5 Post-Conference Thoughts

I was away in Montreal for the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards conference last week, so I didn’t get a chance to write a blog post leading up to today (hence why the post is late).  However, I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here are some thoughts on attending the conference.

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This was the first conference I attended where work paid for it.  It was nice not needing to pay for the entrance, the flight, or the hotel room (previously, I would billet with conference organizers to cut down on cost).  It was pretty rad to stay at the same hotel that the conference was operating out of, which made life way easier.

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Conferences can actually be a great learning opportunity.  I learned a lot from the experiences of others as we shared stories and case studies, all of which I have brought back with me to bring to my boards.  I took around 11-pages of notes over the three days, so lots of stuff to review and implement.

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Networking is not something I have a lot of experience in.  In general, I’m terrible with schmoozing and making small talk.  On the plane from Toronto to Montreal, I downloaded my copy of Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone and brushed up on some conference networking best practices.  That hour I spent reading on the flight was pretty helpful over the next three days.

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I handed out business cards and collected them while in town.  I’ve already received an email from the President and CEO of an organization out of the US to follow-up on our conversation about receiving accreditation.  This is an example of what you should do with business card swaps – you go in, make a personal connection with the person, and give them a reason to follow-up.  If you give out your card, make sure to follow-up shortly after the conference to keep the connection going.

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Attending the conference put me a little out of my comfort zone.  I could have stayed comfortably in the hotel the entire time and avail myself of the amenities.  However, at various people’s prompting, I did venture out to explore the downtown core.  I made friends with one of the local bartenders as we smack-talked KW, and I was able to enjoy some genuine Montreal poutine.  For my first dinner, I went out alone, but on the second night, I made sure to go out for dinner with a group of people.  Meeting new people is challenging and not a natural thing for me, so I had to intentionally choose to put myself out there.  Having said that, I also respected downtime, and spent the evenings quietly in my hotel room enjoying movies and YouTube to recharge after the day.  I think it’s possible to strike a balance, and it’s good to respect your own personal limit.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I’m glad I went, but I was very happy to return home.  In the end, I felt “conferenced-out” and was looking forward to seeing my fiance after an intense three days of talking about research ethics.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2017

Another year of reading has finished, so it’s time to take stock of how I did for 2017.  While I’m not an advocate of reading purely for the sake of speed or volume, I do challenge myself to see how many books I can get through during the year, if for nothing else than to ensure I’m carving out time to read.  For my 2016 results, check back to my post on What I read in 2016.

This year, I managed to get through 44 books and almost 14,000 pages, which is on par with my results from last year.  I posted my top list of books I read this year a few posts back, if you want to check it out.

I would say a little more than half of these books are audio books, as I decided to get an Audible subscription, and a friend has been kind enough to supply me with Terry Prachett books.  I have significantly picked up on the amount of fiction I’m reading, which was a deliberate choice since I noticed I consumed a lot of business and self-help books last year.

Title Author Pages
1 Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less Greg McKeown 272
2 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck Mark Manson 224
3 Leaders Eat Last Simon Sinek 368
4 Awaken the Giant Within Tony Robbins 544
5 $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau 304
6 Tools of Titans Tim Ferriss 736
7 American Gods Neil Gaiman 558
8 The View from the Cheap Seats Neil Gaiman 544
9 The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton 272
10 Catching the Big Fish David Lynch 208
11 The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett 288
12 The Path to Purpose William Damon 240
13 The Light Fantastic Terry Pratchett 288
14 The 80/20 Pinciple Richard Koch 288
15 The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen 256
16 How Proust Can Change Your Life Alain de Botton 208
17 Equal Rites Terry Pratchett 282
18 No Fears, No Excuses Larry Smith 272
19 Mort Terry Pratchett 272
20 The Death of Expertise Tom Nichols 240
21 Never Split the Difference Chris Voss 288
22 Sourcery Terry Pratchett 336
23 On Writing Stephen King 288
24 The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin 368
25 Reading the Humanities John Greenwood 156
26 Spark John J. Ratey 304
27 Wyrd Sisters Terry Pratchett 336
28 Managing Oneself Peter F. Drucker 72
29 Pyramids Terry Pratchett 308
30 The Checklist Manifesto Atul Gawande 240
31 Total Recall Arnold Schwarzenegger 656
32 Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual Jocko Willink 208
33 I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had Tony Danza 272
34 Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett 416
35 Eric Terry Pratchett 160
36 Side Hustle Chris Guillebeau 272
37 The Productivity Project Chris Bailey 304
38 Moving Pictures Terry Pratchett 400
39 Mating in Captivity Esther Perel 272
40 Finding Ultra Rich Roll 400
41 Reaper Man Terry Pratchett 288
42 The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin 288
43 Machine Man Max Barry 288
44 The Road to Character David Brooks 320
Total: 13904

