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Steven D. Brewer's blog

Comments about College Closures

On July 26, Carlos E. Santiago, the Commissioner of Higher Education spoke about new proposed regulations to respond to college closures in Massachusetts. These regulations are aimed at giving the Department of Higher Education more information and tools to deal with colleges at risk of closing, primarily to mitigate the impacts on students. Many of the comments were about preventing closures or recognizing the the broader impacts on the community.

There's a good showing for the #collegeclosures presentation: a full room, three college presidents, and good representation from town leadership.

— Steven D. BREWER (@limako) July 26, 2019

I offered the following comments.

Hi. My name is Steve Brewer. I'm a faculty member at UMass Amherst. I also wanted to thank the Department because the Department of Higher Ed is funding the "Bridges" program that I'm teaching in this summer which is taking students from community colleges that are transitioning to the university and providing them with a summer opportunity to be on the University first hand, learn about it, and then transition to begin as students in the fall.

I'm reminded in the conversation today of the parable, that I'm sure most of you have heard, that you see babies floating down the river. We've seen 18 babies floating down the river, and so we're trying to figure out, how can we rescue these babies? Can we pull them out of the water with nets and resuscitate them and do all the things to see if the babies are going to die or not. And, of course, the question we really ought to be asking is why don't we go upriver and see what's throwing the babies into the water. I  mean, that's, THAT'S the real problem.

We're looking here at how to rescue institutions rather than thinking about what's causing the institutions to become unstable in the first place. And saying "demographics" is, of course, one part of it.   But there are a lot of other pieces that fit into that as well: the fact that we've systematically disinvested in higher education and that inequality is causing people to postpone or not engage in child-rearing at all. There are a whole bunch of factors that are resulting in the decline of higher ed.

And we recognize that your part is to sit there with a net and pull babies out of the water and that's what these regulations are about. But I think all of us need to think about the political advocacy we need to engage in. And, of course, we have the right people here (pointing at Mindy Domb and Jo Comerford) that are fighting that fight on the front lines. But to try to save higher education altogether.

You can also watch the full video.

Writing in Biology: Fourth Class

By this class, students should have completed their figure, written their methods, and had their methods followed. Usually only about 50 percent are actually there, but they're coming along.

The main purpose of this class, is to practice comparing the two figures, separating observations from inferences, and organizing RESULTS and DISCUSSION sections. For this purpose, I have collected together many examples of figures from previous semesters that they can practice on.

I've looked for a long time for an accessible reading for students to discuss the idea that observation and inference are inextricably linked. I've used an article by Fodor which was OK, but too high level. And several other things that were contextualized, but the context was too distracting. There was a nice section in Rudwick's Great Devonian Controversy that might work, but I worry that the context will still be too distracting. Instead, for the past couple of years, I've asked students to do a pre-class activity where they provide an example of an observation and inference. This has worked pretty well to get them thinking in the right direction.

I've learned to provide a little therapy up front to students before we do the practice activity. There's nothing like suddenly discovering all of the factors you never realized to control or document. Some students panic that they need to redo their figure or rewrite their methods. So I remind them that a primary purpose of the activity is to help them learn this stuff and it's OK that they didn't know it beforehand. And that if they did, we wouldn't need to do it in the first place. But it drives home the need to actually try methods out before you use them, a lesson which I hope they carry forward to their Proposals.

For the activity, I have them start to compare the figures. I ask them to remember the Writing from Experience activity: to start out just making a list of things they notice. Many students want to jump forward to conclusions like "It's a different tree"  and I ask them to back up and indicate what they can see that allows them to draw that conclusion. I wander through the room answering questions and looking at what students are recording. Then I ask them to begin to separate observations from inferences and to identify factors or variables that were different.

I provide some scaffolding along the way. First, after making a list of observations, I encourage them to try to separate their list into observations and inferences. And to try to organize the observations into an outline that presents them systematically: I ask them to recall the narrative-to-exposition activity where we came up with categories and organized their activities using a framework other than time.  Many students default to organizing around what they noticed first. Or what was the "most noticeable" difference, so I caution against these.

