Monday, March 28, 2011

Forcing Myself to Write

I'm just finishing up a book on how to write a lot. It's aptly titled, "How to Write a Lot", and it doesn't really provide any breathtakingly profound information, but it does say "hey, stop screwing around and start writing". The problem with scientific writing, compared to other forms of creative writing, is that it is dry and un-fun to do. Research is fun, writing about research is NOT fun.

One of the things I've gotten from this book is to commit to writing on a schedule. On the one hand this is easy, and I've set aside four hours a week for writing-and-writing-only. On the other hand, it can be difficult to tell people I can't do things because I'm writing, people just don't respect "writing time". Matt is very supportive, and encourages me to stick to the schedule. I'm willing to make concessions for things like going to the doctor, because I make those same concessions from other important things like work or class. Sometimes you can't get a better appointment, and you just need to suck it up. However, if I start making exceptions for everything else, there is little point to having a writing schedule at all.

This all started because I haven't been getting much of my own work done lately, and the things I have been getting done have been last minute and by the seat of my pants. I've set up boundaries, become less attached (emotionally) to teaching related things, and set aside time just for writing. It turns out I'm getting much more done.

Having said this, last week was a disaster for productivity. I made spring break (the week before) an actual break, and refused to do anything related to my teaching assistantship. I did do some of my own work which had been waiting on the back burner, and it was nice to have large blocks of time to do it. Of course, this meant that I had a lot of teaching things to take care of last week, so I'm not sure if I actually gained anything in the long run. Last week I also didn't stick to my writing schedule, but I wrote some this weekend to try to make up for it.

My current writing project is getting my "necessary professional documents" in order: CV, statement of research interests, etc. My CV is all up to date, and I have a long version as well as an abbreviated version. This week I am working on my research statement. This is basically a short document which discusses my research interests, what I have done in the past, what I am currently working on, and what my future research goals are. It is very boring, but I am trying my best to make it somewhat interesting.

Future writing projects will hopefully be a little more interesting and be geared toward publications, and not housekeeping. Baby steps... we'll see if this schedule business has any merit to it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Weddings and Babies

Last week was spring break, and I spent a good bit of it in Utah for my friend Kevin's wedding. We've been friends since middle school, and I haven't seen him in a really long time. It had been about 9 years, not counting a 15 minute visit that neither of us can really remember.

Matt and I flew in on Wed, and we were greeted at the airport by a muscular guy in a gray sweatshirt and a gray beanie. It was Kevin, and he startled me because I didn't recognize him at first under all the layers. He came rushing up to me and gave me a huge hug, I had no idea he was going to be at the airport. Matt and I got our rental car, and Kevin made sure we knew where we were going. Then we met up for dinner where I was reunited with his mother, and I met his brother, Brian, and step dad, Bob.

In a lot of ways Kevin has changed, but not in any way that is bad. He's still a bit silly, but he's balanced it with more maturity that comes with growing up and being in the military. He's turned into a great adult, but he was always a super guy anyway. I had another flash from the past when Rob showed up. He's changed a LOT since high school: long hair, taller, different voice, married, etc. He and Kevin go back to when they were five, so that was a nice reunion as well.

I met Kevin's fiance (now wife), Lacy, who I think fits well with Kevin's personality. I didn't get to talk to her much, but they seem to have a lot in common. The big difference is that she comes from an absolutely massive family. She has five siblings, many of which also have several children. I've never seen so many kids at a wedding before in my life. Babies everywhere! Kevin and Lacy gave me the impression that they want 3 or 4 eventually.

This was a LDS wedding, and since Kevin and Lacy were getting married in the temple, Rob, Matt, and I couldn't actually be there when they got married. But, we were at the fancy luncheon before, and the reception afterward. I feel honored that Kevin wanted me there, and I was glad I could make it. I'm not really close with many people from before college, but the select few are really good people that I don't want to lose.

