My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Category: Uncategorized

Further tales from the Practical Lab

So it’s Sunday, I’m rocking out to music by Miracle of Sound, let’s do a blog post!

Now that I’m back into demonstrating for the new year I thought I’d return to my previous format of “tales from…”; thoughts on teaching undergrads and the like.

As usual I will name no names nor give identifiers to any individuals, in fact this time some of the ‘students’ will be more pastiches of several rather than individuals.

 

Essays

This bit is going to be addressed to a hypothetical student:

You may have heard it said that all writing is rewriting. If not:

Oi! You! ALL WRITING IS REWRITING!!!

Seriously, those four words right there needs to be tattooed onto the inside of every student’s eyelids. Yes, even yours hypothetical student, even yours. All too often people who have to communicate their thoughts and ideas through the medium of words get paralysed by starting because they worry that what they put down will be rubbish or not what they meant at all. I still get those days but I try to combat that paralysis.

There is only one person I know of in history who wrote one draft of something and that was Coleridge, and even then he got half way through, went to answer the door and forgot the rest of the poem. (Kubla Khan is the poem if you’re interested). The rest of us take a good few attempts. (Fun fact, this blog post is edited, I put in this text in brackets upon re-reading, I am actually speaking to you from the future compared to the sentences around this one. Oh, spooky!) And just think, when I was at school I had wrote nearly all my essays pre-A level by hand not on a computer!

So repeat after me:

“I give myself permission to suck.
All writing is rewriting,
So I give myself permission to suck.
I can do a second draft so this time
I give myself permission to suck.”

when gotham is in ashes.png

If you need some more help here’s a couple of resources from a poet and an author. There is very little difference between writing academically and creatively, you are both communicating ideas to an audience:

Lauren Zuniga: http://www.laurenzuniga.com/new-blog/2015/5/19/4-steps-to-getting-the-poems-out-of-your-throat
Maureen Johnston: https://youtu.be/Nyhv80HDSj4

 

“Can you just tell us the answer?”

This is actually more  of a rare refrain than most would think… but it happens. I will resist voicing my opinions on the current state of High School education that leads to tracks of students being taught to test with little space for critical thinking and personal learning for the sake of league tables even though many children still leave without a grasp of basic reading, writing and maths and…

hades

*Ahem*, Anyway,
We all have moments where we just want to just be told the answer. From the big problems (what should I do with my life after school/university/this job) to the little problems (picking a film to watch for a movie night with pals). And yes, there are situations where deferring the issue is actually the right thing to do, especially in relationships where compromise and meeting people half way is needed.

But a degree is not just a fancy piece of paper, it represents that you possess the knowledge and skills expected of someone holding your degree title (this is why plagiarism is such a big deal, to get away with it is to commit fraud but possessing a qualification you did not earn).
Now some of these skills you learn can be very general and/or abstract (essay writing and problem solving come to mind) but knowledge has to be committed to memory. And in the case of classroom based geology, which I am a demonstrator for, the knowledge is learning how to deduce what a mineral or rock based on a series of physical tests and deductions.

My students often get annoyed that when they ask me “is this X?” my response is “Why do you say that?”. But the reason is the answer is actually immaterial unless you go through the process that leads to the answer. Or to put it a more wordy way, it’s the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning.

Software blues

Are you sitting comfortably everyone? Then we’ll begin:
As part of my 3rd year dissertation I had to write up the analysis and discussion of the fieldwork I had performed over the summer holidays. This also included making a geological map from scratch. Oh, and we had just one term to do this in. To assist in this task we were recommended a few pieces of software to make our map. I used Inkscape because it was free and with a bit of jiggery-pokery it worked ok on my laptop. (I highly recommend it if you want a figure making program and don’t want to buy Photoshop).

Everything I know about Inkscape I learnt myself either by playing around until I got the results I wanted or looking up guides online. And I had to get on with it because of the aforementioned one term deadline. In fact, almost everything I know about any piece of software is via that method, playing around or looking things up. Only after I exhaust those avenues do I ask people (if there are people to ask!). One other thing, I never refuse the offer of being shown how to do something.

To summarise, to learn software you should:
Get on with it (and learn good time management as a result)
Playing around with the software
Accepting help when it’s handed to you

Those above things weren’t done by a student I had a run in with this week. Needless to say I wasn’t impressed (especially with the latter point although I suspect said student was probably a bit embarrassed about how little time they had spent with the software).

