Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Earthquake, Pollution, Voting

It’s been a busy time lately, and New Zealand was once again on the international news with the 7.8 earthquake that devastated Kaikoura and also parts of Wellington. It was different from all of the other earthquakes I've felt here so far: over a minute of a gentle rocking, like being on a houseboat rather than in a house. It wasn't scary, although apparently the tsunami risk goes way up if a quake lasts for that long, and the evacuation plan for the coast is, well, not quite formulated very well. People ended up stranded for hours on a narrow peninsula and would have been engulfed if an actual tsunami had gone. Needless to say, residents over there are ticked.

I went to my first hui, which is the Maori term for a meeting, and that was an interesting experience where the topic was a very contentious political issue regarding children. I also went to a talk on freshwater pollution in New Zealand, which was very illuminating. New Zealand bills itself as clean and green but the reality is quite different. 74% of NZ freshwater fish are threatened or in decline and in a few decades there won't be any left. Plus, there is no protection under NZ law for them. 43% of NZ lakes are polluted and have too many nutrients (causing algal blooms). 67% of NZ waterways are polluted and the Canterbury region (which is where Christchurch is) has some of the highest rates worldwide of gastrointestinal disease. They're sobering statistics for sure.
algal bloom from report on freshwater in NZ

In the academic realm, I have gone back and forth on my thoughts on its function in today’s society. In discussions with some professionals outside of academia, I discovered that people outside the ivory tower have a surprisingly low opinion of academics. Their view was that many academics are the people who never left school, have little understanding of the ‘real world’, and couldn’t necessarily be successful having to work with other people in another job. They saw academics as more likely to be dysfunctional, which then explains why things like aspects like discrimination and backward-thinking still proliferate without much consequence. I have to say I’m starting to agree with some of this viewpoint, because of the resistance to change and lack of dialogue about critical issues that I have found this past year. Also, when I was helping tutor a student, I realized that they weren’t relating the book at all to their own life and struggles, and it occurred to me that we’re failing as educators (or the lecture system is failing) if they aren’t connecting what they’re reading and learning to their own life.

As part of this system, I had the opportunity to do several teaching sessions this year and experienced first-hand the issues with the lecture-style of teaching, because it is such a one-way, non-engaging style. It is still quite persuasive though, and allows you to shape others’ opinions. I also have been able to do more public speaking in front of hundreds of people, which I certainly wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago. Practice definitely helps. I helped organize a conference and a different seminar and in the process found a great TED Talk on how technology distracts us. I keep coming back to it (especially his bit about how checking social media updates is like gambling) so I think it’s a good one.

Other things that have happened were good celebrations of Halloween and Thanksgiving with friends. Funnily, I put out candy on my office hour but the New Zealanders were largely too timid to take it while I was there, but then when I came back most of it was gone. In the U.S., that wouldn’t have lasted a week! At a weekend festival, I tried fried pumpkin for the first time and it was yummy. And finally, I voted via email for the first time and it was very easy, and I hope that in the future electronic voting can become more of a thing, because I think it would increase the percentage of people who actually partake in elections.


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