Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sixes and sevenses

ScienceGirl has tagged me to do the "6 random things about me" meme, which reminded me (*blush*) that I was tagged ages ago to do this, meant to, and never got around to it.

In googling to try and find out who it was who tagged me so long ago, I discovered yet ANOTHER blogger who had tagged me, this time for SEVEN random things.

At this rate, I could just list seven random bloggers who have tagged me and gone rudely ignored. But that wouldn't do at all.

Since I find it hard to manage the truly random, I'm going to do three pseudo-random lists and hope it makes up for all the missed opportunities.

Six random things that happened today:

  1. Our landlord sent a letter saying he's putting our rent up by $25 a week. (The bastard.)
  2. I didn't get the package of the IVF drugs that I am meant to start taking on Saturday, even though the clinic sent them on Monday. This is starting to worry me.
  3. I heard that a random person I was chatting to about teaching at a workshop recently was actually someone important and has been talking me up to the Vice Chancellor.
  4. I wrote a proposal for a $10,000 teaching enhancement grant. It basically said, "Pay me to do some teaching, and this will enhance things." I don't suppose that's quite what they had in mind, but I used buzzwords* and made it sound all sexy. Also, see (3).
  5. I encouraged a student to apply for a teaching enhancement grant too, hereby lowering my own chances of success. I'm so strategic.
  6. I turned my back on the kitchen sink for two minutes, and two wine glasses spontaneously shattered. Spontaneously, I tell you! Fortunately, this saved on the washing up. Just think what a waste of effort it would have been if I hadn't left them sitting there since Monday night.

Seven random things about me inspired by a shuffle on my iPod:

  1. Rammstein: "Sonne". I get easily sunburned. This year I've been wearing sunscreen every day, even in winter, and I think my skin is happier for it.
  2. Split Enz: "I got you". Sometimes I listen to New Zealand music because I feel I should. Sometimes I listen to it because I like it. When I do the former too many times, it subconsciously shifts to the latter. This is probably why my taste in music is so crap.
  3. Nena: "Nur geträumt". I dreamed about Sarah Palin one night last week. I can't believe I am having political dreams about an election that isn't even in my country. Please, internet, can we stop with the American election media bombardment now?
  4. Savage Garden: "Crash and burn". I've only crashed a car once. Unfortunately it was the first (and only) occasion when my parents let me drive to school. I made sure to arrive right when the bell went so that everyone would see me. Everyone did, in fact see me. They saw me drive into a fence.
  5. Spin Doctors: "Two princes". I've never met a royal. But my grandfather taught Prince Edward when he was at Wanganui Collegiate in the early 1980s. I imagine teaching royalty would be a case of the ultimate snowflake student.
  6. Chumbawamba: "Tubthumping (I get knocked down)". In my third year of undergrad I worked nights and weekends at KFC. I quit on the day I turned up bruised and bleeding from being knocked off my bike by a car a few blocks away, and my boss still wouldn't let me go home to recover, and threatened to dock my pay for being 15 minutes late.
  7. KLF: "Justified and ancient". My mother is relatively ancient, but never, never justified :)

Six random blogs that I have been enjoying lately but which haven't made it to my sidebar yet
(This is kind of like tagging people, but some of these aren't the sort of blogs that you tag, and as for the others, I don't suppose they read me. Perhaps they too will discover this a year or so later via teh Google.)
  1. Cake Wrecks
  2. Not always right
  3. The Bloggess
  4. Sociological images
  5. Woulda coulda shoulda
  6. FemaleScienceProfessor


* "Pay me to do some (deep-learning-inspiring, research-driven, Web 2.0) teaching, and it will enhance (outcome-optimized, student-centered, world-class) things."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Linkity link

Nom nom nom nom:

And hey—there are actually people out there dorkier than me!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Heh heh heh

(Find them here. Or not, because it would appear I bought the last of them.)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

And now for a more high-brow topic...

Um, EW. (Arachnophobes should probably not click over.)

We're so funky and innovative! Um. Except when we are wedded to traditional approaches instead.

Yesterday, as part of a larger event at university, we had a sort of teaching round-table, which was kind of like speed-dating, where people got into groups of three and shared something innovative they'd done in the classroom, then swapped groups and kept doing it until time ran out.

