Friday, July 25, 2014

Professor for one year (week 48): Who does profit from MOOCs?

Actually, this blog post was scheduled for the first week of March. However, the topic is still relevant even a few weeks later. Just pretend it's early March 2014 (i.e., cold and rainy) while reading.

During our visit of US higher ed institutions last year, we met James P. Honan from Harvard's Grad School of Education. We discussed various things and also touched e-learning and MOOCs. Honan told us about his experiences as a teacher and consumer of e-learning courses and contents and then some musing started about the underlying principles of MOOCs. I will briefly follow up here.

From a didactically point of view, massive open online courses (MOOCs) are old wine in new skins. I wrote about this part in an earlier post. E-Learning courses hosted on servers of universities started around 2000, and courses supported by current technology are as old as TV. The only new aspect is the "massiveness". At a university, e-learning courses are offered to the students of a particular subject at a certain point of their studies enrolled at that specific university. So there might be several hundreds of students using the materials of a course.

Going "massive" and "open", those courses skip restrictions -- everybody can take part -- but no change in didactics might be involved. Allowing more than only a few hundred users to access the material may involve changes in server architecture, maybe clustering, but not necessarily in the general technology used for user interaction and the like.

However, someone has to run those servers and someone should be paid for maintenance. The first MOOCs were developed from scratch, not just scaled e-learning courses (there will be another post on this aspect, stay tuned) -- maybe the content providers would need some payment, too. But declaring those courses as "open" doesn't only mean everybody may join, but also means nobody should pay anything for taking part. So where should the money come from to pay development and maintenance?

Honan gave a hint when he told about the fear of teaching staff at universities: Attending a course may have two main reasons. People just are curious about a certain topic (a), or people have to acquire certain knowledge (due to job demands or the like) and that involves getting a certificate (b). For a certificate, attendees would have to do some sort of exam. And this exam would have to be assessed and graded by someone. And guess who is qualified for assessing and grading student work? Right, teaching staff.

So while in the early years of e-learning instructors feared to be replaced by machines, the advent of MOOCs makes instructors fear to be used for grading only. And in the end, to be replaced by cheap grading staff -- why should you need highly qualified academics when you can have people trained to grade certain exams only. MOOCs would not result in replacing humans, but in downgrading educators.

At the one hand, this nightmare might not become true to the extend instructors might expect -- similar to the fear of teachers being replaced be educational TV shows or e-learning courses --, but on the other hand, that's probably part of the business model of companies like Coursera, edX, or Udacity. Participation in MOOCs might be free, but to get a certificate you would have to pay -- part of this money might get down to the graders, but most of it will go to the company owners. Those certificates don't have to cost a fortune. Look at prices for apps -- as long as the audience is big enough, small fees are fine.

Of course, with "certificate" a mean any piece of paper stating that you passed the exam of this course. As soon as participants actively demand official certificates of the hosting institutions, e.g., from Stanford or the MIT, another question arises: How much is such a certificate worth? As an on-campus student, you would have to pay a lot of money -- if you would ever get accepted in the first place. However, nobody would pay several thousand dollars for an on-line course offered or developed by Stanford or MIT staff.

So maybe several hundred dollars? But wouldn't that be a hard competition for those Ivy League Universities? If I could get a prestigious certificate without moving to Stanford and without enormous debts, why should I even send an application to Stanford? But here we're already touching another topic.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Professor for one year (week 47): Teaching investment and payoff

This is the 47th post in the series "Professor for one Year."  Initially, I had planned to post something every week.  However, my year is over and I still have some weeks left in the series.  The topics for the missing posts are already planned, so the only thing I need is some time to write ...

Apropos of time:  How much time do you spend on teaching, including preparation, interacting with students, assessment, grading?  As I wrote two weeks ago and also in week 24, teaching did take up a lot of my time.  I argued that the time allocated to teaching -- including preparation and grading -- should be the same as the time students have to invest to take a particular class -- i.e., the ECTS credits should describe the amount of work students and instructors have to invest.  However, for a regular seminar with 9 ECTS credits, this would mean 18 hours per semester week.  So, no more than three courses (54 hours per week) and then you would have to do some of the other work in the non-lecture time aka semester break to stay at least somewhat healthy and within the regulatory framework of labor law (41 hours per week).

