Friday, August 24, 2012

Circles of Friends

I love a good analogy.

Let's think about circles of friends like a castle. And let's be egotistical and say you're the king/queen of the realm.

First you've got the wild woods beyond. Unknowns lurk there. Tiger and lion and bears. Strangers.

Then you've got the cultivated lands. You can see people in the distance, but you don't really know them. They're far away, but at least they're a part of your kingdom.

A little closer is the town. Transactions are made. Infrastructure built. It houses many but you can't know everything about all of them. It's a mix of people from trained and skilled artisans to merchants who take care of finances. It is full of laborers and movers and shakers. You do business with them, they get something from you.

Then you arrive at the castle walls. These are your "real" friends. You protect them. You give freely of your resources. This isn't just business anymore, you see them on a regular basis and are personable. And if something should happen they will be some of the first to rally to the walls and help defend the kingdom. Note that the courtyard can still hold many people, and in some ways is a subset of the surrounding village. But the difference is the dependability. On the outside of the wall it's almost purely business. Inside the wall it's shared interests.

Next is within the keep. For simplicity I like to just to the Great Hall. Here court is held. Here all the advisers convene. Discussions are had, jests are thrown, and proclamations fall first upon these ears. These people know you very, very well. You enjoy their company, and value their insight. This is also where the family often resides. They help keep council and celebrate with your success.

Lastly is the council chamber itself. Within here everything is laid bare. Exactly how well the coffers are going. The rumors of roving bands of marauders. The health of the kingdom and of the ruler. Intimate secrets are exchanged. Remember, in the Great Hall you act the ruler. Things are going smoothly, justice must be upheld. But in the council chamber defenses come down and the real worries are allowed to be presented. Plans are hashed out. Advice given and taken. And what is said in that chamber rarely spills out. These are the closest of friends who will understand when things are going bad, and secretly rejoice when things are going well. They stand as equals when you sit with them. Not a ruler, but as a person.

Friday, August 10, 2012

About Me: Fears

I think I have common enough fears. Things like failing expectations and commitment and rejection. But there's yet another deep rooted fear I have.

I fear being in a crowd and being unable to be heard and noticed.

In some respects it is a mixture of other fears. A fear of suffocation. A fear of being alone. A fear of making no difference and having no merit. But perhaps the core of it all is the fear of being helpless.

If you read the archives, I have several posts about trying to identify problems a be a better person. I am a huge advocate of self-improvement because at the very least you can change yourself. So I obviously like to think I have some control over things. I also like to plan ahead so I know what to do. I try to feed my mind with information so I can be ready at any time in any situation. I like to think I am capable of changing hearts, minds, and attitudes. I like to believe people will notice my talents, skills, and inherent value.

But being stripped bare, having no influence. No power to change others. No power to even help myself or make someone notice me. That scares the heck out of me.

It is one thing to die alone in the woods. Or to suffocate in a cave with no one around. But to stand in a crowd, fully functional, fully capable, but unable to be heard or noticed. That's not only being alone. That is being ignored. That is being rejected. That is being one of the faceless numbers that mull about with no rhyme or reason. That is being reduced to nothing. And with all your powers and abilities and voice and capacity stripped away and made meaningless. All the lessons learned wasted. All the strength and stamina voided. All the wit and charm not even mocked but completely unminded. It unnerves me.

What is it you fear?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hindsight: The Fine Line of Being a TA

This is a little dump of some of the benefits and bores of being a TA.

Commence the double-talk.

Advantage: You're not the Teacher
Perhaps the greatest benefit of being a TA is you're a teacher, but not THE teacher. You know, the person who actually has the responsibility to get everything done. You're free to help out the students, but you don't have to do some of the overhead like create a lesson plan, design the homeworks and tests, or get down in the muck for the final grade curving equations. Nope, you're free of all of that. Instead, you get to help the students along and teach what is prescribed for them by the real teacher. Heck, even if you have to do a little pinch-lecturing for them they should provide some notes on what they were going to do and you just have to not fall flat on your face. Sounds like a pretty good gig!

