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.

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