Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Cultivate Style and Substance

Penelope Trunk has an interesting post about why the publishing industry sucks. I have to admit I merely skimmed it. Though her writing, informal, assured, and confessional, is mostly entertaining, I wasn't in the mood for her digressive lists today. The main point of the blog post is that the publishing industry has no idea how to promote books, mostly because Amazon is withholding their demographic information of book buyers. Also, again, publishing is dying. The exception may be fiction writing, of which the acceptance by a publishing house is still considered a measure of quality.

This may change though. After all, although Shades of Grey, a self-published novel, is almost universally derided as an example of bad writing, it's still a best seller. In addition, the Twilight series, published by Little, Brown and Company (of the Little Brown Handbook?!) is also a best seller, a major movie franchise, and also generally derided as an example of bad writing (among other things). Therefore, publishing companies may be willing to publish more and more best-selling trash in order to stay afloat.

My boyfriend wrote a post about why writing is hard. Writing well is difficult and writing something worth saying is almost impossible. I think those are two separate things though. Writing well is about style and is a skill that must be honed. Writing something worth saying is about content and critical thinking. I'm not sure where this comes from. Probably from one of the following a) inspiration b) a unique perspective of the world c) research d) experience e) all of the above.

When teaching writing, we do try to have students come up with unique theses and then make them support them with logical and convincing topic sentences, concrete detail, and commentary. The other half is to get them to write well.

Unfortunately, these two things do not always overlap. I am fond of reading The New York Times, but I often read the "Style" section, where articles with subjects as insipid as New York socialites holding viewing parties of Downton  Abbey (sometimes dressing up in tiaras). I have to admit, though, that New York Times articles are invariably well-written.

On the other hand, I also like reading Psychology Today. The articles are not always brimming with content, but the main problem is the inconsistency of the writing. Some articles are very short; so much so that they can hardly be called articles. Some articles are overly long; one article was 3 webpages long, getting to its main point in the last page. The extra padding did nothing to illuminate the idea. Some articles are weighed down by gimmicky terms in a bid for unique branding. They are all written by people with advanced degrees in psychology. Many of them spend their careers in pursuit of unique ideas in psychology.

Here's the rub. To be a skilled writer, according to a book by Malcolm Gladwell, one of those writers who has mastered both being skilled and being interesting, one should have 10,000 hours of practice. Writers probably develop that skill by writing for hours a day, sometimes about insipid subjects. To be an interesting idea, you need to . . . do things other than write.

After all, it is the job of lots of PhDs in the world to think of interesting ideas, which they then try to prove them true (at least some of the time). Most of them then proceed to write badly* about them because they were too busy researching to develop writing skills.

Let's just say that having something worth saying has to do with creativity, something as ambiguous as inspiration. People have endeavored to study it though. Research implies that creativity comes from having time to think alone, but also exposure to different opinions. Supposedly, one discovers one's unique perspective of the world through opposition to others. Ways to discover this opposition could occur through research or experience.

In which case the best way to write something with both style and substance would be to read a lot of well-written texts on a variety of interesting ideas, or at the very least a lot of texts on a variety of interesting ideas, at least some of which are well-written. We can then do what Buzzfeed does and just take popular ideas and then rewrite them in a more coherent, more developed way. But the most important thing is to read; read like we breathe.

*as stated by my social psychology professor, Matthew Lieberman.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Overentertaining Engagement

American students are spoiled.* There, I said it. This New Yorker article assumes that people already know that American children are spoiled, its thesis mostly couched in the "why?" But if American children are spoiled, doesn't if follow that American students are spoiled as well?

*While I am focusing on American students, this does not necessarily mean other nations' students are not spoiled.

To clarify, spoiled doesn't necessarily mean well-equipped. Far from it. More often children/students are spoiled in direct proportion to how neglected they are, not the other way around. You can picture the child with the latest DSL, PSP, X-box, what have you, but no discipline, but also picture students whose classes have been dumbed down to the point of having coloring for homework in high school. Of course students won't perform such token homework; it doesn't teach them anything. Both of these children are lacking in responsibility, giving them the impression that they cannot handle responsibility.

I think there's too much emphasis on teachers being "engaging." If engaging means meaningful and interactive, then school should of course be engaging. However, more often than not engaging means entertaining. The best teachers would be entertaining as well as engaging, but even they can't keep it up 100% of the time. Not even academy award winning movies entertain everyone all the time.

I and many of my friends were(are) good students, which means we learned the material regardless of the teacher. I'm not one of those people who claims to have learned nothing in college, in part because I actually put effort into my classes and found them engaging. Chicken or egg?

But I was a terrible student in Chinese school. The worst. While I had one of the highest reading levels and was doing extra math from a textbook a grade level up in regular elementary, in Chinese school I was one of those kids who stares at the wall the entire time, doesn't do homework, and writes nothing on tests. Chinese school was volunteer run by parents, not teachers, so . . . they weren't necessarily the best teachers. I certainly don't remember any of them being engaging. Would I have paid attention if my teachers had been? Maybe, but what would have helped me a lot more was if I had had adequate training and materials.

I was not properly placed at Chinese school. All of my classmates knew bo po mo fo (ㄈ) ABCs of Mandarin Chinese. To this day I still don't know this system. Therefore, unless I memorized what sound went with each character in class, I had no reference. My spoken Chinese was also subpar, and we were using Taiwanese elementary textbooks (most 2nd language Chinese textbooks are designed for adults; Chinese elementary textbooks would use simplified characters). That mean there was no English. At all. Which meant that even if I had known the sound for the character, I wouldn't have known the meaning.

These obstacles wouldn't necessarily have made it impossible for me to learn Chinese, but they did decrease my motivation to the point that I made it impossible. Engaging should mean meaningful, not necessarily fun.

No offense to Sir Ken Robinson or anything, but sometimes you need a factory-type system. While unfortunately schools are becoming more and more factory-like, often what you get in schools is a system that fosters neither creativity nor competence (as in literacy). Prepping for standardized tests is definitely not creative, but neither is it meaningful. Students are not taught self-discipline for the sake of accomplishment; they're taught to eat up SAT classes and their tips and tricks to game the system (I kid you know; my students take an SAT class that for the essay portion teaches them to write large, fill up the page, and even tells them how many lines per paragraph to write. Then my students talk about how they like to end a paragraph at the beginning of a line, so that it looks like the essay takes up more space--see?).

I have issues with unschooling, a movement that has hijacked Ken Robinson the way Fundamentalist Christians have hijacked Jesus. They propose no schooling at all, focusing instead on pure, self-directed exploration.

Bad idea. There's a time and place for unschooling. It's not during school time. It's probably not during dinner time or chore time or bedtime either (but I'm not focusing on the degradation of children in general). Just because a system has swung too far to one side doesn't mean the solution is to swing to the other extreme. Ken Robinson said that creativity is as important as literacy, not that it should supersede it. Students need to take some time to know something so that they can deconstruct and reconstruct it. And hey, MATCH schools and Asian test scores agree with me (please see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell).

MATCH schools serves underpriviledged kids. Un/Homeschooling is only viable for the middle class and above. Either one parent has to take time off work or the family needs money for a private teacher or the family has to pay for multiple non-public school classes. Let's face it. People who attempt this have college degrees. Their children will have the cultural capital to go to college. Children of well-heeled parents come back to school in the fall knowing more than they did in the spring. Good for them and their summer camps and private tutoring. Low-income children, however, come back to school in the fall knowing less than they did in the spring, because they spent a majority of their summer in front of the TV.

MATCH works as a socioeconomic equalizer partially by keeping kids in school longer by extending the school day, the school week, and the school year. Time spent learning is as important as method of learning. I would like to digress for a moment now and argue that schools dramatically reduce summer vacation (who can afford the childcare, anyway?). That way, we can teach slower, but better. We can even reduce homework, the way Race to Nowhere wants us to. This would also benefit teachers because 1) We wouldn't be called lazy for not working in the summer (although my boyfriend has scheduled 5 hours a day for prepping for his classes) 2) we can work less overtime doing prepping and grading. After all, a larger than 40 hour workweek has increasingly diminishing returns on productivity.

Asian National children really outperform American children, including that 2% of Asian Americans, at math. This has nothing to do with genetics and everything with culture. There is a direct correlation between percentage of test finished and percentage score, which means that Asian children don't necessarily get a bigger percentage of math questions right; they just do more of the test. Of course, it's unreasonable for ask a 3rd grader to sit and take a test for several hours. Unless you're Asian. In Taiwan, these kids start schooling at age 2, including for English. When they're old enough to go to real school, they go to class after class.

This is not necessarily a good thing. The pressure for kids in Asia (or at least in Taiwan) is too high. For one thing, there is rampant cheating (i.e. copying of homework) in schools. For another thing, there isn't much room for creativity, discovery, and experimentation. Americans don't want to be like Asia. We are arguably more creative and definitely more independent. That means we're more likely to be entrepreneurial. However, if you do work at a start-up, you have to be prepared to work a lot. Mature a couple of hours at a time for a 3rd grader to an adult standard.

Furthermore, all of this work? It ain't gonna be all fun and games, even if you love the field and the work is really meaningful to you (as it should be), it won't necessarily be entertaining all the time. It may not even be engaging. There's always the red tape bureaucracy and persnickety details you don't have the money to pay someone else to take care of.

For example, my Chinese is now good enough that I'm learning fairly complex Chinese characters (i.e. 幫, which means help). My teacher has taught us all sorts of semantic tricks using the radicals (those individual shapes) involving sound and meaning. It helps a lot (I remember the previous character by remembering that if they are two dirt clods on a white cloth, even an inch would be a lot of help).

However, at the end of the day, the only way to know 1500+ characters instantly (2000 is barely enough to read a newspaper; 8000 characters is considered fluent) is to write them over and over again, repeating the word whilst writing it. So I don't mind if my students don't find their homework interesting. It's not supposed to be. It's practice, which by definition is repetition. That doesn't mean it's not engaging.

Writing goals

Writing Prompt #4: Acknowledge that writing is hard. Write it down. Then write about how
you are going to make writing happen. How will you find the balance in
yourself to combine willpower with relaxation, stubbornness with joy?
Write about how you've struck this balance in the past with writing, a
sport, playing an instrument--anything you've done.

Writing is hard (even if it's typing). I am going to make writing happen by
1) following these writing prompts
2) jotting down whatever ideas come into my head
3) taking the time to revisit and actually write about ideas I've written down, even if I'm not inspired by them at the moment.
4) setting aside time every morning to write

Willpower means sitting down to write every day. I might need more willpower to wake up at an earlier time that makes this feasible. Relaxation can be achieved by allowing myself to stop writing after an hour if I'm stuck, but also allowing me to continue writing until I am done. I should also get up at least once an hour to walk around (sitting down for 2 hours hurts). I'm seldom stubborn about writing, except when I should really be doing something else. I suppose I'm stubborn about changing my writing sometimes. I can cut stuff out of my writing if I really think it will make it better though. I like to interject extraneous anecdotes and interesting digressions, but if I can develop them into separate pieces of writing, then I'll feel better about letting them go. Joy is when I'm inspired and have the time to write.

I don't tink I've ever struck a balance with writing. I tend to write in spurts, whether it be a 3 hour blog post when I should be doing something else, or an all-nighter for a paper. I have to admit, I do sometimes let ideas marinate in my head for awhile before recording them; a product of having nothing to do on long commutes. My approach to homework in general wasn't that great: put it off until completion is only barely assured at a reasonable hour, then work on it with a perfectionist's mindset until done. Sometimes I would also do homework in class instead of socializing with classmates or giving my teacher my full attention.

The closest I've gotten to having a balance was with karate.  Karate was a class, so it was always at 7:30pm twice a week, and I would go to extra practice Sunday morning. Classes would last at least an hour. Sunday practice would last at least two hours. You could practice more if you arrived early or left late. There were many days that I didn't feel like going to karate, but I would force myself, telling myself that if I skipped one day, I would skip another, or that I'd gone to karate in worse condition, or that it was just an hour, and that I would feel better afterwards. I always did, although once or twice I had to sit down from anemia. Most of the time though, one would walk out of the dojo with a sense of accomplishment, relaxation, joy, and a rush of endorphins.

Writing is an art, but I find most artists far too indulgent with themselves; always seeking inspiration for their poetry or painting. I think a better model would be a classical musician. Classical musicians practice several hours a day. They are critical enough of themselves so that they find something to practice, something meaningful to work on and improve. They may not be inspired all of the time, but the hone their skills every day. All of that private practice and group rehearsal for a couple of performances.

I was not always a diligent piano player, but when I was I was methodical about my practice. I started out with nearly 20 minutes of just scales, as my teacher wanted. Then I would practice each piece I had for a certain amount of time. The first couple of times as a warm-up. Then I would choose something such as tempo or expression. If I had a problem spot, I would practice that until it was right. At these points, my daily practice time would exceed an hour and still not seem adequate.

If I apply that to writing, then I need to hone my skills every day. I need to set goals for how I want my writing to become. To do that, I get to spend more time reading to figure out what I admire in writing, even if it doesn't necessarily apply to mine. To practice my basics, I could write poetry, emphasizing rhyme or rhythm. I could do vignettes for plot or mood. For longer pieces, I would tackle any problem spots. Every once in awhile, I can work on something I truly find inspiring. If I do that enough times, maybe something will stick.

Writing goals:
  1. Apt alliteration, perhaps assonance and consonance
  2. Figure out if I want to keep writing sentence fragments. Or use dashes.
  3. Figure out what makes a good plot. Try to write more plot-oriented fiction.
  4. Mood sketches
  5. Character sketches
  6. Write a piece from 3 different points of view
  7. Increase humor with imaginative analogies and appropriate randomness (figure out when my writing is funny and why)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Compliments and Creativity (and Analysis and Social Skills)

After an extended writing hiatus, boyfriend and I have decided to supplement our semi-long distance communication this summer with writing prompts. After all, we both have authorly aspirations. If we write for 3 hours a day for the next 10 years, we might actually get somewhere (I don't have time to write for 3 hours a day, but I'm guessing I've written a fair amount in the last two decades of my life--after I figured out how to write, I mean). I won't necessariliy be following the prompt directly. The goal is to get us to write more, even if we just end up sitting at the computer for an hour a day (in my case, I'll be reading articles).

Writing prompt: List positive messages you have received about your writing or other creative pursuits. What memories do you have of feeling satisfied or pleased with how a piece of writing came out?

In reverse chronological order:
"Your writing, it flows like water."
"You are an excellent writer."
"You're really articulate."
"You are very smart."
"You received almost no negative comments in your evaluations, which is unusual for a new tutor."
"You used to be really crative."

Well, that was a short list, and I'm not sure if tutoring is a creative pursuit. Nevertheless, I will try and go through them.

"Your writing, it flows like water." and "You are an excellent writer."The first comment comes from one of my best friends, the second from my special education professor on a paper I wrote for class. Number of drafts? 1. If I can get started on a topic, words pretty much do flow out like water, sometimes superfluously. The second comment was not necessarily surprising (as an English major, I did my share of writing essays, and invariably got good grades), but it was ego-enhancing in its emphatic nature. Ultimately though, these compliments are non-constructive. I know my writing flows (most of the time). I know I'm a good writer. Other than simultaneously smoothing my ego (like you smooth a cat's fur) and making me uncomfortable*, they don't serve much purpose.

*I suppose my hesitancy to accept compliments graciously comes from my Chinese background. I was told recently in class that the default answer to any compliment is "nali, nali," which basically means, "that's not true" or "you're exaggerating." This is the default answer even when it's hard to argue with the compliment, such as "you are tall." Technically it's an opinion, but it's hard to argue with someone four inches shorter than you. I guess you're supposed to say stuff life, "I'm average for an American," or, "I have friends even taller than I am!"

I don't remember much constructive criticism from college either. It was more like, "You could have done better on this and this and that, but overall good job!" Maybe I don't remember the comments because they were either telling me things I already knew (yeah, but I didn't know how to fix it) or because I knew my writing, how it worked, and how to produce it. The process mostly got me As, so why change it?

What memories do you have of feeling satisfied or pleased with how a piece of writing came out?

Because the best paper I ever wrote did not come from the default process of start-the-paper-the-night-before-it's-due-and-work-on-it-all-night, but from a thorough rereading of the book (The Bell Jar) where I took note of all the parts which would later form my concrete detail. I didn't even have a clear thesis, I was rereading the book to form my thesis, and when it came it seemed to coalesce organically. Granted, though I started writing this paper a bit earlier than the others (maybe two days before it was due), a lot of the work came from before I even started free-typing, when I was bookmarking passages. This is why I like to tell my students that 80% of the work of the paper is coming up with a (good) thesis.

