Monthly Archives: June 2018

Tractor beams, wineries, and flat tires

This past weekend the summer weather cooled enough to justify getting on the bike again. I did some exploring of the Fuchu Furusato Nature Park (that’s where I took the photo above). There’s a golf course at the top of the hill there, and it’s a relatively convenient place to get over Kureha Mountain (It’s called a mountain but it’s more of a long hill) to the cycling on the other side. However, because of the golf course you have a moderate amount of traffic on the road up, and I was curious about whether there was a road that would allow me to avoid having to cycle together with that traffic (there is).

There’s also a ‘pond’ (Furudo Pond) and according to Google, a road going around the pond, and I wanted to see how cycle-friendly that road was (it wasn’t):

I should have taken a picture, but after the road turned to gravel, it pretty quickly turned into churned forest floor. On a hybrid bike without suspension, with my feet locked into spd pedals, I decided it best to turn around before I had the drama of some spectacular accident. The beware of bears and wild boar signs didn’t help the case for continuing forward instead of turning around. Neither did having listened to an NPR story that morning about an emergency room physician paralyzed in a mountain biking accident. I should have gotten a picture of the trail, but didn’t think to take one until I was back on paved road. I should also offer my apologies to the half dozen spiders I picked up in the forest. I’m sure they worked very hard to create their webs only to have a foreigner come and rip them from their homes.

After that, I pretty much stuck to roads I know. I passed the entrance to the Toyama Astronomical Observatory and headed up to a fork where National Roads 237 and 432 meet. Going left would have taken me up a hill, through a short tunnel, then basically back to where I had started. Going right could eventually take me to Horaisan, a local winery:

The ensuing conflict in my decision making process is captured pretty well in my texts with Jerry Talandis:

As the texts above summarize, I made it to the winery, unlocking the Buy a Bottle of Wine and Drunken Party at my Place Tonight achievement badges, but about two kilometers from Jerry’s place my tire went flat and that was the end of the cycling adventure for the day.

I called Yuki to rescue me, walked the rest of the way to Jerry’s place, and we drank coffee and had Panda Panda bread until the cavalry arrived.

Could I carry a spare tube and/or a patch kit? Yes. But I would much rather fix a flat in my parking lot than on the side of the road with additional hours of cycling to get home after I’m done with my repairs. And once the bicycle is on the back of the car, it’s much faster and easier to simply drop it off at the bike shop. That’s what I elected to do. I picked it back up on Sunday.

And the rain clouds were closing in. Yes, that’s right. I’ll blame it on the rain

Here’s the day’s course according to Google. This time I only made it about 34 km (21 miles) before the flat (Google didn’t register the flat and switching to walking). My sister, on the other hand, ‘only’ went on a 50 mile cycle ride over the weekend, so don’t worry; she’s still way ahead of where I am.

Coming to the end of the journey: Findings from my PhD research

With my 2nd version of my full PhD thesis manuscript with my supervisors and with a tentative viva date set, I’m starting to realize that I’m likely coming to the end of my time as a PhD student. As such, I’ve entered myself into three contests that the Open University has for postgraduate students, thinking this is probably my last chance to enter as a student. Entering the competitions also helps to serve a dual purpose, as I can use my entries in those competitions, which are intended for a general audience, to communicate what I’ve found through my research more widely.

One of the competitions is to write a 150 word research summary. Here’s what I came up with:

Exploring the Experiences of Japan-Based English Language Teachers Writing for Academic Publication

An important aspect of academics’ careers is writing for publication. Publishing increases access to resources and opportunities. However, with the globalization of higher education, there is considerable movement of people within and between countries and institutions. How such mobility influences writing for publication remains underexplored. This research investigates the writing for publication practices of Japan-based English language teachers working in higher education, exploring the pressures to publish they experience, how they respond to those pressures, and how they navigate expectations to publish. There were three key findings: that the paths manuscripts take toward publication are quite complex; a lot of work goes into writing, reviewing, and revising manuscripts; and the authors tended to want to write about their teaching while reviewers wanted them to write about research. This research can inform both writing for academic publication research generally and authors seeking to publish their academic work more specifically.

