Monday, August 24, 2015

Returning to New and Old Things

I enjoyed flying back over the Southern Alps covered in snow. What a lovely view of New Zealand.
What's been happening in the month since I returned from Australia...

In the Neighborhood

Construction finished on the new Pak N Save store next to the old one. The good news is we spotted insulation, so hopefully it was actually used! (Rare sight to see insulation in New Zealand.) We went to the old store on the final weekend -- of course they didn't advertise this the previous week lest people wait for the sale -- and it was almost bare because they had a 20% off everything in the store to try to clear the stock. It definitely worked, and we bought a bunch of extra items in preparation for holiday parties.

On our street, a couple more houses were demolished. No idea if and when these will be replaced.

At Home

Our landlords were nice and got us a new dishwasher without us asking when we mentioned that the spring had broken on our door so it would slam down. They are easily the nicest landlords we've had, and they said they can put off doing earthquake repairs for a few years if we want to stay.

Our car failed its every-6-months Warrant of Fitness (WOF) because two of the rotors were going. Getting new rotors and an oil change set us back a bit, but that's cars for you.

It snowed in August! It wasn't enough to stay for long, but it was fun to see it falling. The heat pump struggled mightily to keep working (again, they are not designed to work in freezing temperatures!) and the electricity bill for that day was almost $20. You can see how people end up with massive energy bills in the winter here. 

Our cat is really happy we are home. He likes impeding work and setting a poor example by lounging on blankets.


I picked up some kind of cold at the last conference, but it wasn't too bad and I was on the mend by the time we got back to New Zealand. Everyone else seemed to be getting sick though with either colds or flus. It is strange being sick in July since that is winter here. D got sick once and now is sick again with something else.

I went to a dental hygienist that a friend recommended and got a cleaning (called a scraping and polishing) for $80. They weren't as good as places in the U.S. and didn't seem to realize that you have the patient wrap their mouth on the suction tube occasionally so the saliva and water don't pool at the back of their throat and cause choking. Just a thought. The cleaning took a half-hour and I was on my way. Possibly couldn't help stopping at the only Wendy's in town that happened to be across the street to get two value Frosties...

We decided to finally buy a parking pass to be able to park on-campus because it was getting too cold to walk all the way from off-campus in the freezing cold and wind tunnel by the library. I have been enjoying this luxury a lot this winter.


Several dozen of the Arts postgrad students are taking a no-fee 10-week "tutor training course" designed to help us improve our tutoring and teaching skills. Some of us wish that the instructor were actually from the Arts and not the Sciences, but this is whom the university offered. I found it interesting when we were given the children's story Goldilocks for an activity that the story is not universal; then I began wondering what sorts of stories and fairy tales kids learn outside of the Western context and what messages we actually absorb from all of our early reading.

The Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Arts gave a presentation entitled "What if Studying the Arts were the Best Thing for the Economy?" where he, a music guy, lamented having to give these kinds of talks defending the Arts instead of ones celebrating all the great things about them. The good news is that at least in New Zealand, earnings potential and employment rates are pretty much the same for most Arts and STEM graduates after a few years.

I'm learning more about Digital Humanities at the new weekly seminar series on campus. When one presenter asked the audience if they knew what OCR was, and a group of middle-aged lecturers all answered no, it really reminded me why I want to push for basic digital literacy as a requirement for university students everywhere! It’s what runs our world; we should have some say in it. I did some informal polling among some of the postgrads on our floor and none of them knew what OCR was even though they've all benefited from it. I just assumed everyone knew. It stands for Optical Character Recognition and is when the computer converts an image of text into text that can be read by a computer and manipulated in a lot more ways. This happens when items are digitized and then the text becomes keyword-searchable, able to be copied and pasted, etc. If you have a picture of a text (like the page of a book), you might be able to read it, but you can't do much else with it because the information is locked in the image. OCR isn't always perfect -- it's very difficult to do this accurately with handwritten things, old manuscripts, and anything not standardized. The presenter also mentioned scanning images into 300dpi TIFF color files, and though he didn't ask this time, I'm pretty sure a sizable portion of the audience didn't know what he meant.

How I got away with it for this long I don't know, but I finally read Edward Said's Orientalism and it was really good and surprisingly readable and accessible. He wrote it in the 70s but it could almost be written today, so much of what he discussed regarding stereotypes about the Middle East are still used. I'm using his perspective for the journal article I am writing and it is perfect since there are a lot of references to Islamic and Arabic culture and practices in my text. I think Orientalism should be required reading at university level and our education system should actually teach students about non-Western areas of the world in modern times, not just in ancient history where it's "safe".

Public Speaking

I participated in the university's Thesis in Three competition where you boil down your research and why it's important in three minutes. I also convinced several other Arts postgrads to do it and use it for presentation practice. Unfortunately there is a bias toward Linguistics students who win every year (didn't know this going in) so none of us made it into the finals. It was nice learning about other research going on though.

I had the opportunity to help plan for and co-teach a session at the skills center for students with English as a Second Language, and it went well. They are so appreciative of the chance to practice their English with native speakers.

Making Change

After I discovered that I hadn't been invited to be a representative at the postgrad focus group that was set up because of my complaining about the lack of culture last year, I was finally invited and am getting the chance to air my complaints and propose solutions, as well as meet some of the postgrads around campus. On my wishlist is to have a holiday party with hand-mailed invitations (because getting another email is so easy to ignore). We'll see if that happens.

I was also given the opportunity to sit down with the newly-hired International Student Experience Advisor (I think the university is finally realizing there's a problem) and tell her all of my issues with being an international student. She is lovely and really wants to improve things if she can get some resources. (She's also been outside New Zealand so knows how things are supposed to work!)

Some of us went to the New Zealand International Film Festival's screening of She's Beautiful When She's Angry about the birth of the women's movement in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. It was good, and fun to see older women being interviewed now about their past experiences and then have the scene jump to them back when they were in college and agitating for change. Putting faces and personalities to the big authors (Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, etc.) was cool.


The Alumni office invited me to go schmooze with alumni and donors at a party and I got a little peak into how the university positions itself to them. I met a couple interesting people and had a long discussion about what's wrong with New Zealand politics. It was great!

There's a new young lady from China in our postgrad room so I'm excited to learn more about her country from a female perspective. She seems really nice and not as shy as other international students. I also met my first person from Kazakhstan, and I'm having to put aside all the stereotypes from the movie Borat which is probably the only encounter most Americans have had with that country's name. It shows you the power of popular culture in shaping our perspectives.

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