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Exam Marking

Nothing can ever prepare you for exam marking. Even after you’ve done it for years. I think it’s like childbirth – you forget the pain and bloody mess involved. But unlike children, who are obliged to love you, exam marking just leaves you empty, hollow and suicidal.
However, before you end up at that stage, exam marking makes you wonder. Wonder if there’s hope for the human race, wonder why people pay so much money to fail, wonder if you missed some of your own lectures because the answers are so incredibly bizarre.
Can anyone tell me what a crippy is? Apparently it lives in your brain. And no, I don’t teach biology, human physiology, neurology or psychology; though I think this student might need a doctor.
But I digress. We were at the stage of wonder. Overall, you just begin to wonder what you spent the last six months doing.
Exams are wonderful examples of understanding what students really take away from your lectures and you realise how little they really know about the outside world. Everything is conflated and music videos end up being performed during World War 1 in rememberance of children who died in the Soweto uprising (the video in question is Zombie by The Cranberries, just in case you were wondering).

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And then, every now and then, you find one exam that’s vaguely intelligent, and you pretty much lose your mind.

OH MY GOSH! THIS PERSON IS BRILLIANT! THEY SHOULD WIN A NOBEL PRIZE FOR AWESOMENESS & I SHOULD CLONE THEM FOR THE SAKE OF HUMAN KIND!

Then I dance; well, in my head I dance, in reality I just kind of jump up and down giggling like a rabid tiny human. And then, the world comes crashing down as you realise that it’s not really that good. The student just has the ability to put more than two coherent sentences together. The content is actually crap and you slap on a 65.

BUT THEN! You find ONE. ONE out of seventy that is coherent, intelligent and uses big words correctly. You consider emailing the student and thanking them for being a truly remarkable human being; instead, you write 85% on their work, and move on with a semblance of hope. Hope that the world isn’t doomed, hope that you’ll find more exams in the pile that are worthy, hope that there may be one that’s better.

Like a tired octogenarian, it doesn’t come. It barely dribbles. Sure, you get the solid work. The work that some hard-grafting and dedicated student has memorised for the 24-hour period of their exam. But you know that come Monday, they’ll be possessed by that cripper, and all will be forgotten.

You cry; violently into a pillow. You cry for the trees that gave their lives so that this drivel could be written, you cry for the sake of the country and business, but most of all, you cry for yourself as you realise that you’re broke, the year is over and your students still don’t know the difference between Belfast and Berlin.

But next year… Next year it’ll all change. You know you can get this right. You know you can make a difference. And so the pain and disappointment dissolves and you ready yourself for the next batch.

 

 

 

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To Avoid Blackmail

guinness_181345tI’m always being told that I know far too much. It’s true, the more secrets people have and  the more you know about them, the harder it is for them to dispose of you, or hold too much over your head. So for sake of full disclosure, and to ensure that nothing can be lauded over me when we come back, I shall come clean on two things that have happened since arriving in Dublin (so wah-wah Doc, no blackmailing power for you).

After the bad flights and lack of sleep over the previous 26 hours, we really didn’t think we’d be doing much of anything on our first night in Dublin. Well, I didn’t at least. And then somehow, at dinner, an entire bottle of Chardonnay disappeared, and we felt the need to find some traditional Irish music to help everything digest. Lucky for us, there’s a pub right next door to our hotel; and they have traditional Irish music (actually, it was just an Irish guy singing songs from contemporary Irish bands, but I disgress).

Anyway, we decided that since we are in Ireland, and that neither of us have ever tasted Guinness we were going to order a couple of drinks and a pint of Guinness. Luckily, Guinness is really cheap because it is the most vile concoction I’ve ever put in my mouth (and I emphasise the coc here). The problem was, we couldn’t work out how to dispose of the ghastly black stuff without arousing suspicion, and possibly causing an international incident.

Being the sound-minded, brilliant and inventive person that she is, the doctor thought that if we headed outside with our drinks, have a quick chat, and leave forget the goo outside, that nobody would notice and we could avoid offending the locals. There was just one problem. His name was George. He was the bouncer. And he saw the offending message which we were sending back to South Africa, moaning about how awful Guinness is. He took the glass from us and said that if we’re going to be so rude about Ireland, he’ll bring us something better. He did. It was red. It was little. And it was good!

