The Silent Mentor

I stumbled across an interesting thought recently while browsing Quora.  Apologies for the morbid nature of this post.

A member of the Quora community asked about what happens to cadavers after medical students are finished with them, to which user Daniel Lim offer this answer regarding medical schools in Taiwan.  You can read his full answer linked here.

“The students spend a year dissecting the body, and at the end replace the organs and sew back the skin. They then conduct a mass remembrance ceremony and funeral for the Silent Mentors.”

The concept of the silent mentor is bound up in the following quote from Li He-zhen:

“I will give you my body to experiment; you can make as many mistakes on me, but never make a mistake on the patient.”

I found this to be a power quote that exemplifies an element of education that is sometimes overlooked in the modern economy.  From my experiences, higher education is often seen as training first, before considerations of growth and development.  When you complete your program, you will have been signed-off as competent in a field.  This competence is granted after a series of lectures and tests; tests that you must not fail.

But failure is almost always viewed negatively.  Bad grades are seen as a sign of deficiency – you are not smart if you are getting bad grades.  Failure is costly to students as it sets them back, which costs time, money, reputation, etc.  Education is cut-throat in the modern economy and everyone is in competition for a scarcity of jobs.  If you fail, you are moved backwards relative to the pack.

Yet, failure can be an opportunity.  It’s a chance to see where you have avenues of growth and development.  Rather than seeing failure as an end-point, failure should be viewed constructively as the points that we need to focus on.  Teachers shouldn’t be seen as punishing students for failing, nor should students be seen as inadequate for failing.  Students should have permission to fail.  School is the best time to fail, because the stakes (tuition notwithstanding) are so low.  It’s a chance to test ideas, try things out and learn from the outcomes.  Making mistakes should be instructive.  Expertise is not just knowing the right answers, but also about having a powerful command of all the mistakes that are possible, too.  Teacher have an obligation to instruct pupils properly, not to attempt to download the contents of their brains into the minds of the students.  Education does not work that way.

If we approach failure this way, and encourage making mistakes in safe environments like school, then students will be better prepared to succeed when something as precious as life is on the line.

You can read further on the topic of the medical education and use of cadavers in Taiwan here and here.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Evolving Job Description

Having lost out on the competition for the new job at work, I’ve been motivated to consider how to position myself for future advancement at the college.  I’m trying to figure out what steps I can take to make myself a more attractive candidate.  One way I’m looking into is to turn back towards education and find a part-time online program I can take to add more credentials to my name.  I won’t dive too deep into what I’ve turned up yet, but I’m exploring a few options that could result in an additional bachelors degree in education, or even have me return for doctorate graduate studies.

Setting those aside for now, another way of improving myself is taking on additional roles and responsibility at work.  This is not to say that I’m looking to make myself busier, or becoming a martyr to work.  Instead, I’m looking at selectively adding roles that require me to learn more about curriculum and post-secondary education delivery.

I just got out of a meeting with my boss, where we discussed some avenues of growth she’s looking to take me in regarding student academic advising and program review process management.  By necessity, these new roles will require me to understand how curriculum fits together, and how students progress through their programs.  This deeper understanding will benefit me in the long-run and expose me to new areas of the college.

Coming out of this meeting, I reflected on my job at the college to date, and how it has evolved over time.  I realized that for each September I have been here (new academic year), my job changed from the previous year.

I started out as a temporary research assistant.

The next year, I was an assistant for the program advisory committees.

Then I added program review support the following year.

At the start of this year, I began teaching and I took on a more significant role with program reviews.  With this increased responsibility, my boss has also added academic advising at the start of 2017 – both to current and prospective students.

At each level, my job description has changed and evolved.  I’ve lost some minor, menial tasks, and I’ve automated others to free up cognitive space.  This is ultimately a good thing for me.  While I’ve been slowly improving my place at work (moving from contract, to part time, to full time permanent, and slowly earning more money along the way), I’ve been turning heads and catching people’s attention.  I may feel stagnant a times during the day-to-day grind, but it’s important to remind myself that I’ve been going nowhere but up since I started here.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Motivation of Failure

Last week, I was passed over on a job opportunity for a more qualified candidate.  Such is life, and I don’t bear any ill-thoughts for the results of the job search.  I’m disappointed, but not soured by the experience.  It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, and I find that more important to focus on than to give in to a fixed mindset of self-pity.

After the feelings of sadness ebbed, I found myself experiencing a different feeling – motivation.  This has happened a few times in my life, and it was strange to be reaquainted with it.  There have been a few critical moments in my life where I failed at something important, and that failure created a fire within that motivated me.

It happened when I climbed Mount Kenya in 2007 after I failed my summit in the summer of 2003 of a mountain in Alberta whose name I’ve forgotten.

It happened when I joined the Campus Response Team and became a Coordinator after I failed twice to be a residence don.

