Sunday, March 29, 2015

Politics of the Past and Present

I was tutoring on Aldous Huxley's Brave New World dystopian novel this past week. One class had an interesting political discussion on blue-collar work and poverty. To get them thinking about the relation to the caste system in the book, I asked how many of them were planning on going into blue-collar jobs. We discussed the truthfulness of the concept of a meritocracy and whether or not the poor have a decent chance at upward mobility. One girl commented that the poor just spend their money on cigarettes and alcohol instead of taking care of their kids, so I asked if there were maybe a reason why they did that. In the book, people take soma to forget their troubles and maintain happiness. It was an interesting discussion and hopefully had everyone thinking more critically about their society and the conditioning we all receive.

I watched a presentation on the construction of USSR memory through internet images, including memes and images of "Stalin As" that were intended to be critical but ended up being received as positive (Stalin As Twitter, As Facebook, As YouTube, etc.). Apparently there is a big wave of nostalgia for the "good old times" going on in Russia, and the government is encouraging people to remember all of the accomplishments of the past. But, as one might suspect with the internet, most of the people uploading images are younger and so never lived through the most repressive years of previous regimes. Yet they are taking part in the construction of the history of the Soviet past. 

The UN Youth club had its first meeting and held a mock Model UN so people who hadn't experienced it before could check it out. Basically, you choose a country to represent (I picked Costa Rica) and then you act as the delegate from that country in one of the UN bodies (like General Assembly). Ideally, you have done research beforehand to know how your country feels on the issue at hand, so you know how to speak about the issue and vote. The issue up for a resolution was the right to privacy, so we had fun discussing the issue and striking or adding amendments. It's a great way to put yourself in another country's shoes and think about issues from different perspectives. You also learn how to ally with other countries and make compromises to try to get your way. I did it in high school and it was one of the best experiences I've had, so it was fun to do again.

Patrick Meier, a big name in the digital humanitarian field, gave a talk on the development of new tools that combine crowdsourcing with artificial intelligence to sort through the Big Data after a disaster or crisis and help humanitarian organizations provide better relief. For example, after a typhoon hits, people will send tweets, post Facebook messages, and send texts asking for help or posting photos or commenting on the destruction. Patrick spoke of the ability for ordinary people to help out by taking some time to look at photos or tweets and tag them (like 1. this is about people needing supplies, 2. this is about the extent of destruction). Then, after humans do this for a couple hundred times, the computer program will learn how to tag them and can do the rest of the thousands or millions on its own. If it is unsure how to tag, it will send the photo or tweet back to the humans. He called these volunteers "digital Jedis" and said anyone could become a digital detective. He also told us about a slightly different application where volunteers from around the world helped wildlife rangers tag 25,000 photos so they could see where animals were and if there were any dangers they should know about. Volunteers accomplished this within a day, whereas it would have taken the rangers months to comb through.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Giving and Gaining Knowledge

I have really been soaking up the knowledge recently at several lectures on campus:

The Canterbury Historical Society had one on economic history in the 20th century (also known as, What happened in the 1980s?!). It might not have interested me a decade ago, but being a worker and investor now makes me quite interested in the economy and how/why things work like they do.

The university and local writers' festival live-streamed the How To Be A Feminist panel from the Sydney Opera House, which included top women from Australia, Canada, and the U.S., including Germaine Greer. Then afterward was a local panel from Christchurch. The lecture hall was packed and had a broad range of ages. It was enlightening to see what the current trends and issues are in contemporary feminist activism.

The public What If lecture series had its first one of 2015 as What If All Women Everywhere Were Treated the Same As Men? given by a professor of law who is French but also now a New Zealand citizen. She mentioned the disappointment in finding that most New Zealanders she encountered weren't very interested in pursuing gender equality, like doing something about the gender pay gap.
Most of the information I already knew, but she gave a lot of updated statistics. On average, women in NZ spend 4 hours and 20 minutes doing unpaid work, while men spend 2 hours and 32 minutes. Only 15% of professors (highest level of academic teacher in their system) are women, begging the question of where are all of the women completing MAs and PhDs going. Top law firms in Auckland (biggest city in NZ) have 19% female partners. It takes 24 years on average for a woman to become a CEO, while it takes 15 years for a man.