It’s how I ended up with the pin below. George said it was for the Children’s Hospital. The doctor said it was a con. I said okay George, you’re right (because postgrads never listen to their supers) and handed over five euros and a kiss on the cheek and he gave me his pin. The doctor now says I’ve been initiated into some underground IRA unit. I think she’s just jealous because no-one offered her a pin into a secret Irish society.

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Unfortunately, she got her own back the next morning. We decided to do a tour of the city and then head to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells (if you don’t know what that is, click the link!). As per normal, I took the lead and started navigating through the streets of Dublin. All the while being told that I was going in the wrong direction. I pointed out that I had never gotten us lost before, I remembered were things were in an airport I’d only been to once, and that certain touring academics have tendencies to wander off and end up in dodgy bars. I knew where I was going.

And so we arrived, at Christchurch Catherdral. It wasn’t Trinity College, but I got us to the church; on time to hear the bells toll four 140px-The_Spire-doyler79o’clock. Actually, I had no idea where I was going and like a true academic, I just wandered aimlessly with a more slightly less aimless supervisor in tow. So yes, I got us lost. My supervisor knew the way and got us home.

But, we did amble for three hours through Dublin to get home and found that while we’d been out, somebody had erected a giant spike in the middle of the street in front of our hotel. Apparently, it’d actually been erected a few years ago, but we didn’t see it the day before. So either there really are leprechauns with mischief and magic, or the Irish have invented invisibility cloaking, because trust me, there is NO WAY that both of us would have missed a 120 metre high phallic light pole.

Things No One Will Believe

“Hello! I know I’ve asked you to do some strange things as my grad student, but I have a request. Please can you climb in through the boot of my car and unlock my door, the central locking’s gone.”

And that’s how my afternoon ended yesterday. Luckily, I didn’t have to channel my inner car-thief because by the time I got there the good doctor had managed to kick the door hard enough to pop the lock get her key to work.

The whole incident got me thinking, however; I’ve had to do some crazy things since I first registered as a postgrad. And since I’m sure there will be a few more to come as I disappear into the Irish countryside in a couple of weeks, I thought I’d recap some of the lines that have usually ended with me covered in mud, up a ladder, or searching for something.

1. Help! My computer broke!

2. Help! My keyboard broke!

3. Help! The Internet won’t work!

4. Help! My mouse broke!

5. Help! The printer won’t print!

Ok, so they’re not really all about technical hiccups, sometimes, like the car story I get things like:

6. Make me French Toast!

7. Make me coffee!

8. Where’s my lunch?!

Actually, to be fair, that’s not my supervisor at all! That’s just what greets me from her darling children if I ever dare see them. 

But I think my favourite line of all is:

9. Why do you always have to be right?!  

Keep It Simple Stupid

imagesToday, I’m going to get a little personal. I apologise to everyone in advance, but I write this post as a way to, hopefully, generate a little discussion about the lives of students. Every so often my department tries to “promote a culture of learning” and invites all their postgrads to a seminar in which either a senior postgrad student, or a staff member, talks for an hour and a half about their research. The problem is that it’s usually only the most junior of postgrads who attend (there are reasons for this, but I’m not at liberty to divulge them), and for me, it appears that most don’t want to be there, and honestly, don’t really seem that interested. I’m not sure how true this is, I’m hoping that some will be brave enough to comment on this post and talk about their feelings (I’m like a cool social media therapist in that way).

Perhaps part of the problem is that most of them have just come from a two hour seminar, but I think there’s more to it than that. Yesterday was one of those days, and while I was listening to people talk after the presentation, certain things struck me as to why most students don’t seem that interested in attending these talks. But before I begin, I want to make one thing clear, yesterday’s presentation was interesting, and if you’d read the piece of work the presenter was talking around, it would have made it easier to follow.

Anyway, I think a lot of the problem has to do with the delivery of the whole thing because there’s a definite sense of them and us. Everyone seems oblivious to the fact that most of the people attending these workshops are still starting out in their academic careers and are still learning how all of this works. And that they’re still apprehensive about seeing and talking to their lecturers as people. Some would argue, tough they must grow up, and that this process isn’t meant for them, but to give staff members a chance to understand each other’s research and work. Well then, if that’s the case, why not just set aside a time to do this privately (again, I have theories, but I value my life)? We do this because the little ones must be given a chance to see where research goes, they tell me.  But then why does it seem that everyone is incapable of talking about things in a simple manner, and making it and themselves more accessible? Maybe, it’s just the academic way, but for me (and this is where it gets personal) it appears that most people are just trying to sound smart rather than having the ability to generate real discussion around an issue. I’m sure that if people were less concerned with using four-syllable words and academic jargon (usually incorrectly), they would get more people joining in on a discussion.