"You're really articulate." and "You are very smart."
Both of these stem from my Asian-American literature class. A class I was actually effortlessly interested in. The first was from a classmate (I was honestly and graciously able to say, "Oh, so are you" in return) and from my professor, who was encouraging me to go to graduate school.

The Secret Life of Pronouns talks about how students who write with an analytical style tend to get better grades in college. It's uncertain whether this is because analytical people are smarter or because American universities prefer analytical skills. Probably the latter. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools emphasize analysis (along with memorization), but not creativity/divergent thinking. Hey, why analyze things when you could be creating new things? Lastly, in Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talked about a genius who couldn't graduate from college. He had analytical skills up the wazoo, but he didn't have the requisite social skills.

I'm perhaps overly analytical. My boyfriend says I analyze everything, but can't observe what's in front of me. This is true. When we're walking around, instead of paying attention to where I'm going for future reference (luckily my following skills are well-honed), I'm asking my boyfriend if his gay friend who sometimes talks in a "fem-y" way started talking that way before or after he discovered he was gay and joined the gay community, because if so then maybe it was more of a product of social transference rather than an inherent genetic trait. His response was, "I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. I guess I should have been, but I didn't know that in the future I would be with someone who analyzes everything."

In conclusion, being analytical isn't everything, although it does get me compliments and was probably a key factor in getting good grades for my English papers. After all, English majors don't usually write their own literature; they just analyze the bejezus out of existing literature. (Although I do believe you should be able to read well before you can write well.)

"You received almost no negative comments, which is unusual for a new tutor."
I was a pretty damn good tutor. When I first started teaching, I lamented that my tutoring skills apparently did not apply at all to my teaching skills, but in a way they did. Skills tutors need are listening skills, questioning skills, and the patience to let the tutee figure out what he or she thinks oneself. Though lecture skills, lesson-planning skills, and classroom management are essential for a teacher, tutor skills are what I believe really foster critical thinking (if you can somehow squeeze it into a class of 25+ students).

I am not a socially skilled person. I used to say I was socially retarded. Now I say I'm borderline Asperger's (or on the spectrum, as my boyfriend likes to say). Also, I am highly introverted. After reading Susan Cain's introvert manifesto Quiet, I'm more accepting of myself, and am glad to know that there are others out there who need time to themselves (because they get overwhelmed by too much socializing) and don't like small talk. I guess introverts are kind of Aspergey.

Introverts are branded as shy and, let's face it, socially unskilled. The socially skilled introverts are the ones who can (and are willing to) fake it. I was always told I was quiet as a child, but only my child-disliking grandmother who lived in Taiwan liked me for it.

However, Susan Cain's arguement is that introverts are skilled at certain tasks. They tend to be more thoughtful (they spend time by themselves thinking), are more detail-oriented (on the things they pay attention to), tend to be more conscientious, and are better listeners. I kind of think of teaching as an extrovert's job. One has to be more or less constantly interacting with a large group of people; favorite teachers tend to be ones who can be funny and "perform" for their class. Tutoring taps into more introvert skills. Those skills seem to be coming into vogue now that there is more emphasis on guides on the sides instead of sages on stages and student-centered, constructivist teaching. (Ironically, introvert students like sage-on-stage, lecture-type teaching, probably because the focus is not on them.)

I guess my point is that I am socially skilled in certain contexts, such as tutoring. And in traditional Asian communities.

My other point is that the introvert way of brainstorming seems to be more effective. A new yorker article denouncing groupthink argued that better and more bountiful ideas came when people first brainstormed alone. This makes sense to me, although perhaps it's introverts who brainstorm best alone, while extroverts may like the competition (even though it's not supposed to be a competition) of groupthink. Let's move on to creativity then.

"You used to be really creative."
Said my sister, lamenting my lost creativity the way my mother laments how my academic success peaked in middle school (I got Bs in high school). I guess Ken Robinson is onto something. When I was younger and my homework was scanty, before the age of the internet, I spent a lot of time with my sister building forts, planning impromptu luaus, starting plays, and even choreographing a dance celebrating the Fourth of July (Happy Birthday, U.S.A.). Then I started going to sleep after midnight because of homework and procrastination.

Actually, I think procrastination is very important to creativity. When I have nothing to do, I do nothing. When I have a ton of stuff to do, such as clean my apartment, I decide to make homemade mayonnaise, homemade yogurt, and clothes made out of old sheets (sorry boyfriend). Of course if I get too busy (with actual deadlines), then I buckle down and do only work. Just as a recent article in Salon talked about how coffee houses are great for creativity because of a moderate amount of noise (whether or not that amount of noise corresponds to the music coming out of my ipod remains to be discovered), I believe a moderate amount of business is essential to productivity, even creative productivity. If I have nothing to do, I want to do nothing. I may be restless, but my yearnings for activity are vague and inchoate. Give me something to do, and that inchoatness quickly takes shape. Give me something to do and limitations on my movement and I can find even more ways to waste my time.

There are two factors to creativity. First: having time and space to yourself. Second: why is everyone hating on Starbuck's green tea with red bean drink? It's not appealing to me either, but it's a fairly traditional and very popular flavor combination in Taiwan, so Starbucks is not being stupid; it's catering to the local population. In other words, random interactions with other people or ideas, especially if the differ from your own. That's why in Pixar (and many other companies now as well), you have your own desk, but you can wander off to play fuseball or ping pong or get coffee. Of course, I hate water-cooler talk, and don't like people wandering into my classroom to talk about the weather, but a 30-second interaction can get you off track enough to gain a new perspective (not that this is useful if you're just collating data, which is a big part of teaching).

Now I'm going to go off topic and talk about Google (and it wasn't even Google who really started it) and 20% time. I did a final project for one of my educational classes where I designed a school where students and teachers had 20% time (Fridays were devoted to whatever they wanted to work on). It seemed like a good compromise between the need for some factory-type structures and unschooling. Another article in the Salon wants to bring back the 40 hour work week, because overtime doesn't really increase productivity (I mean, you produce more, but at a far less efficient rate). For intellectual jobs, supposedly the sweet spot of productivity is even lower than 40 hours a week.

All of this seems like it would keep workers happy, healthy, wealthy (or at least employed), and wise--especially in terms of creativity.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Minimal Beauty to the Max: No Makeup, No Shampoo

I am lazy. Sure, there are plenty of reasons not to buy into the beauty industry. I'd be accepting society's impositions on women. I'd be running a rat race by clogging up my skin in an effort to rejuvenate it. I'd spend loads of money (apparently cosmetics are like food--they have an expiration date). The real reason I don't use makeup though, is that I'm too low maintenance. It takes too much time and effort.

The biased but interesting Penelope Trunk has a post about how as an unhappy maximalist she knows the difference between $20 and $70 eyebrows. She also says that minimalism is lifestyle porn, which is true on some level. I am not a maximalist like her, so I don't think I'll have a problem with minimalism. I can do the 100 things challenge (if I ever get around to cataloguing how many things I have), but sometimes minimalism arises by accident. My make-up collection consists of three items: a chapstick and two orange lipsticks that I got for free at a club promotion (one of them was my roommates', but she left it at the apartment). I have no problem getting rid of two of these things (it's not a good color for me). Let's review the horrible things I could be doing to my face, and then I'll talk about my hair.


Liquid eyeliner is not my friend, unlike what some websites say. My eyeliner disappears when I open my eyes. Ditto mascara. Actually, you can still see my lower eyeliner, but . . . I just don't like how it makes me look different. I don't look bad necessarily--I just don't look like me. I suspect it may make my eyes look smaller.

Geisha Asobi's fake fake eyelashes
Beauty appliance or surgical tool?
Speaking of eyelashes, which apparently even white girls curl with what looks like a torture device, there are two weird things that Asian women tend to do to their eyes. One is to apply fake eyelashes. That's like wearing a wig, and it's deceptive. Also, I don't want to look like a doll or spend money on it. Mostly though, I don't want to stick something to my eyelids. That's invasive.

The other thing is to cement or get eye surgery to get double eyelids. I only have double eyelids when my eyes are super puffy from crying or allergies. I do think they look pretty, but . . . why spend the 10 minutes required to pin and stick your eyes into a shape they are not? As for surgery to permanently change how you naturally look when you are not deformed . . . I'm not into it.

Lastly, I suppose I should talk about eyeshadow. I'm actually okay with eyeshadow, if I ever apply makeup at all. It's not trying to lie. It's deliberately performative. No one has green or blue or pink or silver eyelids. No one even has slightly darker beige eyelids. Eyeshadow is honestly decorative.


Plucking? Plucking. Maybe. I have to confess that I read recently in its entirety an inane article in the New York Times about how bushy, unkempt eyebrows are back. I was like, great, so I don't have to do anything. I mentioned this to one of my friends, and she was like, "Why do you care, either way?" It was true. I didn't care, because I wouldn't change my behavior either way. It's just in one instance I would be unintentionally trendy. In the meantime, people will be going out of their way to make their eyebrows bushier and intentionally unintentionally unkempt.

Sometimes I feel like I should pluck my stray eyebrow hairs though. Sometimes.

Nose and Cheekbones (shading)

I don't really like my nose. I think it's my worst feature. When I was younger I used to compare it to a pig's, but Penelope's cute, right? When I talk to my boyfriend about the insipidness of makeup, he says that Asian women don't need makeup anyway because they have high cheekbones and small noses. I was like, really? Maybe you do have yellow fever, because most of the time it seems like Asian women are being told to look white. So I'm not sure. I don't peruse enough fashion magazines, and even when I do I don't look at the pictures or advertisements.


Some women bleach these.


I am trying to use more chapstick. After all, chapped lips are gross, and they feel gross. When I go out I apply a lipstick or gloss, look at how unnatural my lips look, and then go out. And then I worry about carrying my lipstick and reapplying it after eating.

Armpit hair

I pluck this. It's the one thing I consider unbecoming. I mean, a little bit of hair is okay. It doesn't have to be spotless, but I have long black hairs coming out of there. I try to pluck out the thicker ones. I used to wax, but then I ran out of good wax and couldn't find any more. Maybe I'll go out and look again.

Pubic hair

I'm very biased against trimming this because of the scene "Hair" from the Vagina Monologues. I have to admit though, when I was first growing it out, I didn't like how thick it was and trimmed it with a pair of nail clippers. Then it grew back and I gave up. I sometimes consider waxing it for the experience. I consider keeping it trimmed so my boyfriend can go down on me without fear of getting hair in his mouth. But he would go down on me anyway.


I'm Asian, and my mom's legs are hairless. I didn't realize white women had legs as hairy as white men. So I guess it makes sense that they wax and shave. I'm lucky in that my long black hairs are sparse enough and thin enough that they're not too noticeable. Thank goodness, because that would be a huge upkeep.

Head Hair

Other people persist in the no poo saga
I once embarked on a journey to not use shampoo, mostly because I was bored. I did it for several months, got my combs gross, hated the general greasy feeling, and so went back to shampoo. The experience changed my hair though. My hair dries out much easier when I wash it now, so I can get away with washing my hair less. My hair also seems to be a bit wavier. Wash your hair, girls. I don't know. You can try the no poo thing, but it didn't work for me.

I don't dye, bleach, or curl my hair. I love the idea of long, straight, black Asian hair. It makes me unique (or as unique as an Asian girl with long, straight, black hair can be). Asians actually are genetically blessed with this hair, so why change it? Actually, my hair trends toward wavy, but I'm so in love with the straight look that I considered getting a permastraight. Ultimately I didn't because it was too expensive for my tastes, and more importantly, it was hazardous to my health.

I'm glad my hair isn't processed. That allows me to donate to Locks of Love every time I grow my hair out.


This is probably the most important item. Good skin makes you look young. This is why women shouldn't wear makeup, or at least foundation, because it clogs up your pores. I have a pimple. I'm going to conceal it with junk so it will get more clogged up. Yeah. Great.

I particularly have a beef with these whitening creams that are used by Asian and African women. I never thought they were safe, so I googled them one day and found that most of them are not. You have to pay attention to the ingredients. I am considering getting some of the "safe" ones since they protect against UV damage and even out blemishes, but the number one skin product people can apply to their skin is sunscreen. It prevents wrinkles and discoloration, and keeps your skin healthy too. The number one skin product people can ingest is water. Okay, maybe that's not true, maybe you need to drink vitamin water, but it's still a good idea to stay hydrated.

I also apply lotion, because my skin is sometimes dry. Cetaphil is a good, cheap drugstore brand. I don't use toner because it's too harsh. I stopped using soap around the time I stopped using shampoo, and did not suffer any ill effects (I still use it to wash my hands).


When I was playing around with makeup before, and frustrated by the lack of representation of Asian models in fashion magazines educating girls about how to apply make-up, I ordered a book called Makeup for Asian Women. It showed you how to apply make-up according to your face type, etc., which appealed to me the same way dressing for your body type or coloration did--it gives you more limited, tailored choices. It also had a section for glamour, casual, and quick 10-minute work makeup. That's when I realized I would never apply makeup regularly.

In ten minutes, I could sleep for 10 extra minutes. I could check my email. I could eat breakfast. I don't need to waste 10 minutes of my time on expensive, coercive, damaging make-up.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Halfway Conversations

Sherry Turkle, MIT professor and technology researcher, has a doomsday prediction about conversations: we don't have them anymore.

I have seen my student sit alone together, not looking up from their iphones and DSLs. I have resorted to cell phone games when a friend is sitting next to me because the conversation has stalled. Because of my many long-distance friendships, I rely on email and chat, and sometimes even facebook as a social medium. But I have also stayed up until midnight talking to my boyfriend about love and loss and family when we had both resolved to go to sleep early. Conversation is not dead. The dirty little secret is that just as face to face communication does not necessarily indicate deep conversation, digital distance does not necessarily prevent deep conversations.

One conversation I have had with my boyfriend is about the art of writing letters. I argue with him that email is just as good. In any case, we agree that taking the time to write down an extended response takes more thought than the average conversation. You spend more time figuring out how you feel, trying to say what you mean, and crafting the right words. Of course it's a one-sided conversation at first, but it's a respectful one. The reader gets to practice the lost art of perusal, and then send a similarly thoughtful reply. Personally, when I respond to emails, I make sure to respond to every point the other person makes, sometimes even copy-pasting their words into my draft box to remember what they wrote. Though the written word lacks tone and and expression of voice, and emails and letters don't give immediate feedback, I believe the benefits can outweigh the cons. *The same is true of chatting. I have known chats that have lagged because the other party had 16 chat boxes open, because I or the other party were cerfing the internet, and because the other party wandered off to Ralphs without letting me know. However, these instances are rare (maybe not the cerfing part). However, I do view chat as a real conversational medium and try to give timely responses. Even if I take time to grade papers while I chat, I always come back to the conversation (how many other "live" conversations take place when one party is paying the bills?). My friends and I have a habit of letting the other person know when we leave the chat, even if only for a few minutes. The cons of lack of voice and tone still apply. In addition, sometimes due to a lack of rhythm in the conversation, perhaps brought on by slow typing, the texts of two parties overlap. This also happens in live conversations as well though. The benefits of chat are that it does emulate the back and forth of real conversation. It is also very convenient. As long as both parties are online, it's like having someone in the room with you (in terms of availability for conversation).

I have to admit I have converted to facebook. I started checking it regularly for some practical reason--waiting for a reply for a message or a response on a post asking where I can get a whetstone (no luck yet). I got involved by liking my old friends' postings and posting on how and where to get a good gynecologist or a cheap massage. I started posting pictures and my boyfriend's friends like them. It's like . . . small talk. I didn't know I could do small talk. By the way, introverts are more likely to be socially successful online, because the textual medium does give them time for reflection and it is relatively anonymous and it takes out the social anxiety factor. Of course this can go to extremes, but online relationships are not necessarily fake relationships.

I have had so many inane live conversations. Like I mentioned before, I can't do small talk. It drives me insane, but this is what makes up a majority of people's chatter. I like one-on-one conversations. I don't like gossip. I don't care about my colleague's comment on what China has done this time. I don't care about how my other colleague went to a cat village. I try to be polite and respond, but I don't see how I'm supposed to engage in the conversation. I can't fake enthusiasm.

One example of repeated attempst involves my boyfriend's former FLU. They're still friends so we have had dinner together a couple of times. Every time I felt like she was just trying to elicit gossip about her former work place. We tried asking her about her work, her personal life, "So, I guess we should talk about boys and clothes." She deflected: "Oh yeah, do you still need to get new clothes?" Even my boyfriend found it weird how we avoided talking about her at all. Quite frankly, we didn't talk about us very much either. We talked about third parties (i.e. gossip), and they weren't even third parties we really cared about. Eventually, my boyfriend determined that we were just anti-matter that didn't know how to react to each other. Since FLU used to have actual conversations with my boyfriend, I suggested they have dinner alone.

Another example is of a former friend I have (that I have recently written off). I actually realized even before she moved out that we had little in common, although we had had some real conversations early on in the relationship, we didn't have enough shared interests to maintain that.