I also caution against making judgments: the goal is not to assign blame or say that differences are caused by errors — or to speculate about what might have happened or would happen under different future circumstances. But rather to simply observe differences and identify factors dispassionately. This is really hard.

Eventually, I ask them to present the two figures they compared side-by-side and give a quick presentation of first, just differences, and then the factors that they identified. And then I invite the other students to find other differences they might have missed.  If the class is small enough, I encourage everyone to present, but frequently the class is large enough that there really isn't time. I try to gently point out when they're describing inferences rather than observations. Or making judgments.

As we go through, I often take a few minutes to show them how to use ImageJ to collect data about differences: to measure items and to compare colors. And to emphasize that there is an immense amount of data available in the figures.

Before the end of class, I remind them that their rough drafts are due next week and that they should come to class ready to present their findings and to take notes of any feedback from the class that they can use to improve their analysis. I point out that I will start commenting on their rough drafts as soon as the next class ends and that I can give much better and more useful feedback if their manuscript is complete and as good as they can make it.

Antaŭ Hajko: Amo, malfeliĉo, kaj tankao

Jen la prelego kiun mi ofertis ĉe la Landa Kongreso en Bostono, junio 2019. La diapozitivoj ankaŭ haveblas.

Antaŭ hajko: Amo, Malfeliĉo, kaj tankao.

Mi volas danki al Benson Smith kaj la LKK kiuj invitis min veni kaj prelegi hodiaŭ. Mi intencas mallonge priskribi japanan poezian formon kiun eble malmulte konas, nome "tankao". Mi komenciĝos je formo de poezio kiun ĉiuj jam certe konas; kaj mi eble ankaŭ diskonigos iomete pri la historio de la japana literaturo. Sed, mi intencas lasi sufiĉan tempon tiel ke ĉiuj el ni povos verki unu aŭ du tankaojn kaj legi ilin unu al la alia antaŭ ol ni finiĝos.

Antaŭ komenciĝi, tamen, bonvole lasu min agnoski ke nia prelego okazas sur la ne cedita tereno de la indiĝena Masaĉuseca popolo kies nomon la komunumo elproprietigis. Mi volas ke ni memoru la perforton kiun tiuj homoj suferis kaj dediĉu nin al la diskonigo de tiu vero.

Hajko estas tre konata poezia formo nuntempe. Onidire. Jen traduko de ŝerc-hajko kiun oni dividas lastatempe per la interreto.

hajkoj facilas
sed ne ĉiam senchavas…

Ĉiuj konas kio estas hajko ĉu ne? Oni instruas ĝin en lernejoj kaj foje oni vidas en ĵurnaloj kaj gazetoj, inviton konkurenci pri hajkoj. Oni simple kalkulu silabojn de tri linioj: 5-7-5. Kaj jen hajko.

Tio estus same senchava diri ke ĉio kio havas kvar krurojn estas poneo.

Fakte la regulojn de hajkoj estas ege striktaj. Hajko estas farita el tri partoj kun unu forta tranĉo -- do, du partoj restu kunaj kaj unu estu aparta. Kutime tiu tranĉo ankaŭ indiku ŝanĝon de vidpunkto. Hajko devas iel indiki la sezonon (kaj estus ege banala simple diri la sezonon). Kaj hajko super ĉio estu nur pri la naturo. Kaj nur priskribo, precipe de la sensoj, sen juĝoj aŭ homa reago.

Lasu min momente deflankiĝi por pritrakti la ideon de "silaboj" kiel la unuo de hajkoj. En la japana, oni fakte kalkulas ne silabojn, sed "moraojn". Moraoj estas unuoj de la longeco aŭ pezo de la sonoj en silaboj kaj foje silaboj povas havi pli ol unu moraon. Ekzemple la aldono de "ん" en la japana povas aldoni moraon.

