Archive for the ‘School’ Category

The Nightmare of Scheduling

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment

The initial plan was shot from the beginning, because I commute to school I try and pack in my classes to two days a week. When the course selection for this semester was released late last spring, I knew that I was up to three days a week and thus two hours of driving a day. I shrugged resolving myself to the toil of the long trip back and forth. Furthermore I wasn’t too keen on the classes either.

It seems like this is a pattern in Graduate school. In undergrad the sheer volume of classes means that you are going to at least take a couple of good ones along with the shitty classes. In graduate school the number of courses that actually qualify for you to take is severely shrunken so that your choices are pretty limited. This means that you could end up taking an entire semester’s worth of classes that you don’t want to take. You end up enrolling in them because you can’t just skip a semester, you are there and it’s time to bite the bullet. If only biting the bullet was the hardest part…

Going to graduate school is like planning and executing a wedding. You can try and get everything in order before everything begins but if you don’t plan for one thing going catastrophically wrong, you have a problem. At my wedding, it was the disappearing priest at the ceremony and the vanishing table at the reception. One of these was not my fault. This semester it was the vanishing class and the typo. My initial schedule was tuesday through thursday. It was easy: one three hour class on tuesday, two two hour classes on wed, and another three hour class on thursday.

The earlier class on Wednesday was not something I was looking forward to. It was a Philosophy of Language class involving a debate between two people Frege and Russell, both of whom I have never read in any depth, and one of whom I have never read at all. I knew vaguely of Russell, I have read some of his logic stuff, and am familiar with his work in Philosophy of Science but aside from that nothing really. Frege, I knew the name but that was really about it. Due to some non school related stuff I basically had to take the class. I didn’t however register for it, this will be important soon.

Registration for Grad students is a bit different than it is for undergrads (unless you are in Law or Medicine but it could be the same, I just don’t know). It’s rare that a class gets capped, and usually even if a class is full, as a grad student you can get forced in. It’s one of those rare privileges, like being able to take out books indefinitely from the library. Plus, given the uniqueness of the class and that it would appeal to a specific student I wasn’t worried at all about getting in. Not registering however really screwed me when I found out that the class was cancelled due to illness. If I had been registered then I would have received an email a week ahead of time that would have indicated the class no longer existed. I accept this one as my fault.

The other problem were the two classes on tuesday and thursday. One class was listed as the day being “T” while the other was listed as being “Tu.” I took this to mean that one meant Tuesday and the other Thursday. However, this was not the case, it was a misprint. The “T” should have been “Tu” and since they are exactly the same time I couldn’t very well attend both. I went from four down to two classes in one swoop. In order to keep my loan I need the four. Add to this the completely inane decision by the school to shorten add/drop week for grad students to one week and i was in trouble.

My department realizing that given the number of conflicts between classes, and the cancellation of one; added about five or six cross listed classes called “tutorials.” We could take these for credit but typically they are taken as a pass/fail for no grade. That’s not a problem, but the issue here was that all of them were either in conflict with my already shaky schedule or were on days that I didn’t already have class. I wasn’t going to make the drive five days a week, although if pressed I would have.

What ended up happening was that I am now taking four classes, one of which I had planned on not taking because the subject doesn’t interest me at all. That however is the way it goes. A third class I’m taking because while it seemed interesting didn’t fit the initial schedule and is going to make life a bit hectic once the weather turns and I have to get from Gwen’s school to UB, park, and get to class in an hour. Right now it isn’t really a problem, but snow ruins all.

Fourthly, I’m entering into the Christian Philosophy reading group. I’ll give you a second to ponder why this atheist is joining the group. First off, we’re reading a book called “The Secular Age,” which given my proclivity toward history and toward being secular is pretty up my alley. Having also read Jennifer’s Hecht’s incredibly detailed “Doubt” in which she documented the history of religious skepticism this will serve as a nice counter point to that work, or corollary to it–I haven’t started it yet. Plus, I like theology, I truly do even though I have my atheism it’s interesting reading. And I know a good number of the people in the group, and they aren’t the liars that Roy and I encountered in Toledo (that “christian philosophy group” was all about Bible thumpin’ and Evolution denyin’ than Philosophy).

