Friday, June 29, 2012

Academia meets life... and stumbles

We are staying with a colleague of my partner and his family, while we wait for conference 3 to start next week. They are a lovely couple with a 2 (4?) body problem. He has been giving me some advice on how to fly in and out of the airport local to University E; she's been helping me deal with some Epsilon related errands in town. Their two kids love trains and princesses, which has been lovely for Epsilon, who has recently discovered the wonders of female singing Disney characters (he's loved trains for longer).

The kids are playing with the train tracks, while the adults chat over the final details of dinner preparation.

"So explain to me again your travel plans. When will you be settling into University E city," she asks.
I explain our complicated 5 country, 7 week tour. "We should be getting in around August 1, and then search for housing."
"And that's it then."
"Well, I leave for University F about a month later."
"And I assume Epsilon is going with you then?"

... Restate explanation. See last post. ... I must say, these two never question our decisions. In and of itself, this last question would pass without mention. But there is another person at the dinner table. A colleague of her's, in town for a conference. After a few unrelated exchanges, the conversation continues as follows:

"I hear you teach feminist theory. I'd like to ask your advice on a three week course segment," he says. The conversation continues with the three experts in the subject discussing course matter.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Emmigration Fears: Playgrounds

One of the problems our new 2 + epsilon body problem faces is the fact that I do not speak the language in my new academic home, while my partner does in his. This is not a problem for the actual job part of my new situation, since all academic (and most bureaucratic) business at University F is conducted in English, or at least bilingually. This will pose a problem in terms of my going out and meeting people. (This is fine, since I'm dead set against forming any social life or growing any emotional attachment to my new city.)

My lack of linguistic compatibility was one of the driving factors to have Epsilon live with his father. And over the past 4 months, since we've made that decision, the following conversation has been very common:
"How well do you speak City Language (CL)?"
"Not at all."
"How are you planning to learn CL?"
"I'm not."
"But surely, you'll pick it up from Epsilon."
"Epsilon's not going to live with me."
"Why ever not?"
"I don't particularly feel like single parenting where I don't speak the language."
Insert variation on how hard can it be.
The last two weeks, my partner and I have attended conferences at countries where we do not speak the language. While one parent attends talks, the other visits interesting parks and beaches. In general, it's been a very nice experience.

There's a but. Otherwise, why the setup?

How do you tell a 5 year old not to throw sand in your son's eyes when you don't know the word for sand, or son, or child, or eye. How do you tell a kid to share if you don't know the word for share. How do you have small talk with the other parents at the playground (because really, watching your kid go "wheee" down a slide is only interesting the first 5 times he does it) when you don't know much beyond hello, thank you, please, and excuse me. Playgrounds for these last two weeks have been an extremely isolating, disempowering and humiliating experience.

There are many linguistic difficulties with single parenting. I think I believe that for most of the really essential ones,  (the doctor, the pharmacist, the day care providers) I can get by with English. But there is so much more to parenting than that. I've been citing playground interactions as an example of why single parenting in a foreign tongue may be a challenge. At this point I can sadly declare that my fears were correct, spitefully tell my nay sayers to go fuck someone until they have a kid and do it themselves, and confindently know that I've made the right decision for everyone who matters.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Conferencing with kids

Epsilon has accompanied me to 4 conferences so far, and I must say, switching between Mother and Academic is even harder at conferences than at home. But, as I've had more experience, and Epsilon is getting older, things are getting better.

The first thing that makes a world of difference is being able to trust the person coming with me. This is more than just "don't drop the kid off with someone you wouldn't want to babysit." For instance, when I invited my mother to accompany me on an international conference, I neglected to take into account that she is not the best traveller. I ended up having to skip several sessions that time. Another time, because of visa troubles, a friend of mine local to the country of the conference stepped in at the last minute to watch Epsilon. However, she was not comfortable enough in a city as large as the conference venue to be able to entertain herself. So, instead of spending evenings with other academics or reading up on relevant literature, I showed her around town. Neither of these were disasters, and there were external reasons why bringing Epsilon along was the right thing to do, in spite of the added complications it would bring. My take home message from those two experiences is that 1) travelling is hard 2) travelling with a child is harder. Bring someone along who is a good enough traveller to be able to manage the extra difficulties of travelling with a kid.

This is not to say that the problems faced in previous conferences with Epsilon are all due to other people's weaknesses. I have a very hard time separating my roles as mother and academic. My usual solution to this is to separate them temporally. This trick doesn't work if the conference, meals and hotel rooms are located in the same venue. In other cases, it is "simply" a matter of my lack of discipline.*

At last week's conference, I was somewhat of an outsider. My interest and approach to the topic at hand, while not unknown to the other attendees, was not of primary interest to other attenders. As a result, my need or ability to network was diminished as compared to other meetings more germane to my area of research. As such, I felt like I was able to engage as fully as I wanted to, which was nice. This was of course helped by the fact that a trolley line runs in front of our hotel room, so Epsilon was actually excited to have me go off to work so he could ride the train with his father.

My next conference is more central to my work. We'll see how that goes.

*In much the same way that Special Relativity can be described as simply linear algebra.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

More thoughts on Emmigration

Every summer it seems I have to board a plane for 10-15 hours to hit
my small conference circuit. Up until this year, every year, I have
grumbled about the hassle of getting on flights and traveling
alone. This year, we packed up our house, handed the keys to the
landlord, and got on the plane as a family. That seems to have made
all the difference.

It will be nice, starting September, to live in a part of the world
where the research I do is popular. It will be a lot easier to hop on
a plane for an hour or two, or a train for 3 or 4 to get to my
conferences, rather than have to sleep sitting up in economy, and fail
to sleep in my hotel room due to jet lag.