Some funky experiments I heard about (I realise some of these aren't exactly new, but they aren't things I knew were happening at our university, either):

  • peer evaluation
  • self assessment on an honesty system (which of the required tasks did you complete, how much effort did you put in?)
  • research projects in an undergraduate class that led to multiple student-as-first-author publications in top quality journals
  • courses with mixed participants from as disparate fields as engineering, literature, geography, mathematics, fine arts, and physics, where students came up with research questions that could be addressed by all of these disciplines from different perspectives.
  • a course that wasn't. They had one meeting on the first day which paired each student with a researcher (usually a non-teaching academic) and a topic relevant to that researcher's work and the student's interests. The student, using the researcher as a mentor, then had the rest of the semester to put together a conference-style paper, which was shared in a final meeting at the end of the course. This was in a technologies course, and the incentive to do well at the final "conference" was that big-name people from Google and various other high-profile companies attended to hear what the students came up with.
  • free choice of final projects, with the exception that students could not do an essay, exam or traditional presentation. One of the students wrote a full-length musical and recorded his friends performing it; another produced a beautifully illustrated children's book; one created a manga comic with totally professional quality drawings; etc. Admittedly this was for a course where all of these responses to the material totally made sense.
  • total democracy, where students choose meeting times and lengths, assessment types, topics to cover, and where they run the meetings and the class website. This one strikes me as really really risky, but it was done with a post-graduate group in a professional degree, all of whom had strong reasons to make it work. What really blew me away was an email exchange the lecturer showed us. The first email was from a student complaining about group work and how one member of the group wasn't pulling his weight. The reply explained the pedagogical reasons for group work, suggested some strategies for persuading the group member to pull his socks up, and reminded the student that the grading system would allow them to distribute the marks fairly within the groups. The killer: this reply was from a fellow student. The lecturer also noted that a couple of times he got to class very late, to find the students had gotten started, made some real progress, and hardly needed him there at all.
I was pretty excited by some of these ideas (until I remembered that my main teaching context is classes of 120+ unmotivated first-years, with no funding for extra resources or time to develop new strategies or for one-on-one interaction.)

One of the other sessions during this event was about how to create more time in the classroom to trial new ways of learning. The main suggestion was to move more of what we are currently doing online. (Don't get me started about how this doesn't actually GAIN ANYONE more time (since lecturers have to put in more hours to create the online content, and students have to put in more hours to make use of it)).

So then at the end of the event, people were talking about how interesting and useful it had been to hear about everyone's innovations. Then there was general lamenting that we don't have time to meet and discuss this stuff more often.

"Why don't we apply the solutions we were hearing about this morning?" I suggested. "If we don't have time to actually meet and discuss teaching, let's do it online. Even a simple discussion board could be used to swap suggestions for innovative teaching strategies."

Want to guess what responses I got?

"That's easy for people like you to say. You're the Web2.0 generation. We don't do that sort of thing."

"I guess maybe you young enthusiastic teachers have time to look at discussion boards. Me, I'm lucky if I get to read all my email."

"The whole POINT of today is the face-to-face meeting. You can't have social interaction in a virtual space."

So instead it was concluded that, too bad, we just can't do regular discussions about our teaching. No one has time to meet in person, and other options are impractical. Oh well, how sad.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I'm so helpful

I just directed a student to a grant he can probably get for a project he is doing in his spare time. $10,000 for him, if all goes according to plan.

Is it wrong to feel jealous of a student?

On the other hand, I persuaded him he would need to hire a linguistics consultant.

(Is it wrong to muscle in on a student's project?)

Also, heavy metal Mongolian throat singing rocks.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Two words come to mind, and they are STEGOSAURUS HEAD

Lots of people around here take the dorky approach to deterring magpie attacks.

Every spring I mean to take a picture of this and forget, so this year I've settled for the shameless-theft-from-someone-else's-blog approach (credit for photo to Toowoomba Bicycle Users Group Blog).

Stylish as these cable ties are, I've always been a little too self conscious to try them myself.

This year, however, prime magpie swooping territory is (a) the lower half of my street, (b) the service station where I fill up my bike tyres, (c) the main crossing to university, and (d) the road near the building where I go for various seminars and meetings. This means I sometimes get swooped six times in one day.

You won't lose respect for me if I go the scary spiky route, will you now? Right? Right???

How do you teach students to generalise?

A plea for help here. I have a student who has been finding the class difficult all semester. I find myself wanting to say, when describing her problem, "She really understands the material. She isn't struggling with the concepts when we discuss them. But she can't apply them to new data. She finds it hard to do her own analysis."

Now, if someone said that to me, I'd reply that I don't think a student really DOES understand the material unless he/she can apply the concepts to new data. But in this case I would have to disagree with my hypothetical self. My student comes up with clever, on-topic insights in class. She can explain a concept in her own words. She can even come up with original examples of a concept.