Let's have a look at the workload of professors; 39 to 41 hours per week include:

  • administrative work (keeping track of all the different contracts for your PhD students and PostDocs, help with finding new researchers, mentoring your PhD students, hold staff meetings, etc.)
  • committee activities at your local university (attend faculty meetings, serve on appointment committees, attend senate meetings, etc.)
  • committee activities in your scientific community (attend meetings of societies, have some duties there, review for conferences and workshops, review for funding agencies, etc.)
  • write grant proposals (you don't get much state or university money for staff)
  • teaching
  • doing research
  • publish about research
There are studies on professoral activities, showing that professors work more than the 40 hours they get paid for, and that they spend only little time on activities one would usually associate with "being a professor" -- teaching and doing research.

Having a social live, too, and assuming that maybe you don't want to work every weekend, but roughly 50 hours per week -- of course, you think about some issues during your non-working time and you have ideas outside you office --, the question remains: which of the activities are really important and where could you spend less time?  You cannot cut on administrative work, but you could try to delegate some tasks.  Most of the committee activities at your university are related to the status of a professor, so no chance of delegating something there.  You can delegate tasks for your scientific community like reviewing conference or workshop papers -- however, as an author, you'd rather want to get feedback from senior researchers, not from PhD students, so this is a bit tricky.  You could hire someone for writing grant proposals and you could even let your PhD students and PostDocs write most of the articles on which you appear as co-author.  Even the research you could delegate to members of your group, at least part of it.  So you are the one who has ideas and then somebody else is experimenting if they are worth to be investigated much deeper -- for computational linguistics, this means that you find someone who does the programming along the lines of your roughly sketched new approach.  So most of the activities could be delegated to other people, and maybe the quality even improves because you profit from including more people and thus more ideas and more skills than one could have oneself.

And for teaching?  Oh, that's easy: You take the slides and exercises you developed years ago (or you even borrowed from somebody) and use them term after term without changes.  You find teaching assistants doing all the tutoring and exercises with students.  You cut short on mentoring: students have to come up with topics for theses themselves, and somehow they should know by then how to write a thesis, don't they?  This way, you can drastically reduce the time spent on teaching.  And to be honest, that's the most obvious way:  I didn't have duties in committees at the university during my year as professor, but even then, I could hardly keep up with my scientific community activities, and I did have absolutely no time to write grant proposals, do research, or even publish.  In other words: I had to invest almost all of my time in teaching and I definitely couldn't afford this for a real professorship.  On the positive side, I now have quite a teaching record, from which I can benefit in the future.  But honestly, I also enjoyed mentoring and advising students even though this takes up a lot of time.  And in the end it's the only way to have someone try an idea and report some results I might be able to use for proposals or further research (eventually resulting in publications, too).

However, having a teaching load as high as 9 SWS must result in reduced teaching effort, and thus in  lower-quality teaching as professors cannot afford investing most of their working hours in teaching. So one solution would be to value teaching more, or to reduce teaching load -- students then could expect good-quality teaching and mentoring.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Professor for one year (week 46): Writing research across borders

After teaching is over, I packed my suitcase and took the TGV to Paris.  I attended the Third Writing Research Across Borders (WRAB) conference which took place at the University of Paris-Ouest Nanterre la DefĂ©nse.

WRAB takes place every third year, 2011 it was at the Georg Mason University in Washington, D.C., and 2008 at was hosted by the University of California Santa Barbara.  It is the biggest and most international conference on writing research I'm aware of.  The conferences organized by EARLI's SIG Writing (which take place every other year) are also international (i.e., not only European), but much smaller.

The number of participants, number of submitted and accepted proposals, and the number of concurrent sessions is constantly growing.  They actually had 26 parallel sessions!  It was almost impossible to find out which of the talks/presentations would be the most suitable one depending on your own interests.  There was a bit of Twitter traffic going on, so I could see that related topics would be discussed at various sessions all taking place at the same time.  The program was so dense and there were so many people, I draw the comparison to LREC (the International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation), taking place every other year.  LREC is growing still and you can be sure to meet almost everybody from the NLP community there.  If LREC is the conference to be for NLP, then WRAB is the conference to be for writing research.

And WRAB shares another not so nice feature with LREC: Although you know that everybody is there (or you even searched the program for the name of some colleagues), you cannot meet someone during a coffee break or over lunch unless you actively make an appointment.  I like small- or mid-sized conferences better.

As I had no time to submit papers to NLP conferences during this year, those writing research conferences (and also conferences/workshops on linguistics) will be the only conferences I actively attend in 2014 -- you only have to submit a very short abstract, not a full paper.  At WRAB, I presented ongoing work on a systematic analysis of complex writing errors.  I argued to go a step further than current error analysis in writing research, NLP, or (second) language acquisition -- we have to consider the process that caused an error when classifying writing errors.  This way, we could on the one hand distinguish competence errors and performance errors and we could on the other hand come up with actual proposals on how to automatically prevent or correct certain types of errors.  Fortunately, I found a possibility to actually publish this -- I will give the details once the publication is a available.

I could meet colleagues from Europe and The Americas, we exchanged ideas and made loose appointments for SIG Writing's Conference on Writing Research in August.  So yes, the conference was successful.  As I already new that I would start at IMS in Stuttgart in April, I could tell people about my new affiliation and I made some loose collaboration and cooperation agreements.  I hope I can actually work on that in Stuttgart.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Professor for one year (week 45): Last week of teaching

Finally it's mid February and the last week of teaching is over.  This semester (Winter term 2013/2014), I taught four courses: on Computational Morphology aka XFST, on Computational Semantics aka Prolog, on Natural Language Processing, and on logging writing processes and exploring those data.

Except for the NLP course, I had to prepare everything from scratch.  There was material I could use and it definitely helped to "borrow" ideas and exercises for the two programming courses, but I spent all time with preparing slides (for all courses) and data (especially for the writing processes course) or assessing student solutions.

I also realized that I have to work on my elocution: When I teach two classes back-to-back, my voice is almost gone at the end of the day although I regularly sip some water.  Of course, one solution would be not to talk that much myself, but to let students contribute more.  However, staying focused for 90 minutes and trying to be louder than the 30 computers plus keyboarding noise and to keep students awake is stress to my voice.

As for the exams, I did different things:
  • For the Prolog course, I had an exam similar to the Perl course last semester.  The grade is made up by points earned during the semester by submitting solutions for three exercises and then there is a final exam consisting of a more theoretical part to be answered on paper and a more practical part where students actually program.  I could assess the theoretical part while students worked on the programming tasks, nice multitasking.
  • For the XFST course, students earned some points by solving three assignments during the semester, too.  And then they will submit small projects including documentation within 4 weeks.
  • For the NLP course, students earned some points during the semester by submitting solutions for three assignments and then I had a classic written exam at the very last session.  Students had to answer one question per topic.  Looks like the handwriting of most students is more or less readable.
  • For the writing process course, students had to work on a project during the second half of the semester.  They defined a small research question to investigate in groups of two, recorded a writing session for each person, and then explored the logged data and wrote a small report.  I will report on this experimental didactic setting at the next Conference on Writing Research in August. 
I could time the assessments for the three NLP-related courses so I had to come up with an assignment every week and I had to grade an assignment every week.  I preferred a constant but moderate workload instead of giving assignments to all three courses in the same week.  In every course, students had to read research papers (classics and recent ones) in groups and present the content to their colleagues.  Students also had to relate the paper they presented to the material presented or discussed before and they had to comment on whether or not they agree with the authors based on their prior knowledge and being almost full-fledged and approved linguists themselves (they where all master students except for the XFST course).

So teaching is over, I wait for the project submissions of two courses and I have to assess the written exam for NLP and the Prolog programs.  I hope to submit all grades by the end of March to actually finish all teaching stuff when my appointment in Konstanz ends.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Professor for one year (week 44): Publication speed

When you read a paper about "current research" or "recent findings" of a project, are you sure this project is still ongoing or finished only recently (considering the publication date and the date of reading)?  Are you really reading about current research, about something that the authors are currently working on?

If the paper appears as part of proceedings of a computer science or computational linguistics conference, it is fair to draw this conclusion. A paper published in fall 2005 most probably describes research from late 2004 or early 2005. The proceedings appear at the date of the conference at the very latest. Of course authors have to submit their final papers a few weeks in advance -- publishing with Springer, as we do for the Workshop on Systems and Frameworks for Computational Morphology (SFCM), requires editors to submit everything to eight weeks before the conference date, so authors have to submit their final paper roughly three months before the conference (and thus before the presentation of their work). That's pretty fast for an actually printed publication. It could be even faster for electronic publication only, reducing the time span to maybe one month.

However, if you look into other disciplines, publication speed is much slower. The last project at the University of Basel was somewhat interdisciplinary, involving linguistics and computational linguistics. So we went to conferences/workshops in both fields and we also published in both fields. As there are rarely proceedings for linguistic conferences that actually appear at the date of the conference, we usually submitted a paper to a call after the conference. Mostly, those papers appeared in edited volumes as part of a book series.

Due to different publication speed, the very first article we wrote (corresponding to the very first talk we gave during the project -- there had been talks on the topic before the project started) appeared after the project was finished. So everything we said about how to tackle various challenges and what we would like to achieve was published only when we already had those results. Which in general isn't that big of an issue if we would have published all other papers in a similar way: articles on single aspects of the project or on the outcome would appear later.

However, some of the more technical or NLP-related aspects we published at NLP-related conferences.  So we now have the strange situation, that the somewhat "starting" paper presented at a conference in April 2011 is published much later (mid 2013) than papers on the infrastructure we developed and used (fall 2012). Someone trying to follow the project thus has a hard timer figuring out what to conclude from which publication.

Late publications are often due to slow processes during submission (extension of deadlines on request of other authors), during review, during revision and resubmission, during editing, and then during actual printing or putting it online.  Together with Robert Dale I wrote a handbook chapter which finally appeared now, in February 2014.  The whole book project started in early 2011 (probably even earlier as there probably had been negotiations with the publisher first).  We submitted our chapter on time, received two reviews and submitted a revised version (i.e., the final version!) in October 2012.  And now, one and a half years later, we finally got the printed book.  In the meantime I changed universities twice (from Basel to Konstanz to Stuttgart).  So I had to report a change in affiliation, author bio, e-mail and postal address twice.  If I wouldn't have reported those changes, the editors wouldn't have been able to reach me to ask me look at the galley proofs. (In the end, the publisher send the book to a totally strange address I never reported, anyway ...)

For most of the delays in various processes, explanations can be found.  Sometimes someone gets sick, but most of the time it is due to poor production processes.  Submitting articles in MS word format with graphics and tables as separate files forces the editor/copy editor to spend a lot of time actually producing appropriately running text including figures and tables.  Marking keywords manually on paper slows down indexing extremely.  And so it goes on and on.

Given the electronic tools we have today in document processing and document engineering, there is no real reason for slow publication speed.  Apart from the discussion on open access and how authors can make an impact by preferring open access publishers, authors can influence the speed of publication by choosing publishers or publishing methods with reasonable processing speed.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Professor for one year (week 43): Will there be research after your PhD?

This week, the new Rektor of the University of Zurich started his job.  There were several articles and interviews in various newspapers, where he announced what he wants to do next and what his long-term goals are.  In one article in the NZZ am Sonntag, one sentence struck me: "Wirklich geforscht habe er zuletzt als Doktorand" (The last time he did serious research was as a doctoral student).  And he apparently regrets that.