The Critical Animal Studies series featured a Russian academic who presented on the Artist as Dog in Russia. There's a famous Russian artist -- Oleg Kulik -- who puts on a collar and chain and pretends to be a dog in various cities around the world, highlighting the lack of freedom for artists in Russia. She also talked about how the dog is portrayed in literature and Pavlov's treatment of dogs in his experiments.

The Canterbury Women's Club postgraduate networking group that I have been pushing to get underway had its first meeting and was quite well-attended. I enjoyed hearing what other people are researching, and the main speaker is doing cutting-edge research on bloodstain analysis in relation to forensic science. Apparently, the models out there only look at blood dripping downward and not all of the splatter that travels in arcs. She uses 3-D cameras and physics and also does educational outreach to encourage kids to see the practical applications of studying math and science in school.

We went to a poetry reading on campus. It has been a long time since I went to one of those, and it felt very hippie but was quite enjoyable. Hearing people perform their poetry makes it come alive so much more than reading it on a page.

Meanwhile, by the third week of tutorials my nervousness is almost dissipated which is a relief. We discussed The Time Machine and Heart of Darkness and it surprised me how these turn-of-the-century novels have a lot of similar issues and themes that people are wrestling with today (benefits and downsides of science and progress, racism, class-ism, sexism, ills of capitalism). I guess that's why they're considered literature and still worth reading. In my other one-on-one tutoring job, I am remembering how much I enjoy it and seeing the lightbulbs go on as I explain concepts and how to tackle assignments. So far, the students have been very appreciative of assistance.

In other news, I got around to booking accommodation for our upcoming North Island trip with a mix of hostels and Airbnb. You get so much more for your money with these places because you have access to free wi-fi and a kitchen. I'm not looking forward to meal-planning for two weeks this time, but it's necessary. We had the earthquake insurance inspectors here again to check something that wasn't covered in their last visit. Apparently they are having to make the decision whether to try to repair the house or rebuild. Our landowners said not to worry and that it wouldn't affect us, but of course with all the trouble it took to find housing here, I don’t really believe that. Last week we went for a walk in the "red zone" near us where the houses are all gone and nature is quickly reclaiming everything. It is a bit eerie, especially how fast plants take over.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Tutorials and Popular Art

It is possible I have taken on too many jobs, partly because of the last-minuteness of planning in New Zealand so that I didn't know for sure if I would have the tutoring one which takes the most time until right before classes started, and partly because I have trouble saying no to new opportunities (and more income). I am up to six now, though some of them are just for a short, fixed period of time and others will be in bursts when papers are turned in for grading. This will be a test semester to see how everything goes.

Meanwhile, I survived my first two tutorials! I was nervous but it wasn't too bad and after the hardest part -- starting the class and having everyone look at you for leadership -- it was mostly just prompting discussion through questions. The first group took longer on the questions so I had to rush at the end, but I still had time to give them the recent news article on human head transplants only being two years away and relate it to Frankenstein's relevance today, almost two hundred years after its publication. The second group was in a smaller room actually meant for that kind of small group which does make a difference in the atmosphere, and they were more active. I have so much more appreciation for the prep work that teachers do and the energy it takes to be that person in the room that everyone is expecting to lead them. I think the nervousness will diminish over time as I get more comfortable with the role and the groups feel more comfortable discussing and asking questions. You are so thankful for the contributors because they make the job that much easier. It is a unique position being the one in the room with more knowledge and experience, and I enjoy that power and ability to guide their thinking and questioning into certain directions. Sometimes they make the leap themselves, but other times you have to tease it out. It is odd that it has taken this long to have the opportunity to lead a classroom, after going down a degree path that points that direction in most cases. But I have to say, getting to discuss and write about literature for a living has to be a good gig. Probably why professors rank so highly on the job happiness scale!