And it happened again last week when I wasn’t selected for the job.  The self-critical sadness was overtaken by a motivation to go to the gym.

As I’ve written previously, It’s been a while since I’ve visited the gym.  According to my fitness journal, the last time I was in the gym was around Hallowe’en.  I’ve been rowing this last month a few times a week in the mornings, but I haven’t lifted iron in around five months.

Initially, I stopped going to the gym after my routine was disrupted by travelling to Scotland.  Then I didn’t go out of laziness, and then I didn’t go because I didn’t feel like I could justify going to the gym when I was supposed to be marking assignments and prepping my lectures.  By the time December rolled around I had regained my weight, but I also proposed to my fiancee, and started the planning process for moving out of my apartment.  Along the way, I was tired from a lack of sleep and dissatisfied with what I saw in the mirror.  Yet, it was never enough to overcome my inertia.

Failing to get the job was the final push I needed to hit the gym.  Maybe I needed a physical outlet to vent some frustration.  Maybe it was a form of punishment.  I’d like to think it was something more constructive – I accepted that I failed but I also saw that I could do better next time.  It is within my power to learn from the experience and grow.  The failures seemed to stack until it hit a critical mass; a line was crossed that set off the warning bells that I was heading in a direction I didn’t want to go.

It was time to make the first step and correct my course.

 

I vlog occasionally for my buddy’s YouTube channel, Artpress, and posted this immediately after I got out of the gym.

So, I hit the gym and pumped some iron.  I was nervous to go back as a beginner again, and overcoming inertia was incredibly uncomfortable, but I did it.

Now the trick is to keep it up.  That’s, perhaps, the greater challenge I face.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Blog – The Rewards of Grading

I spent a fair amount of time this weekend grading papers from my class.  It was their first foray into writing a philosophical essay for me, so it was an interesting indictment on whether I was effective in teaching for the first half of the course.  There were the natural ups and downs, but I suspect my grade curve falls in line with what is expected (I have two late papers yet to grade, so the jury is still out).

I jokingly grumbled about the extra work it takes to grade poor performances for me.

This isn’t to say that I look down on students who do poorly, nor do I want to make light of their performance.  For me, marking is an opportunity to help the student learn and develop.  When a student does well, I often feel less compelled to give a lot of feedback because there is little they could have done to do better.  I praise where it’s merited, but I don’t think the students are helped if I don’t offer something constructive to mull over.

Marking poor performance, on the other hand, takes significantly longer to finish for three reasons. First, as in the tweet above, when I’m dealing with plagiarism, I need to do more research to ensure it’s genuine cases of plagiarism versus sloppy citation practices.  I use the TurnItIn service to give a “sniff test” for the paper, but the majority of the cases of flagged plagiarism are merely properly cited references to the text.  Otherwise, I use context clues to determine where students might have plagiarized, such as changes in font, and changes in voice or phrasing the student uses in their writing.

The second biggest reason why it takes me so much longer to grade poor papers (and this will relate partially to my next point) is that I have to sufficiently document my reasons for awarding a poor mark.  This is to not only justify my decision to the student (and avoid seeming arbitrary), but it’s also to protect future me.  My annotations and comments help me in the potential case where a student wishes to talk to me about their mark.  After time has elapsed, I need memory aids to help me understand why I made the decisions I made while grading.

Finally, the most important reason why it takes me so much longer is that I have to identify instances where the student could have done better, and give them direction on how to improve.  It’s not enough to rely on quick notations to tell the student the problem (i.e. Awk or awkward phrasing, SP or spelling error, Citation Needed, Does not follow, etc.).  I have to take the next step to identify the problems and provide guidance for improvement.  This is why the process is so time consuming.  It’s an important process.  I remember how important that direction was when I was in school.  Without the time my profs took to help me through my papers, I doubt I would have won an essay prize in grad school.

Grading has its rewards, though.  Sometimes, you are amazed at the quality of the work that gets turned in, as happened in this tweet below.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

 

Blog – Break Week

I’ve finally hit week 8 for the course I’m teaching!  At the college I work at, many of the schools have adopted a 7:1:7 model of course delivery, including the School of Liberal Studies.  This means that the 15-week term is broken down into two seven week blocks and a break week in the middle.  It’s like a traditional reading week, except it’s a free pass for students.  They get a week to recharge, catch up, or enjoy a lull in their workload.  While this usually elicits a “kids these days” shake of the fist from people, I fully support the break week.  Many students are first-generation college kids, meaning they are coming from families that may or may not have had the academic support to help them through school.  The transition to college is a big leap, so a break week helps ensure the students have the support they need to succeed.  I prefer to set my students up for success, than to wear them down through a war of attrition.

