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Having grown up in suburban Melbourne, I was never socialised into the North American Thanksgiving culture, although I learned a lot about it subconsciously from watching countless feel-good Hollywood movies in which families would feast on roast turkey and pumpkin pie and the snow would be falling outside.

As much as Thanksgiving has become a commercialised holiday for many people – just like Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, and all the others – I think the spirit of the celebration is a worthwhile principle and that we should all take time to acknowledge the good things we are blessed with.

When I was little I was very shy at school and refused to speak to people when they said hello. The process of just making polite conversation petrified me and filled me with dread. Over the years, and especially since I started university, I’ve become a lot more talkative because I am often in situations where I have to talk to people in order to do my job – like conferences, seminars, lectures, meetings and lab tours.

I get to my office each morning earlier than anyone else. If I can make it, I’m usually at my desk by 8am – often earlier. There are no academics around in the early morning, no postdocs, no teaching staff. The early morning is a time when the university is populated by ‘invisible’ people. People like cleaners, security staff, maintenance personnel. People who don’t really exist because none of the ‘real’ inhabitants of the university see them during regular working hours.

When I walk onto the campus in the morning I say good morning to the security guard at reception. I say good morning to the cleaner guy in the baseball cap who mops the entrance. I say good morning to the fire marshall who walks around testing the fire alarms, and to the cleaner women who push wheelie bins through my building, and to the guy who changes the bin liners in my office. I say good morning to all the invisible people I see.

This morning I said good morning to the security guard at reception. Usually, he says good morning back and asks me how I am. Then he opens the automatic gate for me to walk through, to save me having to fish out my swipecard. This morning he did these things too. But he said something else. He said he appreciated that I took time to say good morning each day and acknowledge him and that it was a nice change from the staff who trudge past without even looking. Then he walked away.

I just stood there for a minute, speechless.

It’s amazing what experiences you can have at odd times, when you’re least expecting it, at times when it’s quiet and other people are not there and the people who are there feel more at ease to tell you what’s on their minds. Invisible people, who are never seen by so many of us.

I have been amazed at this encounter all morning and it has caused me to think a lot. I am amazed that the simple gesture of saying good morning to this man each day has caused him to make such an interesting, thought-provoking comment to me.

I am thankful that I have been able to be nice to staff at my university who are never seen by the majority.

I am thankful that I have had a great opportunity to access education to the highest levels and to have been supported by the kindness and generosity of my family.

I am thankful for my friends in Melbourne and elsewhere across the world for their good humour and companionship.

I am thankful that I am in good health and that I am on track to finishing my PhD.

I am thankful to people who read my blog for hearing what I have to say and I hope some of it might strike them as useful, interesting, or maybe even funny.

…What are you thankful for?

Esperanto’s my last resort!

The external examiner saga continues. My supervisor finally arrived back from an emergency trip overseas, and, upon looking up the background information I’d sent her last week, declared the external I’d suggested to be “The One”.

Yes. The One.

She’s not a psychologist, not even a scientist, and yet, she’s The One.

It’s all getting a bit dramatic now.

Anyway, my other supervisor has now sent a formal invitation to the professor and we’re waiting for a response. She only sent it yesterday afternoon but I’ve found it’s constantly been popping in and out of my mind, wondering whether she’s read it yet, what she might think when she reads it, how she’s going to respond. It feels hard to concentrate on what I should actually be doing, which is finishing off yesterday’s lecture slides, going to a meeting with a colleague I’m supposed to be lecturing for, and getting a move on with my data collection.

I’m afraid it’s going to be a huge hit to my academic ego to get another examiner rejection, so I’m really hoping this professor will accept. The again, if she declines, I’ll be launched into another bout of rampant searching and mental chaos until my supervisors and I can decide on an alternative. And that’s even though we already have alternatives!

 

I spent the weekend preparing slides for a lecture I’m giving to a group of undergrads in a few weeks’ time.

I, the supposed-to-be-submitting-in-May PhD candidate.

Over the years, the more immersed I’ve become in my very narrow, very specific area of research, the more complex my understanding of the world has become, and the less I am now able to see the world in simple (or simplistic?) terms. Where, as an undergraduate, people, places, events seemed reasonably clear to me in what they were, now I always seem to be saying “but only if”, “based on the assumption”, “may have a different perspective”, “if we hypothesise”, “insufficient evidence to suggest”, “need further research” and “remains an open question”.

Even about things like what the weather’s going to be like today.

I’ve forgotten how to think like a lay person. Science has taken over my thoughts. I can’t resist the logic, the rationality, the stoic procedural calmness of thinking like a scientist.

So it’s not surprising that I find it difficult – infuriating, even – to write lecture material for an undergrad cohort mostly newly out of high school and unaware of the basic things many of us academics would expect they ought to be aware of. At an undergraduate statistics tutorial last year I only just managed to hide my incredulity at a student who didn’t know how to round numbers to two decimal places when the purpose of the tutorial was to construct a simple 2D correlation matrix using output from statistical software.

“So when you’ve got 0.972, you look at the 2 and then what?” she asked. I stared for a second, unsure if she was serious or joking.

“Then because the 2 is a number 4 or under, you leave the 7 as it is, and your answer is 0.97,” I said.

I thought that would address her confusion, but a while later the same student called me over again and this time asked me what to do if the third decimal place was a number 5 or over.

Honestly, I remember learning about decimal numbers in 6th grade. At primary school. Where have these students been all their lives? What do schools teach them these days? And I’m not even that old – in fact, most of the students I teach are just about my age, in their early twenties. It’s not like I was educated in a different era.

So, in what should theoretically be a straightforward research methods lecture, I have, deliberately, included words like “paradigm”, “constructivist” and “empirical” and suggested reading original articles dating to the 1960s. In short, I’ve included material that, in comparison to the relatively ‘soft’ lectures other staff seem to give, will shock and repulse many undergrads and fill them with the horror of actually having to look up an article themselves and read it in all its 1960s snobby white upper middle class style of English. And, imagine them being forced to look up “paradigm” in the dictionary! Oh, the torture!

So what do we conclude? Am I a bad lecturer for raising the level of complexity in my material even when I know many students won’t be able to understand it completely without, shock horror, doing extra reading, researching, or investigating? Or is the system to blame for so many of the students coming to university without knowing how to round decimal numbers, write essays, or address lecturers respectfully? Or, conversely, are all undergraduates at a degree of understanding that is somehow ideal, and instead I’m the one who’s gone nuts because my PhD has made me far too scientifically knowledgeable?

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The Final Countdown

Submission of PhD ThesisMay 1st, 2013
The big day is here. Joy to the world!