Another competition is to produce a poster for a general audience outlining my research and findings. That’s embedded below.

I should thank my colleague, Jerry Talandis, Jr., for his help with the research summary and the poster. For the poster in particular I leaned pretty heavily on his expertise with professional layout software.

The final competition I enrolled in was a ‘multimedia’ competition. I decided to create a video presentation explaining  the basics of my research:

I was hoping for about a 5-minute video presentation, but it ended up being closer to 10 minutes in the end.

In this post I wanted to expand a bit on the findings I’ve outlined above and hopefully respond to some feedback and (constructive) criticisms I’ve received from the people I’ve discussed my findings with (besides my supervisors). In this respect, I should acknowledge Colin Skeates’ constructive feedback on my video summary of my research above.

Finding 1: The paths manuscripts take to publication are quite complex

An easy response to this conclusion is that it’s not news. However, by complex I mean that there are multiple rounds of evaluation and revision both within the official evaluation systems of journals and also outside those systems involving ‘unofficial brokers’. The news value of this finding is that much of the research to date has tended to concentrate on ‘official brokering’; that done by editors and reviewers, but in fact unofficial brokering was also important to publishing many of the texts I analysed. Some manuscripts were also submitted to multiple journals before they were published, suggesting that the correspondence editors tend to analyze; manuscripts submitted to their journals, may be incomplete in terms of representing how manuscripts change during the process of submission, review, and revision. It was also the case that the manuscripts changed considerably throughout their trajectories. Stages labeled as ‘copyediting’ tended to include revisions to aspects of the manuscripts that dealt with issues of what knowledge claims were being made in the texts, not just ‘simple’ corrections of errors.

Finding 2: A lot of work goes into writing, reviewing, and revising manuscripts

This is perhaps another ‘so what’ finding, but the contribution my thesis makes is to empirically evidence this work across a variety of manuscript types. The conclusion that publishing takes a lot of work on the authoring side and on the journal side holds true across international indexed journals and also Japan-based conference proceedings. Quantifying the amount of work can help to advance arguments for ‘counting’ such labor. For example, some of the authors I spoke with mentioned certain publication types ‘not counting’ in institutional measures of publication ‘output’. However, I charted considerable work going into papers published in Japan-based proceedings and Japan-based journals, as much or more than ‘counted’ publications. Another issue is that while review and editing labor is often unpaid, it is essential to the process of academic publication. Quantifying the importance of editing and reviewing to writing for publication can help to advance arguments for institutions to ‘count’ that labor in official evaluations. For example, my university cares very much about annual publication numbers for its faculty, but not at all (as far as I can tell) about the extent to which their facility contribute to the processes required to publish, including reviewing for journals. Showing the amount of work required to publish a manuscript can help to make a case for offering some kind of ‘credit’ for doing that work. The issue of multi-year publication trajectories balanced against yearly publication quotas and expectations is another issue I raise in my thesis.

Finding 3: Teachers want to write about teaching but journals want ‘research’

This to me is personally one of the most important findings from my study. So why is it listed number 3? Well, it’s not one that fits into the research literature on writing for publication particularly well. The teachers I spoke with tended to want to write and publish about their teaching practice, but journal editors and reviewers tended to push them to emphasize the research aspects of their work. There is discussion of the divide between teaching and research in the literature, and I feel this tendency identified in my thesis to emphasize ‘research’ over ‘teaching’ is one manifestation of that divide. Charting the changes in authors’ manuscripts can help to address this divide by pointing out the influence it has on what is and can be published.

In conclusion

There’s a lot more in my 400+ page thesis than I can write about here, so if you’re interested in following up on something I’ve shared, please get in touch.