All in all, I am very happy with the results, and I am looking forward to tackling the growing stack of books I have in my office for 2018.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Arts of Learning & Teaching

I’ve been in the apprenticeship phase of teaching for the last year, so I’ve largely been gaining experience in how information is conveyed and how to give feedback to students.  While I have given some consideration to course design and what kinds of courses I’d be interested in teaching, my primary focus has been on ensuring the students receive good content and (more importantly) good feedback on performance. Good performance management involves timely and specific feedback to either reinforce good behavioural outcomes, or quickly identifying and redirecting bad performance outcomes. It’s a challenge to ensure that feedback is both timely and useful, but it’s an important step of the process. 

I’m currently working my way through the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and I’ve started thinking about the process of learning.  While learning and teaching are separate domains, they are interconnected since they share similar goals.  However, being able to translate learning (whether being taught by a teacher or through self-teaching) into teaching to others is something that I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge about.

The first time I taught in-class in the college setting, I quickly became aware that my experiences with formal education (the university style lecture) was not a good mode of delivery to copy. While I am comfortable in the lecture setting, I saw that my students did not excel in that environment. I wish I could say that I had fixed my delivery before the end of the semester, but the reality is that I didn’t fully appreciate the situation until after the course was over and I reflected on the term. An environment where I stood at the front and spoke at length for two-hours was not one which the students could effectively absorb the material.

The problem I found is that how I think and absorb content is different from my students. Rather than teaching them to my style, I need to be more mindful of their talents and experiences. Waitzkin discusses this in his book, where he contrasts two kinds of teachers he’s had. One is the kind that teaches his own strengths and relies on rote memorization of strategies and techniques. In chess, this teacher has you studying opening moves to take early advantage of the board.  The other kind of teacher allows the student to play to their inner style, and teaches by building up concepts atomistically. In chess, this kind of teacher strip the board of all the pieces and focuses on the relationships between pieces at the end of the game. By showing how individual pieces play off each other, the student becomes comfortable across the game and learns not only how pieces fit together, but how to set yourself up for control at the end of the game.

I think my teaching style should embrace this second kind of teacher. Instead of dictating knowledge, I should focus on breaking the knowledge down and building up understanding in ways that make sense to the student. I can’t assume my students will have the prerequisite knowledge to compile the facts together on their own. It’s also the case that if I can’t break ideas down simply, the students might not get it, nor may I truly know what I’m talking about.  Afterall, Einstein and Feynman believed that if you couldn’t explain something simply, you probably don’t understand it very well yourself.

Stay awesome, 

Ryan

Ongoing Education and Solving Problems

There is a general perception that going through the formal education process is sufficient for career success.  If you follow the standard formula of secondary school, followed by some form of post-secondary education, whether through trades, college, or through the university, you should have the necessary tools in order to enter the workforce and perform well in most situations.  While this might be true to some degree, I’m willing to bet that if you were to ask people of their thoughts on this process, you’d be met with a certain level of skepticism.  Yes, there are some critical problems with how we view and use higher education, but on the whole, I think the missing piece is this: the role of higher education should be to give students the ability to think and learn for themselves (often concurrent with learning some kind of job-market skill).

The value of higher education is the exposure to ideas and of ways of thinking about things.  By exposing students to ideas and problems they’ve never encountered, you are giving them experience that they can use to navigate life after the classroom.  I think most people get too hung up on the job-market skills and end up de-emphasizing the other stuff referred to as “the humanities” or “breadth electives.”  What is important is for students to be able to cross over the threshold of their vocational training and learn to navigate in systems of knowledge that they aren’t comfortable with so that they can learn to gather information, define problems, and test solutions for things that are applicable to them.

I have a small example of this in action for myself.  Recently, the provincial college system was brought to a halt during a labour dispute.  Once the teachers came back to work, everyone set to work on figuring out how to carry-on and salvage the remainder of the semester.  One of my tasks was to track student requests for accommodation once it was determined that the holiday break was being scaled back to allow students to complete the fall semester.  If students had made previous plans for travel, asking them to cancel their plans (which often was at a huge financial loss to the students) was something the college did not wish to do.  So, the goal is to see where we can find solutions for students missing class in the revised schedule.  My job is to track the requests from students and track the faculties responses.

I wanted a simple way of tracking the information electronically on spreadsheets, and avoid copying huge numbers of cells worth of information into emails.  My solution was to set up a database.  I’ve never created a database before (only used existing ones), so I turned to resources available for employees at my work to teach myself the skills.  I set up a simple database, laid a form over it to allow for a cleaner user experience, and created standardized Word documents with placeholder values that would automatically call information from the database into the document for me to email out streamlined messages to faculty and students.

I shared this database tool across the college, and have been receiving very positive feedback from people who are using it.  I even recorded a 30-minute tutorial video on how to use the database and manage the information, then hosted the video online for other employees to use at their discretion.

My educational background is in philosophy, which is quite different from data process management.  However, through philosophy I learned skills such as how to self-direct my learning, how to define problems, and how to test solutions.  These skills are what has allowed me to come up with a way of managing all the information coming at me, and how to teach that system to others for their own use.  Being able to help others, and sharing something that they value, makes me feel really good and engaged at work, and I’m happy to be able to help others do their jobs more easily.

I understand that students often don’t have the luxury to think broadly about how their skills fit in with a larger view of pedagogy, but I think it’s important to remember that the specific processes, tools, and systems we learn at school are the micro expressions of overall deeper ways that we live, understand, and view our lives.  Taking a narrow view of the value of education tends to miss the proverbial forest for the trees.  The point of higher education is not just about vocational training and preparing people to enter the economy, but instead it’s main purpose should be viewed as a way of preparing people to become better problem solvers.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (as of June 19th)

Drawing inspiration from Marginal REVOLUTION, a blog co-maintained by economist and author Tyler Cowan, I think I’ll insert an occasional update of the books I’m reading.  While Cowan and Alex Tabarrok update the site several times each day, and you’ll see these lists from them at least once a week, I do not have plans to update with any regular frequency.  However, I’ve been reading books at a decent pace, and I have enough books on the go that I can make a short list here from time to time.

For all the books I read last year, see My 2016 Reading List.  You can also follow my reading on my instagram account, where I post the covers of books as I finish them.

Here are five books I’m currently reading:

Reading the Humanities: How I Lost My Modernity by John Greenwood

This book was authored by one of my former professors from way back in first year of undergrad.  I still owe him two papers from the class I took with him – it’s the only class I failed at university (surprise, surprise).  I found myself in the university book shop on a recent visit to campus and decided to pick this up and check it out.  It’s exactly what you would want and expect from a professor who teaches literature and meditates on various topics relevant to life.  It reminds me a lot of what you see from The School of Life.

 

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been taking in the world of Terry Pratchett by audiobooks as of late.  It helps me pass the time on the commute to work, and I enjoy fictional books delivered by audiobook, as listening to the story is easier to absorb than nonfiction.  The titular character Mort is alright enough, but I’m really in this story for Death.  Everything about the character Death is awesome to me, especially his dry humour and the metaphysics that goes into explaining a character who reaps souls.

 

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

This book pops up in a lot of self-improvement and self-reflection blogs and books, so I think it was inevitable that I would read it eventually.  This is doubly so because she name-drops Aristotle on the cover (virtue ethics for the win!).  I actually stole this copy from my fiancee’s mother, so I should finish it and put it back on the bookshelf before anyone notices.  Amusing sidenote – I stole this book from her a couple months before Christmas, then my fiancee received a copy from her mother as a Christmas gift.  Really, I should just read the one we have a home…

 

 The Road to Character by David Brooks

Another book related to my future mother-in-law.  This was actually a book I had mentioned to my fiancee that I was interested in checking out and was planning on swiping from her mother (I really seem to have a problem with theft and books, specifically the books owned by my future mother-in-law…).  Well, my fiancee told her mom  that I was interested in the book, so I received it as a gift for last Christmas.  Funny how things work themselves out.

 

 

Rome’s Last Citizen by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni

I believe I saw this book recommended by Ryan Holiday on one of his monthly reading lists.  Last year, I was on a big stoicism kick, so the life of one of Rome’s most famous stoic practitioners appealed to me.  I am finding the read a little slow as there is a lot of extra history that is included to give context to the events of Cato’s life, but I’m still finding the book interesting and insightful.

 

Feel free to comment below with books that you are reading that I should check out.  I’d love to hear about them and grow my reading list.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan