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

I (Finally) Cancelled My Gym Membership

I finally got around to cancelling my membership to my gym.

My last visit to the gym was at the end of November last year (I thought it was October, initially, so I wasn’t doing *that* bad…).

I have been away from the gym for so long that the branding and colour scheme has all changed to Crunch Fitness in my absence.  It was strange to walk in and see all the same equipment, but with new branding stickers adorning the equipment and different paint on the walls.  The vibrant reds and blacks have given way to more muted blues and greys – a shadowy ghost of the former company.

I’ve written before about my poor habits with going to the gym, and how much it costs me when I fail to go for months at a time.  I’ve had some successes, but mostly I tend to fall off the wagon.  The longest string of success I’ve had with exercise is using the elliptical at home with the Zombies, Run! app.

The decision to cancel my membership is motivated by three reasons.  First, since we are moving in May, I will be too far away to reasonably commute to the gym (and if I was inconsistent before while living close to the gym, there is almost no chance that anything would change in my habits after the move).

Second, I reviewed my finances and wanted to clean up some unnecessary recurring charges to my credit card.  Things like the gym and my subscription to Crave TV were cancelled since I rarely use them.

Third, with the move to the new house, I’d like to take a crack at exercising more from home.  I’m fairly regular with the elliptical running, and I would like to purchase a few more items to create a bit of a home gym.  While I doubt I’ll have a home gym like Jujimufu on YouTube anytime soon, I can add a few pieces that will allow me to get a reasonably comprehensive workout from home, such as a barbell, bench, and maybe a squat rack.  Stretch goals would include battle ropes, a heavy bag, and kettlebells.

If the home gym fails, there is a commercial gym and a more specialized gym in the town I’m moving to, so I could always sign back up when things settle down.

In the meantime, here’s a salute to World Gym (and Cruch Fitness who took over all the World Gym locations here in town).  I very much liked my experiences at World Gym, and I don’t regret our time together.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

On Indulgence and Order

This past Christmas break, I learned an insight about myself.  In order to feel truly rested during a break, I need two days to myself.  This insight came as a result of the frantic pace that comes with Christmas – cramming to finish as much work as you can before shut-down, travelling all over to visit family, tending to personal projects and end-of-year business, etc.

Two days probably sounds like an overblown indulgence to you, but I realized that in order for me to feel a sense of rest and recharge, I need two consecutive days for my own uses.  With one day, I get a chance to catch up on things – sleep, bills, messages, work, etc.  But two days gives me more freedom to do what I usually need to do – binge.  If I only have one day to myself, I can’t “binge” on whatever it is I want to binge on.  If I were to binge during that one day, I would feel like I’ve just put off doing work for a day, and now everything is piled up further.

But if I have two consecutive days, I get one day to binge, guilt-free, on whatever it is that I want to do (sleep, food, video games, Netflix, YouTube, etc).  I get a chance to get it out of my system, guilt-free.

The second day, then, is my chance to put my life back together.  I can plan out my tasks.  I can take care of personal maintenance tasks.  I clean and de-clutter.  I get a chance to breathe and focus.  It puts life back into order after the mess that comes from indulgence.

It has also made me realize that I’m not balancing things out well in my life if I have to wait for extended vacation breaks to get two consecutive days to myself.  I really should be more mindful of what I schedule for my weekends.

I can only follow this model of binge/purge and order because I am privileged to have a good job and stability in my life.  I recognize that this is not available to everyone, and I appreciate that I’m at a point in my life where it’s something available to me.  For that, I’m thankful.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Importance of Making Space

I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently.  Not in the outer space sense, but headspace.  I’ve got a lot of stuff on the go and I’m finding downtime at a bit of a premium.  Between the wedding and our upcoming move (we bought a house last week!), a lot of very important things need to be done in relatively short time.  This requires me to stay on top of a lot of little moving pieces to ensure stuff doesn’t slip through the cracks.

The one thing, however, that I’m finding huge importance in is making space for more important things, like relationships.  Two weeks ago, my fiancee and I were running ourselves ragged as we worked to close a deal on the purchase of the house.  In short order, our week involved scheduling a viewing of a house that had been on the market for about 12-hours, setting up meetings with the bank, a home inspector, a basement expert, and our realtor to set up and fulfill conditions on our offer.  This required three separate trips out of town, which takes us away from our normal routine.

Last week, my fiancee suggested we take a pause from the “work” required at home, and instead for us to enjoy some downtime together.  It amounted to little more than dinner and couch time in front of Netflix, but it was exactly what we needed.  We needed to make space for us to be a couple (rather than domestic partners).  In one evening, I felt closer to my fiancee than I had in the better part of two weeks.

It reminded me why it’s important to ensure quality time together.  We might live together, eat together, and sleep in the same bed, but that doesn’t mean we are taking time to be together, present in the moment.  There is a time and place for work, but it’s important to make time and space for more important things, too.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan