pretty good! Thank you, Libby's canned pumpkin. I advertised my financial guide ebook on social media (a little side project I finished last year) and enrolled for a short cooking class at the local community center which starts tomorrow. My sunflower bloomed and our car passed its Warrant of Fitness test (required every 6 months for older cars). Yay! And today we went to the park to hear the Scottish Society Pipe Band play bagpipes and drums.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Drive Home

It was time to drive back to Christchurch, but I was so looking forward to stopping at that Cromwell fruit stand again, I had two bad dreams that I had accidentally driven right past it. There were several tour buses stopped this time so we had to fight the crowds (many of whom were snapping photos of the fruit like they had never seen it before). But I had my fill: raspberries, peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, and cherries. D got some manuka honey, too. Some of the fruit I bought to give away as gifts to our neighbors who watered our plants and other friends. But the rest was for me! (D is picky and doesn't like most fruit -- I know, crazy.)

We drove by a Lord of the Rings location: the largest battle scene of the films (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields) was filmed in the plains near the town of Twizel.
At Lake Pukaki, I fed the ducks. One of them was catching the dropping bread in its beak before it hit the ground. That was a cool duck. 

The real highlight was a rest stop just a little ways further at Lake Tekapo, with awesome views of Aoraki Mt. Cook and the surrounding snow-covered peaks. If the pictures look kinda fake, that's because it looked fake in real life too -- there was a surreal shimmer to the scenery. The water's color comes from ground glacial rock. There's a famous Church of the Good Shepherd with a killer view at another part of the lake.

A little while later, the beautiful warmth and sunny skies turned to dreary, rainy ones which continued all the way until we picked up our cat and went home. Unfortunately, he had to go the vet while we were away because he got something in his eye and it closed shut, but it had already cleared up with some ointment. We had to give him another few applications, and he fought us all the way. Nobody likes having stuff put in their eye!

Everyone said the temperatures had been roasting all week, but now they had turned cold enough for me to turn on the heating blankets. One thing we've learned about New Zealand: you can never count on the forecast to be right, or the weather to stay consistent enough to make any solid plans involving the outdoors. I anticipated having nice picnics outside on this trip and the weather was supposed to be nice and sunny in the Queenstown area...until it decided to rain almost every day. It's what happens on the coast, but it takes some getting used to.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


It was a beautiful, sunny day in Queenstown -- finally! We went on a 10:30am lake cruise (Lake Wakatipu) which was nice and relaxing. We had good views of the town and the mountains and a nice guide. One of the big brags for the lake is that it is 99.9% pure, so he pulled up a bucket and let us all try a glass. Have to say, pretty good. You certainly couldn't do that in the U.S.!  

We went to the underwater observatory which wasn’t much – a bunch of trout, eels, and diving ducks waiting around for someone to feed them. It was included in our lake tour, so that’s the only reason we went. 

Even though the sun was beating down, we took a walk around some of the lake and checked out the botanical gardens with lots of roses in bloom. Then we got Patagonia ice cream and headed back to the hostel to relax and read in the lounge. I really enjoyed that view. Since it was discount Tuesday at the movie theatre, we saw the third Hobbit movie again, but this time in 3-D and high-frame-rate. Not much of New Zealand in that movie, unfortunately -- mostly green screen digital effects.