We have officially left the US, though we haven't settled in our new
homes yet. The dreaded emmigration has occurred. In the mean while,
First Conference City, is offering pleasant weather and a plethora of
good vegetarian options. The streets are filled wit bikers,
pedestrians and fresh vegetable stalls. I know this is a smaller city
than where I will be in September, but it is making me feel like I can
survive the upcoming year.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Grading and variance

Term is wrapping up for my classes here, and I'm suddenly being barraged with a lot of strange comments about grading. Students are concerned that not turning in a homework may lower them as much as half a letter grade in a class (each homework is worth about 4% of the grade). There are concerns about how high the median is of the midterm versus the final. While the questions are a bit odd for the third term in a sequence that has always been graded on an A-/B+ centered curve, it has started me thinking about how we grade and how we explain grading on a curve to our students.

Most of the undergrad coursed I've taught and TA'ed and taken have been graded as follows: 30% homework, 30% midterm, 40% final. If there are regular labs involved, or more midterms, the makeup changes, but it is roughly each component (labs, homeworks, each exam) makes up 1/n of the points of the course. This, prima facia, may lull one into thinking that if I do really well on the homeworks, but not so hot on one of the midterms, I may still do okay in the class. But this is actually not at all the case when grading on a curve.

When grading on a curve, in addition to the weighting I give the parts of the course, they are also weighed by the variance of the students' grades. If the homeworks, midterm, and final are each worth a third of the final score it seems like they all matter equally. However, this is not true. In a program where students are encouraged to collaborate and learn from each other in their homeowrks, most students get almost all of the homework points (say, a mean of 90 and a standard deviation of 3) then someone who does 2 st. devs above average has a 96, or 6 points above the average score.

I aim to have my exams have an average around 60 with a standard deviation of around 15. A half standard deviation is still 7.5 points here, more than the 2 standard deviations on the homework.

So, in my previous example, if a student performs 2 standard deviations above mean on the homework (does really well), but is half a standard deviation low on the midterm (does not so hot), it is not that she is still okay in the class, she is now below average.

Furthermore, if I make a mistake and make an exam too easy, which tends to move the standard deviation down as well as moving the average up, I effectively cause the exam to play a smaller role in determining a student's ranking in the class. Similarly a hard high-variance exam has a larger role. In other words, when my TAs and students want a final to be easier than the midterm, they are essentially asking for it to count less. Given that a student who has done well on the midterm is unlikely to make requests on the difficulty of the final, I'm sure this is not what they actually mean.

I had not really appreciated this subtlety when I was an undergraduate, nor in previous classes I had taught. I think it is likely that most of my students don't realize it either. Our course syllabi describe that 30% of one's grade comes from cumulative homework and the midterm each, and 40% from the final. But giving only this information, and little else is misleading to the class. "Do my homeworks count for nothing?" Yes, unfortunately, they count for little. The fact that you do your homeworks is what matters. This grading system is set up for you to do the homeworks, and learn from them. But the grades are primarily based on how you do on the exams.

This leaves me with the question of how to deal with this difference between the perception and reality of the grading process. On one hand, I can make easier exams, but at my graduate school, where the mean was at a B/B-, a mean in the 80s means that the difference between an A and an A- is about who makes fewer stupid/careless mistakes. That somehow doesn't seem fair.

I could recalculate the means and standard deviations of all three componenents to some predetermined point, but that would also over emphasize stupid/careless mistakes that a student would otherwise shrug off as "Don't I feel dumb. Ehn, it's just a point."

In actuality, I don't have a problem with how this grading scheme allocates grades, just with the gap between the perception and the reality of how much different parts of the course effect one's grade. Perhaps I should spend time on my course webpages explaining my grading scheme in detail, specifically how grading on a curve works, and how important variance is in the entire process.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Eloquence on class

Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, Liar's Poker, and The Blind Side gave the commencement address at Princeton University on Sunday. He spoke eloquently about the role of luck and privilege. He then described a behavioural experiment where subjects were divided into random groups of 3 and one of the three was randomly appointed to be the "team leader," though the title came with no additional duties. The teams were then given a moral problem to discuss. After 30 minutes they were given a plate of 4 cookies. The experiment found that the randomly assigned team leader felt entitled too, and took, the extra cookie.
This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I'm sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.  All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you'll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don't.

Friday, June 1, 2012

No good very bad day

Yesterday was a day filled with annoying details, mostly pertaining to moving, but some pertaining to why my current project is not as straightforward as I'd hoped. Nothing devastating, but annoying and stressful all the same.

At the end of the day, I go to pick up Epsilon in the hopes that running around with a 2 year old will burn off all the excess stress, and clear my head for a couple hours of work after his bedtime. I talk to the day care provider, again, about how we will only be bringing Epsilon by for 3 days in June, and could we please know how much she would like to charge us for those 3 days. I go home, we cook dinner, we all run around some, and sit down to dinner.

So far so good. And then the phone rings, at 5:50 pm. It's Karen, the daycare provider. She's sorry, but she just got in touch with the moms that were going to join in June, and they all want to start on June 1, so she will not be able to take Epsilon at 8:30 am the next morning. No, she does not have a backup person she could send us to.

GRAAAAAAAHHHH! My partner and I spend the rest of the evening trying to make the next few days work. It occurs to us how this is a akin to a bad breakup. There's sadness (Epsilon really had made some friends at daycare he now doesn't get a chance to say goodbye to), there's anger (What the hell type of notice IS this?!) and the cherry on top is the need to go back to her house to pick up Epsilon's stuff.

I hope today goes better.