Kiam oni verkas hajkojn en la angla, se vi kalkulas 5-7-5 silabojn, la hajko kutime enhavos pli da informo ol en la japana, ĉar la angla estas pli inform-riĉa lingvo. Do ofte en la angla, poetoj celas malpli ol 5-7-5 silabojn. Laŭ mi, la japana kaj Esperanto estas similaj. Kaj mi emas kalkulas silabojn. Sed tio ne estas deviga.

Do, jen unu el miaj novaj ne eldonitaj hajkoj:

ĉe la angulo
dancante en la vento…
aceraj semoj

Mi ne diru ke ĝi estas iel perfekta, sed bonvole notu la ecojn: ĝi havas tri unuojn memstarajn; du kune kaj unu aparte per forta tranĉo kaj ŝanĝo de vidpunkto; Kaj temas la naturon, ĉu ne? Kiu estas la sezono? Kiam falas la aceraj semoj?

Kaj estas aparta vorto por ŝerc-hajkoj -- hajkoj kiuj ne estas hajkoj -- kiu estas "senrjuo". Kiam mi ekverkis hajkojn, mi ne sciis ke tio ekzistas kaj ofte verkis ŝerc-hajkon sen scii ke estas alia vorto por priskribi tion.

Mia vojaĝo al hajko komenciĝis kiam mi estis doktora studento kaj ne havis tempon por esperantumi. Mi tamen povis trovi momenton jen ie, jen tie dum la tago por verki hajkojn kaj mi interŝanĝis ilin kun mia frato. Unue, ili estis plejparte "ŝercaj hajkoj" — senrjuoj — kiel tiu ĉi:

mi serĉas ion
sed ne povas trovi ĝin…
en kuirejo

Sed iom post iom mi lernis pri la japana poezio kaj rekonis ke kelkaj el miaj hajko ja estis bonaj. Mi ankaŭ legis pri la historio de japana poezio kaj komencis pritrikti pli serioze mian laboron.

La japana poezia tradicio devenas de ĉina, aŭ "hana" poezio, sed ekde la sesa jarcento, oni komencis verki poezion en la japana. Tian poezion ni nomu "ŭakao". Ĝi estis plejparte esprimo de la japana kortumo. Ni parolas pri mil jaroj de literatura historio, do ne eblas koncize resumi ĝin. Sed ĝi naskis la formojn kiujn ni konas hodiaŭ en unuoj de 5-7-5 kaj 7-7 silaboj.

La trajtoj de la japana kortuma poezio estis esprimi fortajn emociojn kun beleco kaj eleganteco. Temas pri la alt-ranguloj en la socio kiuj konkurencis unu la alian por montri siajn kulturan kaj literaturan scion. Unu maniero esprimi tion estis ligi sian poemon al la aliaj historiaj poemoj: la "kusenvortoj" estis gravaj vortoj kaj esprimoj kiujn oni uzis en antaŭaj konataj poemoj por montri ke via nova poemo iel rilatas aŭ konversacias kun tiu el la pasinteco. Simile, multajn japanajn vortojn oni povas legi divers-maniere: uzi tian vortludon, tiel ke vortoj kaj frazoj havu du aŭ eĉ multoblajn signifojn, estas tre dezirata eco de ŭakao. Esperanto povas esti same, ĉu ne? Ekzemple veter/o, ve/ter/o, vet/er/o.

Jen kelkaj ekzempleroj de fruaj ŭakaoj:

La Man'yoshu (759) estas ne aŭtoro, sed koleto de kolektoj kiu havas poezion de multaj konataj kaj anonimaj aŭtoroj.

Malgraŭ mi vekas
por vidi lunon daŭri
en frua ĉiel'—
mi atendos vin, amat'
aŭ neniun se ne vi.

Jen amo, ĉu ne? Ĉi tiu ŭakao montras virino kiu atendas ŝian amanton. Ĉu devas esti virino? Plej verŝajne ĉar kulture, en tiu epoko, estis virinoj kiuj atendis virojn.

