Monday, September 28, 2015

Visits from Arabic Language Professor and U.S. Ambassador

I finally finished the first draft of the journal article I've been working on for seemingly ever. Every time I think I'm done with the research, I find something else that needs to be looked into. It has been a humbling experience. Next it goes to my supervisors for feedback and then off to the journal for review.

But I still have another journal article to work on, and that one is on pedagogy (teaching). Let me tell you, researching pedagogy is like going into a huge black hole: there is so much out there and you can easily get lost in it. However, it's quite interesting reading about what people have to say about what makes the best teaching practices, and I find myself reflecting on my own experiences at school and what worked and didn't. I have learned and continue to learn a lot about teaching this year.

I was involved in a second session of teaching/leading at the tutoring center and it was quite fun preparing for and presenting because the topic we chose was holiday celebrations. I made a quick 5-minute presentation on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Christmas in the U.S., and everyone seemed to enjoy all of the pictures and my stories of shopping and making cookies and decorating. I told them all that they need to try pumpkin pie at some point because it is so good. I can't wait for October to be here so I have an excuse to make lots of pumpkin treats. Sure, the Libby's Pumpkin is $5 a can, but it's so worth it.

The bookstore on campus had a further reduction in their clearance books -- only $2 each! -- so I couldn't resist buying several. Okay, maybe 14. But most are gifts!! Much cheaper than buying a Secret Santa gift, and it's good for people to read. :)

We also popped by the British store that we haven't been to since we arrived to see what they were stocking. It was taken over by new management so the prices were a little better. They have boxes of Shreddies which I think I can use as a Chex replacement so I can make Chex Mix and other treats requiring that kind of grid cereal. D bought a can of Heinz Spaghetti with O-shaped pasta (looks like Spaghettios but unfortunately doesn't taste like it) and we both got packages of Bachelor's pasta which we had almost weekly while in the UK. It still tastes the same!

Professor Sahar Amer (Chair of the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures at the University of Sydney), whom I heard at the ANZAMEMS conference this past July, was visiting the university and gave two presentations on Muslim women. The first was on "Gender Trouble in the Seventh Crusade" and focused on the first female sultan of Egypt, Shajar al-Durr, whom I had never heard of. The second was on "Muslim Women's Rights in Post-Colonial Europe" and discussed modern Muslim women and veiling practices. We learned about the rising Islamic fashion industry which is becoming a substantial source of revenue for Europe; she played a clip of award-winning British Asian Muslim comedian Shazia Mirza poking fun at her culture, as well as a clip from The Hijabi Monologues. I was glad she had brought these things to our attention, as I know I had never encountered them before and probably wouldn't have otherwise.

Finally, the US Ambassador to New Zealand, Mark Gilbert, paid a visit to the university. First, the International Recruitment Officer said a few words about how great it was that U.S. students were helping expose New Zealand students to new ideas (and helping fulfill part of the new graduate profile: "being globally aware"). He said he travels a lot in the U.S. and finds that the two peoples are quite similar in values and being hardworking and motivated. I was thinking, where do you get that idea?! I have not found many people here who have the same work ethic that I find in the U.S., but maybe in different circles or in Auckland things are different. Next the Chancellor spoke about the importance of a strong relationship between the two countries. The Ambassador got his chance to speak and reflected some on his career moves from Major League Baseball to 30 years in the banking industry, and then becoming part of Obama's campaign and getting this position. He spoke about how many entrepreneurs he's met across New Zealand and advised us to try to see some of the cool things going on on-campus, like drones. Very business-oriented, but that's to be expected from his background. He did make a funny joke about feeling less wind chill in his house in Florida during a hurricane than in New Zealand because of the poor quality of insulation and window thickness. He said New Zealanders could learn some things from the U.S. and we all laughed because we know how cold it is here!
Ambassador Mark Gilbert with U.S. students studying abroad
White pigeon young-lings at school
Japanese cherry blossoms

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Rigid Systems


I received a care package from home (yay Chex Mix!), but unfortunately it was intercepted by MedSafe and they confiscated some of the supplements inside because New Zealand's nanny-state health system requires a prescription for them. In the U.S., melatonin is a sleep aid and sold as a supplement. The letter gives you 30 days to get a legitimate prescription from a doctor (and if you have more than a 3-month supply, the doctor has to take anything over 3 months' worth and dole them out to you gradually) or they destroy them. The letter tries to convince you how bad it is to order drugs online because they could be harmful. I really don't like the health care system here. Also just found out that the junky student health insurance they sell us is really only intended as a travel insurance, so that's why it doesn't cover anything. The government discontinued students getting onto the good health insurance in 2011 apparently.

My Presentations

I had my one-year confirmation oral presentation with my supervisors, a moderator from the department, and a friend who wanted to come along. I'm glad she did because then I could complain about it afterward with someone who had been there. It wasn't too bad, but I get frustrated at constantly being told I haven't include this, that, and the other French theorist for some point, and how the paper won't pass if I don't include them. Research has gotten so bogged down in these theory fads; it used to be psychoanalysis, but of course that went out of vogue. Now it's poststructuralism, but that too will pass eventually. It seems to become more about pleasing others than making a good, original contribution to the field that is accessible to not just a minority.