Last year I demonstrated on a Statistics class. I was a bit surprised by the lack of knowledge of using Excel. But again, almost everything I know about Excel I learnt myself using the above process (and then had to relearn in most cases because updated versions change things!)

You’d think that the proliferation of video gaming would give students the edge in intuiting a few things with software but apparently not. (Side note: I have actually witnessed someone use Makerware 3D who intuitively worked out the camera controls because they were the same as with The Sims. Transferable skills right there! It does happen!)

So those are some of my thoughts on student learning. Please direct all your rotten fruit in the opposite direction… thanks.

The author is a PhD student and was, as a result, a ridiculous goody two-shoes as an undergrad. A former lecturer of her’s did once tell her and her degree class the tale of how he turned up to an exam still drunk from the night before so there’s hope for everyone really! She also has video games on the brain because of listening to Miracle of Sound and the recent release of Fallout 4.

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Tips for the new academic AKA what I’ve learnt

A lot of people write “tips for the future generation” type posts and I am nothing if not willing to try a tested formula. But here are a few things I did, do, or forced myself to do as a new PhD student.

Smile

A bit touchy feely perhaps? Granted you don’t always feel like smiling and certainly I’m not suggesting hiding under a façade of cheer all the time. Instead think of it as sharing humanity. Chances are 90% of the people you meet in the first week you will forget the name of and some of those you may forget entirely. I make a concerted effort to smile as I pass members of staff in the corridors if only to be friendly. No one has ever gossiped or complained about someone who smiles and says hello in the corridor.

Acknowledge that you deserve your job

Impostor syndrome is common among academics, I’ve also heard it said that it’s worse for women (perhaps we have more fragile egos?) Sometimes you need to remind yourself that you are out of the grade pecking order of undergraduate, you are the best person for your PhD otherwise you wouldn’t have got the job. (For everyone else, read the above but replace PhD with job. You got your job because you were the best candidate).

9 to 5 is your friend

I always said (after a summer of doing paperwork filing full time) I never wanted an office job but I wouldn’t mind a job with an office. Working office hours suddenly gives you the luxury of weekends. This is a pro tip I picked up from a Durham friend of mine and he’s a fab geophysicist so who I am to argue?!

Be brave

When I came to Swansea I was several hours drive away from anyone I knew. I was staying in a hotel room near campus. I got invited to the monthly science café one evening when the only person I knew was my engineering supervisor and I only vaguely knew where the venue was. But I decided to be brave and I’m so glad I did because the next time an opportunity came up it was easier to be brave.

Outreach, volunteering and saying “yes”

Relating to “be brave” is saying yes. So agree to help out with an open day or an outreach event because you’ll be able to spend most of the time talking to genuinely interested (and interesting!) people about why you love your subject. And that’s a nice reminder once in a while! You also get to meet like-minded people for other departments or even the same department that you wouldn’t have interacted with before and if you’re new to the University one more friendly face around the place can be a boost.

Teach if you can

I always wanted to give demonstrating a go but even if you don’t think it will be your thing try it anyway. You might discover you really like it! Even if you don’t it reminds you of the key, basic concepts of your subject and cements them in your brain by forcing you to explain them clearly, step by step, to someone who is new to the subject.

An aside: A word of caution about the above three pointers; don’t take on too much, don’t let other things (that may be great fun) dominate your time and know that if you are busy you can indeed say “No”.

Be honest

Ok, one final, serious point. Chances are starting your PhD will be a big change. It will most likely take you away from family and friends and it will put pressures on you in all sorts of ways. If you’re struggling, for whatever reason, don’t struggle alone. Talk to someone, be it a friend, a family member or a third party like a chaplain, a doctor or even your supervisor. Bottling things up just hurts you and if you are new to the area the likelihood is no one will know your “backstory” so they won’t be able to infer from vague comments you make what’s up.
A hypothetical example: every student ever has uttered the words “I’m poor” or some variation on the same. If you are genuinely having financial troubles be explicit. Say “I am unable to pay my rent this month because I maxed out my overdraft after the washing machine broke, I booked the train home for Christmas and I had to pay the gas, electric and water bills for this quarter.” (A note: Universities have hardship funds for exactly that “oh my goodness everything has broken and it’s 3 weeks and five days until my next stipend payment comes in” situation).
As I mentioned in the very first section of this blog about smiling I said you shouldn’t feel the need to put on a façade. Everyone has off days and everyone expresses it differently. As long as your off day doesn’t turn into someone else’s off day because you took things out on them be honest about things. And drink tea, because tea always helps.

And finally, enjoy! You’re on the cutting edge of knowledge with the world of academic literature at your fingertips and three years to explore it!

Now do excuse me, I have an esoteric sedimentology textbook to get back to and it won’t continue to confuse me if I don’t read it!

Press release: Colour X-rays!

A new advancement in the field of x-ray microtomography created by the combining of photogrammatry and traditional computer aided tomography has been heralded today as the next breakthrough in X-ray science.

april fool's image

A colour x-ray of a kinder egg toy.

The work  was performed by the Joint Operation into K-edge Electromagnetic-radiation (JOKE). A spokesperson for JOKE commented, “we thought it would be a really cool thing to do… frankly I still don’t know how we got funding for this!”

Further aims of the lab will be to detect smell using x-rays and a collaboration with the Special Assembled Team for IrRational Experiments (SATIRE) to discover if x-rays can detect sarcasm.

More to follow.

This was written in the spirit of 1st April. For real work being done with X-rays, visit: https://johnstonlab.wordpress.com/

Obligatory International Woman’s Day post

International Woman’s Day, in the post-feminist west, must seem a bit redundant. When it feels like there’s a day for every cause and group you could be forgiven for thinking it’s overkill. However, in spite of my egalitarian feelings over positive favour of one sex over the other (in any form!), I think its a good way to think about the unique perspective that women have. Virtues that are not exclusive to women but that women may display or use more readily. Things like collaboration, a key virtue of science; compromise and empathy, vital for politics; creativity and insight, skills of the blue-sky thinker are displayed in the kind of women celebrated today.

It’s all very well for a collective pat on the back and declare that women’s agency has been won quite nicely thank you very much but it wouldn’t be the truth. Close to home we still see girls making the choice of young motherhood because, really, they had no choice at all. Professional and academic women having to be careful what they say less their employer or superior think they’re going to quit and/or go on maternity leave. Girls born in this country but with other cultural backgrounds (no I don’t exclusively mean one particular group) not in line with the cultural mainstream are not afforded the same opportunities as their brothers. But further afield these issues fade into the background.

Although it’s easy for us to wring our hands and say “oh we wouldn’t let that happen in our country” or feel great pangs of post-colonial guilt or be compelled to swoop in and be the saviour of the oppressed, none of these things are helpful. None of us who are where we are today got here by being infantalised. We got here because we had opportunities.

Today’s a good day for remembering some women have grabbed opportunities with both hands because they know the value of those chances. We, too, therefore shouldn’t be complacent and take the path of least resistance.

Also, many women haven’t had the chances we have had so we need to work as a whole planet to make sure those that don’t have those chances can get them. Simple things like education, food and health care that everyone needs are a start! Or to put it another way, their maybe a young girl in a Syrian refugee camp right now who, with a chance, might be the next great scientist or artist or, more importantly, anything that she wants to be.

E

P.S. I wrote this with good intentions (yeah, I know what the road to hell is paved with) so I hope it doesn’t get up anyone’s nose. If it did accidentally occur I in no way mean to belittle people’s personal experiences, we all have our own cross to bare.

Off-topic sci-fi. Star Wars EU novels.

Off topic post about Star Wars, just ‘cos.

It took me longer than I planned but I’ve finally finished the Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi saga.

In a way, I wish I’d finished it before Disney bought the rights to Star Wars because there’s a very real possibility that there will never be another Expanded Universe Star Wars novel again. It’s great that Disney is going to be publishing “in-universe” novels but, well, it’s just not the same. Speaking personally I’ve enjoyed the EU novels I’ve read, even the ones that contradict the later films e.g. The Thrawn Trilogy, even the ones that dragged on (Tatootine Ghost I’m looking at you), even the ones where I wasn’t quite sure what the heck was going on and why I should care (Planet of Twilight springs to mind, seriously, giant, evolved plague-spreading beetle? Something about Luke’s former girlfriend that I don’t quite known what was going on there… anyway, I digress).

Many, would, and have, dismissed the Expanded Universe as published fan fiction somewhat approved by Lucas Film. Speaking as a long time reader (and, for my sins, writer) of fan fiction the EU is not, NOT, N-O-T, not comparable to the likes of Fifty Shades of Twilight, I mean, Grey. Here’s why:

If you switched around the names, set the stories in another time or place, called the Force something else many of the books would be pretty good, and inventive to boot, fantasy novels.
Or, if you explained the Force through technology or human advancement (Homo Superior stylee) you could have some pretty interesting Sci-Fi.
Why? Because of the characters. Here’s one example.

Han Solo, besides the obvious being-played-by-Harrison-Ford reason, is one of my all time favourite fictional characters. Why? He’s a character with character. He’s a product of his life experiences. Cynical because he’s lost friends and family, cocksure because he’s survived enough times to die another day, loyal and caring because he knows how valuable the people he has left are, witty, cunning, decisive. He’s not a cypher or a Mary Sue or a blank slate, sure, everyone secretly wants to be with or be him cos actually we usually feel like Luke Skywalker most of the time not Han Solo.

Now to circle back to Fate of the Jedi. Non-fans of the EU would find it hard to get into. There’s layers upon layers of back story and several locations sometimes feel a bit like “hay, remember this place folks?! Great because it’s actually really important right now.” But once you get to know your Jaden Karrs from you Jaina Solos and your Kessels from you Nam Chorios’ there’s a flipping good story to be had. One involving Sith Meritocracies, mind bending demigod-like creatures, a father-son quest to find out the truth behind the cause of a Civil war, a gripping courtroom drama, philosophical musings on the nature of life, oh, and lightsabres, lots and lot of lightsabres.

And now I’m finished all that, in the knowledge that I’ve one book left chronologically (Crucible by Troy Denning), I should be satisfied with the ending of the last Fate of the Jedi book, Apocalypse, but I’m not. The ending of the main conflict is resolved and their is a happy ending or sorts but so much has now been left hanging I’m rather upset. There are characters who’s story arcs aren’t finished, a new quest that’s only just begun, a Jedi trapped on a distant planet, the looming threat of another fight and the very real possibility things might not be as final as they seemed. Gah!

In other news I’ve finished my lit review and Star Wars has been the thing keeping me somewhat sane I think.

Next blog post:
not Star Wars related. Possibly posting stuff I meant to write two weeks ago but had a lit review to write, etc, etc.

E

My response to #gamergate – a New Year’s resolution

For those who have spent time on the video game section of the internet a particular topic has dominated conversations for quite a while and that topic is Gamergate (for once a legitimate illusion to the watergate scandal). Regardless of how one feels about it all there are two issue at play: the ethical standards of video game journalists and women in the industry. Many supporters of gamergate say the issue is about the former, detractors say that really about the latter, men feeling threatened by women and going so far as to declare the death of gamer as an identity. (Gamer by their definition being white, twenty-something males who still live with their parents and have the emotional maturity of an eight year old. For the rest of us, gamer is just someone who likes playing video games).

Personally I wouldn’t call myself a gamer because I identify as an all round nerd/geek anyway. I have always played computer games as much as I have always read Sci-Fi novels, watched films, read comic books and wanted to be a scientist et cetera.

So here’s my response to the #gamergate debate:

If you think something is missing in culture. Create.

If you think you have a story to tell. Create.

If you think you have a message for the masses. Create.

If you think there’s an injustice in the portrayal of a group you identify with. Create.

In short, no one can make what you want to make. You have to create it yourself.

For a while now I’ve been planning on learning computer coding. It was a bit daunting really and even now that I’ve dabbled in a little python what holds me back is a lack of application for the language. Like learning Spanish and never going to Spain. I’ve realised the reason why I wanted to learn to code is because I want to create. I have an idea for a computer game and I want to make it.

So here’s my New Year’s resolution and my response to Gamergate:

I have downloaded GameMaker: Studio and I will work through all the tutorials, fiddle around with some basic ideas and maybe, in a few months or perhaps by the end of the year my idea for a game will be ready to show to someone other than myself.

And if/when I show it to someone I expect it to be judged on its merits as a game not on the merits of my gender. If it’s rubbish, it’s because I’m not good at making games, not that because I’m a woman I’m not good at making games. If people like it or think it has potential it will be because I’ve learnt the skills necessary and I worked hard. And regardless, if I’ve learnt the skills to make games I can pick myself up and try again with a new idea. No artist ever stopped painting because their finger painting when they were 3 wasn’t worthy of Matisse. Practice makes perfect as they say.

So a very happy New Year one and all, I hope this is a resolution I will be able to keep!