Another day, another ride…

While the heat of summer feels like it’s here now, this past weekend we were still enjoying relatively cool weather, and so with Sunday taken up with church activities, I set aside Saturday to get in a ride. This time I visited a friend’s place and we did a bit of cycling together then I headed back home. We went by a popular tofu shop where I picked up a small snack, visited a temple the day before it held a 140th memorial celebration of some sort, and I finished with lunch at a popular bread shop before heading home.

Here’s the route, hopefully complete with some pictures:

Don’t worry; my sister Angela is still well ahead of me. Saturday’s ride was a total of just under 50 km (31 miles), and I felt myself losing steam on the last of the leg home, so I’m not going to be up to topping her anytime soon.

One of the more spectacular features of the temple was its bell tower, an photo of which I’ve embedded below:

You can hopefully see in the photo a small placard to the right of the bell tower. Here’s a close-up shot of that:

According to Yuki, the story is that the dragon carving just above the placard, on the right side of the bell tower in the image above, was so realistic that the townspeople feared it came alive at midnight and raided their food stores and crops. In order to ensure the dragon didn’t continue to terrorize the nearby residents, in 1631 the Head Priest of the temple drove two iron nails through the dragon’s eyes to pin it to the bell tower. According to her, you should be able to make out the nails in the eyes of the dragon, so I’m going to have to make a trip back there to check.

A time I helped someone

My English language teaching background goes back to 50 minute lessons at a private language school, and still to this day I find it easier to plan and implement two 45 minute classes than one longer 90 minute class. As the lessons I teach at my university are all 90 minutes long, this means I tend to plan for two different kinds of activities, one for the first 45 minutes and the other for the second 45 minutes.

As I’m teaching ESP (English for Specific Purposes), the activities that come in the last half of my classes are generally specialty-oriented, whether around medical, nursing, or pharmaceutical themes. For the first half of my lessons I usually have students engage in conversation-themed activities. I started years ago by announcing a conversation topic at the beginning of the lesson then having students write about what they talked about for homework, but several student comments on my courses said they didn’t feel they were able to spontaneously come up with something to say about a topic announced on the spot during class, and so I’ve since reversed the order of homework and conversation so students are asked to write 100 words for homework about the topic we’ll be using in class for the coming week’s conversation time.

These used to be rather inane topics, at least in my opinion, such as animals, sports, and movies, and it was OK as an activity, but I didn’t feel particularly interested in or engaged with what my students were writing and talking about. Then I was introduced to positive psychology, perhaps through Tim Murphey, and I started thinking about how I could transform these discussion activities into something that helped my students be more conscious of their lives, their roles in the world, and their personal stories. This led me to try to add some elements of positive psychology to the topics I had my students write about.

I wish I could remember all of the sources I’ve drawn on from over the years, but the shift has been more gradual than sudden, and by now I’ve used some of these topics for years, and so their source is obscured in my memory. One important realization I’ve had is that at least some of my students are as interested in hearing my stories as they are those of their classmates, and so I’ve taken to giving my answer to each of these writing prompts orally in class. However, no one’s listening is perfect, and it’s also good to provide the same message across multiple modes of communication, and so I’ve taken to writing some of my answers to these prompts down here. My original intention was to have a link to a written story for every one of my prompts before the end of the semester three or four years ago, but as with many good intentions, life has made it difficult to meet those goals. So instead I’ve meted out my writing of these in fits and starts. I think I’m up to about six by now. I usually write them normally then create a simplified version for students.

So, without further ado, here is the story of the time I helped someone that I usually share with my students in class in response to the prompt:

Write about a time you helped someone. What did you do? How did you feel about it?