Kiyosuke (1104-1177) provizas priskribon de la nuna malfeliĉa momento por retorika demando:

Se mi pluvivu
ĉu ĉitage memoros
per facila kor'?
Malfacilaj epokoj
nun estas karaj al mi.

Ĉi tiu poemo estis sendita al parenco. Kio estis la problemo? Ni ne scias. Sed la poemo ofertas universalan mesaĝon pri la homa sperto.

Unu el la plej konataj poetoj de ĉi tiu periodo estis Saigjo. Li estis pastro kiu verkis multajn ŭakaojn.

Mi rezignas ke
vizitos ajna amik'
ĉi montvilaĝon.
Kaj sen tiu ĉi solec'
estus terura loĝlok'.

Jen forta emocio. Kaj sendube li havis ege ekran humoron ankaŭ.

El ŭakao, kiu estis plejparte individua stilo, aperis rengao, kiun oni verkis en grupo. Eble eĉ ĉe festo. Imagu kvin aŭ dek homoj kiuj kunvenas por babili (kaj eble trinki sakeon). La plej faman, oni invitu verki la "hokon" -- la unuan 5-7-5 strofon, kiu salutas la gastiganton kaj iel priskribas la ĉirkaŭaĵon. La gastiganto tiam respondas per 7-7 respondon kiu prenas unu ideon de la antaŭa strofo por saluti la gaston. Tiam ĉiuj la aliaj partoprenantoj vice verku 5-7-5 kaj 7-7 strofojn kiuj, same, prenas unu ideon de nur la tuj antaŭa strofo. Kaj oni daŭrigu ĝis atingi 100 strofojn (aŭ ĝis ĉiuj estas tro ebriaj por pluiri). De tiu ĉi hoko devenas hajko, en la 17a jarcento.

Sed hodiaŭ mi volas enkonduki al vi tankaon. La modernigita formo devenas de la lastaj jaroj de la 1800a jarcento (same kiel Esperanto, ĉu ne?) Kaj uzas la formon 5-7-5 7-7 en kiu la supera strofo estas iomete kiel hajko: ĝi priskribas la scenejon. Kaj la 7-7 sekva parto, la suba strofo, havas la homan, emocian, reagon. Eblas, kompreneble, uzi kusenvortojn, dusignifaĵojn, kaj ĉiujn el la aliaj rimedoj de poezio. Oni ne emas rimi en la japana, sed oni ja pripensas la ritmon kaj kiel la sonoj de vortoj povas eĥi unu la alian. Aŭ simili al la sonoj de naturo. Aŭ respondi al famaj antaŭaj poemoj kaj temoj.

Lasu min nun bari al vi la animon kaj legi kelkajn el miaj tankaoj:

Oni foriras,
petaloj al la vento…
neniu restas.
Mi malŝaltas la lampojn,
ridetas en malhelo.

Ĉi tiu temas la sekvojn de "hanamo" aŭ sakura festo ĉe mia domo. La homoj kiuj kunvenis foriras kaj mi restas sole en la malhelo, sed ridetas.

Halti momente
ĉe arbara sanktejo.
Jen kardinalo.
Vere trafaj vestaĵoj
sed banala prediko.

Mia poezio plimalpli ĉiam venas rekte de miaj propraj spertoj: mi preskaŭ neniam simple imagas aferojn. Mi vizitis sanktejon en arbaro kaj tie estis kardinalo kiu kantis. Aŭ blekis, almenaŭ. Birdoj ofte kaptas mian atenton en poezio.

Meznokta silent'
de l' senkompataj steloj
en nigra ĉiel'.
Sendorme mi kalkulas
la koran benon de pac'.

La nokta ĉielo estis tre ofta poezia temo, sed nuntempe oni malofte rigardas ĝin. Tiu ĉi sendube temas la bildojn kaj raportojn de la senfinaj usonaj militoj kiujn ni neeviteble devas spekti.