One of my former students invited me to give a lecture to the public downtown for International Parking Day, where people buy a parking spot and protest cities being made for cars instead of people by setting up alternate things in the parking spot (like a living room set or a table with leaflets and hands-on activities). There weren't too many passers-by in the early afternoon, but I still got a chance to practice presenting and time myself on my Digital Humanities presentations. We had some good conversations before and after about education and travel, so it was a nice experience.
Got to meet the cutest white German Shepherd walking by!

 Others' Presentations

There continue to be interesting presentations that fill me up with all kinds of ideas. It's what I am enjoying most about being back in school. One of the Digital Humanities ones was on the shift from product-based capitalism to financial capitalism where people make money off of money and digital things like data. Basically, we're giving away our data for free when we use social media and other apps that harvest our data and sell it to advertisers. It's digital sharecropping and we should be cautious about further enriching the .0001% (Google, Facebook, etc.). Hard to disagree that we're being taken advantage of.

Peter Singer, who helped start the animal rights movement in the 70s, was in town speaking on effective altruism, utilitarianism, and rationalism. He believes that people should give their money away to charities and places where it will make the most impact, so like to African charities that provide very low-cost mosquito nets to combat malaria. He says saving more people is better than saving fewer, even if that means not helping people in your community because the money will make more of a difference to really impoverished people. He specifically called out things like walk-a-thons that require a lot of people's time that might be better spent working and earning money that could then be given away. But some people do things for the psychological benefit and so aren't being as altruistic as they could be. It was an intriguing talk with some good audience questions afterward.

An Emeritus Professor of Political Science gave a lecture on throwing out the political science canon (Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau) because it limits people's perspectives and the ability to make new connections. He said there is no reason we need to keep reading these men's works as if they are the only way of looking at political issues and motivations. I had to agree with him, more in the context of my own field (see above on my confirmation) where a handful of theorists now dominate the perspective one can take when critically examining literature. But the only reason he can say this is because he's retired and has the freedom to challenge the canon.

Diane Foreman is one of the most successful women in the Asia-Pacific region, and the university's entrepreneurship program invited her to give a talk on her successful business career. I had just read about her in a magazine my friend gave to me so some of the information was repeated, but it was cool to hear about some of her business experiences and how she thinks of herself as a capitalist feminist. She believes in treating her employees well and incentivizing them to do better, which has been missing in a lot of my former workplaces. She also talked about the issue with selling time, a point raised in the magazine article. Kids are encouraged to grow up and enter the professions: doctor, lawyer, accountant, etc. But the problem with these pathways is that you can only make money by selling your time. You might bill out at $1,000 an hour, but you aren't making money without billable hours. As a business owner, though, you can make money without having to physically be at your business. You aren't at the mercy of needing others to pay you for your time. She said we should be encouraging kids who have the entrepreneurial spirit to become business owners. I would add that we should be teaching basic business and financial skills to everyone, so even those with Art and Science backgrounds can go into business if they desire. 

The second annual university Feminist Society day conference went well, and I learned some interesting things, including some scary facts about how radicalization is affecting kids and women in the Middle East. There are no easy answers.


My friend recommended a TV show where several Chinese teachers go to a British school and teach the kids in the "Chinese method" for 3 weeks and see if it is more effective than the British method of teaching. He thought I would be against the Chinese method because it is so rigid and involves 10-12 hours of school per day, but I told him that I had a similarly rigid method of teaching at some points in my education and am all for it. I didn't know how many hours Chinese kids go to school though. He said in junior high and onward, they are constantly at school or at home studying; they have very little free time. Everything is geared toward passing exams to get into a good college. [The BBC documentary was called Are Our Kids Tough Enough? I watched it on YouTube, but it has since been removed for copyright complaints from BBC. It might be available elsewhere.]

Speaking of education, the more I learn about the NCEA high school education system here, the more concerned I am for this country. I had to help a student who is constantly being marked down for his bad grammar and punctuation and said he has a tendency to write long sentences that are incorrect; when I asked him if he knew how sentences work (with a subject and verb and stuff like that), he gave me the saddest face and shook his head and said no, he didn't. Where do you even go with that? It's incredibly difficult to try to explain why something is grammatically incorrect if they don't know the parts of speech and how sentences fit together with punctuation. I learned from the Chinese vs. British show that the UK stopped teaching grammar in the 60s, so I assume that carried over to New Zealand as well. I know some schools still do it, but it's probably only the good ones. I'm hoping the U.S. hasn't given up on grammar; I know they were still teaching it when I went through.

When students here try to apply to PhD programs in the U.S., they are completely intimidated by the GRE tests since they don't have to take anything like the SAT or ACT to get into college. If they don't pass their high school classes here, they can wait until they turn 20 and get in without any requirement. And since there are a lot fewer requirements for what they take in high school, the last time they took a math class might have been junior high! I would venture the rate of doing well on those kinds of tests is not very high; they're hard enough for those of us who've been conditioned to the standardized test system!
Spring is finally coming!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

At 1-Year Mark of Living in New Zealand

I've passed the 1-year mark of living in New Zealand. My, how time flies.

I have my confirmation presentation this week. Technically, you are not officially confirmed in your PhD studies until you have passed this oral and written report stage. Since I seem to be the first person in my department to go through the new process, they don't really know what's supposed to happen, so I don't know what to prepare and am not really worried about it. When it comes to New Zealand and international students, it needs us more than we need it!

The Arts Tutor Training class had been interesting the past couple weeks. We learned about issues around assessment and how often it doesn't match learning outcomes. Our teacher recommended "backward engineering" a course, where you look at what you want the students to get out of it by the end and put in content and assessment that will help them get there, rather than just stuffing as much content in as you can. I can see the temptation to try to impart a lot of information, especially if it's a subject you are passionate about, but the reality is you can only get across so much in a semester. Quality over quantity, pretty much. One of my friends missed class so I was filling him in afterward, and he had never considered why traditional essays might not be the best way to measure learning in a class, so I'm glad I was able to bring up something for him to think about. I know I have been pondering this for months since that Teaching Week session on the ineffectiveness of traditional lectures!

I experienced my first bad lecture here with the "What If Computers Could Save Lives" public lecture by the head of the supercomputer at the university. It was frustrating because on a campus that has been continually cutting funding to the Arts, he basically appropriated all kinds of philosophical questions about big data and technology and ended with scaremongering and warning us to be wary of robots taking over. He also used old science fiction (Isaac Asimov and HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey) and never once mentioned the term nor gave credit to the fact that Arts people have been discussing these issues for quite some time, and maybe his poorly-researched talk would have benefited from some of their input, or perhaps he should have stuck to what he is an expert in and that actually would have been a lot more interesting than a scare session to a largely aging audience. (His actual research is on analyzing brain pathology using math and computer models.) I don't think it did the university any favors.

The new Digital Humanities seminar series is really interesting. Last one was on the internationally-used program LaBB-CAT (Language, Brain, and Behavior Corpus Analysis Tool) designed by researchers here and how it can analyze and mark up audio files a lot faster than doing it by hand. What used to take a researcher years -- going through audio files and listening for language changes and patterns -- can be done by the program in a day. The current research is on the New Zealand English vowel shift, where the second-generation New Zealand settlers began pronouncing their vowels differently from what they heard from their British/Scottish parents. Fortunately for linguists, a group of people in the 1940s went around the country with a van and a microphone and recorded people talking about their early lives, and some of these people had been born around 1850 and were the first people to learn English here. Many visitors and expats know about the vowel shift, because it is sometimes difficult to understand people even when they are speaking clearly because the vowels are pronounced so differently.
Sample image of LaBB-CAT from the website

I've been continuing to learn a lot about all sorts of topics. I created two websites in WordPress over the weekend and remembered how much time web development takes. It didn't help that years ago Google had converted their old Google Sites to "legacy sites" so I didn't have Super Admin privileges to be able to make some changes on the site I was migrating. And it took a couple hours to figure out why things weren't working, because every time you try to Google something that Google no longer thinks is important, you end up wading through all of their new Help forums that don't answer your question. Thanks Google.

I found an awesome book on world-building in science fiction and fantasy called Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. It includes media beyond books and movies too, like radio and video games, and was so interesting, I ended up reading most of it and finding a ton of good quotes for my research. Lots of Star Wars in there, too, although it came out before Disney took over the franchise so some of the information on the canon is out of date. 

I learned about life in the Chinese countryside and how birthdays aren't usually celebrated in China, which made me sad. I told my Chinese friends that I would make them a cake next year so we can have a Western celebration. They find it interesting that we make such a big deal about them. It's really through these kinds of conversations that you realize how much you think is normal is a product of your culture and what other people have passed on to you. Also, apparently karaoke is really big in China and there's a place here near the university that some students go to, so that might be on the radar for me to visit in the next year. Another friend taught in Japan for a while and was telling us about the strict education system and the high suicide rates there, which I didn't know about.

At home, I got some kind of black scuff marks all over my down jacket which I wear every day, tried to get them out with soap, mostly succeeded, then made the mistake of hanging it out on the clothes line after it had rained, and it got green spots all over it from the moss/plant residue runoff from the roof over the clothes line. These are times I shake my fist at New Zealand. 

Although many things are expensive, I had to take a picture of the price per kg of peppers at the grocery store, because it just doesn't seem to make sense for things like this to have the price per kg -- it makes it look outrageously expensive. Spring is officially here, so once the weather warms up, it will be time to start up our pepper factory again so we don't have to pay so much for the bottled ones.