It’s no wonder that the ‘real-world’ view academics as living in ivory towers coming up with ideal ideas about things that have no bearing on the realities of the outside world. The sad irony of it all is that there is a lot of value in the research that is done at universities, but because of the way it’s delivered, the general population are excluded from engaging with it.  One of my students recently wrote a post complaining about the way that academic articles are written, and I see her point. So for the next seminar, which I have the misfortune of having to present, I’m going to try something different. Keeping it as simple as possible. It may work, it may fall flat on its pimply pre-pubescent posterior, but I’m going to try. So, no more pedagogical endeavours masquerading as entertainment, mine’s about chilling, chatting, laughing and having fun.  Oh, and there will be wine because the best discussions always have wine.

5 Ways to Get Your PhD

student_dreaming_graduation_lg_whtAnybody who told you that getting a PhD was about hard grafting, reading vast volumes of work and writing up your findings in a couple hundred pages was lying. Getting a PhD goes far beyond that. I’ve promised that one day I’ll write an entire book detailing the things that I’ve had to endure while being a grad student. Today, however, is not that day; instead, it’s the best advice I can give anybody who thinks that becoming a grad student is a good idea, and how to get out as quickly as you can.

1. Assing Around 

It may sound absurd, but hear me out.  Being a grad student generally involves taking some time to work as a grad assistant, or grad ass, as I like to say (with the emphasis on ass). You’re at the bottom of the food chain in the academic environment, which means that you are responsible for the ass-end of things, and the general mopping up of any shit that goes down. And I mean that quite literally. I’ve actually been made to dispose of scat left by the building’s feline colony (I have my suspicions that it’s actually students leaving a warning to various lecturers about their teaching styles, but I try not to rock the boat and keep my mouth shut).  Anyway, you should prepare to be treated like an ass.  You’re a necessary evil to make people’s lives easier, but something that most don’t like to deal with. The quicker you learn that, the faster you can impress your supervisor who will speed up the process of reading your work to irrigate the department, so to speak.

2. Learn how to reference

This might seem like an obvious tip, but I don’t mean learn how to reference for your thesis. I mean, learn how to reference using every style that you can lay your hands on. Why? Because referencing is a time-consuming banality of academics.  The chances are when your wise and supremely talented superior submits an article for publication they are far too busy contemplating existentialism and the meaning of life to worry about such menial chores, so you, as the ass, will be entrusted to put their reference lists together.  And God help you if the article is rejected because of bad referencing. You will spend an extra six months waiting for your draft to come back because you cocked up, and your supreme leader has to take time away from your thesis to fix your incompetence.

3. Learn how to use Google

Again, this many seem obvious, but when you are putting together that reference list the chances are, that in their ultimate wisdom, your supreme ruler will have forgotten to include one or two references, page numbers, journal details or the like to test your abilities. It’s up to you, like a super smooth 1920s detective, to work out where the information came from and fill in the blanks. Being able to find missing references is an art, especially when you are looking for a page number of a quote from a book that’s been out of print for the last 50 years. Being able to do this fast, and correctly, will prove to your supervisor that you are worthy of a few extra minutes of their time. Remember, every minute you save your supervisor, is an extra minute they can dedicate to your thesis.

4. Be able to define a ‘thingie’

If you’ve ever watch The Devil Wears Prada, you might remember the scene where Miranda tells Andy to book that restaurant that she likes with the guy whose name was on the piece of paper that she had in her hand last week (or something to that effect at least).  Now combine this vagueness with the more stereotypical vagueness of an academic and you come out with the following conversation:

Supervisor: What did I do with that thingie from two days ago.

Me: It’s on your desk under the book on phenomenology.

Supervisor: No that’s the other thingie. I’m talking about the one with the thing that has the thing on the thing with a thing.

Me: Oh that! Here you go.

I’m that good. And sometimes, if I’ve been really good, I even get a thank you and a whole two minutes to discuss my latest theoretical idea.