A final example is my best friend. Her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend got better for awhile, because they had more actual conversations online than they had in person. Then it deteriorated, because they discovered that they weren't compatible. My best friend's anger at her boyfriend had less time to dissipate when they couldn't go jogging or do sexual acts together. Though I am wary of long-distance relationships in general, I do agree with my boyfriend that there's the potential to get caught up in the minutia of every day, to fall into a routine and stop thinking about why you're with a person, and I personally believe that physical intimacy can overshadow a lack of emotional intimacy. Therefore, face to face conversation, while valuable, is not a panacea for being alone.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Don't Meet Halfway Friends Halfway

Get rid of them. I'm not kidding. You meet real friends halfway. Friends who are not really friends don't deserve more time and effort than your actual friends. I recently made this mistake.

Look at these pictures of cakes:

Chiffon Cake of unknown flavor
Molten Chocolate, meant to be eaten hot
They are past their glory, as they are take-out from yesterday, but you can tell that they are nice cakes. I got twice as many take-out cakes as I would have liked though, because in addition to having lunch at the shop they came from with my boyfriend (foccacia, tortillas, drinks, and a very filling taste of desserts), I had two coupons for these cakes. Why did I have two coupons?

Because weeks ago, when one of my "friends" informed me that she would be in the area (on vacation) and asked me what I was doing for Spring Break, I told her that I was thinking of going up to Taipei, which I fully intended to do. I shopped for coupons and made lists of things to do there and worried that she was going to hijack my Spring Break (she is a planner and a controller). I bought two coupons for the cake (okay, they were Groupons) because I knew she liked to eat sweets and thought that with more people we could sample more varieties.

Chocolate Chiffon
In the end, another, previously bought Groupon threatened to expire on me, so my boyfriend and I went somewhere else instead for half a week. I apologized, and she said it was no problem since she had other plans and would be here for a couple more weeks. My boyfriend and I could have gone to Taipei after we got back, except that I got sick and was later hospitalized for a week.

The next time she contacts me, she wants to know what I'm doing Saturday. I tell her we want to make the belated trip up to Taipei. I sent her links to where the cafes are. I gave her my cellphone number. She replies that she can't make it because of an impromptu family thing and asks us to stop by where her family is to pick up a package.

Here's the thing about the package. It's a gift from my one of best friends, currently not living in Taiwan. She, I, and this "friend" were roommates last year. She sent gifts with our mutual "friend" to me and her douchebag boyfriend. Douchebag boyfriend said he couldn't pick it up from the "friend" and told my best friend that "friend" could just keep it. I got really angry on her behalf, because that showed a real lack of appreciation for the trouble she went through for the gift. At the same time, I did sympathize with him based on the fact that he was working and therefore did not have time to make an hour commute on a weekday to go pick up a package, whereas "friend" is on perpetual 3-week vacation.

I was still angry about his lack of appreciation for the gift though, and told friend that he lied about having to work until 8pm every day. We only had to work until 7:30pm two days that week, and I had twice the amount of conferences as he did. He, exaggerating, said that he got home at 9pm because instead of eating the dinner the school provided, he went to eat dinner after the conferences.

I wasn't worried about it though, because I was meeting "friend" that Saturday in Taipei and could pick up douchebag boyfriend's gift as well as my own. This was, of course, before I found out she couldn't make it to Taipei. I then told her that I was sorry for pulling a douchebag boyfriend move on her, but could she please mail the packages to us? She asked me where, so I looked the address and sent it to her, plus offered to pay for the mailing if I saw her when she tentatively had lunch with my own boyfriend's former lonely female user (FLFU).

"Friend" replied that she was having lunch with FLFU not in the town where we lived, but someplace I had never heard of that was in between where we lived and where she was staying with family. At this point she said something about wanting to see me and my boyfriend, and I jokingly told her that if she really wanted to she would make concrete plans to meet us in the town where we lived.

I must mention at this point that my boyfriend and I had long decided that this "friend" was unimportant to our lives, or at least he had. I had decided that we didn't have anything in common and that her controlling nature made her difficult to hang out with casually, and that I would therefore not put any effort in keeping in touch with her--especially since whenever she chatted with me all she wanted to know was gossip. I kind of fell off the band-wagon though when she actually came to the area and acted like I wanted to meet up with her, or at least was polite and solicitous about it.

"Friend" emailed back talking about how it would take her at least an hour to commute from her doorstep to ours and that she felt like she was compromising by offering to meet us halfway. At this point I went ballistic and took my boyfriend's advice to tell her, "Okay, forget about it."

I have to mention that I had residual anger from when my best friend guilt-tripped me about not making more of an effort to meet up with "friend," saying I was like her douchebag boyfriend. I told her I wasn't because at least I came up with a proactive solution to receive her gift in a way that was not too much trouble for either party, and that it was about appreciating the gift, not the half-assed delivery girl. She then said some stuff about how "friend" considers me to be a real friend. I blew up at that point. I told her that "friend" has a habit of wandering off in the middle of chats, never asks me how I am personally but instead tries to solicit juicy gossip from me, and that I put far more effort and respect in trying to meet up with her than she did with me. "Friend" also never even asked me how I was doing after a week in the hospital. Granted, I hadn't mentioned to her that I had been the hospital, but I had posted it on facebook where other acquaintances I barely knew posted their sympathies. I then remembered that my best friend wants to live in a fantasy world where everyone gets along--where her douchebag boyfriend and my own boyfriend are best friends and where I also like her douchebag boyfriend, for example.

I later found out my boyfriend's advice was partially predicated on a misunderstanding of what I had told him, and talked to him about my guilt about sending such a terse reply, but he told me not to worry about it. I continued to fume, however, about the injustice I had been submitted to (hence this blog post) and later told him that I needed a mantra. Mantras calm me. My mantra for douchebag boyfriend is, "He is happy with who he is" (i.e. he likes himself and doesn't see the need to change, so why should I waste my own emotional energy wishing he were different?). My mantra for my crazy supervisor who I increasingly see as similar to my super-crazy boss is, "She is not happy with who she is" (i.e. she is insecure and feels the need to either have people in her pocket or to undercut them). My boyfriend's suggested mantra for "friend" was, "She is a little bitch." I told him that wasn't calming enough. He suggested, "She is not important." This is true. I try to tell myself that now. After all, I had already previously consciously made the decision to not invest time and effort into my relationship with her when it was so unfulfilling. I had purposely deprioritized her in my life, so she can neither be a source or joy not a source of pain and frustration.

I think my mantra for FLFU will be, "She doesn't know how to relate to people." This works both for her previously inappropriate relationship with my boyfriend, and for me. I told my boyfriend that she, like "friend," drained me, though not as much. He disagreed and said that we were more like anti-matter. I didn't know how to relate to her. I know because I tried, since she's still my boyfriend's erstwhile friend and I don't want to be jealous of her. However, I failed. This is not my fault, or at least my boyfriend claims that she doesn't get along with most people even though she is charismatic, because like most charismatic people she is secretly insecure. She doesn't know how to talk to people one on one, and I only really get to know people one on one. I mean, she won't even really talk about her personal life with my boyfriend, so with whom does she talk about it with? (Hopefully her real friends, if she has any.)

I even have a mantra for my best friend. It's something along the lines of, "She is her own person." I know these mantras are simplistic and don't encompass these five people with whom I have frustrations with. That is the point. It's not my job to analyze their psyches and fix them. They are happy with who they are, or they are unhappy with who they are. They don't know how to relate to people. Mostly though, they are unimportant to my life, or even if they are important, they have their own lives, separate from mine. Extensive blogging about them aside, I would like to keep it that way.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Half-baked Internet Ideas

There are three internet phenomenon that annoy me, although for different reasons. One is wildly successful even though I hate it. One is moderately successful and I think it has potential, although that potential has been wildly overblown. The third is not successful and probably never will be, mostly because it represents an internet idea that is not successful.

1. Twitter

I don't understand it. Granted, I don't use it, and I don't plan on using it. My boyfriend got a Twitter account expressly to not use it, which I think defeats the purpose, and he caved anyway. He now tweets articles that people send to him, even if he doesn't read them himself. I suppose this means I should send more articles to him. That way I'll have a twitter by proxy.

Mostly, I don't understand it. It's a one-trick facebook application: the status update. Why twitter when you can just update your status, with links to your favorite articles and everything? For personal stuff this makes sense. In fact, twitter did start out as a personal thing, and I once got into a debate with a colleague who believed twitter's main purpose was to disseminate articles for other people to read. Though I don't think that was twitter's main purpose, I have to admit that that is what twitter is now most useful for. After all, you have to be "friends" with someone on facebook to view their status update (or for the status update to show up in your newsfeed). You can follow random strangers on twitter.

But you can also follow random strangers on blogs, so what is the point of twitter when it's a haiku version of a blog (except when you link to a longer blog post)? The only thing I can think of is that twitter is a compiler.

It used to be that we had one of everything. We had one address. We had one phone line. People had one way of getting our attention, and that was face to face communication. We now live in an age where we have multiple (active) emails. Some have multiple facebook pages, or multiple social networking sites (how many people are part of facebook and google+, and maybe myspace and livejournal?). I have multiple blogs and blog accounts and even multiple prezi logins (partially to capitalize on their free space). Plus we have youtube accounts and perhaps subscriptions to the New York Times, New Yorker, New York Magazine, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Huffington Post, Harvard Business Review, Science Daily, Wired, Psychology Today, and TED Talks. How to keep track of all of this, besides bookmarks? A compiler, such as twitter. Follow the right people on twitter and they will lead you to a variety of media (blogs, newspapers, youtube clips, and even prezis) all in a series of tweets. That is such bullshit.

Also, I know someone who is very into social media. She has an iphone and constantly checks her email, facebook, and twitter. You still can't get a hold of her. She once proposed teaching students to organize their social media around facebook and twitter instead of email, which I think is a terrible idea. Even though I think it may be good for children to have an internet presence, I still like the privacy and (dare I say it?) relative intimacy that email provides. For one thing, email usually requires more thought than a tweet, especially since its character limit often leads to atrocious abbreviations and a lack of grammar, capitalization, and spelling from people whom I would otherwise consider intelligent. In addition, it's unlimited length offers a chance for more depth than your average sound-byte. Lastly, email has the option of cc'ing and bcc'ing people. If facebook and google+ really want to protect people's privacy, they should jump on that feature.

2. Workflowy

I was led to workflowy by some slideshow on Harvard Business Review. It had such glowing reviews that I decided I had to check it out (especially since the other applications cited as being so revolutionary were things like google calendar. I know how to use that. Maybe not effectively, but I could if I wanted to. I use a google spreadsheet instead to plan my schedule, because it's infinitely more editable.

Workflowy was supposed to be one of the most innovative things to hit schools and the workplace and had an interface that mirrored people's natural thought processes. It's just an outline with collapsible bullet points.

Granted, I started using workflowy and I have found it very useful.

For one thing, it has an intuitive and easy way to indent and un-indent points, unlike, say, powerpoint, word, and many other documents which don't seem to understand the concept of letting be go back to a less indented point.

For another thing, it's ability to collapse certain bullet points makes it easy to put a lot of information on a small page. I have started compiling all of my lists onto workflowy, and so far it's holding up at less than a page because of the power of subcategorization. Also, if it ever gets too cluttered, I can just double click on a particular bullet point, and it will move it and all subpoints to a fresh page. Phenomenal.

Lastly, the ability to cross out/delete completed options gives one a feeling of accomplishment.

That being said, I could outline before, on, well, basically anything. The collapsible feature is nothing new. It can be found on most blogs and websites (this feature was one of the main reasons I moved my writing online). Granted, it's easier to have this nice collapsibility on Workflowy, but it's nothing revolutionary, and I doubt the coding was that difficult.

A third thing. Workflowy was supposed to mirror one's natural thought processes/the natural process of brainstorming that we used to do with pen and paper. That's not really true. My boyfriend used to take notes, and he would do so in a free-form, interactive way with arrows connecting things and doodles in the margins. I feel that one of the computer's advantages over paper notes is the ability to edit and move things around in a way so that it is both organized and non-cluttered. One could argue that we should be able to annotate Workflowy, but why annotate or footnote when you can just sub bullet point?

If I had one major suggestion for Workflowy, it would be to allow users to arrange topics horizontally instead of just vertically. That's one of the reasons I liked using google spreadsheets for keeping lists (as well as my schedules). Workflowy needs to get out of the internet/computer interface box of moving from up to down. We also need to be able to move from left to right. Hell, we need to be able to move like the visual thesaurus or inspiration. The computers may have started out 2D, but now they have the potential to literally make us see things from a different perspective.

3. Google+

I think google+ will fail the way search engines other than google and fashion magazines failed: imitation.

I believe that nowadays reverse engineering and "copying" is so easy that to really distinguish yourself, you need to carve a niche (that or be the first one to do something new and interesting in a big way). For example, when I first took an information studies class, we were warned about the hegemony of google search and encouraged to search for the same thing on different search engines. I did so and got different results. A year later I tutored that same information studies class and the students did the same activity. This time all of the search results were almost identical.

What happened? Everyone copied google's successful algorithm. That was a mistake (sorry yahoo search and bing, more sincere sorry to ask jeeves). If search engines really wanted to be successful, they should have, yes, analyzed google's algorithm, but then deliberately tried to be different. Google is constantly tweaking its algorithm to game the websites trying to game them (websites which are really advertisers but pay people to produce mediocre content with a lot of keywords). A smaller, niche search engine could have figured out an alternative algorithm that could have cut out the crap websites, even if it sacrificed some of the big players (and we don't really need help to find wikipedia).

So I don't think google+ will succeed, not because it didn't have an interesting idea (the different circles for different social groups), but because too many people are already too invested in facebook. Plus facebook quickly and easily copied the circles concept, while at the same time introducing the timeline layout (which I still find confusing, but I find more visually appealing). Google+ responded by coming up with its own snappy layout. Don't like. I knew google+ had sold out when it introduced games. I know they have to make money, but they're pretty good at generating revenue with unobtrusive ads, and lack of games on google+ had been part of the appeal. It made me feel . . . clean, like in the days before zombie bites on facebook.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Teaching: A Halfway Job?

Teaching is considered an easy job. For one thing, we only work three-fourths of the year (five-sixths, but who's counting?); for another thing, the content of our jobs is easy. It's the equivalent of babysitting. So I'd like to break down the duties of a teacher.


Teachers are responsible for the lives and livelihoods of 20-30 (or above) live bodies at a time. If you're a kindergarten teacher, you have my respect. If you're like me, you're working with sleep-deprived adolescents. Fun.

We literally are in charge of these kids' safety. We don't take attendance for nothing. Heck, we're practically prison guards to way we keep track of how long it takes for a student to go to the bathroom. Even during non-classroom time, teachers are often called upon to supervise groups of students during lunch, school events, and field trips. This is not fun. When I was Head Director of a mentorship program we took kids ages 4-15 on field trips every quarter. I was constantly counting bodies as we moved from place to place (say, in a science museum), and freaking out when people were missing. Sometimes a child just went to the bathroom. Usually the child had told his or her mentor, but no one told me. Did I mention this field trip was with 10+ competent adults? Teachers have to do that without the 10+ competent adults.

Teachers really are babysitters, or "chaperones" if you want to put it in more polite terms. We need to account for every student body at all times, even if the student is a reliable teenager who can be trusted to not go around having sex or doing drugs. I explained to one such student that we were responsible for students in case there was an earthquake and a cabinet fell on her. She said that she thought she could get out herself.


Luckily they were good kids. If they weren't I would be reduced to doing this. I do have to stop kids from running in the hallways, eating food in my classroom, and be prepared to take responsibility for their safety at all times. Except that I was given zero training in this.


A lot of people think that teachers can do their jobs on their feet and in their sleep, and some of us sometimes do, but knowing one's content is actually a pretty important job. There's a reason we're supposed to have at least a bachelor's in what we're teaching. For one thing, although you may not cover college level material with your high-schoolers, you're supposed to be preparing them for college level material. Besides which, you might just have some advanced students in your class that need more material to be engaged. Lastly, I believe in infecting students with my love of learning. I used to think, "My students don't care about English, I shouldn't be too nerdy around them." Then I read an article about infecting my students with one's love of learning, and I realized I shouldn't be ashamed of my love of the English language. I should be modeling it. One of my favorite teachers in high school was my calculus teacher. He couldn't spell and encouraged us to correct his spelling. He waxed his whiteboards with car wax. He read math textbooks before going to sleep. I didn't learn to love calculus from him, but I gained an appreciation for math from him.