I've become more and more convinced that there's a general skill missing. And I'm starting to think the skill she is struggling with is generalisation from specific instances to "types" of instance. There's an assignment I give for homework just before we start the semantics module of the course that asks, "In what ways can the meaning of two words be related?" Underneath in brackets it says, "Hint: if you are stuck, start by considering the following pairs: man–woman; hot–cold; small–big; plant–tree; dog–animal; buy–sell; kill–die".

In her answer, the student basically wrote, "Hot is warmer than cold. Man is male and woman is female. A dog is a type of animal. A tree is a plant. Kill is the cause of die. When you buy something, someone sells it." When in class I pushed her to consider whether some of these pairs are "similar" to others, she looked really blank, and then repeated what she had already written.

So it seems to me that this is not a problem with her understanding of linguistics. And it's not that she just misunderstood this one assignment. This was the clearest example of what it is that she is struggling with, but now I look back on her other work, I think this has been the stumbling block all along. But I don't know how to go about teaching someone to generalise, if it's a skill they haven't naturally picked up. For now, I've referred the student to the Academic Skills and Learning Centre, but any suggestions for work I can do with her on this would be hugely appreciated.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

While I'm being grumpy

Why is it, on this website, that policies related to "women" have been relegated to the "special interest" category (down the bottom of the left-hand sidebar)? Since when was half of the population considered a niche area, along with nuclear power, community groups, and disabilities?

And why is it, when you click through to the list of policies classified under the special "women" category, that most of them relate to childcare?

Oh, right, "woman" = "mother", and childcare issues only affect you if you have a vagina.

Doesn't get it

I was telling a prof in our department about my new super-cool research idea yesterday, and we had this conversation:

"Hmm... well, you'll need to get some preliminary data before you can start applying for grants."

"But I'll need funding before I can get preliminary data. This island is in the middle of NOWHERE. The language is UNDOCUMENTED. I can put a lot in the grant application about the context, though, and why the language would be important to study, and how endangered it is."

"I think you really need to do some fieldwork first. Why don't you go there for your next holiday?"

[pause while I look disbelieving]

"No, really. I mean, you're planning to go overseas this summer for a holiday, right?"

"No, actually."

"Really? [Now it's his turn for the disbelieving look.] Why ever not?"

"Well, without a job, overseas travel is a bit expensive."

"I think you should go anyway. After all, it's tax deductible."

"If you earn enough to be PAYING tax."

Isn't it awesome to have a career where you need to work for free for years before there's a chance someone will pay you to do it?

In a similar vein, I'm helping organise a big linguistics event for high school students. It's a national thing, and simultaneous events will take place at each university in Australia. We just had a organisers' teleconference, and it struck me that not only were we all volunteering our time and energy to get this thing off the ground, but most universities were even charging us to use their rooms and facilities for it, and the university where we keep our funds (raised by us) is skimming a percentage off the top. Standard practice, wouldn't you know?

Funny, because last I heard, outreach to local high schools was something universities were meant to be quite keen on. And we're doing it for them. For FREE.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Being cryptic

The advantage of a research project on a community where everyone has the same last name is that you can spam everyone with that name on Facebook and find out some very useful information...

The bad news is that I didn't get the grant I applied for on the cool blog researchy topic.

The good news is that I have an Even Better PlanTM.

There's a language that is like it was invented just to fit in with my research interests, skills and background. In fact, I am one of only a few people in the world qualified to work on it.

It's spoken in a community where fieldwork would be like a lengthy holiday in paradise.

It has never been properly described.

It's so endangered that a bunch of funding agencies would be falling over themselves to provide resources for describing it.

The islanders themselves have good reason to welcome a linguist into the community.

Any project on this language would also require (and therefore probably attract funding for) trips to Germany and New Zealand.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

That egg thing

We had our final meeting with the IVF specialist, we signed a million bits of paper, and on Sunday I get to start taking drugs. Egg Friday (aka retrieval) will be the 14th November. Wish me luck!

Random Heroes fan encounter

A conversation with someone whose TV-watching preferences I previously had no idea about:

Me: "Um, aren't we about to be late?"
Him: "Don't worry! I can bend space and time!" And he makes this face:

Sunday, October 12, 2008


It lives! Thank goodness for that. A new Macbook would have been nice, but Geekman's boss would never have let me live it down.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The joys of being a tiny country in the middle of nowhere

The differences between the American elections and the NZ elections (coming up on 8th November) are kind of interesting.

Launch date of the USA main parties' campaigns for 4th November 2008: end of 2006.
Launch date of the NZ main parties' campaigns for 8th November 2008: this weekend (mid October 2008).

Approximate campaign costs for each major party in the USA election: 500 million USD.
Approximate campaign costs for each major party in the NZ election: 1.2 million USD.

One of the major concerns in the US elections is whether a woman could be elected to president.
In the NZ election, we have a woman running for re-election as prime minister: the job she's been doing for the past 9 years (having taken over from the previous prime minister, who was also female.

Another major issue in the USA elections is whether a black man will be elected as president.
NZ is yet to elect a Maori prime minister (although the leaders of several of the smaller parties are Maori). We do have 21 Maori members of parliament (17% of the total number*). The USA has 45 black members of congress (approximately 9% of the total, I think).

I can't think of anything else to compare, so I'll leave you with some bizarre campaign ads from the last couple of NZ elections.

Here's Labour's from 2002. I'm not quite sure what points they are trying to make. Helen Clark likes Maori culture, I guess. And Peter Jackson. And sport. But what's with all the military stuff and the "I like the USA" schtick? Labour was ANTI sending troops to Iraq.

Here's National's ad from 2005 (embedding disabled). What on earth were they thinking???

And just for laughs, here's a parody ad that makes me giggle (I'd say "obviously" a parody, but I would have thought the previous one was fake too, if I hadn't known better).


* 15% of the NZ population in the recent census identified as Maori, so 17% Maori MPs is proportional representation. In the USA, according to Wikipedia—my research skillz are awesome—the population is between 13 and 15% black (13% identifies as black alone, 2% of the population identifies with two or more races).

Dogs, actually

Okay, it was mean not to give you the full story. (But oh-so-amusing, in a sadistic sort of way).

(Bonus tenuously relevant quote from a PhD student in our department: "Happiness comes in many flavours. Mine tastes like Schadenfreude.")

It's a fine line for this story between overly identifying and bafflingly opaque, but I'll try.

There was a seminar yesterday where someone made an argument that was grounded in an extremely heterocentric worldview (the actual statement is hilarious, but alas, I can't share it with you here). The person in question is elderly and religious, but they had discussed this particular matter beforehand with a couple of other colleagues and had been told what they planned to say might be inflammatory, yet they said it anyway. There was at least one gay faculty member present, and a few gay students, and people objected.

In response, the professor just restated her original argument, and not wanting the gay members of the audience to be the only ones having to argue back, I took up the thread of the objection. In reply, the prof turned to me (and it did require a full-body turn to where I was sitting, so it really did look like she was talking to me, rather than generally) and said, "You can have sex however you like. You can have sex with DOGS if you like. But that doesn't affect my point that... [restated original point]."

I think from context it was pretty clear that she meant "you" in the sense of "one", not "you" in the sense of "StyleyGeek", and that's how I (and I think everyone else) understood it. But apparently it was eating her up all day, because she came by my office a few hours later and made a huge apology, said she was so ashamed, and offered to explain to the whole department that she does NOT think that I have sex with dogs.

Very thoughtful of her, but I don't think I'll take her up on that offer.

There's a happy ending to the whole thing, anyway, since the prof also apologised to her gay colleague and rewrote her argument to be more inclusive. Sometimes I love academic discourse.

Friday, October 10, 2008

It has clearly been an interesting day when...

... an elderly professor stops by your office to humbly apologise for implying at a department seminar that you have sex with animals.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


We're number 16! We even beat Stanford! I have no idea how we managed that, but yay us.

(Note, even though this is totally identifying, please don't mention my university's name in the comments—I'm hiding from Google, not from you.)

Google sees that thing you are doing. But they only want to help. Honest.

Thank you all so much for your appropriately horrified expressions of sympathy in the comments to the last post. Things are not looking too awful any longer, although the Macbook hasn't dried enough yet to make me willing to risk turning it on: fortunately Geekman's boss has said he will replace it out of his grant money if it truly is dead.

In more disturbing news, I was visiting Google Groups just now, and in their "recommended groups" list, which is presumably customised just for me(!) out of the frightening amount of secret information on me that Google holds in its top secret files, the following suggestions were included: LaTeX users (fine), Teaching and Learning (great), Mac Advocacy (okay), JavaScript Forum (sure), and... Alcoholics Anonymous.

Google? Do you know something I don't?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Oh dear god, no

I just knocked a big mug of hot green tea right over my not-even-one-year-old macbook. It shut down fine, and I've taken the battery out, propped it upside down to drain and am hoping for the best. But the tea had got right down inside the battery cavity, which probably means it is everywhere inside the case.

And every scenario I've found via The Google where someone has spilled a liquid on their laptop has ended badly.