Aggravation: You're not the Teacher
Perhaps the biggest bore of being a TA is that you are completely dependent on the actual teacher. So, if you feel like something was too hard or too soft, you have no say whatsoever. Feel like the class is being poorly taught? Try explaining that to someone who's been doing this for 10+ years and has "honed" their classes into this perfect form they bestow upon the students this day. Timing of assignments and tests? Completely out of your hands. All you can do is shrug, say the professor is on it, and hope for the best.

Advantage: Being the liaison for the students
One really cool thing about being a TA is that you are someone the professor will probably listen to. You're supposed to be their trusted aide. You get their ear! Plus, the students see you as a kind of friend. You're there to help and so if there's grumblings it doesn't take much to get them expressed. Then you can ferry them on up to the professor and changes can be made.

Aggravation: Being in a position of authority
Since you have been bestowed a position of power and are now a duly appointed representative of the school there are certain things you have to be careful of. For one thing, people will take what you say a bit more seriously. This isn't a problem for say advising about how to do homework, but it can come around to bite you if you enjoy sarcastic or off-the-wall humor. If you perform acts unbecoming of your station it will reflect poorly on yourself, the school, and the profession. Even better, you're extra liable. Yup. Do something silly and the whole system may come crashing down on your head. Your body will show up after a few days in the gutter clutching what remains of your research and no one will talk about it again. Seriously. So, don't screw up. Keep the swear words down. Never EVER mention drugs or alcohol. Any degrading comments can be taken out of context and seen as a personal attack and then you're hosed.

Aggravation: Being in a position of authority (part 2)
This problem is doubled in magnitude because you also want to be friends with the students. So now you're caught between general familiarity and being in the position of power. I have actually been criticized as playing favorites in one class I helped out as a TA. Their logic was the students I seemed to know by the end of the quarter were doing better. Thus, I must be playing favorites! Unfortunately, I believe they forgot to account for the fact that these students were the ones who kept asking me for help. Of course they were doing better. They were being proactive at learning the material and getting advice when possible. However, it's the semblance of favoritism that kills you. It's not about the truth, it's what others think is the truth.

So, now you have to balance being the students' friends and also holding them at an arm's length to preserve your upstanding nature as an authority figure. Ugh.

Advantage: Getting to Help Students
One of the main flaws in being a graduate student is that you don't have to take classes. While many may rejoice as the prospect, I've garnered the knowledge that often times classes are the best position to meet and get to know other people. Well, that and LAN parties, but that's another topic entirely. Basically, being a TA means you not only are forced to interact with other students, you probably have to interact with all of them. You'll get to know them, some of their strengths and weaknesses, and develop a bit of a repertoire as well. It is also really interesting to TA several classes and have some of the same students show up and you can really see their growth. Plus, being helpful in my mind is one of the most awesomest things to do, and immensely fulfilling.

Aggravation: Helping Students
Sometimes, your students just don't get it, just don't put in the time, just don't have the time, or flat out don't care. And they expect you to pull them across the finish line. Even worse are the ones you know can totally do this and ace the class if they only put in a few more hours, but they just do the bare minimum and scoot away with a B.

Advantage: The Pay for 10 Hours a Week
Each TA position is only supposed to take 10 hours a week. As reimbursement, you get fee remission and around $900 a month. Not bad!

Aggravation: 10 Hours a Week?
For some classes, 10 hours a week is the minimum you need to put in. One quarter I ended up pulling a few 20+ hour weeks for the last 3 weeks to help students with their final projects and do all the grading. I literally came into the lab in the morning, held office hours as a review for the final, started grading, and didn't leave until 10pm that night. Oh, and that was the grading for just the final projects. The Final took me another 6 hours. Blasted not getting a key.

So, overall, being a TA is tough. Still, it pays the bills and I totally enjoyed doing it.