Tri junulinoj
sidas ĉe mi kaj legas.
Sed mi ne legas.
Miaj okuloj vagas
preter paĝojn de l' libro.

Tiuj, kiuj konas min jam scias ke mi ne ĉiam havas tute decajn pensojn.

La kotaj spuroj
de l' malpura kastoro
trans rivera pad'.
Sed mi tute ne plendas:
ne estas mia domo.

Notu ke mi vere vidis la kotajn spurojn de kastoro dum promeni laŭ rivera pado, kaj tio fakte estis mia emocia reago.

Sopiri akvon.
Aŭ lumon aŭ aeron.
Aŭ Esperanton.
La senvortaj monatoj
premadas la spiriton.

Ĉiu Esperantisto konas la animan pezon kiam vi restas for de Esperantujo tro longe.

Do nun estas via vico: Mi invitas vin verki tankaojn kun mi: uzu la superan frazon por priskribi kaj la suban frazon por reagi. Kaj vi ricevos kromajn poentojn por uzi kusenvortojn aŭ trafajn dusignifaĵojn.

Estas multaj dankindaj homoj kiuj subtenas kaj helpas min sed jen du fontoj de kiuj mi lernis multon pri japana poezio. Steven D. CARTER kiu verkis "How to Read a Japanese Poem" kaj Earl MINER por lia libro "An Introduction to Court Poetry".

Mi ankaŭ volas danki al YOSHIDA Hiroshi la konata artisto kies presaĵojn mi uzis por la fondo de miaj diapozitivoj. Kaj Feorag NicBhríde kiu desegnis la literfonton "Chapbook".

Seven Years After

I had not noticed that the US Landa Kongreso de Esperanto was going to be in Boston until I received an invitation from Benson Smith in February to speak or lead a workshop "about haiku or something". Being busy, I only gave it a moment's thought, replied to say "sure," and marked it in my calendar. I've found that trying to teach haiku is actually difficult and that it's much easier for beginners to write tanka. And I had read something around that talked about tanka as being about "love, sadness, and strong emotions", so I called my talk "Antaŭ Hajko: Amo, malfeliĉo, kaj tankao" and wrote up a blurb for the program.

In mid May, I began to work up the slides and I posted an announcement or two to invite people to register.

When I agreed to give the talk, I had not realized how busy I would be this summer. And I didn't realize that the lodging would require you to purchase the food service. And that the dorms also forbade alcohol. So, when the time came to register, I declined to purchase lodging and decided to drive over for only the one day of my talk. I arranged to give the talk on Saturday, so I could attend the opening sessions and the banquet (which was also devige included in the cost of the registration).

I hit the road around 5:30am, parked under the Boston common around 7:30, and followed the directions on the website to register at one building before going to the kongresejo around the corner. But there was only the doorman at the building and he had no idea what I was talking about. I called and left a message with the answering service for the organizers. Google helpfully transcribed it for them as

Hi, this is Steve Fuller. I've come for the London Sombrero, but there doesn't seem to be any at 100 Boylston to manage the registrations at this time, and I was just hoping to get here in time for the soul animal. So if you could let me know what to do, I would very much appreciate it. Thanks.

But my message got through and I was directed to the kongresejo where I received my badge and packet of materials, including the actual program with the timing of events.

My talk was at 5pm.

What I had not expected was my emotional reaction to the event.

Almost seven years ago, I resigned as Secretary of Esperanto USA and have basically not attended an E-USA event since. (With the exception of the Sekreta Kongreso where I happened to be close by and we stayed for only 15 minutes or so.) Since then, I've basically not paid any attention to E-USA: I'm not a member, I don't subscribe to the newsletter, and I've only very occasionally looked at the website. I used to occasionally link to the posts I wrote there, but since they took down the old site, there's no longer even that reason to visit.

I had imagined seven years would give me some distance regarding how I felt. But they had not. Feelings of anger, frustration, and disappointment were, if not overwhelming, at least a painful distraction during most of the day.

I escaped during lunch: since I didn't have the food service like everyone else. Instead, I went to a nice little chi-chi restaurant nearby, the Explorateur where I got a burger and spent more for a pint of beer than I ever have before. (Tho it was really good beer.) And then I went back for the rest of the sessions.

Finally, I gave my talk to a small, but enthusiastic group. They had, as seems to always happen, scheduled my event at the same time as Humphrey Tonkin (OK -- so this has only happened about three other times). So, not only could he not attend my talk, but other people who might have attended mine probably went to see him instead. Which only made sense: I mean, it's THE Humphrey Tonkin, after all! But it was fine.

There was a one-hour libera tempo before the banquet at 7pm. I schlepped my stuff back to the car, figuring then I wouldn't have to drag it around with me at the banquet. But when I got to the parking garage, I realized that I could just get in my car and drive home. Right then. And so I did. And by 8pm or thereabouts, I was home and drinking a can of Treehouse beer, watching the Cardinals with Lucy. (They lost, but whatever.)

Thank goodness, I hadn't registered for the lodging or I'd have been trapped there for the full three days.

I took some notes during the business meeting thinking I might write a report for Libera Folio. But I recognize now that it probably wouldn't be healthy for me. I can't tell how much would actually be sour grapes, but it would undoubtedly be perceived as sour grapes. So I don't think I'll go there. And I don't think I need to attend an Esperanto-USA event again -- even if I'm invited. I might go to the Universala Kongreso in Montreal next year. And tho the Landa Kongreso will be there, I don't have to attend those sessions.

Visiting New Places

I moved to the Pioneer Valley in 1996. When we first arrived, every weekend was devoted to exploring new places. Two years later, we were looking for houses and we were constantly driving around to different towns and neighborhoods. But little by little we settled into a routine and, with time being limited, I began to elect to go back to places I knew I liked rather than risking something new.

This spring, I realized that there were a bunch of conservation areas in the area that I had never really explored. So I've been intentionally going to new places to see what I might have been missing. So far, I've been to Elf Meadow, Ruth McIntire Preserve, Hawley Bog, Plum Brook, Larch Hill, Stanley Park, and others.

So far, it's been an interesting exercise, but I haven't found any place that competes with the favorite places I like. I'm actually cheating a bit by putting Stanley Park on the list because I have been there before, but I'm exploring new parts of the park that I didn't know existed before. Some of the places have turned out to be pretty much just weeds and sticks (e.g. Plum Brook). I get tired of weeds and sticks pretty quickly. So yesterday, I visited an old favorite, the Peace Pagoda.

It was as great as I remembered.

Writing in Biology: Third Class

Before this class, I generally check to make sure students are posting drafts and perfect paragraphs -- and writing good comments. I try to send a quick email to students that aren't posting enough and invite them to meet with me if they're having difficulty.

By Week 3, the class is falling in a rhythm. We touch base on drafts and perfect paragraphs, review where we are on the METHODS projects and when the coming milestones happen (finish figure this week; follow methods next week; present figures & rough draft, following week; then paper due.)

I review the reading I had asked them to do and point out the section on writing an effective figure legend. And then I introduce the figure legend activity. The take-home lesson is that figures don't speak for themselves. The author needs to explain why they included the figure. And that the exact same figure might be used in multiple manuscripts for different purposes.

I digress for a bit at this point, to discuss the fact that you can't just use any old picture you find on the internet as a figure because of copyright. I gauge the audience to see who knows anything about copyright (nobody generally does). So I talk for a few minutes about copyright being enshrined in the constitution, about the original period of copyright, and if anyone knows how long it is now (and why). Then I ask about the Creative Commons and give a brief overview about how Creative Commons works, the incredible value this represents, and the importance of complying with the requirements of the licenses.

