What I’ve Been Reading (As of July 2nd)

Happy long weekend!

I haven’t posted a reading update since back in February, and since I’m away on vacation for the weekend (with my nose hopefully buried in a book), I thought it would be appropriate to list some of the books I have on the go.

HVAC Handbook by Robert Rosaler

This is undoubtedly an odd one on the list.  A few weeks back, our AC unit froze and we decided to replace both of our 30+ year old AC unit and slightly newer furnace in the house.  I am not a handy guy by any stretch of the imagination, but I wanted to learn more about how a house’s HVAC system helps to control the indoor environment.  I renewed my library card and checked this book out.  I have no illusions that I can or should be performing my own repairs, but at least I can appreciate the engineering and design (or sometimes lack of) goes into my house’s climate control.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

This list wouldn’t be complete without a Terry Pratchett book.  This book finally brings us back in touch with the Wizzard Rincewind, whom we last saw in Sourcery and was blown away to another dimension.  Set in the Counterweight Continent and the Agetean Empire, Rincewind, The Luggage, Twoflower, and Cohen reunite and get thrown in the middle of a peasant rebellion against the oppressive rule of the elite and a plot to murder the Emperor.  These are interesting times!

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I quite enjoyed Jocko’s later book, Discipline Equals Freedom, so I thought I’d go back to check out his earlier book  that is largely the reason why he’s known now.  He and Babin are retired Navy SEALS who started a leadership consulting company after they retired from the forces.  The book is a distillation of their experiences and the lessons they learned about leadership that they have brought with them to their civilian careers.  It’s written, in part, as a no nonsense memoir, and I don’t get the impression that they are trying to waive any patriotic flags about being pro-military or pro-combat.

Madison’s Gift by David O. Stewart

Here’s another audiobook I grabbed from the library thanks to the Hoopla service.  While I should probably start reading biographies about figures other than American presidents, this one intrigued me since it’s about James Madison’s partnerships with key people who helped him with his achievements.  Rather than celebrating him as a visionary genius, it plays up the fact that he was fairly ordinary and unimpressive (the book’s description of him is “short, plain, balding, neither soldier nor orator, low on charisma and high on intelligence.”  Something about the description spoke to me, and I thought I’d check it out.

The Perfectionists by Simon Winchester

I blame the fact that I work in the School of Engineering that I decided to check this book out.  The Perfectionists covers the history of precision engineering after the industrial revolution.  While the book covers things relatively chronologically, it’s thematically grouped into various stories related to tolerance in measurements.  I’m only midway through the book, but the history of engineering design is incredible.  The creativity and patience shown by the various craftsmen in areas such as machining by hand, horology, and even lock-picking, is fascinating to learn about, and gives me a greater appreciation for good design (see HVAC above…)

If this was a long weekend for you, I hope you had a great and safe weekend!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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’ve Been Reading (As of February 25th)

It’s been a while since I have posted a reading update, so let’s fix that and post the first one of 2018.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

This book came as a recommendation from a work colleague.  He’s the one who has gotten me into Terry Prachett, and recently he suggested I would enjoy this book.  I’m only a little ways in, so I can’t comment too deeply, but I’m enjoying the neurological look at what happens when we read that this book provides.  I’m also enjoying the case being made for reading as a tool to grow our cognitive faculties.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos by Jordan Peterson

I am going to get some flack about this from some of my friends.  Jordan Peterson is a divisive figure in Canadian discourse.  While I don’t align with him on some of his political views, I first came across him through his taped YouTube lectures.  It was because of him that I started reading Carl Jung’s work and took an interest in the notion of stories being an important route to deriving meaning in life.  I’ve also enjoyed Peterson’s visits to some of the podcasts I’ve listened to, so it seemed only natural to check out his book.  I’ve been enjoying the book, and I personally feel like I’m getting something out of it.  I don’t think this book is going to be for everyone, but it speaks to me on a level that I find compelling.

Principles by Ray Dalio

Much like the book above and the next entry, Principles is making the rounds through the self-help/business/personal development spheres.  It’s been a bit of a slower read because I need to take time to digest his ideas and insights.  Nevertheless, I’m finding his book interesting and useful as it provides a framework for decision making and business.  I try to be wary of advice dispensed by the rich and successful since it tends to not be very applicable outside of the lucky breaks the author found themselves in, but I find this book to be fairly objective and refreshingly introspective.  I think Dalio’s principles make sense and are a good guide to follow.

Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferriss

What can I say?  I enjoyed all of his books so far (including last year’s Tools of Titans), so I naturally pre-ordered this one when it was announced.  Much like how Tools of Titans was a book that piggy-backed off of his podcast guest’s work, Tribe of Mentors follows a similar route by running the same set of questions through various big names in different fields to a.) see what their answers are; and b.) to find what commonalities are found in aggregate.  One side of me rolls my eyes at how simple the idea is (and how little relative effort it would take to make the book), and yet the other side of me appreciates what Ferriss has done in creating the book.  His book intends to give you access to some of the best mentors in the world, and he delivers it in full.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age by David Schwartz

I knew relatively little about Fermi before I started this book.  I knew that he was a physicists, that he was attached to the Manhattan project, that there is a paradox named after him, and that he’s known for a particular kind of method for problem-solving and estimating.  However it was the last tidbit (the Fermi problem) that nudged me to buying this book.  I’m only about a third of my way through the book, but it’s been a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius who, when you broke things down, was necessarily all that smarter than everyone else.  Much like Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi had discovered ways of learning more effectively, which made him able to tackle interacted problems from the first principles of a field.   He worked to understand the rules of the system, which in turn allowed him to combine them in new and insightful ways.  I really enjoy reading biographies, and I’m glad I picked this one up.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Skills Worth Developing – Resisting “That’s Not My Problem”

The job I have at the college is my first full time job after I finished university.  Prior to the position I’m in, I have worked only full-time hours on contracts and a smattering of part time jobs.  I thought, like many others, coming out of university that I knew what it would mean to have a job, be an employee, and work responsibly.  I wouldn’t say I was unprepared to enter the workforce, but it would be charitable to say that I had a lot to learn, and many beliefs to update.

This is, in part, why I decided to occasionally write thoughts in a series of posts loosely connected with the theme “Skills Worth Developing.”  There are many hard skills that employees should pick up over time to help them do their jobs better and advance in their careers.  Organizations like Coursera, Udemy, Lynda, etc. are excellent resources to help one pick up those kinds of skills.  But many other skills (usually dubbed “soft skills”) are usually picked up through experience and self reflection.  This blog serves both to force me to write, but also to force me to make permanent any self-reflections I’ve had, and these reflections might be valuable to others.

The last time I discussed Skills Worth Developing, I discussed the merits of storytelling as a communication tool.  This time, I want to reflect on a phrase I heard a lot when I first started working – “That’s not my problem” or “That’s not my job.”

You might be wondering why I lump this in with the notion of skills, instead of some other attribute, such as attitude.  True, something like this will overlap with one’s “attitude” while on the job, but I view this as a skill because it’s a habit and ability that can be modified over time, practiced, and strategies can be employed to use it in the workplace.  Therefore, I loosely connect it under the skills area that should be developed and practiced over time.

One other observation I want to make is that this skill – avoiding falling into the “That’s not my problem” mentality – is something I exercised as a beginner.  I think this is a fantastic skill to develop early in your career, but I’m not entirely sure of it’s value when you are well-established in your role.  The value of this skill is that it increases your value to the company when you are still differentiating yourself.  The same can not be said for someone who is either well-established in their company or field, where their value is tied directly to their ability to focus on problems that they can uniquely solve.  In those instances, it’s probably a better strategy to limit distractions from your primary role and duties.

And so, we come to the problem of “That’s not my problem.”  I found early on that many employees in a work environment can take on the “not my problem” mentality for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps they were burned in the past and now refuse to extend themselves.  Some feel overworked and overstretched.  Some are lazy.  For whatever reason, they resist helping others in their duties.

I find two issues with this kind of mentality.  First, it goes against the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.  The workplace is a team of employees who are working towards common goals to advance the interests of the organization (while hopefully advancing their own personal interests in parallel).  Any time someone says to a coworker “that’s not my problem,” what they are in fact saying is “your problems aren’t important enough for me to take an interest.”  They end up placing themselves above the interests of their coworkers and the organization.  I’m not saying that this is wrong per se – I am sympathetic to the ideas that this mentality is easy for organizations to exploit, and that there is no moral imperative to place the company’s interests above your own, so you should guard against it taking advantage of you.  What I am saying is that taking this as a default position undermines the team.  Everyone is supposed to work together to solve problems and strive to the company’s mission.  If you don’t want to do that, what’s the point of working at that company?  I would hardly think that it’s just in service of the paycheque.

The second issue I have with this attitude is it closes you off to development.  I directly attribute my success so far to my willingness to learn outside of my prescribed job.  By helping others with their tasks (so long as it does not prevent me from taking care of my own job area), I am able to develop new hard skills and learn about areas laterally and vertically from my position.  I am better able to see how my role fits within the larger context of our department, which continuously exposes you to new opportunities for growth and development.  You become more valuable to the team and you strengthen your ties with your coworkers.  When you are just starting out, this is a valuable way of integrating yourself and setting yourself up for advancement.

When you ignore the impulse to say “that’s not my problem,” you acknowledge that your coworkers are people with their own problems, concerns, hangups and worries, while also setting yourself up as a person of value for the team.  It is a perfect opportunity to step up and be noticed in your workplace.

That is why I think resisting the impulse to say “that’s not my problem” is a skill worth developing.

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