Dumb things I have thought to myself #2

You remember how I seemed to have some sort of nut allergy a while ago? Well, it seemed to only be hazelnuts, so I've just avoided them since then. A couple of times products with "may contain traces of hazelnuts" on them have also given me symptoms, and sometimes other nuts make my throat a little scratchy, but mostly I'm fine.

The other day I was standing in the kitchen dipping brazil nuts into a jar of sunflower seed butter, which I had bought only because I prefer the taste of it to peanut butter. I was idly reading the jar, when I felt my throat starting to burn and tingle.

"That's funny," I thought to myself. "I've only ever had this feeling from nuts before, but this jar claims that the sunflower seed butter is 100% nut free and processed in a nut-free facility. How can I be having a nut allergy when I'm eating something that absolutely does not even contain traces of nuts?"

And I felt quite indignant, as I continued to dip my BRAZIL NUTS into the jar and eat them.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Dumb things I have thought to myself #1

I think I've been playing too much (computer) D&D. (You get to do stuff like that when you are procrastinating have finished your dissertation.)

I was cutting a tomato, and noticed that Geekman had sharpened the knife. And I caught myself thinking, "Huh, now it does piercing and slashing damage instead of just bludgeoning."

Friday, October 03, 2008

Ah, Zefrank, you ate my afternoon AGAIN

This song is awesome. I especially love the lines:

"We'd be online
all the time
to drink wine."


"I would L-U-V
that picture of you
taking a picture of you
holding the camera
in the bathroom mirror for me"

Oh yeah, and this is pretty neat too, and so is pretty much the whole site. But you knew that.

Who'd've thunk it?

An old friend from high school just emailed me out of the blue. We haven't really been in touch since 1998, and last time we spoke, I probably was planning to do an undergraduate degree in English literature or French or German, or in any case, something totally different from what I went on and did.

She opened her email with, "I really hope this is you. I found this email address by googling your name, and it came up with some conference abstracts that sounded like the sort of thing you'd write."

Admittedly, we were pretty close at high school, and she probably did have a good sense of the sorts of things that would interest me, and what my writing style was like (although the last piece of writing we did together would have been our guidebook for an imaginery holiday destination, Gobblegobble Land, in 4th form social studies). But I'm still astonished—and a little concerned—that the high school me is recognisable in my recent academic abstracts.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

I sold out. To The Man.

I was in a clothes shop today and noticed that while the men's printed t-shirts came in all sorts of funky manly looks, the women's invariably had girly, cutesy pictures, or else cartoon characters like Minnie Mouse, Betty Boop, or Sesame Street puppets on them.

So there I was, stomping around muttering about infantilisation of women, gender stereotyping, mutter mutter stomp stomp, when I saw...

I can wear it ironically, right?

Well that's helpful

I had the cystic fibrosis screening redone a couple of days ago. It turns out that another difference between a GP who charges $65 for a consultation and a specialist who charges $250* is that the former deals with missing test results like this, while the latter deals with them by saying, "Okay, I'll just write you another request and send it straight over. Which centre is the most convenient for you to have it done at?** Uh huh, okay, and I'll write on it that they should process it urgently and bulk bill it through Medicare."

After the nurse at the collection centre NEAR CAMPUS (hmmm... turns out I may be a little bitter about that, huh?) took my blood, I asked her how long I should have to wait for the results.

"In my experience," she replied, "you should wait one week, and if it's not there, wait two. Then if it's not there, maybe it takes three weeks. And if it doesn't take three, it takes four."

Very zen.


* The first difference being that the former rushes you through and grumbles about the fact you want to have two tests done instead of just one, while the latter takes a leisurely 20 minutes to discuss language policies in the Northern Territory and the latest theories about black holes.

** Turns out it is NOT necessary to have tests done at the hospital on the other side of the city. There is a convenient collection centre right next to the university. Who knew? (Not my GP, that's for sure).

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

In which I make wild generalisations about all Americans on the basis of one recipe

I made these dinner rolls yesterday, and usually I love Ree's recipes (mmmm.... enchiladas), but this time I have to ask you: Americans, is this how your bread usually tastes? Because OMG, I don't call that bread: I call it cake.

Don't get me wrong, it's delicious and all, nice and fluffy and buttery and... um, sweet. But that's not bread. The only time I ever had "bread" like that before was in Tonga. And I just assumed that Tongans are weird and unique with their buttery sugary bread.

Anyway, I'm going to make them again, and substitute the CUP of sugar with a tablespoon or so and see what happens. But dudes, we have got to talk about your sweet tooth. I thought I had one, but you guys win.