This also means that I don’t teach this week, and *I* get a break, too!  As you’ve been reading the last few weeks, a break is exactly what I need.  This will give me a chance to prep, mark and feel slightly less pressure during the week.  This also means that I might *gasp* actually get out to the gym this week.  No promises, though.  But, here’s hoping…

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Blog – Week Two of Teaching

I’ve received some feedback that my readers like my posts on teaching and want more updates on how I’ve been progressing.  Since this blog doubles as a record of experiences and things I learn, I’m more than happy to share more of my thoughts on teaching (so far).

General Reflection

Week two ran a lot better in my mind than week one.  I felt more prepared and more excited for the lecture material, which I think translated into a better experience for my class.  There were some concrete steps I took to make things better this time too:

  1. I practiced better self-care.  I slept a little better, ate lunch before teaching, was better hydrated, in more comfortable clothes, etc.
  2. I had a guest speaker, which changed up the pacing a bit.
  3. I showed clips from YouTube to make my points, rather than using lecturing alone.
  4. I had a better sense of the lecture flow I wanted to achieve.

There were, of course, elements that I want to improve on, such as practicing my transitions in speech a few more times, or being ahead of the game in terms of my preparation.  However, I think I am overall doing well.

Shadow Work

I also graded my first round of assignments this past weekend.  I have to be mindful of how much non-teaching time I devote to the course because I’m only, technically, paid for the 3-hours of teaching I do per week.  The rest of the work is factored into my wages, but not actually paid out as hours logged.  I’m not overly worried at the moment because the items I’m marking took me around 2-hours to complete Sunday morning, so it’s not a huge burden at present.  It will, however, become a concern when I have to mark essays and the final exam.

Connecting with Students

I’m receiving positive feedback from students that they are enjoying the class so far.  I’m hoping to gather more formal feedback in an upcoming poll/questionnaire.  As a person who values real-time feedback for self-improvement, I feel waiting until the end of the term to get feedback is a missed opportunity.

Lecture Material

I was super jazzed about my lecture content last week.  I challenged the students’ conceptions concerning health and disease/disability.  I wanted to open their minds to the idea that health and disease are not mutually exclusive.  Disease gets cached out as a deviation from “normal,” but normal is fairly hard to pin down outside of fuzzy concepts like “statistical normality” aka, bell curves.

I opened the chain of thought by discussing how our biases of viewing the world will often distort our thinking, whether we are aware of it or not.  As a fan of The West Wing, I showed the class this clip as a fun but straightforward example of how we react and value parts of our reality without consciously thinking about it.

 

I then moved into real world examples of how biases in our thinking affect how we interact with other people, and how it can have devastating consequences.

 

 

Then, because I thought the clip above brought the mood down a bit, I ended with a fantastic video that challenges our ideas of ability and disability.

 

 

I was pretty happy with how this section of the lecture seemed to land with the students, and I hope it had the intended effect – that our approaches to problems are often bound up in unconscious biases that can limit our thinking.

Anyway, I should get back to prepping for this week’s lecture.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Blog – Reflections on my First Day (Teaching)

Last week, I taught my first class at college.  It was quite the experience to say the least.  Even now, I’m split between knowing that I did somewhere between “adequate” and “well,” and allowing the super self-critical side of me to autopsy the wreckage.

Wreckage is a gross overstatement because things weren’t *that* bad.  I’m mostly critical over some common themes.  First, I feel that the transitions between ideas could have used more intentional thought to make things smoother.  Second, the second half of my presentation was fairly slap-dash in construction and could have spent less time buried under procrastination as I prepped.  Finally, that my oration could have been better performed (read: slow down!).

The biggest observation was on just how exhausted I was when I finished.  There are a number of reasons why I was so drained by the end, all of them preventable in hindsight: I didn’t sleep well the night before, I hadn’t eaten food all day prior to starting class, I hadn’t consumed any caffeine like I normally would have, I wore a moderately heavy sport coat for the first half of the class on an already humid day, I’m very animated when I speak, and teaching just takes a lot out of you.  Only the last thing, I would say, is something I can’t control and will need to learn to manage.  Everything else, yup, that was my fault.  Next time, I’ll bring a lunch.

Those were the “bad” things.  Almost everything else about the experience was great.  I seemed to connect with the students.  I felt that I was able to convincingly show that the students should take these issues in philosophy seriously.  I feel like I earned their attention, despite it being a class from 1-4pm on a Friday.

Of the feedback I’ve received, students enjoyed my class and are looking forward to the rest of the term.  That may be because I did my job well, or it could be because they feel less pressured by the work of the course.  Time will tell on that front.

My final verdict for my first day of teaching is probably a B-.  I made a fair number of points and supported my claims with evidence.  The flow and presentation kept the audience entertained while sticking to a path that was clear to follow.  There is room to improve, in that this felt like a first draft and could use a few more rounds of editing for coherence and to remove repetition, but otherwise a solid entry into the gradebook.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan