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.

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