Given that the Bioethics class is going to be the most difficult and important, we’ll see the drafts on the blog. I guess through the solid week of panic everything turned out ok, all according to the will of Odin. 

Categories: School

On The Short Paper

March 13, 2011 Leave a comment

When I have to explain what graduate school grades are based on, my answer is usually the same as from class to class it doesn’t vary that much. The answer is, one long paper and a presentation. The follow up question is typically similar as well, “how long is that paper?” To which I respond, “about 15-20 pages.” Most people that I am speaking to balk at that answer. Writing that much about one subject is not in a non-graduate student’s normal experience. It seems alot, but in reality writing that much isn’t that difficult when you break the paper down.

An introduction and conclusion for the paper should eat up around 5 pages. So in reality the body of the paper is to be at least a minimum of ten. With enough research making this minimum isn’t that difficult, it’s attrition. You just throw as much as you can into the paper, tie it nicely together, make sure that it is both sensible and on topic (which the latter is probably the hardest aspect for me), then ride that wave into the conclusion. You also must resist the temptation to think that what you are writing is new and profound. Ideally it will be both of these things, but trying to force it can make the paper come off as pretentious and unreadable. For instance in my Aristotle class there is very little that can be written that will be new. People have been writing about Aristotle for longer than they have been writing about Christianity so the wide variety of work on Aristotle covers just about everything that can be thought of.

In “Introduction to Ontology” the assignments are unique. In addition to quizzes, we have two papers due. One, that is due in around a week is the short paper. With a page requirement of 3-5. Initially this seemed like a relief. I can write 3 pages in less than an hour, with research we’re looking at a short afternoon. The difficulty though, is not in making the length it’s in keeping to the length. Whereas 15 pages is attrition, 3 pages is about precision. The former can sustain some segues, it can absorb a slight deviation from the subject, and most importantly you have the space to address counter-arguments to the paper. In a three page paper none of these luxuries are possible.

Typically I will come across writing that is counter to what I am trying to say, throw up a quick paragraph or two illustrating the counter-argument and then follow that up with a response to the counter. In the three pager without the space necessary to do this I run into a problem. Either I can just stick to the topic, ignore the objection hoping that it won’t occur to the grader or I can tersely address it hoping that what I leave out won’t be deemed essential. It’s the choice between having the paper look like it missed something important, or it looking like it incompetently addressed it.

That’s just my anxiety in writing the paper. I’ve met the length, I have the sources, and the topic is thoroughly squashed, but it just feels incomplete. Perhaps it is just because I’m not used to writing something so short that isn’t a presentation or a weekly response paper. All I do know is that the first draft is terrible and needs a serious re-write. I guess that is what Spring Break is for.

Categories: School

The Optional Re-Write

January 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Back in December I had a one on one interview with a professor to discuss my final paper in the class. It wasn’t anything special, he required these in lieu of a presentation in the class. I didn’t like this requirement because without sounding too boastful I completely rock at giving presentations. Yet, a face-to-face interview is still nice because I’m a much better speaker than I am a writer. As long as the paper was adequate I could better explain the concepts in it orally rather than through the writing itself. I’m not sure what the difference actually is in my head, perhaps it’s the immediacy of the conversation and the opportunity to correct myself on the spot rather than having a written paper which is complete and final.

I walked into the professor’s office, which was completely Spartan by any definition of the word, and after introducing myself again to him he remarked that he didn’t like my paper. I didn’t blink at the comment, because it didn’t matter whether he liked it. Academics are about what you can prove not about what a person likes. If, for instance, a person wrote a paper I hated (which happened more than I would have liked–basically any pro-Marx paper I received) they could get a good grade if their argument was good. I knew the professor wasn’t that into American Pragmatism and my paper concentrated on John Dewey with respect to Martin Heidegger. He could not like it, but it could still be appreciated.

The problem was that the reason he didn’t like it was exactly for the reason that I feared the most: I had made a mistake. Heidegger has these concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Because he’s German he likes to hyphen, don’t ask me why but I’ll bet it has something to do with the German language which I don’t speak. In basic definitions present-at-hand is the theory of an object. If you need to pound something you think of the idea of an object for which to pound and that object is a hammer. Present-at-hand is the idea of a hammer and its possible function. In this respect as well, it is any object that could possibly be used to pound things. The second, the ready-to-hand, is the object as you are using it. We tend not to think of the objects that we use while we are using them. To do so would severely impede our abilities to perform actions. My typing is me using the keyboard without thinking of the keyboard or the location of my fingers. If I did so, my typing would completely slow down reverting possibly to the hunt and peck method of writing. Even now, in writing these sentences I am having trouble not thinking of my fingers while typing. More to the point is walking. One of the most difficult problems in robotics is getting a robot to do everyday tasks that we perform without thinking of them. Walking was the first hurdle, which is why that 1950s looking Toyota robot (from the late 90s early 00s) moved so slow, it needed to compute weight balances and such just to take a couple of steps.

That makes sense right? The problem I had was that I had messed up the definition of the ready-to-hand. I had written the paper as though the object being used was still considered an object. To do this would fall into the consciousness trap that I had just previously mentioned. Since the whole paper was built around this it essentially collapsed under this fault. Not good, what saved the paper (and my subsequent grade) was the section on John Dewey after the mistake which was independent of the mistake–until I put the two together–and my explanation of some of the concepts in the paper.

I re-read the paper and huffed. I tried to turn the paper in early so I could get some pointers on it as Heidegger is notoriously difficult to read, comprehend, and enjoy (although people like the Nazi for some reason). Yet the professor stated that he didn’t do pre-reads of drafts. A policy that I am unfamiliar with and disagree with, but that’s his policy so I just have to deal with it. A reviewed draft would have saved my grade, but I stress that I should NOT have made the mistake in the first place. So today, sans conclusion, i have just re-written the paper making the changes necessary.

Here’s the thing: it probably won’t be accepted for a change of grade. If the professor in question won’t even look at them early the odds that a grade change for a better paper are pretty slim. None of this really matters to me though. My other class grades are sufficient to bolster what I received in the class. Why am I doing this? Because I feel terrible for having turned in a bad paper.

Statistics rule society. People need things that can be measured, because as Calvin said (the comic character not the theologian) when the numbers go up you are having more fun. We know things are effective when the numbers increase or decrease depending on what the numbers are attached to. Thus an effective student has good objectively defined grades. This doesn’t take into consideration whether or not that student can teach, speak, or perform only that the student is technically proficient. This goes for any subject. Good accounting and the focus on the numbers are what got us into the banking collapse. The numbers went up so the business was doing well and this focus is inherently dangerous because it removes any focus on the individual or on ethical considerations.

I want to turn in the revised paper because I want to show that I can write without making a mistake. Nothing in the paper was that groundbreaking but the mistake burns in the back of my head. Even if I had gotten a good grade in the class overall, I would still have rewritten this paper because I care about more than just my grade. Education is supposed to be about more than just grades and numbers, we are supposed to be learning something and I cannot without hypocrisy let the paper slide and still hold that opinion. In all the requirements of passing classes in graduate school should go way up and everything should just be a pass/fail. We would probably turn out better doctoral (Ph.Ds and Mds) and Master’s students that way.


December 10, 2010 Leave a comment

This is exactly the worst time that I should be doing this. However, I think that I need to kick start my brain into writing mode and although some people may not believe that these blog entries serve any purpose it’s all just practice for the paper writing. I currently sit in Starbucks on the library table that takes up a good deal of space in the small building. I am surrounded by source material to the left of me are both of the text books that I used when I was teaching Medical Ethics. To the left of me are two magazines (The Atlantic and Skeptic Quarterly) opened to articles on Autism. Beneath those are the PDF articles that are useful to my paper. This table could easily fit three people on one side and I have annexed the entire side with my stuff.