5. Be observant

Always pay attention. You will be asked to find lost books, envelopes, passports and of course, thingies. Like a wild game hunter, you need to know your surroundings and be able to notice when something’s amiss. That’s the difference between an average grad ass and a super grade A ass. Your ability to notice and remember where you see things can make it seem like you’re super-human, with awesome psychic powers or x-ray vision, and nobody wants to mess with a superhero. If you are able to locate random missplaced essentials with seemingly no effort, your supervisor will speed up the process. Either because they fear what you may do with your super powers if you turn to the dark side, or because there are only so many times that their egos can be upstaged by a know-it-all grad student. Either way, you’ll get out fast.

And if all else fails, threaten to write a book 🙂

Be Nice

Be-Nice-or-Leave-PosterEvaluations. I hate them. Especially when they come back from quality control and you get a sense of how much a class either liked you or loathed you. Most experienced lecturers will tell you to just ignore the nasty comments because those are usually written by the most difficult students, but if you’re having a marginally bad day, the remarks can make you near-suicidal. Luckily, I haven’t had anything too awful written about me yet; though once an evaluation had clear death-threat connotations attached to it, and another said that I shouldn’t get a salary because I suck. But while perusing the bitchiness and constant nit-picking about whether or not I’m old enough to lecture, or if I’m nice enough to talk to, I began thinking, why don’t we get to write evaluations on students. I know we mark their work, but that’s an assessment on how well they’ve applied themselves to a given task. What would happen if their final mark was assessed by their overall approachability, organisation and conduct during class.

Luckily, I have a blog, so here are a few things that I would like to comment on in my evaluation of individual students over the years:

For in-class behaviour

1. Student hasn’t brought any writing implements with them throughout semester. Concerned that they never learnt to write. Perhaps they should learn, come back next year, and try again.

2. Student on cellphone throughout class, with headphones in. I do like the sound of my own voice A LOT, but I can talk to myself at home… in bed… with coffee. So, if you don’t want to listen, please stay away.

3. Student conducts private lecture at the back of the class. I would really like a break so I suggest that you take the whole lecture (on a side note – wait until someone starts giggling for no reason and see how confident you feel).

For assessments

1. Student cannot form a complete sentence. Please go away and don’t come back until you learn to write.

2. Student writes gibberish. When I ask what they meant, they look confused and reply ‘I don’t know’. Please go away and don’t come back until you realise that I don’t speak idiot.

3. Student wrote beautiful essay on the public sphere. Pity they were required to write on postmodernism. I assume their reading level is up to Twi-hard. Just walk away…

Overall performance

1. Student smells. Disturbing other students. I advise deodorant, or more preferably a bath.

…….. Wait, hang on…..

I’ve always threatened to put up a shame board of ridiculous student answers and antics. That could be a way of getting back at the mean ones (you think we don’t know your handwriting and those evaluations are all anonymous… Ah, bless).

5 Awesome Sites for Procrastination

I’m somebody who has a relatively small attention span, and even less of a concentration zone, so when I find my happy place I like to sit and work; and God help the person who interrupts. Anyway, today, after pulling out a bunch of papers from my very big file of academic stuff, I planned to read and develop a truly magnificent existentialist argument. But as luck would have it, a giant elephant (I do live in Africa) decided to stomp up and down outside my door and announce itself to every other indigenous creature. After muddling through the first few chapters from my file, I was forced to give up – the sounds from the beast were too loud to ignore. You might ask, why not just get up and chase it away, or move to a new location. Well, the answer is quite simple, elephants are dangerous things. You wouldn’t want  to risk annoying it.  I imagine that shouting, waving, or chasing it with a stick would only result with me trapped under its enormous smelly rear-end. And don’t let their size fool you, they can move pretty quickly, especially if it thinks you’re food. So instead of tempting fate, I found a way to entertain myself while I waited for it to waddle off again.

What I found were some brilliant sites that are just perfect for wasting time when you stuck between an elephant and a two-storey drop (I actually considered jumping).

1. I Waste So Much Time

If you haven’t seen this site before I really recommend it. It’s an awesome collection of funny pictures, videos and just random stuff that people have put together. However, I wouldn’t advise visiting unless you have about a gazillion hours to spare – otherwise you’ll be lost forever…..

2. Sporcle

Here you have the opportunity to take hundreds of quizzes, ranging from Pixar movies to the Butt quiz (the elephant is the third one on the top).

3. My Happy Games

Ok, so there are masses of online gaming sites, but I like the little bunny in the logo for this one. And besides, what other domains lets you play Angry Birds and  Plants vs Zombies after you’ve finished whacking all the Bad Piggies?