Despite the huge crowd of people, it was pretty informal. I think I like that. Weddings that are overly orchestrated seem weird to me, and I like a casual atmosphere where you feel like you can get up and wander around to see people. I know that also can lead to chaos, but finding a balance is a good thing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

New Office, Burst Pipe!

As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, the office I was given as a teaching assistant is in a building that would be better off condemned. The office itself is particularly bad, so Felisa said I was more than welcome to set up shop in her big lab. Last week I finally started doing work in their, and I am slowly bringing in my things to get comfortable. I got much more work done this week because I had a comfortable and permanent place to go to. As a bonus, one of the other students comes in to do work and plays interesting music, so it's like a super productive work party.

Yesterday morning I came in to my new space and noticed a weird mark on the floor, it looked like someone had spilled a whole bunch of tea or coffee. The spot was partially dry, and I checked the ceiling above me but didn't see any dripping or other indications of water. I decided someone must have spilled something, and that there wasn't anything wrong.

I came back later in the afternoon to find the rest of my lab in their investigating the steam pipes with a maintenance guy for the building. Apparently one of the steam pipes was leaking (I remember now previously hearing a strange noise coming from the ceiling). The leak was on the other side of the room, directly above one of the lab computers. The water spot I had seen in the morning had come from the computer, under the desk, under a book shelf, and then over to the middle of the room where I found it.

Luckily, the computer is okay and no data was lost. Fred backed everything up in case their were any other problems, and they will be fixing the pipe during spring break. However, we did discover that the pipes were surrounded by asbestos, which is not such a good thing. They will be removing all that when they fix the pipe. Just in case, I'm going to bring all of my stuff home until the problem is resolved.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Stoopid Do You Think We Are?

I will post again on my own personal graduate school experiences soon, but for now I want to relate to my readers the kind of nonsense that comes along with being a graduate student teaching assistant.

For the record, the lab I am teaching this semester is kind of depressing. It is the abandoned child of the biology core curriculum. It has no continuity with anything going on in lecture, and from what I can tell, the lab portion isn't a priority to the students or the professors teaching it. It's fair to say that the faculty have more or less abdicated any responsibility for the labs, and so they are run as separate entities from the lecture. The lab itself is only worth 20% of the students' total grade, and it has at least 30 different assignments for the TAs to grade (multiplied by however many students we have). That doesn't include the lecture quizzes or exams, mind you, which we are also responsible for.

I'm not saying I don't want to work, or that I hate teaching. I love teaching those students who want to learn something. What I am saying, however, is that it is very difficult to get students to invest any consistent amount of effort into activities that have almost no reward. The only ones who really try are the ones who really care about getting an A. Which sort of brings me to my next point, which is related to the title of this post.

The students have no incentive to work in this lab course, and so they sometimes turn in complete garbage. The TAs have to grade this garbage, which takes time and substantial effort, let me tell you. For example, a couple weeks ago the students wrote a short scientific paper for their homework. It was no more than 3 pages long. Today, one of my friends who is also teaching this class with me discovered that one of her students plagiarized from four different sources on their one-and-a-half-page-long paper. I kid you not. What's even more amazing is that this person just copied huge chunks of text which were easy to find in a simple search on the internet. So not only was this person lazy, they were stupid about it.

They are told not to plagiarize, and we define for them every semester what plagiarism is: it is stealing. These students know the rules. The people that do this kind of thing assume that the TAs are 1) too lazy to go into Google and look up the obviously ridiculous paragraphs in their paper or 2) that we are stupid and don't know how to use an internet search engine. Both of these are bad assumptions, because graduate students do research for a living, we are experts at finding stuff in the most bizarre of places.

The truly spectacular bit of this whole thing is that my friend can't just give this student the zero they fully deserve. Our grading policy forces us to only give zero points for what is specifically plagiarized, which means that they still get points for the little bit of thinking they did do. This stems from fear of retaliation if the student appeals to a higher authority. In other words, to catch plagiarism it takes longer to grade the paper than it did for the student to write the paper in the first place. That just doesn't seem right to me. I think my friend deserves some kind of chocolaty reward for being such a trooper.