Monday, January 08, 2007

Usage peeve

I just read an article that paired two contradictory words: "incredibly unbelievable." I suppose he could have also gone with "unbelievably credible?"
Was it so believable that you couldn't believe it? or so unbelievable it must be true?
Perhaps I should get out more....

Sunday, April 02, 2006


This semester I am taking a course on teaching. As part of this process, I am expected to write a teaching philosophy, a set of thoughts and ideas that guide my approach to teaching.

I have been struggling with this assignment because I want the statement to be a coherent, well connected discussion of pedagogy, but I am having a very hard time linking my somewhat disparate thoughts together.

Last night I started thinking about the role of grading. The difficulty inherent in the grading system is that however I decide to grade a student, someone else will be interpreting those grades. If I am a hard grader because I want to push my students, they may suffer in terms of job prospects, scholarships, or awards. I may end up better preparing my students for situations that they will encounter later in life, but they may also end up a step behind as they are trying to get their foot in the door.

The frustration here is that I do not have control over how grades are assigned in other classes. Students taking classes where good grades are easier to achieve are effectively rewarded for not pushing themselves harder.

Since I began graduate school, I have taken two classes with an interesting approach to grading. There is regular homework assigned (one per week) and these are generally very difficult involving more complicated mathematical applications and principles. In contrast, the tests in the classes have been relatively easy. The benefit of this is that student have an opportunity to really delve into the material at a high a level and yet they are tested on the core concepts. Since the concepts are what students are more likely to remember after the class is completed, this strikes me as a good approach.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is a class that Margaret took while at Brown. In this class, the highest score on tests usually only had 1/2 of the test correct. This approach sets a high bar on application under pressure (which is not a bad thing), but strikes me as detrimental because even students who are doing very well in the class will likely walk away frustrated and feeling that they can't grasp the material.

I would like my grades to be used only as feedback to the students on how well I think they are absorbing the material in the class. Instead, grades have taken on so many uses that such a belief is naive. As such, it provides a vexing and rather intractable problem. (Margaret has been studying vocab for the GRE and I think it has rubbed off on me a bit).

I have come up with a couple of ideas for dealing with the issue, but I'm not sure how workable they are since I haven't tried applying them yet. The first idea is to use an alternative grading scheme. In this situation, the letter grade students receive would be in line with the rest of the school, yet within that structure there would be additional gradations reflecting a more complete and thorough evaluation of the student's performance. I can see benefits and potential pitfalls to this. The benefit is that it gets students to think about their performance and learning independently of their grade. A potential obstacle is that in a larger class the alternate grading scheme may end up causing more confusion than anything else.

Another possible solution is the one I mentioned above, where the homeworks are very difficult, yet the tests (which comprise a larger portion of the grade) are much simpler.

There are also some solutions for ameliorating the impacts of any one question on a test. For example, on a test with 4 questions of equal importance from my perspective, I could allow students to weight the questions. That way, if they were very confident on one question, they could give that the greatest weight and receive the greatest benefit for their knowledge. Similarly, they could reduce the impact of a question that leaves them baffled or less certain of their answer. Margaret suggested a similar approach where the class gets to vote one of the questions off the island so to speak. In this case, majority rules, so some students may end up receiving a worse grade because of the votes from other students.

My main difficulty in this situation has been that I have lots of questions and some ideas, but very few solutions. I am not completely satisfied with any of the methods I've described above, yet I haven't thought of anything better. It is somewhat frustrating, but at the same time I think it is useful and appropriate to ruminate on these topics now before I launch fully into my career as a teacher.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


So, while my main focus these days is school, I am still occasionally fencing. Recently, I've been fencing more foil than epee. At first this was because my epees were all broken, and more recently it has been because I feel far less pressure to perform when I fence foil.

This past weekend, I fenced in the Division Qualifiers for Summer Nationals (Div II/Div III). Because I have an A in epee, I decided to fence the foil instead. There were only five competitors, but I have to say, I'm quite pleased and rather proud of how I did. I dropped one bout in the pool, but I won both my DEs to finish first. The most satisfying victory was my final bout against the person who knocked me out of the same event last year.

I think the reason I am so pleased is that I was able to figure out some things that I do well and some other things that I am not as good at yet. In particular, in-fighting is very bad for me when I fence foil. My long arms are useful at a distance, but when I get to close, they just get in the way.

Also, I was able to actually see what was happening in the bout and adjust as needed. Last year, I bascially just tried a bunch of stuff, but couldn't really sense what worked and what didn't. From my perspective, it was a coin toss as to whether or not I would score the touch.

I think another reason why I am proud of this result is that I beat two fencers that have a higher rating than I do. I have a D03 (thanks to my A99 in epee) and I was the 4th seed in the tournament initially. My one loss in the pool was to a C, but I still emerged with the top seed based on indicators. In the DEs, I knocked out a D05 and a C05. (the C I lost to in the pools lost to the other C in DEs).

Yes, it was a small tournament, and yes it was not at a comparable level with events I used to win in epee. However, I think I can still look at that result and be pleased with it. I guess I just needed to get that off my chest.

Friday, March 24, 2006


Saw my first evidence of Dan Savage's latest neologism today. I have to say it definitely put a smile on my face. Now if only more people felt the same way...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

An "A-ha" moment

This semester I am taking a class called "Preparing Future Faculty" where we are working on teaching techniques and preparing for future careers in academia.

One of the assignments we are given is to run a "co-facilitation", which is basically team-teaching a class to the rest of the students.

The timing of this assignment for me was rather poor in that I had my written exams due the following day (I actually handed them in two days early). Plus, I was going to be leading a discussion, which is a skill I really wanted to work on.

When I was TAing last semester I ran some discussions during which I spend the majority of time speaking. I felt I needed to get away from that to something that got the students more involved. What I hoped to have ready when it was time to teach the class was a solid knowledge of the relevant information, a group of questions I could use to direct the discussion, and a variety of other questions I could use to develop or clarify a point. My big concern was going into the class under-prepared.

What made this situation interesting was that my co-facilitator was concerned about over-preparing for the class. He was concerned that preparing too much would reduce the spontaneity of the class. I can fully understand this view because I had it myself in the past. However, I have come to realize that under-preparation has a great number of pitfalls.

The best analogy I can give for this progression is, of course, a fencing analogy. Teaching is a lot like fencing. When you first start out, you don't have any sense of what works and what doesn't or any idea how to properly execute the actions. As a result, you rely almost wholly on instinct, and you can be quite successful up to a certain level. At some point, however, you need to start working on technique. Developing good technique makes you more rigid in your actions as they don't flow as easily as they used to. This is the time when a lot of fencers get frustrated because they feel they aren't getting any better or are actually getting worse. If you can get beyond this phase and internalize the skills you have been working on, that old spontaneity can return. The big difference is that now those actions are properly executed, which has a profound impact on competitive success.

As I evaluated my experience in running that class, this was how I described the process:

The way I prepare for a discussion class is a three stage process. If I were forced to teach the class while still in the first stage, the resulting discussion may have good flow, but would lack structure. The second phase is where I am able to start working on ways to direct the discussion. If I were to lead the class while I was still working through this phase, it is likely to be overly constrictive and lack spontaneity. In the third phase, I have control of the material, the goals for discussion, and a "“toolbox"” of questions and techniques I can use (or not use) to help guide the discussion along. If I have done my preparation adequately, I can provide a structure to the discussion and also maintain the flow and spontaneity.
I was discussing this with one of the teachers of the course and I forced myself to use an analogy other than fencing. As I described my experience in terms of a jazz musician learning how to improvise, I realized that this process is more universal than I had first thought. I believe that just about any performance involves the same process. When I was acting, my preparation for playing a role was very similar.

I described this idea to Margaret and suggested that it might be true even as far as test taking. After all, taking a test is a performance where a student must demonstrate their command of the material and their ability to use it with ease. The training Margaret received from the Princeton Review provides some evidence that this is the case. Before taking the course, students take a practice exam to evaluate where they are coming in. Periodically during the class, there are follow up exams to help gauge their progress. Invariably, the second test shows a decrease in the students' average scores. This is because they are in that second stage of preparation. They are learning all of the techniques and skills and trying to apply them, but they haven't internalized them yet.

So, while I am not surprised that I discovered an analogy between fencing and teaching, I was very interested to realize that the same process can be applied more broadly.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Rosa Parks

A great American patriot is being honored today.

The great task now is to convert the words today into deeds tomorrow and hereafter.

The tone at the memorial in Detroit is reverent. There is also a lot of defiance to the status quo and the racism that we still struggle with. Our task now is made harder by those who refuse to acknowledge that such discrimination actually exists.

Here is where I am worried. Remember Wellstone. In 2002, Wellstone was on his way to winning reelection in the state of Minnesota (my current home). After his sudden and shocking death in a plane crash, a memorial service was held. Thousands showed up to commemorate his life and celebrate his legacy. In doing so, speakers honored the ideals he held and the principles he faught for. Emotions were raw with the pain of grief and some of the speakers asked the question, what do we do now? Now that Paul is no longer with us, what would he want us to do? The answer was to fight and to win the election for Paul. Considering Wellstone's resistance to the Iraq war and the goals of the Bush Administration, this was a worthy and valid call.

The problem was that, in the hours and days following the memorial, Limbaugh and his clones started claiming that the memorial was a "hate-fest". They took comments out of context and had absolutely no sympathy for the sense of loss of those who attended. Instead, they used it as fodder to attack Democrats. They mocked the pain of those who believed in what Paul stood for. They succeeded in shaping the coverage of the memorial. Walter Mondale, who was drafted to try and finish the election for Paul, never had a chance. The difference between the reporting of the event and the reality was start and it determined the outcome of that election and possibly some races in other states.

My advice now is be watchful and ready. When the right wingnuts start crying foul about the memorial of Rosa Parks, Democrats need to counter-attack. These conservatives and neocons didn't believe in what Rosa Parks stood for, nor did they bother to try and understand it. My warning to them is, use this for political gain at your peril.

*update* It's started:

Friday, August 05, 2005

Finding a voice

As I'm sure you can tell I haven't been very regular in my postings here.

One of the reasons I think is that I don't exactly feel like I've found a voice that I'm comfortable with yet. I find that after I write something, I go back to look at it and discover it to be kind of dry. Not only that, but it doesn't usually SOUND like me. That's something I really admire about Margaret's blog which I don't think I've been able to recreate here in my scattered dispatches so far.

In a way, I don't think writing is something that has generally come easily for me. The stories I tended to write growing up focused much more on plot points than on form or character or description. Consequently, I never really developed those skills very much. Looking back at some of what I wrote, it was kind of heavy handed and reminds me somewhat of early sci-fi writing.

Maybe the problem is that I regard writing as something I need to work on in order to improve. As a result, it isn't an activity I think of as being very fun. The few times I really enjoyed writing something, I think the results are much improved.

So what does this all mean then? To be honest, maintaining this blog isn't important enough for me to start taking notes of interesting things as they happen and then writing about them later. This would be a good way to try and let myself think of writing as a more enjoyable activity. Instead, I expect I'll continue to make sporadic posts about various things as they come up, and catch my interest; so long as I'm near a computer when I get the writing bug.