So far, I've used Flickr as a place to find Creative Commons licensed imagery for the figure legend activity. I show them how to use the advanced search to look for CC images, how to get the URL to the image file, and how to put that into a Draft post. (As I say, I've used Flickr for this for years, but their recent membership change has probably resulted in the loss of a lot of Creative Commons licensed imagery. And I can't post there anymore. So if I continue to do the activity, I'll sadly need to look for a different source of imagery.) I also show the flickr cc attribution helper as a quick way to generate the correct attribution.

For the Figure Legend activity, then, I have the students divide into pairs and find an image for which they can each write a different legend, and they each write an in-class activity with the image and their legend. I demonstrate and then help them walk through the steps. We wrap up the activity by looking at a few of the pictures they'd identified and the legends they wrote.

Subsequently, I transition to discussing multi-panel scientific figures which they will need to construct for the METHODS project. As a pre-class assignment, I had asked them to find a multi-panel figure in a peer-reviewed article and share it with me. We look at some on the screen and I ask students to explain things they liked or didn't like about them. We try to derive a list of the characteristics that make a figure effective. Some of the points I hope to make include care-and-attention to detail; having objects aligned and spaced appropriately; having consistent, high-contrast labeling, using color effectively, and considering accessibility. We also frequently discuss the ethics of manipulating imagery and that some journals require that images not be retouched or adjusted.

At some point, I ask students why there are so many multi-panel figures in scientific articles. Students generally don't know, but guess that it's to put related information together. I can generally show in one of the figures we've looked at that there is often a hodge-podge of mostly unrelated information. And I so I offer a brief lecture on the process of scientific publication and the idea of figure and color charges.

In the past, I used to demonstrate how to lay out a figure, but more recently, I've provided screencasts that the students can use for this purpose at their own pace. So, instead, I simply invite them to use the rest of the class period to work on their figures with my help, as necessary, to get their figures finished up. I remind them that, as they make their figure, they will need to be able to describe the process in their methods, so they should consider ways to make the process more replicable and to take notes they can refer to while writing their methods.

Help desk woes

This morning my frustration with the help desk at my university boiled over and I (perhaps unwisely) sent this note:

Thank you very much for the prompt and complete response to my concerns. This is perhaps the fourth or fifth time in the past year that I have reported a problem to the help desk and have gotten an inappropriate reply back. I could go back in my email and find them all, but that's not the point I'd like to make.

In the past, Dreamhost had you indicate with a menu option how familiar you were with technology with options from "I have no idea" to "I probably know more about this than you do". (I always picked the option before that.) I don't know if that's why I always got prompt, excellent service from them, but I'd like to imagine that they paid attention to that and used it like a filter to interpret what I was saying.

Similarly, in xkcd, randall munroe dreams of having a "code word" you can use that will automatically transfer your call to a person who knows a minimum of two programming languages.

I'm not sure what the best solution is, but perhaps something like printing out a small note and putting it next to each person's phone that says "Steve Brewer is not a moron." I don't need people to tell me to check whether it's plugged in. If I say they should do something, I'd like them actually check with someone who knows what they're talking about before replying. I don't report stuff that isn't borken.

What I've been doing is what I did this time: I take a deep sigh and I write a polite note to [the director] asking him to fix it. But it's a PITA, wastes my time, wastes his time, and makes everything take longer.

Perhaps, instead of a note with only my name, perhaps we could have a flag that shows up for any of the technical staff. Or something.

I want to use the system. I just want the system to work.

Thanks again for the prompt, courteous follow up to my concerns.

It probably won't help, but I've already been told by someone else that I'm "very pissy" this morning and needed to vent.

Alvah Stone

The Bookmill is a fun destination that's just far enough away, that I don't get to it very often. And right behind it, is a little restaurant, the Alvah Stone. Alisa likes it there because they always have interesting cocktails. And I've always liked it because they usually have good beer.

A friend recently had a retirement dinner there and we arrived to discover they'd changed the menu. Rather than serving "meals", they've changed to "small plates". They suggested each person should order two or three. It was a bewildering array of different kinds of things. I started to panic. But then someone pointed out that they have a "feast" option where you don't pick anything: they just bring stuff. It was priced a bit more than two plates, but not much more than three. So we all did that. And that was a great choice.

