Monday, January 16, 2012

When teaching works

One of the things about being a teacher is that it's pretty hard to know when teaching works. I tend to believe that the reason things work out is because I have such brilliant students. I am a pretty privileged teacher, I have a lot of brilliant students, they participate, they share, the listen and they learn. It's a wonderful place to be in.

Sometimes, however, I get this sneaking suspicion that I have influenced them. And I am not talking about the many, many students traumatised to the point of never being able to squeeze another ketchup bottle after advertising lectures with graphic images. No, you see, sometimes I do something with my teaching because I want students to get better at one particular skill, and they get better at it!

I have just come out of a marathon of paper grading, the curse of every professor. When the students go on vacation, we hole up with supplies, good reading light and a red pen, and get to it. This is a strange and exhausting process, as it demands intense focus for hour after hour. Luckily the students I grade these days submit computer written papers - when I also have to decode handwriting, this is headsplittingly hard. Anyway.

Going into a long period of grading is like zoning into a very special slice of life. It's just you, the reading list, the course list, the demands to the papers, and this large stack in front of you. It's easy to feel disconnected from reality and worry that you're being too nice or too harsh, or believe you are hallucinating. Sometimes we are. Grading large stacks takes endurance and practice to do well - at the end of day two, the words blur and you turn pages with only a vague idea of what is on them. Again and again you go back, read over, check the notes, worry you may have been in that empty trance state too long, and can't get it all back, but you have to press forwards to the end of the stack.

Then you call the other assessor. You communicate - carefully - your idea about how the grades are this year. Surprisingly often you and the other assessor agree! This is always a miraculous moment. There is something measurable, and you have both sensed and measured it in a manner that is at least comparable!

This year I got this sneaking feeling early; that this was a generally good stack. (Now, if you are a student, no, I am not giving you your grade until all the formalities are in place, and then you have to call the administration. The papers are in the mail between me, the censor and the student administration. Wait for it.) Not that they were all brilliant, some were brilliant, some bad, some failed. It's how it is. But they were on average much better than I have been used to! I thought this was odd, because it's been a rough semester. I had to bring in several external leturers (thanks folks, you did really good by my students!) and rely on the TAs a lot (and they were amazingly reliable). So I started to pay attention, to try to figure out what had happened.

One thing stood out: They papers were organised! They had a strong and clear structure, they had developed the research questions, they had all elements we ask for from a paper, and they used literature well and correctly. I almost wanted to cry. I have been drilling this into student heads all autumn, repeating the structure of a paper, the reference systems, the reason for both and the logic of scholarly argumentation. I have linked reference systems and written outlines, and then repeated it all one-on-one for those who came for supervision. I worried I had overdone it.

If I overdid it, at least the message got through. Even the weak papers were structured. In several cases this saved them from a total crash and burn, as the adherence to structure helped discipline the progress. And this I know is different from the terms before. This one thing was drilled more, and more systematically. The teaching made a difference.

So, now I have that working for me. Tomorrow I'll be at the library, considering what else I need to spend time on. I am thinking of how to tighten up the reading list and the progress of lectures, and couple it better with the exercizes. I can't promise that it will work as well, but I can guarantee that I will try.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Remember the milk 2

One of the things that my new to-do software does, is ask how much time I need to spend on the tasks I schedule. I try to put in realistic estimates. Until March 21st I already have work planned and booked estimated to take 53,12 working days. This is before teaching, planning, administration and meetings. All of this will take between 18 and 22 working days.  In this period there are 51 working days. Perhaps this is why I feel like I never get things done?

In a recent study of the time-use of faculty at universities and colleges in Norway, it turned out that 8 out of 10 of the active researchers who are also teaching, use their spare time for research. The day simply does not have enough hours to cover the three tasks: administration, teaching and research - sadly often emphasized in that order.

Over the next weeks I will have to use a lot of non-paid hours in order to cover all I have to do, if I want to teach well, maintain a network, publish and participate actively to the running of the University, and this is nothing special.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Can I still buy Lego?

A picture from an old ad flashed around the internet with viral speed a week or so ago. It's a little red-headed girl, holding out her colourful, glorious Lego creation. The discussions and the issues this brings up has touched me both personally and as a researcher looking at play, games and leisure. Lego has long been the benchmark of free creative toys, dominating the market with their simple and sophisticated idea.

 This was the Lego ideal when I had children, and it's the lego they grew up with and loved. We still have loads of the toys, one of the few things we did not throw out in the move, and now that our daughter has more room, I expect her to take them home. I loved my own Lego pieces, particularly when my father or older sisters would get down on the floor with me to play. There was this sunny spot on the floor which was like made for a long afternoon building odd creations.

When my sister had kids, some 15 years later, we started looking for Lego for them. It wasn't really that easy any more, because it had all become extremely gendered all of a sudden. The different stories that could be told with Legos had taken off, and where my kids could have a kingdom's castle (which was great, female characters make as good knights as the male ones), 10 years later the options were much wider - and almost all for males. Ninjas, Star Wars, Pirates of the Carribean - girls could still play with them, but it was clearly aimed at the tomboy side of girls. If we wanted something neutral, it was getting tricky. For years, we actually stopped buying Lego, because buying the boy-stuff for the girls would have made it seem like a present for the boy. We did not want to encourage the gendering of toys by getting him space-legos and the girls crayons, so it ended up with crayons for everybody. But we kept looking, and once in a while we'd find a nice design, a house, some cars, some animals. We still loved Lego, you know.

The last few weeks have made me seriously reconsider that love. Lego has redesigned their toys - supposedly after four years of research - and created a girly line. I am stunned. Here I was, happily thinking I'd just have to wait out the space-ship and pirate runt of the last few years, and I'd be able to find lovely, gender-neutral Lego again. Instead they go dramatically in the opposite direction, gendering the toys beyond recognition.

Check out more pictures from the new Lego sets at Geekologie and, and have a look for yourself. The figures are no longer compatible with the other lego sets, so if the girls want to create a pink-suited space girl to fit in the rocket and use the same gear as the boys, they can't do it. They can't put them on the horses, they can't work the farms, they can't fit the police uniforms  and they certainly can't fit a hard-top over their styled hair.

Lego, I understand that girls have been telling you they want more stuff for girls. I have been looking for more good stuff for girls myself. But I have not been looking for yet another arena where boys and girls are shown that their interests and activities can never mix. The beauty of Lego was that it could all integrate. If I had wanted to get plastic toys with more realistic figures, different shapes and standards that didn't match the other toys, I'd have bought Playmobil!

Instead I would have liked to see a bakery next to the car-wash or a complex model of a cupcake factory or a dairy - have you ever looked at those? They are the model-train enthusiast's dream come true! Why not let the girls have pink space-suits, purple cars and sturdy female ambulance drivers in the same fit and design as the rest? The Lego universe is potentially as diverse as reality as it is, and yes, a kitchen in bright colours would be cool, but can't it fit in right next to the command bridge on the death star? Even evil villains taking over the universe have to eat, you know.

This all makes me want to go stick my head into SWTOR and never come back out. In there I can be female and look gloriously competent and dangerous, in armour sets that do not bare my boobs, either. Thanks, BioWare. The next toy I buy for a child of any gender may be a digital game.