Don’t Talk So Good, Not Dumb.

By N. Zelt

Ever speak with someone and not understand a single word they say to you? Then their incomprehensibility leaves you feeling like an idiot, and the other person treating you like one.  Trouble communicating is a failure of both parties, not just the confused one.

Being a student at McGill gives me countless opportunities to interact with people from a plethora of diverse backgrounds. And while English may be an official language in many countries, only a little more than 5% of the global population actually speaks it. Even fewer than that speak English as their native tongue. The result: there is no small number of people in this world who don’t speak English, or don’t speak English well. That’s not even considering that we live in Quebec, where 80% of the population are Francophones. (more…)

What can the Undergrads teach you?

Instagram @gradlifemcgill Photo by @kipunsam.daily

Being a teacher’s assistant (TA) can be hard work. As a TA you’re a font of knowledge, the solution to their problems and the keeper of their GPA. You’re also figuring out things as you go, putting out fires as they happen (hopefully figuratively!) and generally trying to keep up the aura of authority. So whether you are lecturing in a seminar, running tutorials or supervising a lab, like me, it’s as much as learning experience as a teaching experience.

So what have my students taught me? Well, I think you learn different things depending on what kind of teaching you are doing. Fannie described her experience leading seminars and I can only speak to my experience as a TA for a lab course, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned. (more…)

Goodbye, students from my conferences!

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @kipunsam.daily

Instagram @gradlifemcgill // photo by @kipunsam.daily

For the second time in my life, I was a TA. For 10 weeks, I had to read the assign articles and books of a class and prepare questions in order for students to discuss in the conferences.

Last year I wanted to die because I didn’t even know what conferences were supposed to be (I never had that kind of activities at the University of Montreal), and I had to entertain twenty young students in English.

This year, I was more comfortable. Still stressed, but less. Ouf!

I met incredible students, opened to the world, expert-to-be in their own field, nice and funny. Some were really helpful, correcting my English pronunciation or translating for me. Some encouraged me by their smile. It was really, at least I hope, a multidirectional exchange of knowledge.

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Conferences & Conferences…

 

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

Photo by a tiny conference organizer (Paolo Saporito)

In any language of this world, Graduate Life’s translation could easily be “Conferences”. Conferences here, conferences there, doesn’t matter who you fero cum or you want to confer (for those of you who understand Latin)…this is a word whose echo stressed, stresses and will stress most of our readers. Then, if you are one of those who have ever wondered “confer…hence?”, you may want to have a look at this post, where I’m going to share with you the amazing experience of being not a speaker, not a presenter, not a panel spectator who struggles to get more free-food than the others, but a conference organizer, the most grey, banal, yet amazing figure in this world of weird translations.

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Teaching at CEGEPs: How to apply and what to expect

For those who are completing a master’s degree, a PhD, or a Post doc, and are passionate about teaching, working at a CEGEP might be a viable career strategy.

Going to CEGEP is a rite of passage for Quebec students hoping to go to universities in Quebec before the age of 21. Established in 1969, these institutions were designed to make post-secondary education more accessible, and to prepare Quebec students for university.  But as someone who experienced it first hand, I can tell you that completing a DEC at a CEGEP means more than the equivalent of your last year of high school and your first year of university.

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Are you ready for the MOOCs?

edx is the platform chosen by McGill

Academic courses being offered online are not new. In the early 2000s it was already possible to find videos of full courses online from top universities. Over time, the offer grew and the number of channels too. From decentralized repositories, we had iTunes U, YouTube EDU and others. But a recent phenomenon is taking shape under the name of MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses.

Recently McGill has partnered with edx to start offering MOOCs in 2014. The two other major platforms today are coursera and udacity. As a member of my faculty Teaching and Learning Committee, yesterday I attended a discussion about the topic and I was amazed about how little we know about it.

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Undergraduate “advising”

Sometimes, being a grad student means that you are perceived by undergrads as being something like A Person With Knowledge and Authority. They assume that you’re someone who has seen things and done stuff and, rightly or wrongly, that you might be more approachable (or perhaps simply “safer”) than a professor if they’ve got something they need to get off their chest.

So, every now and then, an undergrad lingers at the end of class or finds me in my lab, not to talk about their course work, but to chat more generally about their schooling, their interests, and the next steps they’re considering in their academic careers.  Sometimes my role is simply that of a sympathetic ear (“I have no clue why I’m here or what I’m doing with my life.”); sometimes it’s that of someone with experience (“What things did you do to help you get into grad school?” “What’s it like working with so-and-so?”); and other times it’s that of an advice-offerer (“What should I be looking for in a future advisor/job opportunity/grad program?” “How can I make my resume better?”)

