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Work-life balance: progress report #2

July 9, 2020

Today I forced myself to buckle down and revise some specific course materials for the fall. I chose to revise some PowerPoint slides corresponding to Chapter 2 of our physiology textbook.

The good news?  I did it! I kept my nose to the proverbial grindstone and made a bunch of useful revisions. The slideset is now clearer and better organized, and it gives the students more and better opportunities to take notes and do practice problems.

The bad news?  Revising this one file — a file that was already in decent shape — took me FIVE HOURS.

This is, more or less, the fundamental issue that I encounter over and over again. I like revising course materials; I like making them more student-friendly. (I’m only half-kidding when I tell people that my pedagogical specialty is reinventing the wheel.) But taking five hours to revise one chapter’s worth of slides makes me the poster child of unsustainable behavior.  I must be able to work more efficiently than that… Right?

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Work-life balance: (lack-of-)progress report #1

July 8, 2020

As I’ve mentioned, work-life balance remains elusive for me.

This summer I’m approaching the problem with a two-part plan: (A) psychotherapy and (B) a vacation from paid teaching so that I can get a good jump on preparations for fall.

I didn’t turn in spring-quarter grades until June 23, and then I had to play inbox-catchup for a while, so I’ve been slow to admit that part (B) is not going well. But it isn’t.

Today — thanks to the continuing blessing of a live-in mother-in-law who cares for our two young boys — I had many hours in which to work. 8:10am to 4:30pm, to be precise.

Many people would LOVE to have that kind of a workday.  So what did I do with this wonderful gift of abundant work time?

Well, I worked on a presentation for this Friday (~1.5 hours), worked on a COVID song-in-progress (~1.5 hours), read and wrote emails (mostly work-related; ~2 hours), went for a bike ride (~1 hour), ate (~0.5 hour), hung out with my 13-year-old (~0.5 hour) … and I’m not sure where the rest of the time went.

Conspicuously absent from all of this, of course, was any specific progress on fall teaching.

I didn’t feel as though I was being grossly irresponsible, and yet I made zero progress on the long-term goal that is my best ticket to a healthy fall quarter.

I think the next step has to be something like requiring myself to spend at least three hours a day, every day, to specific fall curriculum issues (revisions of PowerPoint slides, revisions of lab exercises, etc.). And fit in the email, music, etc. around that, rather than vice versa.

If I need to sacrifice some summer fun in order to have a sane, not-completely-exhausting fall, I will.

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The civil war continues

June 11, 2020

A few days before the murder of George Floyd sparked a new round of protests, our family happened to start watching the 1990 Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War. We finished it last night.

I’m not going to write about the documentary as a whole, but I thought the segment below — from the last night of the documentary — was sadly relevant to the current upheaval.

Here is what historian Barbara Fields says starting at 3:40 (taken from a 1987 interview archived here: https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_509-2r3nv99t98).

I think what we need to remember most of all is that the Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it. William Faulkner … said once that history is not was, it’s is, and what we need to remember about the Civil War is that the Civil War is, in the present as well as in the past…. The generation that fought the war, the generation that argued over the definition of the war, the generation that had to pay the price in blood, that had to pay the price in blasted hopes, in the lost future, also established a standard that will not mean anything until we have finished the work. You can say, there’s no such thing as slavery anymore, we’re all citizens, but if we’re all citizens then we have a task to do to make sure that that too is not a joke. If some citizens live in houses and others live on the street, the Civil War is still going on. It’s still to be fought, and regrettably, it can still be lost.

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The whistling is all around you — if you listen

June 4, 2020

Here is a quick story to illustrate what awareness of racism looks like in a well-intentioned but insufficiently attentive white guy.

In 2014 or 2015, I read Claude Steele’s book “Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us And What We Can Do.” The title refers to a black graduate student (Brent Staples, now of the New York Times) who would whistle classical music to make his presence seem less threatening to white people on the streets of Chicago.

At the time, my reaction to this anecdote was:
* Yes, racism is real, important, and tragic.
* What an efficient, clever way of putting everyone at ease and avoiding conflict!

Note that my reaction did NOT include the following:
* What a shame that this innocent black guy had to take it upon himself to calm everyone else.
* Gee, I wonder whether such defense mechanisms are common among people of color?

Now fast-forward to the present. George Floyd has just become the latest unarmed, nonthreatening black man to be killed by out-of-control police officers. I come across the article It Does Not Matter if You are Good by R. Eric Thomas. And some more grim realities finally start to sink in:
* Whistling Vivaldi, in the metaphorical sense, is VERY common among people of color, and especially among black men.
* It’s deeply unfair that potential victims of racism should have to whistle as a means of protecting themselves.
* No matter how loud or how tuneful the whistling is, it doesn’t always save you.

This reminds me of another metaphor — one that reveals the seemingly cheerful opening of Steele’s title to maybe not be so cheerful after all.

“Whistling in the wind” is an old phrase referring to an action that is utterly ineffectual.

Enough whistling!

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Blogging about mental health

April 30, 2020

Here is a small contribution from yours truly, posted this morning to the Dynamic Ecology blog run by my friend Jeremy Fox:
What if my hobby — what I do for “fun” — is being a workaholic?

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From the team who brought you “SJZC”…

February 2, 2020

My middle son loves bears, and books, so my eldest son and I made him a book for his 3rd birthday.

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More year-end feel-goodness

December 27, 2019

Sam, our not-quite-3-year-old, has a curious habit when we are out walking or running. When we see a dog we don’t know, Sam will often say, “He’s a NICE dog,” with a clear emphasis on NICE. This opinion will be offered regardless of whether the dog is large or small, barking or silent, hyperkinetic or still.