4. Nyan Cat

Yes, Nyan Cat has it’s own website! And it challenges you to watch the magical rainbow cat for as long as possible, so that you can post your best time on Twitter and Facebook. And if you get bored of the pink pop-tart kitty (how could you?), there are a bunch of extra flavours, ranging from Pikachu Nyan, Rasta Nyan, Ninja Nyan and my personal favourite, Buggy Code Nyan.

5. My Blog

And when all else fails, come back to me! I’m funny, quirky and unashamedly advertising myself on my blog – it’s what all about, right?

Growing Excellence to End Poverty

This doesn’t really relate to this post, but it’s funny

It was a little while back (not sure when, I’ve been a little pre-occupied with a little pain) the South African Minister of Higher Education, in his infinite wisdom (I use wisdom loosely here) proposed that all South African university graduates have to undergo community service to complete their degrees, just like doctors are required to do. Now I have two issues with this.

First, most university students (and eventual graduates) can barely spell their name (I’ve actually had students hand in assignments with their names spelt incorrectly), or think that they are some super pop diva, so they only write their first name on everything. Sorry, but I have no clue who Bethany or Apple Pie is (and seriously, you need to sue your parents for stupidity or torture – I actually have a student whose name is Swastika). And our Minister wants to send these geniuses into the community to do God knows what.

This is where my second point comes in. While some degrees do give you a skill, most humanities and social science degrees, don’t actually train you to do anything. You just spent thousands on a piece of paper that doesn’t qualify you to do anything. And if you disagree, maybe our Minister could please tell me what type of community service a person who has a degree in Classics and Philosophy would engage in? I seriously can’t quite picture farming with community members and telling them how everything they are farming doesn’t really exist, but it’s ok because we ourselves are just a mere construction of social representations. Hmmm…. Maybe I under-estimated ol’ Blade. Maybe this is some massive ploy to cull the population. Realising you don’t really exist is rather depressing, and I’m sure with mass poverty there are thousands of suicidal depressants out there. This could finally send them over the edge. Poverty solved, they’ll all kill themselves after two minutes with a bunch of humanities’ ‘experts’. And if they don’t, we could just offer them administrative jobs at my uni.  They’ll kill themselves and everyone around them after a week of dealing with the mass incompetence that abounds these hallowed halls of ‘Premier scholarship’.

Life of a Grad Student

Ok, so this afternoon I realised that most of my recent ramblings have been somewhat serious and far from the lighthearted nonsense of my older stuff. This has upset me greatly, especially when I read some of the other things floating around my inbox, and realise that people who are far too serious really annoy me. So from now on I’m going to try (very very very hard) to intersperse my brilliant (far too obnoxious) opinions with a little bit (a huge big gigantic slice) of my lost inner demon bunny spawn (I know it’s down there somewhere just past my flailing conscious).

And the first thing that pops into my mind is to regale you with the day-to-day frustrations of being a grad student. As the saying goes, ‘we’re not bad people, we’ve just made terrible life choices’. There’s something masochistic about embarking on a doctoral degree; you’ve been through 3 years of undergrad, followed by 1 year of Honours, then another 2 years for your Masters (emerging with a caffeine addiction and sun-repellent skin), and then think hey, I’ve got no life anymore so let’s spend the next 3-5 few years researching and writing something else that nobody’s going to read (I’m not even convinced that supervisors and examiners care enough to read the whole thing – it’s really long and boring).

But while embarking on the self-torture of churning out 80-odd thousand words, you realise that this is not nearly self-deprecating enough.  You also need to subject yourself to cruel and unusual dogwork just to scrape a bit of extra cash together so that the inflation on the thousands you owe the bank doesn’t kill you once you hit the real world (because being over-qualified for everything and without any real skills makes you entirely unemployable). The sucky part of my story is that at the moment, I will probably die of starvation or worse, demonstrating how to use a blog, before anybody pays me. The excuse is that, unfortunately because we have shifted all operations to a new system, everybody has yet to be trained in the new procedures. Um…. Could you tell my bank manager that when I reneged on my loan repayments, or better yet, could you please use your salary to pay mine since you earn more than the president? No? What can I do to make you? Well nothing really, except maybe get you another slice a pie while I do your undergrad marking.
Ah yes, ain’t grad life grand?!
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