I’m always flattered when I’m approached by these students, but I’m also always hyper-aware that they’re likely actually LISTENING to what I tell them, so I have to choose my words carefully and be certain that they understand that THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE IS THE OPINION OF ONE GRAD STUDENT ONLY, AND DOES NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF OTHER, BETTER, SANER, MORE EXPERIENCED PEOPLE.

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Does teaching matter?

I’ve written about teaching already this year, and I find myself writing about it again now, in the hopes of getting some opinions from other grad students.

I’ve been the teaching assistant for a lab the past few years. When the powers that be restructured the lab in a major way last year, I made some fairly significant contributions to its new format, in terms of the material being taught and how it was presented. I am tweaking things even more this term, based on feedback from last year’s students and on some new pedagogical approaches I’ve learned.

I think that the current labs are definitely better but not best, and would really benefit from a thoughtful and thorough revision and updating. So I got this idea that I would approach the chair of our department and offer my (paid) services to do the work, perhaps over the summer since my field component won’t be so heavy this year. Not knowing whether this was even remotely feasible, I went and spoke to my advisor and told him my idea.

I mostly expected him to say: “It’s not really appropriate for a student to take on that kind of role,” and I would have accepted that. If that didn’t happen, the alternative I’d imagined was something like, “Cool. This would be a great course development/teaching experience. Approach the chair and check it out, but make sure you’re still getting your research/publications done in a timely way,” which I would have perceived as both awesome and perfectly reasonable.

But what I heard, and what surprised me, was this: “No one reading your CV is going to care about something like that. It’s not a good use of your time. Write and publish papers. That’s really all that matters.***”

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Giving back by speaking out!

O hai, terrifically neglected blog and blog-readers! I totally got sucked into that weird swirly vortex of work/rest/procrastination that sometimes happens over the winter break (you grad students know the one I mean), then suddenly found myself back in action at school (including teaching three days a week) and I am just now getting my spinning head above water again. Phew! Anyways, I’m back now.

The start of this new term was marked by my latest presentation. I didn’t give this talk at a conference, nor at a departmental seminar or even for a grad course. No, this talk was given to a special interest group called the Arctic Circle – a group of people with experience working in the Arctic and/or who are simply interested in what goes on in Canada’s northerly latitudes. I had been invited to speak about my research on beetles from Nunavut and the program of which I’m a part (www.northernbiodiversity.com).

Now, consider this:

The audience members were not people in my field. The networking opportunities were therefore not ideal and it was unlikely that I would get the chance to schmooze with any potential future advisers or employers. I did not get paid.  This was not an academic event. There was no press coverage. There wasn’t even any free swag or food.

So why on earth would I spend hours carefully preparing slides and rehearsing? What was in it for me?

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Teaching: it’s not a paycheck, it’s a responsibility

Me (left), sorting through aquatic arthropod specimens with some ecology students at Lac-Saint-Louis

I’ve been extremely fortunate to be a teaching assistant throughout my graduate career, both as a Master’s student and here at McGill where I have been leading introductory zoology (Organisms II) and ecology (St Lawrence Ecosystems) labs.

Teaching – working with, supporting, and learning from students – is something I love to do.It’s a big part of the reason I decided to quit my old desk job and pursue an academic career. I get a real kick out of seeing students get excited about course content, watching them have “aha!” moments when a new concept finally clicks, or hearing them say, “thanks for your help”. (more…)

On liminality… and what feels like the longest rite of passage. Ever.

Illustration by Aline Fouard

There is something contagious about the frenzy that is “back to school.” And when I say contagious, I mean it in a germy, plague-like, I-don’t-know-where-I-caught-it kind of way. It’s frantic and stressful and every year it manages to derail the carefully planned timeline I have for progressing through my program.

I should clarify that for me, the September frenzy has less to do with surviving the various froshy going-ons on campus, and more to do with organizing my eight year-old son’s entrance into grade three. Thus, for the past two weeks I seem to have done nothing but fill out forms, buy ridiculous amounts of HB pencils and glue sticks, and cope with the after-effects (exhaustion and crankiness) of adjusting to classroom rules after two months of freedom outside at the pool. (more…)

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