When lecturers are in a rush…

On the way to a meeting, I watched my student struggled with her work from outside the lab. I walked in to help her anyway, although there’s only two minutes left. I was hoping it was one of those simple ones solvable in two minutes.

“Why can’t the XAML display the video?” my student asked.

I thought for a while.

“Well, the answer is 42,” I replied

Her friends stared at me. So did my student.

“Why?”

“Because it is the answer to life, universe and everything.”

 

With one minute left, I told her this story:

“It was said that in the far end of the universe, there live a species of hyper-intellegent pan-dimensional beings…”

Afternote: When I visited the lab to make up for it, she was searching for the answer to life, universe and everything on the web

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Why I Thank My Students

“If there are no questions, I want to thank you for your time and your attention today.”

~Flex Tio~

That’s almost a common statement I’ll say at the end of every lecture. Just as common were questions like these:

  • Why do you, a lecturer, have to do that?
  • Are you just paying lip service? After all, students tend to lose their focus through lectures and yet, you thank them for being attentive when they are not. How does that work out?
  • Shouldn’t students thank you instead?

What’s so great? They ought to be in class ain’t them?

 

Of course it is!

My students probably have to wake up at 5.30 to 6.30 am (that’s really early by Singapore standards, you can think of it as 4.30 to 5.30 am in almost all other time zones, when the sky is still dark during spring) to meet the 8.00 am class.

Some of them have lectures over lunch hour. I couldn’t help but feel hungry too.

I’m not exactly an interesting lecturer either. I’m probably more intimidating than anything. I like to call upon them to answer questions.

 

They could have easily marked their attendance and leave the class. A few did so, I know.

They could have chatted all the way.

They could have slept all the way.

For lectures nearing lunch, they could have miss it entirely and gone for lunch.

They didn’t of course. Most will have their moments of attentiveness and engagement.

*****

I was a student too. I’m really not that perfect attentive student either. For me, the main reason for that is I tend to read my notes forward by a few slides. By the time my lecturer got there, I sort of got it. At least I think I did.

So instead, I act attentive: I doodle a lot on my lecture notes when I’m not listening to class:

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I might be playing MapleStory behind my laptop in the back row.

I’m also really one of the pioneers in using cameras to take lecture notes and these were the days where camera phones are still considered a controversial invention. So while my friends are busy copying notes, I have extra time on my hands to do… well… nothing.

*****

So… ya. If a lecturer has no students attending his class or listening to his class, would he still be a lecturer? I’m pretty much am a lecturer because my students thinks that I’m worth listening to.

Don’t you think I should thank them for that bit of affirmation?

GREAT expectations (Part II)

Previously, I’ve written a post about how I thought it was important for students to be able to make their own decisions when they are completing their capstone projects.

The other thing which I expect young adults (ie. students) who are stepping into the job market is to hone the ability to speak their own contributions.

Speak Your Contributions

The first thing many people thought when I invited them to speak their contributions was that they felt it was boasting and it wasn’t being humble. I’m into my six year with the civil service and now public service, and I came to realise that the ability to speak your contributions, and be seen, is extremely crucial when it comes to promotion.

I am NOT saying that one should boast about his/her contributions.

I am NOT saying that one should lie about his/her contributions.

I am just saying that one should be proud that he/she made contributions and should know how to speak about them.

After all, you are the person who has done the work. Why should one need to hide about how he/she has contributed to the ultimate objectives of the organisation?

Be proud!

 

*****

Of course, a self-appraisal is not an easy thing to write about as well. Sometimes, it is also not an easy thing to say it out. Especially for those who held on to the Asian mentality of being humble tightly, although I would say this is probably attributed to a misinterpretation of the Asian values.

Even today, I often struggle to write an appraisal about myself. Personally, I struggled with two main aspects of an appraisal: (1) writing about “plans” and “ideas” types of contributions, and (2) framing contributions in the way where it aligns with your organisation’s mission.

To many people, plans and ideas are not contributions at all. Most of these are things which are waiting to be done and to them no contributions has been made at that stage. I can agree to the line of argument to some extent but I also feel that certain ideas could be contributions as well.

Sometimes, what I’ll do is to make my plans and ideas into a proposal. A proposal is a type of deliverable and deliverable, on the other hand, are contributions. Of course, it is really easier said than done. You can’t just push a proposal into your boss’s hands when it is not required in the first place.

As for framing contributions, I would say that this is a matter of the experience you had in your company. Or at least that is all I can think of at the moment.

*****

How about for students? I thought there they had a different set of challenges:

 

Being Concise and Detail

I know that most of them are still not concise and detail enough about their contributions. It is often in such details that we knew that the students knew their work.

Using Positive Words

The unfortunate thing is that “the truth” can hurt hence this would be another important skill for them to master, choosing positive words especially when there is a need to deliver bad news. The aim is not to use positive words to wank your way through. The aim is to use them to soften the impact of delivering not so great results so that people will continue to listen to what you have to say.

*****

This is probably just the tip of an iceberg. I’ll probably need more experience to tell my students more concrete methods on how to frame their contributions. In the meanwhile, guess this will have to do.

GREAT expectations (Part I)

Among the things I need to do as a lecturer of a community college, one of the things I really enjoy doing is coaching Final Year Project students. Lecturers are supposed to be supervisors to the students, but I view myself as a coach. This is where the magic happens, where I can go in depth with students, almost on a one on one basis.

My students often complain that my expectations are too high but personally, I think my standards are comparatively low. Note the pretext though: I do not treat my students as students. I treat my students as working adults on their first job. And I always tell them that I impose an even harder standard on myself, if that is any comfort at all.

So what are the expectations I have for an adult? Well, there are a few which I insist for them to do. And I’ll just talk about one of it today.

Make Your Own Decisions

Singapore is a very tough society to survive. From a ruling described as “draconian” by many around the world breeds an entire generation of people who are “kiasi“, a local term which literally means “afraid to die” but I think what this really means is being afraid to take ownership. In fact, I believe many people may find making wrong decisions and having to bear the consequences more fearful than dying. This make sense at least to me: we have heard too many stories of people committing suicide as they couldn’t bear the weight of what they have done.

This culture of being afraid to take ownership, I thought, results in three main categories of people: (1) people who often look for justifications for their decisions, (2) people who push the decision making to other people and blame them when things go wrong, and (3) people who are in indecision.

I am advocating for a variant to the first type. Instead of looking for justifications, which felt like trying to cover up for mistakes, I’m advocating for my students to think things through carefully, look for reasons that support and give confidence to make decisions.

I make my students think through every decision they make in their project. They have to bear the responsibilities of the decisions they make. But I also need to give them the confidence to make decisions. This is where they need to practice critical thinking skills, searching for suitable reasons for the decisions they made.

With that been said, it doesn’t mean I free myself from responsibility. I, too, as their coach, I will take ownership of the wrong decisions they made. I’m not sure if students know this (but I know some of them will because they said they are reading my blog) but managers will also come down hard on the lecturers if we are not doing enough to support the students in their work.

*****

So here is the big contradiction:

I cannot tell my students what they need to do if I need them to make their own decisions. And this is so for major decisions as well. That may not seem like sufficient support, or at least I felt that I’m doing less when compared to the rest of the lecturers.

But what I do give, is, guiding them on a possible thinking process. They come up with a decision, and I’ll refute their decisions with my arguments. If they decided to go with my line of thoughts, I’ll refute my own arguments again. And again. Until they are able to acquire a comprehensive set of reasoning that will help to support the decisions they made.

Lastly, I still wouldn’t make any decisions for them, they have to do it themselves. I found that at the end for their project, it will usually improve their comfort and confidence level in making decisions.

This is a time consuming process. I’m taking a huge risk that they may fail, which means that I too, have failed.

*****

I don’t think the Singapore society should have another generation of kiasi people. They just need to be able to think things through, make a decision, get the confidence and just do it, just like Nike.

my FIRST written test

This is my first time I am setting a written test. It is a 1.5 hours common test. My school calls it a common test, I call it an examination. Whatever the name, it’s a written test.

Many students came in late for this test (as usual). Little did they know that this test was designed to be long, with only the best students who came on time, be able to finish just in time. So they will be paying back by being late.

This test was also not the “conventional” by polytechnic (equivalent to community college in the States) standards. It really tested their understanding and application to the core. I tried not to make them regurgitate too many facts, except for one question, meant to be a question for them to score.

*****

I must admit, I faced a vulnerability issue while waiting for them, who were about 20 minutes late. I became very self-aware and not confident of myself…

“Did they give up?”

“Did they decided to boycott my common test?”

My face puts on a mask of arrogance and defiance while staring at the many empty seats in the examination hall.

Of course, I was wrong and all of them did turn up, and most of them put up a good fight. It was them and the pen against the paper.

“You got to write something at least…”. That was my advice to them during the last lecture two weeks ago. And they did try their best.

Last 20 minutes, My best students are struggling to finish the test. They know their stuff and they have been writing non-stop. The rest? They too have not given up. They take more time to think but they are writing, correct answers or wrong answers they do not know but they tried their best.

Deep in my heart, I was cheering for them.

“Fight on, fight on, you can do it.”

In fact, it probably showed up all over the face at that time.

*****

7 out of 40 students left early. Those were probably the ones whom gave up. The rest stayed on till the end. And of course, there were a few of my students who stayed even later to chat with me:

“Be lenient in your marking, please?”

Putting their tension aside, they left to enjoy the extra long weekend and holidays!

As for me, my work does not end here. I’ll have to mark this stack of paper:

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the retreat

IMG_20121002_190444This is the running track at my school. I jog here almost every other morning, feeling more “demoralised” each time as I watch my fitness level dwindled away with my age.

But hey, it could have been worse. I could have slacked off and grow fat.

*****

The day before, I brought my two project students here for a chat. It was about 2pm then but the day wasn’t hot. It was sort of cloudy and windy, with a few students on the track training. There was also the irritating grass cutting vehicle making its rounds round the soccer pitch.

My students were going through a very tough phase in their projects. They were recommended to call outsiders, to ask for the chance to be  interviewed so that they could gather more facts and evidences for their project. From what my manager said, this has never being done before. They were getting panicky about the assignment. They recognised that it will be good for them to pick up this suggestion that was given to them, but they have no idea how to overcome this task which seemed ever so huge for them.

Just a sidetrack, I must say, my school is pretty hard on final year project students. They are trapped in a laboratory from 8.30am to 6pm everyday. They are given two tea breaks, 20 minutes each and at a specific timeslot, as well as an hour long lunch. The timeslots were there to facilitate lecturers, so that they may visit their students at any timing outside their breaks to perform their little magic for their students.

To me, this stifles creativity. Being too long in the lab stifles creativity. Discussions in the lab are without passion, as cold as the air cooled by the central cooling system.

*****

“In many companies, departments hold retreats. They may book a chalet outside the office just to discuss about work the entire day. We will have our retreat at the stadium today, for about an hour,” I told my students. After all, I’m the lecturer who never fails to link everything to the working world.

In that session, we discussed about our feelings to the project they have to undertake. We discuss about what they felt good about it, and what they felt uncomfortable about it. There is no blame game, no judgement cast. Only honesty, openness and vulnerability were to be found in the discussion.

I spend some time talking about what makes me uncomfortable, and the engineer’s way of doing things, which is to pick a big problem, dissect it into manageable pieces and tackle it bit by bit. We spend time analysing how I might have tackled the project myself, seeking their constant inputs on how they might have done it differently.

*****

When our discussion ended. The grass cutting vehicle stopped. We could only hear the breeze blowing, the birds tweeting and the distant traffic humming away.

“Strange, I really think differently in this environment,” one of my students quipped. “I really feel that this task is more achievable now~”.

Personally, I was quite drained at that time. But I felt greatly satisfied.