It was great because we didn't have to waste time deciding. We could just all pass in the menus and not worry about trying to pick stuff, or coordinate with other people to get different things. Or worry if we were ordering too much or too little. We could just socialize and have fun.

The first dish was their famous brown butter cornbread with (honey bacon butter!). Then marinated mushrooms and garlic toast. There was a caesar salad. And sesame noodles. And salt-roasted beets. And beans. And greens! Then tofu. And steak! And scallops! We could all try everything and discuss each thing as it came out. It was paced perfectly. The plates came steadily and everyone had plenty and to spare.

Oh, there was some nasty eggplant too. Boo. But there were so many good things that it didn't matter that one was nasty. And most of the dishes were excellent. The scallops were exquisite and the steak was superb.

Best of all, it meant that we all finished around the same time. I tend to unhinge my jaw and just inhale my food, while Alisa is very very slow, like a loris. When we were on the road together and ate every meal together, we converged a bit, where she speeded up a little and I slowed down some. But since we don't do that anymore we have reverted to our former ways. But having the small plates meant that we were all eating together the whole dinner.

My only disappointment was that they didn't have an IPA to drink. There was one on the draft list, but the keg had just kicked and they didn't have another IPA. They did have an APA by a good local brewery, but it was only OK. Alisa was pleased with both cocktails she got.

I was really skeptical about the whole "small plates" idea at first, but doing the "feast" was perfect and gave us a great experience.

Writing in Biology: Choosing a theme

Before I started posting about what I do each week in Writing in Biology, I should probably have drafted a post about establishing a "theme" for each semester. The theme ends up affecting many of the exercises I have students do and some of the scheduling of events.

By "theme", I mean a topic or subject area that the course is going to focus on for the semester. This often will affect what organism/object I choose for the first "writing from experience" exercise, what papers I choose for students to look at in week 2, and will limit the scope of what kinds of research proposals and projects we'll work on.

I've tried teaching the class both with and without an organizing theme. My sense has been that it works better to have a theme. A theme usually gives students ideas about the kinds of things they might do. Having no theme leaves students adrift trying to come up with ideas. Students also frequently want to choose inappropriate topics for research (human subjects or vertebrate research that would require complex paperwork to conduct) and choosing a broad theme that excludes those topics, takes them right off the table.

I usually try to pick something that I don't know much about. I do this, in part, because it's an opportunity for me to learn stuff. But also because I'm much less likely to become overly directive if I don't know too much about it. When I've picked a topic I already know pretty well, I find that my opinions end up guiding students too much: they're better off to go into the subject themselves.

Some of the themes worked pretty well. I was particularly pleased with the outcomes of studying vernal pools, tardigrades, garlic mustard, and planarians. Successful themes seem to incorporate a mix of student wonder and importance.

Less successful themes were not disastrous, but didn't pique students' interests for whatever reason. I'm reminded of the semester we studied cockroaches. I picked the theme because I was aware students generally prefer to study animals to plants, but finding an animal to study in November/December is challenging. I thought that we could catch cockroaches in the building and look at demographics/diversity of the populations. But students seemed to regard cockroaches not as "animals" but as mere "vermin" unworthy of study.

One challenge with teaching for participation is that each group of students is different. And even just one or two enthusiastic -- or recalcitrant -- individuals can make a huge difference in the atmosphere of the class. In one semester, I coordinated with the Amherst Tree Warden with the goal of having the data we collected be also a community service learning project with the Town. But I had a student who was seemingly a devotee of Ayn Rand and complained bitterly for weeks about being "forced" to do "free work" for the Town.

In point of fact, when it comes to writing a proposal or project, I don't let the theme interfere with a student, or group, that wants to write about something else. It is always my goal that students who really want to write about any particular thing should be supported in their aspirations. The whole point of my teaching is to liberate students to use the class to pursue their own interests, after all.


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