Thursday, October 22, 2009

How to Actually Help the Undergraduate Program

It's interesting what types of cuts our university is willing to make in order to keep the quality of the undergraduate education. Obviously education is the goal, and when you have over 25K undergraduate students they are also the priority to some extent, even in a research focused university. However, one of the cuts the university makes in order to maintain the apparent quality of undergraduate education (i.e., keep from increasing tuition even more or cutting too many classes) is to decrease the funding given to departments for Teaching Assistantships for graduate students.

I can't imagine I'm the first person to consider that this can't possibly keep the same level of education, when students suddenly have fewer TA office hours to attend, and fewer TAs (and therefore less TA time) to answer e-mail or grade homeworks. This is why I say it is keeping an "apparent" quality of undergraduate education, even if it's not really keeping actual quality. As the sole TA for a class of 40+ students, I can say from just a few months of experience that this definitely impacts the undergraduate students. Luckily we were able to hire another graduate student as a grader for 10 hrs/wk, so I have more time to tend to the students' questions, design their homeworks, and put together the lectures I'll be teaching. But I still don't have enough hours in the week to help them. I can't imagine what TAs do when they aren't lucky enough to have just one other person to help with grading! Even spending the 20 hrs/wk I'm technically paid for isn't really enough. I enjoy what I'm doing, and don't want fewer responsibilities; but I'm really overworked, which is NOT good for my students!!

I wish this cycle was more apparent to the upper level "management" of the university. If you want good undergraduate education, pay your graduate students! We do more than research, and we're often a great resource for students. When there is 1 TA to 40 students, the number of minutes they can spend helping each student is minuscule. How does that keep the quality of undergraduate education?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New England Heating Oddities

The process of heating your house is definitely different between New England and Virginia. This of course is not too surprising, given the colder climate up here. But what I really find interesting is the varied types of heating. In Virginia, almost everyone I knew either used electric heat or a wood stove. Up here in Massachusetts I've had electric heat, oil heat, and now gas heat.

Supposedly gas heat is really cheap, so I'm a bit excited to see if our energy bills go down now that we aren't on oil heat. Apparently it was very expensive a year or two ago though, so I have to cross my fingers that prices won't go up again. The gas heater is really weird though; there's a heater in our living room that is permanently attached, but still is essentially a piece of furniture on one wall. It's supposed to heat the entire house, but it seems like it will just make the living room too hot to bear, and the rest of the house not hot enough. We also have electric heating in the floors that we can turn on (a separate thermostat for each room!!), which is supposed to supplement the gas heat. It will probably take a few weeks of actual use to really find the right process for making this combination work well without a lot of wasted energy. So far the house seems to keep rather warm (thank you, south facing windows and brick exterior!), so I'm hopeful that we won't need to use as much heat as we needed to keep the old rickety house warm. But the idea of having this big heater running while we're not home is not so appealing.

The other confusing part of the gas heat is that there is no real thermostat on it. we can't, say, set the temperature to "60" and then just let it decide to run. You set it on a scale of "low" to "high" and as far as I can tell it continuously runs at whatever point it's put at. The electric heat has actual thermostats, but would require setting them in every room, and is supposedly more expensive to use than the gas heat. I hope we are able to figure out the right algorithm for making this all work out correctly!

This is all on my mind because tonight is our first night it will be below freezing, so I will probably have to turn the heat on. I'm hoping to figure out a way to just keep it around 60 to 65 though!


I enjoy a wide range of hobbies, which can be very difficult sometimes with how much time I spend on work. It also doesn't help that I spend lots of free time with friends! Not that I'm complaining about that!

So, often my crafts go untouched for too long, and then suddenly I get inspired to work on them again and get tons done very quickly (and then don't touch it again for many many months). This has been happening as of late: I haven't worked on my scrapbooks since March or April, the cross-stitch I was planning to start in February didn't even get purchased until July (or was it August?), and the yarn box hasn't been touched since the main parts were finished in April or May. As you can see, the summer was not very productive on the hobby side of things; not only did we have softball games and a million weddings to take our time, I also had my thesis proposal.

Now, however, I have finally started crafting again! It's very nice to again make something without the use of a computer. I'd say it helps my eyes, but I think starting at small boxes and stitching on them isn't so eye-strain-free. The exciting thing though is that I've stitched at least an hour every day for the past week, and I'm making OK progress! I'm not sure I can keep up the pace of having an hour every night, but most nights I need an hour to myself which ends up involving the TV, so I am hopeful it will work out since cross-stitch and TV watching work well as a multi-tasking duo. The goal is to finish before Christmas (this is a strict deadline, actually), since it will be a Christmas present.

Some of you may remember the cross-stitch I was working on 2 years ago for my first niece Evelyn, pictured above. I didn't completely finish it before Christmas, but gave it as a gift anyway and then took it back to finish it before I had to head back to New England. This year, however, I plan to have my newest niece's cross-stitch finished before then! The first cross-stitch was top secret so I didn't mention it much here, but since I already started the trend, I don't think I can really make the second one a surprise to any adult in the I think I'm free to blog away!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Politeness or Professionalism Classes: Required?

Now that I'm actively involved in undergraduate courses, I've noticed a disturbing trend among students: unprofessional e-mails, inability to remember deadlines, not paying attention in class, and a lack of time management. Even graduate students have been prone to another problem: inappropriate types of question asking during presentations and class (the overbearing, you're wrong and I'm right, type of "question" that is really a statement and is usually incorrect).

I feel that college is the best place to either learn about professional and appropriate behavior or to improve one's behavior even more, so that upon graduation it will possible to interact correctly in any work environment including graduate school. So why do we not require students to take a professionalism class? I was lucky in that my university (Virginia Tech) required computer science students to take a professionalism seminar their junior or senior year, but I have since discovered that is not normal. We not only discussed and practiced interactions and professional writing, but also had panels related to ethics and the social impact of computing. I don't think this class was done perfectly (for one thing, anyone who did internships could have used it much earlier in the curriculum), but at least it was there to prepare students. Other computer science departments should really consider this type of class as well!

We do have professionalism seminars that happen a few times a semester at my current university, but they only cover a few topics, are the same every year, and are more geared toward applications and research methods for graduate students. This is great, but the undergraduates really need more guidance!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Teaching Assistant Life

So, I'm finally living the life of a graduate teaching assistant. I was a teaching assistant as an undergraduate, but had not yet been one as a grad student. It's actually great, because my responsibilities are much higher level than they were as an undergraduate.

It could have been a horrible TA semester though; there are 42 people in the class and I'm the only TA. Can you imagine the grading? I can, since I graded as an undergraduate. But as an undergraduate we had multiple people grading for that same size class! It would have been horrible. Luckily, another graduate student is getting paid to grade 10 hrs/wk, so I have little to no grading to do.

That means I have more time for the more interesting aspects of being a TA! I am creating the homeworks, I'll create the midterm, and I might even create the final. I also had to create the answer keys, which were a decent amount of work themselves, but at least mostly done in the creation of the homework (I don't want to give impossible problems!). I'm also giving multiple lectures, with the first one being next week. Unfortunately that lecture is on a topic I'm not particularly comfortable with, but I know I can ramp up in time to teach it. The series of lectures I'm giving later in the semester will at least be things I know relatively well already.

Happily, I'm getting lots of great experience this semester. Sadly, it is time consuming even when I'm not doing the 20 hrs/wk I'm paid for! Just a little bit of a peek into the life of faculty, I think.