Yet, with all of this material around me, not to mention that I have two power points, another PDF, and my already started paper open on my laptop, I cannot get writing. The trouble is that immensity of the paper that i have to write and my love of the subject. For the most part I didn’t really like teaching bioethics. Mostly because I stuck with the cliche topics and after five semesters they became kind of rote. However I never tackled the subject of pseudoscience and the danger of legitimizing it before. It was one of those traps that I fall into, I don’t like talking about the subjects that I really like because it can infuriate me when someone disagrees.

This time the danger is a bit more real. It’s not just disagreement, it’s a grade. If I can’t prove that medical ontologies should not include false beliefs or at the very least include them but indicate that they are false, then am I just bullshitting this? The worst part is that it’s all here, both the theoritical reasons why (with some minor objections about patients’ rights) and actual evidence about what happens when you let such false beliefs propagate, outbreaks of pertussis in California for example.

I just can’t transition well enough to get past the six page block where I am now. I’ve performed all of the actions that normally stall me in writing: checked three email accounts, briefly skimmed facebook, and now I am writing this. It’s a jump start…hopefully. I’ve even found the articles in the text book that I need I just can’t get into it.

The largest trouble is that I need to get this one done this weekend because a week from Monday I have another paper due. One that I haven’t actually started but I have all of that research done. The writing for that paper, save some new block like this, will just be a grind.

Perhaps, I have something right now, or perhaps I will just end up staring at the blinking cursor for awhile longer. Either way I can feel it in my brain the inkling of an idea, a transition sentence. It really is all I need to get going.

Then again it may just be another game of hearts…

Categories: daily observations, School

One More Day

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I like being in school, I just don’t like being in classes. Perhaps I should say that I don’t like being a student in classes, but that would be a lie, I just don’t like having to do the final papers. For the first month or so of my classes those due dates are like abstract art, you kind of understand that they exist but it doesn’t really matter. Until someone rips the painting off the wall and holds it ransom. Which is what these last two weeks feel like.

This is your life as it stands right now: two papers left, two down, and one presentation.

We must remember the maxim of Murphy as well because everything is going wrong. The weather turned, which isn’t a surprise this is Western New York in the corridor of the Great Lakes, but no one else apparently can remember that. Push the plows out and get it done, I have an hour commute. Then the wireless internet decides that it is going to quit at school, I wonder if the professors will take, “I left my ethernet cable at home” for a valid excuse?

Then I mysteriously became ill. I only get sick about once a year and unfortunately it is usually a crippling cold, but sometimes not. This time I know what it is going to be, because a little gremlin that I live with is sick right now and she gave it to me. It’s just not a good time to get sick I have two papers to write.

One paper is difficult because I have all the research but no topic to write about. That’s the Monday morning class, and it’s not due until the 20th of this month…somehow we worked that out. I’ll give one guy in the class credit for the hail mary pass he went for today, “So professor it’s a 12-15 page paper right?”

No, it’s a 15 minimum. That’s fine, I can do that…I already have the research done, two years of papers from grad school previously of which to mine for sources and subjects, two and a half years of lectures and assignments from which to mine from, I just need a topic. Like the Sophist Gorgias give me a topic I can find fifteen pages of words on it, that’s not hard. Making it good is only hard if you have trouble with a topic…that’s my problem right now. It haunts my dreams.

The fifteen minimum is normal, a standard really, but today in the Biomedical class we were thrown a loop. We all made assumptions of the final paper thinking they would be like the standard, but “standard” is a concept like “average.” It means there will be deviation from the norm. Whereas one of my papers had to be a maximum of 10 pages, this one has to be a minimum of 20…with the added bonus of having something publishable. Not that our grade is going to hinge on journal acceptance, but the two professors would like something to be there.

That’s actually the easy part. I know that exposing quackery in medical science/pseudo-science is interesting to people because it causes controversy and people like controversy, but that minimum of 20 makes it hard. I know that the paper I was going to write was going to be in need of fluff at around 10 pages, so i added a case study. Now I need more case studies which will hopefully make it more general as opposed to the specific focus I had in making the anti-vaccination crowd look like idiots.

I like the writing which is why i hate the 20 minimum. Because I like it, I don’t want to fluff it filling the topic with bullshit just to make a minimum. They know I know the stuff, because not only did I trash the medical quakery of the Jenny McCarthy crowd but I also dug into the African Traditional Medical Ontologies which include witchcraft and soothsaying as entries (don’t laugh too hard there is a repeated push to include such things as “faith healing” and “miraculous recovery” which is as preposterous as it is unfalsifiable). Now I need more examples, journalistic examples at least….any skeptics out there want to help me out?

Power Point II: Result I

November 30, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s weird how things turn out sometimes. My Mondays are usually the longest days, mainly because they are chronologically my longest days. It began odd, I forgot to set my alarm to the correct AM/PM setting which was bad because last night was the first Sunday night since the semester began that I actually slept through the night. It was good too, because today I had one of my two power point presentations and it’s nice to have done that not feeling completely wasted from lack of sleep. I stirred a little when I heard Lux come home but I wasn’t moving. I was in warm taco mode and very little will cause me to move spatially out of bed from my own volition, when she shook me in bed I had that odd feeling. The one where you are reactionally angry at being forced out of a cozy situation but are happy that you were because you weren’t doing it yourself.

My clothes were already out, I had chosen to dress darkly for the presentation. I don’t know why but it seemed fitting if I was going to spend fifteen minutes in front of Doctors, PhD candidates, and others (I really have no idea who some of the people in the class are but they aren’t typical students) railing against pseudo-science bullshit I could dress in any color–as long it was black. Eating my breakfast I was ready for the presentation, my laptop already in my bag with my folders stuffed to the 10 pound limit with class papers it was all the matter of making my coffee and Gwen and I were off.

The sad news on the radio hit me, not the lobbing of a missile at Sarah Palin’s allies in N. Korea by the US allies in S. Korea, but that Leslie Nielsen had died from complications due to pneumonia (or more realistically he died from Pneumonia), I guess we can finally call him “Shirley” now.

Class 1: Philosophical Anthropology has been dragging lately. For the last month or so being in that class has been a difficult process. With the exception of John Dewey, most of the Philosophers we have been reading are basically talking in a circle about some elusive concept of the philosophy of man. The trouble with this subject is that in the end it leads to some abstract definition, and that’s abstract by even philosophical terms, that if you look at the time period that it was written in (late 19th to mid 20th centuries) you can see the influence of Eastern Philosophy as that had hit its vogue being imported into Europe from China and Japan. It’s almost like the Beatles adopting the sitar and everyone thinking that because its different it must be unique and therefore clever…almost, at least the Beatles could get a tune out of their Eastern experiment.* If it isn’t that, it’s philosophy based on early 20th century European anthropology, sociology, and genetics…but guess what foundering and then flowering country was doing all of that work in the post WWI European community? If you guessed France, you were wrong. I’ll give you a hint: they went from third world country to first world power in less time than it took Europe to fight two World Wars.

Yes good old Germany where Eugenics became synonymous with Genetics. The worst part: it’s completely obvious in the work of Gehlen’s, “Man in the Age of Technology” which direction Germany was headed. Ideology was replacing rationality–never a good sign.

My email box was full, and it would continue to fill as Cyber Monday was trying to remind the internet that it existed. Two were of importance: the drafts for the work I had submitted at the end of last week.

The presentation was good with a couple of corrections. This made me more at ease because for some reason I am insanely unsure of myself submitting any work at all. My first presentation for Dewey seemed to go well, but I have received no feedback about it. Then I submitted a drastically cut down revision of the presentation and again received no feedback. With drafts being reviewed I breathed a sigh of relief.