Therefore, a teacher should be constantly researching his or her subject matter. This does, of course, include the content material. It's not enough to read the textbook (though one should, at the very least, read the textbook). One should be reading novels and criticism and Sparknotes. Especially sparknotes: it will help you catch plagiarism. I remember one English professor I had who was originally a technical writer for IBM. He loved and cared about the integrity of his job so much that when he was a TA, he read every single piece of criticism on the text that he could get his hands on. Of course he immediately identified a plagiarizer. In addition, reading criticism gives you an overview of what stuff you could cover, should you choose.

Because teaching literature, or any other subject, is not about being about to cite from memory (or in your paper) myriad facts gleaned from reading or lecture. It is about analyzing the primary sources on one's own and being about to create and synthesize new information. Therefore, teachers should not only be researching the content of their subject, but how to teach students.

Though I would love to someday have the time and resources to skim through peer-reviewed scholarly articles about education, for now my informal research has unearthed such gems such as what material to use to teach reading comprehension, why reading fiction is important, another way of teaching grammar, and how pronouns are a clue to personality and writing style. Most of that has to do with my content knowledge. I also hope to review articles about Bloom's Taxonomy, ways to effectively question students, how to do backwards design, and how to effectively differentiate instruction.


I recently read an excellent book about introverts called Quiet, the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. In the book, the author, who used to be a high-powered lawyer herself, talked about men and women in similarly high-powered jobs where they occasionally had to give a speech or a presentation--some kind of talk. Introverts don't like doing this, but they put up with the occasional presentation because they like other aspects of their job. At this point I was starting to think I needed a career change because teachers give presentations every day, usually several times a day.

My schedule is a bit unusual, but I have three academic classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, one academic class on Tuesdays and Fridays, and two academic classes on Thursdays. That means, on any given week, I will have to prepare and present ten different presentations.

Presenting is difficult because you have a captive, sometimes unwilling, sometimes sleep-deprived audience who aren't as excited about pronouns as you are.

Preparing the presentations also takes a lot of thought and planning, and I find it one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching. However, lesson planning is usually usurped by other duties, such as--


I have no idea what the average editor or copy-writer reads per day, perusing hundreds of lines with different colored pencils underlining this or that. An editor's job is to make a writer's language more coherent, to catch mistakes in reasoning, and to catch grammatical mistakes. A good editor also helps a writer develop his or her own personal writing style, if the writer is not adept at this already. I happen to be a English teacher, but I'm sure teachers in the other humanities have this trouble as well. Math and science teachers probably spend a bit more time looking at math problems gone awry or diagrams of cellular or atomic structures. In any case, all students should take notes.

Granted, my students are not working on novels. They don't even turn in papers every day--only about once a month. However, each time they turn in their papers, I have a stack of a minimum of sixteen papers to grade. It takes me about half an hour to go through a paper with a rubric. I stop grading if I catch myself skimming over works and glazing over when deciding which box to check on the rubric. Superior papers are easier to grade, and perhaps only take ten minutes. Still, if I have to grade sixteen papers at a rate of ten minutes per paper, I will have to spend 160 minutes, or 2 hours and 40 minutes grading papers for one class. This is probably why I dread starting each stack.

In addition, before the final paper I do at least one teacher edit where I edit a draft and then meet with the student individually to talk about the paper while trying to keep the rest of the class quiet and on task with something else, usually grammar homework.

Of course, that's just for one class. Soon my twenty-four strong class turns in their papers. In addition, my literature classes are consistently turning in quizzes and "short" papers which are one page to 500 words. I have to grade these too--yes, even the quizzes, because I make them write sentences with their vocabulary words and extended definitions of literary terms where they analyze and evaluate said literary terms.

In addition, I also have to critique any number of presentations and projects throughout a quarter. Presentations can consist of powerpoints and prezis. Projects include tri-folds and booklets.

Data Entry:

Data entry is a respectable office job. My boyfriend used to have a job that was nothing but data entry and making phone calls to angry debtors (okay, at least I don't have to do that). Once I get everything graded, I can enter the data onto my computer at a rate of about 30 seconds per assignment, but I usually try and arrange for my TA to do this for me. She finishes in about 2 and a half minutes, but that's 2 and a half minutes that can be spent actually grading quizzes.


In case you haven't noticed, teachers have cheerily decorated classrooms. This is not a coincidence. Some schools require teachers to have a certain amount of charts, diagrams, and students work up on the walls. My students do do some projects which are appropriate for this type of display, but usually I get them to decorate my walls for me by offering extra credit for vocabulary flaps, posters, and large, colorful subordinating conjunctions and wait patiently for them to turn it in--a week before grades are due.

In addition to decorating one's classroom, one is also expected to maintain a space where as many as 80 students may traipse in and out per day, bringing with them their secret colas, candy wrappers, and scraps of papers used to draw doodles or write notes on, or simply make origami out of. Luckily I have a crew of homeroom students who help me sweep the room and clean the tables of drawings--unless they're called to an assembly.


Teachers are in charge of cleaning up scrap paper airplanes and eraser shavings left by students. They also occasionally have to mop up spilled drinks that students illegally sneak into the classroom.

Workshop Leader:

Lecturing is only (supposed to be) half or less of the battle now. Teachers should also be walking students through classwork, groupwork, and discussions--usually designed or modified by the teacher herself. For example, I once had my students diagram how various literary terms such as narrative writing, descriptive writing, imagery, figurative language, metaphor, personification, and simile were related to each other. After that, they had to come up with an example for each and decorate their diagram.

My duty while they were working was to go out and have a cigarette. Of course not. I was walking amongst the groups. Some were on track and enthusiastic and didn't need much help--just some positive reinforcement. Other groups were having trouble understanding the directions or coming up with examples. In some groups, the work not was evenly distributed among group members. In these cases, I was facilitating the workshop process.

Of course leading workshops does give me more downtime than lecture, and I can do some data entry or lesson planning or editing if all groups seem to be on track, but at the same time I have to maintain focus and move onto the next step of the workshop before the students complete their work and get bored. In some (most) cases, some groups are still working while others are done. In this case, I encourage the "finished" groups to add more detail.


Lately I've been reading articles from the Harvard Business Review on how to deal with the people you are managing. These articles strike me as very similar to how you would manage your students in terms of happiness and productivity. Schools are factories now anyway, people say.


I said that being a teacher was like being a presenter or workshop leader, except it's not. We have a captive audience, but they didn't sign up to be there, and may not even care about the extrinsic reward I'm supposed to give them. So really, I'm supposed to sell my subject: why it's important (something my fellow math and even history colleagues don't understand) and why they should love it. I'm supposed to sell my love of learning. I'm supposed to be a--
Role Model:

There is a reason why some teachers can be fired for formally being sex workers. We're supposed to be role models. In my case I teach adolescent boys, and I try and make it so that they will never have access to a picture of me in a bikini (so no facebook friending). It is also unprofessional for me to appear drunk, otherwise intoxicated, or anything but a shade from asexual on--oh, anywhere on the domain of the internet. In addition, it's not wise for me to go to school or be walking around my school's neighborhood wearing shorts and a low-cut tank top, even if the heat is blistering outside.

I am also supposed to refrain (I assume) from taking up my 11th grade girls' offer of trying their new nail polish--at least during class (put that way for now).

Role modeling is a tricky business. On the one hand, I am not supposed to show any religious or political biases. On the other hand, as I once said to a fellow friend and educator, one goes into teaching specifically to influence children, hoping to make them better adults--of course that includes my political views on freedom of speech, equality, diversity, and the environment.

So sometimes I espouse my own views, but more often than not I challenge my own students by asking them what they think, and play devil's advocate either way. Now I have to rant about a fellow teacher.

He is guilty of egregiously making clear his biases because he happens to be a history teacher. Personally, I think he's ethnocentric, and told him so once, but he dismissed my comment. Another experienced colleague of ours mentioned that what he does is particular hurtful because of his field. That being said, history teachers are often biased, I feel. My middle school teacher was fairly liberal, and that influenced my views. My sister's middle school teacher was very conservative, and that influenced my sister's views in a way neither I nor my mom liked. Luckily she grew out of it. My US AP History teacher also had a conservative bent that she occasionally waved, but I was in 11th grade by then and could take what she said with a grain of salt. So perhaps this particular history teacher is not doing his students a great disservice.

Nevertheless, when I overhear his lectures on Modern China, they seem to consist of him mostly making fun of China--something he is wont to do in normal conversations with colleagues. I wonder how his students, who are Asian, take his ethnocentric world view, for example, ordering nachos in every country he visits as an indicator of how developed and modernized the country is (which is a pretty interesting idea).