This statement made me wonder: What's your task as postdoc or as professor? When it's not research,  is it about writing grant and project proposals for other people only?  Is it mainly about teaching (looking at the workload, you could think so, I will comment on that in a later post)?  Or are your days filled with more administrative stuff, the higher your professional rank is?

There are several indicators that in fact, postdocs and professors acquire the money to then hire some doctoral student(s) to carry out the research the applicants have a genuine interest in.  For example, with the Swiss National Science Foundation, postdocs cannot submit proposals where they actually would carry out the research themselves (except for the Ambizione program, but that has specific requirements and is part of the career track, not of the project track).  You can submit a proposal and then hire someone -- but the proposal will be evaluated against the applicant's research profile.  The  DFG (German Research Foundation) recently introduced an instrument where you can apply for a grant for your own position as postdoc.  So this looks a bit better.

On the other hand: As a doctoral student, you are not eligible to submit proposals, so you have to find a postdoc or a professor who submits a project proposal you can then carry out.

Given that proposal writing is a serious but tedious task, there is of course less time to actually do some research.  Some universities in Germany have decided that some professors (rank W1 and sometimes even rank W2) cannot negotiate about academic personnel -- there simply will be no academic personnel, you have to write proposals to hopefully acquire third-party money to hire a teaching assistant or a doctoral student.  Isn't that weird?  Public universities are funded by tax payers, so shouldn't that cover all costs to run a university including all personnel needed?  Third-party funding today makes up almost a quarter of the budget of German universities.  On the one hand, it's a good sign: researchers find people who think the proposed research is worth funding it.  But it's also a bad sign: The state is only able (or willing) to fund three quarters of universities' budgets.  But that's more of a political discussion, I think.

However, there seems to be the general perception, that after your doctoral studies, there will be no time for serious research.  I recently heard the conversation of two PhD students: A just submitted his thesis and told B that he would have liked to investigate a slightly different topic, but his supervisor told him not to do so because of the risk of failure -- his research could have produced negative results.  They both agreed that this would have been more interesting and even more fun than to do something one could somehow even predict the results.  And then B concluded: "Only doctoral students do real science, so why don't they let us do risky things?  After your dissertation, you will not be able to really investigate something anymore."  Isn't that weird?  It seems to be widely accepted that your scientific life won't include research after you defended your dissertation; at the same time, it is assumed that you can only do "real" research if you've obtained a PhD, i.e., submit research proposals ...

I really have some research interests in computational morphology, computational phraseology, and writing technology where I would appreciate the help of master students or doctoral students, but where I would also like to explore some things myself -- even if this includes tedious annotation or hacking.  That's fun and only this way you can really discover something new.  I definitely aim to facilitate research by coordinating and managing projects, but I would still like to be part of the actual investigation.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Professor for one year (week 42): Ich hab Vertrag

OK, the title of this week's post is a quote or a reference to German soccer speak.  Mostly it's used to express that one has an ongoing contract.  However, I can now officially announce that I signed a new contract this week for when my year as substituting professor ends.

I will join the Institute for Natural Language Processing (IMS) in Stuttgart on April first (this is hopefully not a bad sign!).  It's only a 18-months contract, but I hope there will be a possibility for an extension.  I will do some teaching, coordination work for the Stuttgart CLARIN-D center, and I will continue research on phrasemes, morphological components, and writing technology.  At least, that's the plan.

What is most important: My academic adventures will go on after March 30, that's really good news. But there is a catch: We have to move.  But this is a different adventure.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Professor for one year (week 41): What's in your syllabus?

It's evaluation time again and one of my students wrote in the free form field "What else would you like to comment on":  "I don't know the learning objectives.  I searched the slides and didn't find anything."

I was offended: Why didn't she (it's a girls-only class) ask?  Of course it is in the short description of the class in the Learning Management System (we use ILIAS).  Of course it is in the short description of the class which instructors have to provide to be listed in the study management system where you find schedules, instructor information, etc.  Of course it is on the slides for the very first session -- I always have a proper slide titled "Learning objectives."