It’s easy to laugh this off as childish naivete. All dogs can’t be nice, kid; it’s statistically impossible!

And yet … how nice to be so optimistic about a species as to see every single member as a potential friend.

I suppose I’ll allow it — though the owners who don’t use leashes are another matter altogether.

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It seems that he relates well to dogs.

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A good one on which to end the year?

December 24, 2019

Amidst her usual quips, Rev. Debra Jarvis (who officiated my second wedding) has some good advice (for herself and others) about coexisting with people we don’t like.

We walked in silence for a while until I said, “I’ve always believed that Jesus meant it when he said, ‘Love one another,’ but he never said we had to like one another. So now I have to figure out a way to love her in spite of not liking her.”

I already knew how to do this because I had done it many times with patients. If you can’t be compassionate, at least be curious because many times curiosity opens the door to compassion which can open the door to love.

So I sat next to her at dinner that night and forced myself to talk with her. It turned out that her husband of two years was supposed to walk the Camino with her but he pulled out. Then he said he would walk the last sixty miles with her but changed his mind about that too. Her voice got low and thick as she talked. For the first time I felt she was being real.

I felt no satisfaction in being right about her cheerful veneer. I felt compassion for her. When her eyes filled with tears, mine did too.

…Curiosity almost always opens the door to compassion which leads to love.

I love the simplicity and practicality of this advice. No need to launch directly from a standing start into heroic levels of empathy; just try a little curiosity and see where that takes you.

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A&P rant, part 4: our exams express our values

November 28, 2019

It could be argued that I am making too big a deal of the comprehensive A&P exam offered by the Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS). After all, it is only one of many tests that our students could take, and no instructor is forced to use it.

These are totally valid points.  But, on the other hand, a test is a relatively pure and true readout of its creators’ values. What you leave out of the test, and what you put in, indicate a lot about your educational priorities.

My all-time favorite illustration of this is the Public Exam system devised by Ben Wiggins of the University of Washington. Ben wanted his exams to be better learning experiences for students — ones that clearly signaled his priorities, encouraged group discussion, minimized unnecessary stress, and offered challenging yet fair problems — so, over the course of several years, he devised a testing ritual that achieves all of these goals and more.

My own exams aren’t nearly as cool as Ben’s. They rarely rise beyond the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, for example. But I do my best to make them better than multiple-choice trivia-fests.  For example, I always include short-answer questions, despite the unpleasantness of grading such questions, because I want my students to be able to articulate their reasoning.  Interpretation of qualitative and quantitative figures is another theme. And all of my test questions are based on questions that we worked on in class or that were assigned as homework.  In the end, most of my students perceive my tests as fair reflections of the course themes, and as fair assessments of actual understanding rather than pure memorization.

So, back to the HAPS exam.  It is certainly a fair and valid assessment of what it purports to measure, thanks to the hard work of many contributors, and some instructors have found it very useful.  But based on my inspection of the 15 practice questions, I’d say that the way to do well on the exam is basically to memorize the facts outlined in the 73 pages of linked Learning Outcomes.

A test devoted almost entirely to factual details is relatively easy to create and relatively convenient to administer and score. Instructors can agree on what the questions should be, what the right answers are, etc.  But what are we sacrificing in exchange for this convenience and clarity?  Do we really mean to suggest — as this exam clearly does — that encyclopedic recall is the greatest virtue, and that everything else is secondary?

 

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A&P rant, part 3: are these Learning Outcomes prescriptive?

November 26, 2019

The Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS), the subject of my previous two posts, has an email listserv to which I posted links to those first two posts. There have been a few responses so far — all informative and civil, and some arguing that (A) some (many?) HAPS members already believe in and have implemented the various things I’m recommending, and/or that (B) the HAPS Learning Outcomes are not necessarily intended to be prescriptive, i.e., they aren’t telling people how to teach. In that context, I posted the following follow-up message to the listserv this evening….

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Thanks, everybody, for the additional comments! I’m delighted that my blowhardiness has not stopped people from gently providing me/us with additional context.

One clarification I want to make is that I do understand that lots of you, as individuals and/or as departments, have, like Meg, taken it upon yourselves to do the integration, skill-building, etc. that I am advocating. You don’t need me to lecture you about this stuff, do you? Still, I am very concerned about the implicit messages that are conveyed by the combination of the LOs and the HAPS exam.

Ric gave us some valuable history about how and why the LOs came to be. He says that as far as he knows, they were not intended to be prescriptive, and I have no reason to doubt him! BUT… If HAPS offers a single type of A&P exam, and charges money to use it, and does not allow instructors to cannibalize its parts or otherwise alter it, and commissions independent analysts to write white papers on the validity of said exam, and touts the various metrics indicating that the exam has a high level of validity… In short, when HAPS puts a lot of resources into one particular assessment, and encourages people to use that assessment, and when that assessment is based directly on a specific set of LOs…. Well, that IS a sort of prescription, whether people can admit it or not. And, as my blog posts explain, I don’t love the prescription that is implied.

To be clear, no HAPS member has ever directly told me “you’re doing it wrong!” or otherwise indicated that there is only one right way of doing things. You all are too smart, too sophisticated, too nice to make that blunder. But the way that the LOs are linked to the highly touted HAPS exam is a clear (if implicit) endorsement of approaches that will lead to success on that exam. And, by extension, arguably an indication of less interest in the types of learning that cannot be measured by that exam.

–Greg

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[Update, Nov. 28: this series continues (and concludes?) with Part 4.]