Unfortunately, he does seem to be influencing his students. I once walked by his bulletin board and saw a chart comparing Islam and Christianity. It was a pretty horrible chart, basically comparing a liberal view of Christianity to the extreme fundamentalist aspects of Islam. I don't believe that indicates good research skills or critical thinking.


While we are on the aspect of this particular teacher, I might as well talk about mentoring. Mentoring can be anything from answering a student's question to asking a student a question, to complimenting a student to sending home a notice of concern about missed homework assignments. It is finding time to sit down with a student personally about what he or she can work on, regardless of the student's performance. It is looking up terms and ideas that students asked you, but which you did not know the answer to at the time. It is noticing when a student is looking tired or sick of down. It is helping students find their place in life, the path they want to be on, and the person they want to be. Then we help them get there.

I can definitely work on my mentoring skills. Now to bag on the history teacher for a bit, I did observe one of his classes and noticed three things about his relationship to the students. One was that he often asked yes-no or remembering questions during his lecture, and did not focus on students' answers by expanding on them; always back to the content. The second was five minutes into some independent seat work, when he came up to and noticed an ESL student had not started on her work yet. While it was good that he identified the issue, he could have taken proactive steps to catch it faster. The third was when on the opposite end of the scale, one of his best, most outspoken, and most articulate student (I determined from observing one class) read her short response. It was critical and articulate. He moved on immediately without even a "Good job."

The last thing, which I did not bring up to him but which I thought was very hurtful, was when he asked one student a question and the student said he didn't know. At that point the teacher asked, "You don't know? You don't have any thoughts in your head?" I and other teachers have said variations of that to our students. Perhaps we shouldn't, but when we do we use humorous tones or tones or surprise. He used a disdainful tone, one that he used to talk about certain things in his lecture, but which I thought was particularly inappropriate toward a student.

I have to say I learned a lot more about what not to do from this particular teacher than what to do. I have to say, he has very well-prepared powerpoints and his lectures have excellent content. But I would not call him a great or even a good teacher, at least not for that particular grade level.

The Problem with Teaching:

The problem with teaching is that it is largely a self-motivated job. You can put a lot of time, energy, and even personal resources into it--if you want to. You can do a mediocre or a great job and no one will notice or give you recognition for it, monetary or otherwise. Your students will complain about the homework you give them and ask to watch movies in class like other, cool, teachers.

In addition, there is a lack of mentoring in education. From what I read about most businesses, there is a corporate culture that you are trained to fit into and your supervisor trains you--or at least tells you what your duties are. Most schools don't seem to have that; most teachers are in their own classrooms doing their own thing, occasionally collaborating with a friend. Even when senior teachers are willing and eager to observe and mentor you, your schedules might conflict. Little to no time is set aside for collaboration.

If you think about it, teachers are like small business owners, or rather, like managers of a store that is given no instructions on how to run it. There is a customer base, but they are unhappy. The company tells the managers to increase sales and keep customer satisfaction high, but with strict restrictions and little to no support.

This, along with the relative ease with which one can enter the profession, the relative difficulty of kicking out people unsuitable for the job, the low pay, and the low status, make teaching a pretty undesirable position for those who actually care about doing a good job.

I've only been a teacher for a couple of years. I've gone over now familiar material and have achieved a rhythm for my classes and a rapport with my students, but I am still convinced more than ever that teaching is a difficult job. With it's holidays and vacations and leaving at 4pm (but arriving before 8am), it is a halfway job. It is halfway down many jobs--at the intersection of at least 9. Other duties include cheerleader, academic nurse, negotiator, prosecuting lawyer, and petitioner. Other names my colleagues and I have come up with to garner more respect include "information systems management professional" and "productivity and negative disposition rehabilitator."

And now I will leave you with this:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Half-assed Hospital

I was so upset at my treatment at the hospital yesterday that I literally cried twice.

The first day when I went to the emergency room wasn't so bad except that--surprise!--I had pneumonia. They had earlier drawn blood from that normal place on the back of your elbow, but to do a blood culture they had to draw more, and for some reason they decided to draw it from the back of my hand where my IV was going to go. That hurt. Then they drew yet more blood, this time from my other arm, thank goodness. Then I got to wait in bed for approximately three hours before they moved me into my room and gave me some medication.

The next day, I expected to feel better. I was on antibiotics, for Christ's sake, but my fever stayed high, my cough stayed strong (even when I did drink their opium juice), and I couldn't sleep through the night. In addition, I had a low-grade but constant headache (I still do, actually), and felt nauseous at the smell of food. In addition, I had a sore and bleeding perineum that I suspected was infected that hadn't been attended to.

So in the late afternoon, after a nice visit from some co-workers, they decided it was time for me to see the gynecologist. Luckily my boyfriend accompanied me. First we waited for about a half an hour to see the first gynecologist, who stuck something up my vagina to examine it before I told him the real problem was the skin beneath (not inside) my vagina. He prodded it a bit with his fingers. I don't know how it looks, but I was surprised that he hadn't at least tried to clean it off with antiseptic or something.

Then we were told to go across the waiting room to wait for a sonogram. I didn't see why I needed a sonogram, since I wasn't pregnant and I was pretty sure nothing was wrong with my vagina. This took forever, and I was shivering by this point. Finally I went in to ask. Luckily an orderly saw my IV and moved me up. The sonogram wasn't so bad, other than A) I thought it was unnecessary B) I had to take my pants off, which made me colder because C) in Taiwan they do sonograms by sticking something up your vagina instead of moving something over gel plastered over your abdomen.

Then we went outside to wait again. After awhile, a nurse came and asked us to move to the other side of the waiting room again to wait to speak to the doctor, but my boyfriend convinced me to just sit where we had been, since there were two seats next to each other there (it was a pretty crowded waiting room). After we waited for awhile longer, I started crying out of frustration and from the cold (and my escalating fever). After I calmed down, my boyfriend asked me if I wanted to just go back to my bed. Since we had been there for so long anyway, I said we could wait five more minutes, but my boyfriend convinced me to go up two minutes later. On my way out, I went to go speak with the nurse about how I was leaving because my fever was too high. She asked me to wait a little while longer, but I said no.

Back in my section of the room, I immediately huddled into bed. My IV was almost out, so I thought about calling the nurse, but Mike said it looked like one should come at 8, which was in 10 minutes.

So I tried to fall asleep. I stopped shivering about half an hour later, and figured now I would actually be able to fall asleep, so I decided to call the nurse. The call button has a wall button and a hanging cord. I pressed the wall button and it didn't work, so I resorted to calling out to people on my bed. Some kind lady found me a nurse, who while changing my IV did this weird test thing they do, where the squeeze the IV line so that blood goes into it. This was really painful for me. My hand had been sore for most of the day, probably because there was pressure being put on the place of insertion every time they took my blood pressure (which they did at least 3 times).

Apparently that's not normal, because she seemed surprised when I screamed in pain. She kept messing with it to test it, prompting more screaming and tears, so she said she would move the IV, maybe to my other arm. I said no, because I didn't want two fucked up hands. In the meantime she took my blood pressure (on my other arm) and took my temperature and discovered I had a really high fever. Also, when I told her the call button didn't work, she told me to use the button on the bottom of the hanging cord.

In any case, she switched my IV from the back of my hand to one on the side of my wrist, with a smaller needle. It's so non-invasive, I don't know why they didn't do it in the first place. She also brought the anti-bacterial gel for my perineum.

The nurse was nice, but I was still upset about the whole gynecologist waiting room debacle and now the neglect until empty IV and high fever, so I called my boyfriend to vent. He was really pissed off.

I was angry too. Like I told my boyfriend in the waiting room of shivers, I felt like I was in the hospital not because I needed to be (see CURB-65), but for the convenience of the doctors. Granted, nurses came in a lot to take my blood pressure and my temperature, and maybe the antibiotics they're giving me can only be delivered via IV, but doctors wandered in and out as they pleased in groups of at least two, sometimes asking for or giving redundant information. (I'll be in the hospital for at least three more days.)

The gynecologist part is the worst, of course. My boyfriend mentioned when we first went to the waiting room that he thought that they could have just sent a doctor up to look at me. It's not that hard; I'm in the hospital already. The waiting was ridiculous though. I appreciate that there were a lot of pregnant women there, but if I had gone to see my regular gynecologist, not only would I not had to have waited that long, but she could have done the checkup and the sonogram from the same set of stirrups.

I'm not sure if this is indicative of hospital culture, Taiwanese hospital culture, or nationalized healthcare (I suspect it's not this one). Thoughts?