But somehow, she had missed the information.  So maybe one slide, five bullet points, or two paragraphs are not enough.

In the study management system, it looks like this:

You find all relevant information, it looks a bit structured, but no explicit learning objectives are given.  They are somehow hidden in the description field.  Instructors are asked to provide certain information (language of the course, material used, kind of exams), but they are not explicitly asked to provide learning objectives.  Maybe there should be even an extra field.

When I realized that other information is missing, too, I looked around how other instructors write a syllabus.  As a case in point I looked for writing related courses and found these:

All of them have extensive descriptions on what the course is about, what students will do, what's the motivation behind this course, comments on literature or other material used, etc.  Carrie Lamanna and Cheryl Ball have long explanations about the assignments: What do students have to do, how will the assignments be graded, and how do single assignments contribute to the final grade.  I do communicate these information, too, but I rather announce it in class and don't write it down to be read before the course starts.

Additionally, you can read the instructions for each assignment.   I only have this when I hand out the assignment.  As I found the syllabi after the courses had taken place, I cannot say if the assignments had been published before the courses started or if they had been added once at a time.

Of course it's great to find these sources and be able to use them as inspiration for your own course, but on the other hand, it means you cannot re-use those material for the next course (when I teach a similar course at another university, I often re-use assignments as there is only very little chance that students from university A have friends at university B who took my course).  And the instructors probably didn't use an LMS -- I don't think you put everything in your LMS and have an elaborate website.

If all material had been set up before the course start, this means a lot of preparation effort.  There are lists on which papers to read for which session, sometimes with comments even.  Although I have a schedule concerning which topic to cover in which session, I often search for papers one or two weeks before a particular session.  Maybe I should think about this and really invest a reasonable amount of time in proper preparation for the next classes.  Of course it helps if you teach a course for the second, third, etc. time -- you only have to look for new papers for a certain topic, but you already have all canonical material and you know how to proceed and what works in class.

What I really would like to adopt is the kind of course policy Cheryl Ball has in her syllabus.  It's an explicit list of what students can expect from this class and the instructor, and a very clear statement of what the instructor expects from the students to make this course a success for both parties.

I especially like her comments on grades: "Everyone in this class starts with a B/C.  How you participate changes that grade higher or lower."  And then follow a lot of actions influencing the grade positively or negatively.  For programming courses, when you actually can check student answers against a sample solution, grading might be a bit easier and more formally.  But in courses where there is no single right answer for an assignment, grading is much harder and usually students try to argue about grades.  So a policy on what influences the grade in a positive or negative way is really helpful -- and there should be no room for discussion left.  Everybody knows the consequences of their actions in class.

So I hope to have enough time before the next teaching appointment to spend more time for preparation and start actual teaching a bit more relaxed.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Professor for one year (week 40): How to drop out

With the Bologna process, teaching got a bit more structured than it was before: Students have to sign up for classes, they have to prove they learned something for each course, etc.  Even before Bologna, there were occasions when students had to sign up: There were always obligatory seminars with too few places, so you had to put your name on a list (on paper, of course) or be there one hour or more before it started to make sure you could attend this seminar.

Today, we've gotten rid of paper lists and we now have electronic tools where students can "book" classes -- everything has become very service-oriented.  However, there are different approaches on how and when to book a class.  In Basel and Zurich, booking starts some weeks before the beginning of the semester and ends two or three weeks after the first lesson.  It is thus possible for students to step back without any harm after attending a course for some weeks; but within four weeks into teaching, lecturers know who is a regular attendee and who will take part in the exam.  So from week 4 on, you can plan actual group work.

In Konstanz, students can attend classes without prior booking -- they have to sign up for the respective ILIAS course, though.  They have to sign up for the exam in the middle of the semester and can do so for two or three more weeks.  As an instructor, you only get to know who is interested in actually doing the exam when the semester is almost over!