I had a meeting with two women executives from the Canterbury Women's Club on the startup of the postgraduate network group. They were eager to hear my ideas, and we settled on a monthly meeting on-campus where a few women would give a brief overview of their research and then a woman speaker in the workforce would share her experience. The idea is to build a network and practice skills like presenting, mingling, and preparing for life after the degree. I hope everything goes well and is successful. If I decide to stay on in New Zealand after completing my degree, networks like this will be useful in finding employment.

My literature class had another good lecture which related some to my project. The lecturer was talking about the importance of studying both "high" art (like James Joyce and Picasso) and "low" or popular art, because just like now, people interacted with and consumed both types. He said, Wouldn't you want to look at what 95% of people were reading or watching? This relates to science fiction because until recently it was not seen as worthy of study in academia. Thanks to a generation of people fighting for it to be recognized, and the acknowledgment that studying popular culture is important too, it is now generally accepted at most schools as an appropriate topic for serious academic study. In my view, what we read and watch has a big role in our socialization, so it absolutely makes sense to critically analyze and engage with the culture we live in (or used to live in).

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

First Week of School

The first week of school went by quickly. My note-taking job involves sitting in on two classes each week and typing notes out. One is a law class where I will learn about New Zealand's common law system (it is one of the few countries without a written constitution, taking after Britain), and the other is a political science class on international relations. I especially enjoy hearing the U.S. get mentioned as a passing reference rather than being the whole focus of everything!

I attended the first lecture for the class I will be tutoring for, a literature class dealing with themes of science and technology (a science fiction class in disguise, essentially). Having never taken an SF class before, I am very glad to be able to take this one (technically being paid to take it as it's part of my tutoring contract) and both learn a lot and pay attention to the teaching and preparation side of things. The first day focused on the science vs. arts debate and whether or not there is actually a huge difference or if they have more in common than we've been led to believe. Less than one hundred years ago, the arts were considered to be the higher-ranked field of study, if you can believe it. (This is why it's important to learn history, folks!)

One of the co-lecturers for the class is in charge of the Digital Humanities at the school, and I asked him several questions about it since I haven't been exposed to that before. It sounds really interesting -- instead of rejecting all of today's technology and the internet, Digital Humanities seeks to bring these things together with the fields in the humanities. One benefit is to be able to comment and critique in the space where people are at nowadays (online) and likely bring back the funding that has been lost to more "practical" fields. Examples include analyzing the algorithms that Facebook uses to show items on its News Feeds, using a computer to search through and sort all of the digital information (emails, documents) related to a study of a politician's time in office, or scanning copies of old, fragile manuscripts and making them clickable with links to historical information. I told the lecturer about my background in web development and he said it would be a good asset for future job hunting to have some Digital Humanities experience. A few days later, he emailed to tell me that the department has some funding for someone to help update that section of the website if I were interested. Sweet!

I went to a postgrad presentation on whether or not brass instrument players' native language affects their tongue movements and the tones of the music. Very interesting and an under-researched area of music production. I also signed up for a couple clubs at the big Clubs Day; we'll see how that goes. They are mostly geared toward undergrads, but there are quite a few postgrads who join as well. The closest to my area they have is the Linguistics Society, then there's the Science Fiction & Fantasy Society, and the United Nations for Youth which I'm hoping is similar to Model UN in the U.S.

At our second Operation Friendship dinner for international students, I admit that after meeting a young lady from Italy and commenting on her lovely accent, I asked if she knew how to cook Italian food. Of course! she said. Fortunately, she's the one who asked for my email address and wanted to hang out in the future, so I didn't have to admit that I would love to hang out and have some homemade Italian food! Everyone had fun playing the card game "Spoons" which I hadn't played in a long time, and I made it through the whole round without ever missing out on a spoon.

In my last two cooking classes, we made braised pork, butter chicken, and Garam Masala fish; then curry chicken, fried rice, steak, wontons, and dumplings. The class wasn't what I expected, but I have learned some things and hopefully will be able to practice them in the coming weeks and months.