I’m not a perfectionist, no one will make that claim about me generally. I often take the pragmatic approach believing that what is good is what is good enough. With school work in the past I relied on class participation, arguments, and the like to bolster B papers into A grades. This time it’s different, I need to get things right…but worst of all I need the professors to see it. Maybe its because I used to be the one standing in front of the room, maybe its because I now know what the grading system is actually like, or maybe its because I’m older and this stuff kind of matters now. But either way I must have scanned that power point over and over again looking for short corrections or revisions that would have made a difference.

The problem was, and I didn’t realize it until about 15 minutes left in class, that I don’t present everything that I know on a subject. My presentation contained 31 slides originally, 26 at the end. The only substantial criticism I received on it was that it didn’t maintain its thesis. Which is sort of correct, I get why someone reading it would think that, but that’s because someone reading it doesn’t understand that it’s only about 1/3 of what I am going to talk about. The rest is in my head. The presentation went excellently because I didn’t just read the slides, I explained their content and constantly reminded the audience what it was about.

The odd thing was that I actually felt nervous giving it. It was a unique feeling that I haven’t felt in a long long time. But then, I stood up replacing the nervousness with pacing and gestures that calmed me mentally. I know for next time that I am standing up when I start not 5 slides into it. Although it would be nice to have a remote/wand thingy instad of having to click the touch pad.

My favorite part was when I was explaining the complete and utter lack of evidence for the “vaccines cause autism” and one of the professors in the class began asking about Andrew Wakefield’s study and I cut him off explaining that not only was that study retracted as being false but that Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. I think I may have wowed him but its hard to tell because he always smiles when he talks.

If it wasn’t for the trashing of a paper draft I had turned in last week, I would have had a great academic day.

*And this is the period of the Beatles music that I abhor so understand how much I hate this other shit. 

Categories: philosophy, School

Power Point

November 25, 2010 Leave a comment

About one minute ago I finished the second of my presentations for the semester. I spend a lot of time on them, more about crafting the presentation than anything else. The thing about presentations is that often times they make up a good chunk of the grade but it’s rather unclear as to what you are actually being graded on. Of course the obvious gradings are present: whether or not the presenter knows the information that he is presenting or merely parroting it. That much is apparent. Yet what else can we really be graded on?

Poise? After looking that word up I realized that having poise is important but unless the person is grossly nervous or stammering it seems to be an elusive concept. In either case it won’t be my problem, speaking in public only bothers me a little bit and it goes away as soon as I have the floor. That’s not braggadacio, I mean it is, but my teaching experience and previous college experience pretty much necessitates that I be comfortable in front of people. 

The presentation itself? I don’t mean the information but the cosmetic presentation. This is where I may have some trouble. When Trocaire converted all of their classroom over to “smart” rooms I began an intensive systematic conversion of my lectures into power point. Initially the conversion was pretty simple, I would just cut and paste the lecture notes into the slides and then fix the spacing and delete the unimportant stuff from it. Then the crafting began and I realized that while I am not a funny person since my jokes are pretty lame I had an opportunity to embrace the lameness and work in funny pictures to the slide shows. 

Whenever applicable (in the loosest sense of the term) I would work in pictures of robots (Cartesian proof of the other), models (genetic engineering), and time travelers (time travel). I would play on puns with homonym pictures and the like. My problem now is that the temptation to do this is still present and I don’t know if I ought to be making these jokes for the Grad school presentations. I suppose this is just nerves because they will be the first grades I will get for the semester but I know that I don’t take this subject nearly as serious as others do. Not to say that I don’t care to succeed but that I would rather have a bit of fun with it rather than the mindless academic grind that some of these classes/students seem to want. 

My choice was that one presentation would be all information and pertinent pictures while the other is more, Dave-like*. It feels inauthentic because I know that I am hedging my bets. The more entertaining one is about holes, and literally in that paper I referred to misshapen doughnut as a “malformed abomination,” which caused me to laugh out loud for a bit after I typed it. The more serious one is on beliefs versus reality in medicine. A more serious subject with pertinent world application. Perhaps this was the best choice after all, then again I’m probably just rationalizing.

Categories: School