Students have a lot of time deciding if they like your class or not.  Which is OK, but has a major drawback: I usually have some group work in my classes which are part of the exam.  So if one of the group members decides to not to be interested in this class anymore, the group is shrinking or even reduced to one student.  Which makes no sense and we then need to find other solutions for the left over group members.

What is even more annoying:  Students often drop out without sending a note to their colleagues or to me.  So for some weeks nobody knows whether someone is sick or has left the class.

Most universities also have introduced compulsory attendance, which is a bit strange when you consider that students are grown-ups with a certain interest in the subject.  However, you have to count heads every lesson and make sure everyone who should be there actually is there.  Students are allowed to skip up to two lessons (out of 14 or 15) without any negative consequences -- if they are seriously sick or have other duties (going to the WK [annual refresher course of the Swiss Army] or participating in an excursion) negotiations will start.  However, I always tell students to drop me a short note when they cannot attend a lesson -- it may have an impact on what we do in class.  Most of the students send me an e-mail or tell me in person if they cannot come the next week for whatever reason.  So this works quite well.

However, some students don't tell you when they cannot show up for the next lesson and they also don't tell if they decided to drop out.  In small institutes with only a few instructors and classes each semester, you always see those students again.  And it's a bit awkward attending one class but having skipped the other one.  At least I would feel a bit awkward, but when I ask students if they had been sick the other day in the other class, I sometimes hear: "Oh, I've decided to drop out, it's too much, I wanted to tell you, really!  And, it's not about you, really!"

Maybe I have to change my attitude and see myself as a service provider, not a mentor:  Attending a class or not is not about the subject or the instructor, it's just about balancing costs and benefits.  And when there's no "contract," there are no commitments, you just leave.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Professor for one year (week 38 and 39): Professional health pattern

The last teaching week in 2013, I was quite happy to still feel good.  I didn't catch a cold so far although a lot of people got sick around me.  But then came Christmas and a two weeks break.  And guess what?  After three days off (I slept longer, started to read one of the books from my ever growing to-read-shelf, had nice walkings in almost sunny weather, no class preparations, checking my e-mail accounts only once a day, ...), I first faced a sore throat and that was the end of my holidays. 

As usual, I had a really bad cold and couldn't enjoy my vacation as much as I hoped to.  But I could have probably guessed it:  There seems to be a professional health pattern with teachers/instructors.  Everybody thinks they have a lot of vacation and in general don't do much.  However, comes vacation, they get sick and don't do all the exciting stuff they planned to do.  We do everything to not get sick during a lecture period, we try all kinds of household remedy to fight first signs of sore throats, colds of even flu.  We actually give classes on crutches or with really bad back aches.  We even try to schedule surgeries and long-term treatments to take place during vacation and live on painkillers until then.

You can probably guess the profession of patients when looking at when they get sick -- people facing health problems during their vacation are most probably teaching somewhere.

However, we could enjoy a few Winter days at the Baltic Sea:

It looks a bit like a Caspar David Friedrich painting, doesn't it?

Professor for one year (week 37): Winter term break

Some weeks ago, I commented on term dates and my feelings towards winter term.  Actually, it's not 4 but 6 weeks of teaching after New Year.  This means, the Christmas/New Year break is roughly in the middle of winter term.

I felt uncomfortable with teaching after New Year, but this was mainly due to having still contact with colleagues teaching in Switzerland.  I don't feel exhausted the way I usually feel at the end of a semester, i.e., like this owl posted on Facebook some time ago:

In fact, having a break in the middle of the term offers some chances:

  • I will start the second part of the term with a repetition/summary.  When there's no break, I usually don't do this because I'm hesitant to "lose" a session while there is so much students should get to know/practice.
  • Students have a bit more time for "homeworks." And I hope this pays off with respect to quality.  Usually, they have two weeks for submitting assignments.  I don't include the days of the Christmas/New Year break.
  • I have some time to unwind and I hope to be not as exhausted as usually at the end of the term.
However, it still feels odd that the week after Winter term in Konstanz ends, Spring term in Switzerland starts. So I'm very happy to have no teaching appointment in Switzerland for Spring.