In the middle of junior high school I moved from Maryland to Kansas, and one result of that move was that I was put two grade levels back in Math. That is, I had been studying one grade level ahead of most of my peers and ended up instead one grade level behind most of my peers. While this made math classswork exceedingly easy for me (I had already done what we were studying twice over and had a pretty good grasp of what that math served as a foundation for going forward), it also meant that I stood out in my classes. It didn’t really matter how many algebra problems you assigned for homework; it took me a tenth of the time to finish them that it took my classmates. It wasn’t really fair, either; they were seeing the ideas and concepts for the first time. I was basically spinning my well-worn arithmetic wheels when working through them.

That I was behind where I likely should have been became an issue in high school, because my teachers noticed I didn’t really belong where I was and recommended me for the gifted program. When that recommendation came through, the counselor wanted to know why I was behind in math. I explained that back in junior high school, when I moved to Kansas, I was told what math class to take. At the time I tried to explain that I didn’t think they put me in the right level of class, and a testy administrator told me that was where kids my age and grade level belonged. In a new school in a new state, I wasn’t really in a position of authority to question that determination of my place in the school curriculum, and so I went with it.

The response I got was that I was actually a year behind and needed to finish high school a year ahead, more if possible, and so I ended up doubling up on math classes in my second year of high school, taking Algebra and Geometry, normally taken in separate years, at the same time.

I enjoyed math, and so didn’t mind at all. It was fun to work through the problems, and getting the work done still didn’t take up too much of my time. My experience of Algebra is a different story for a different time. This story centers around my Geometry class, which was particularly fascinating for me because the equations translated directly into shapes and vice versa, and so I could visualize the problems as I worked through them.

As usual, I would normally finish the homework during class and not need to worry too much about taking extra work home. Our teacher would also give us time to study and prepare for tests in class, which I didn’t really need, because I had an almost intuitive level of understanding of the problems.

In the same class was a senior who (I at least thought) was repeating his last year at school, so a fifth year high school student. He fell into the category of cool kids in my estimation. He drove an old sports car, wore leather jackets, and looked like he would know his way around in a brawl. These impressions were likely all incorrect, but they led me to give him a wide berth in class, and we interacted only in passing throughout most of the semester. Thinking back on it, he was perhaps as intimidated of me as I was of him, as what he found the most difficult to understand in class I was able to do with barely any effort, generally intuitively. If I forgot a formula during a test, I understood how that formula had been derived, and could reproduce it through manipulation of equations that I did remember. For me it was less of a challenge and more of a game. It seemed he had only limited understanding of the principles underlying the equations, and remembering which to use when was a constant struggle for him throughout the class. While I was disappointed if my test scores weren’t a perfect 100%, he barely passed or barely failed the tests throughout the semester. I was the smart ass who corrected the teacher when she made a mistake working through sample problems on the board, which I think she had mixed feelings about at best.

He finally broke the barrier of silence one tense class the last month of the term. Our teacher had explained what was going to be on the final test and had said we had the next class or two to study for it. I was wondering what I was going to do with the time. She didn’t like it when I read books in class, but at the same time going over what I already more or less knew as well as I was going to know it felt to me like a waste of time.

The senior student had gone up to the front of the class like the rest of us to get his score in the class and to find out what he needed on the final to pass. I think I needed something like a 40% to pass, and perhaps a 60% to get an A in the class. I wish I was paying attention to my surroundings when he went up to hear what his grades were, but attentiveness to those around me has never been my strong suit.

I was snapped out of my daydream by a nudge on my shoulder and a whisper, “Hey, you. You’re smart. Help me pass this test.”

This was supposed to be silent study time, so I looked up from my doodles on my paper, back at him, then up to the front of the room. The teacher was looking in our direction and seemed a bit upset, but gave a nod, which I took as permission to turn around and respond.

The details of the actual conversation aren’t important, but what is important is his story. He was working part-time at a local garage, doing maintenance on cars, and the head of the shop told him they had a full-time job for him, but he needed to graduate from high school first. If he didn’t, then he would lose his part-time job and be out of luck. That was the only reason he was still in school. The one thing he lacked to graduate was the math credit for this geometry class, and our teacher had heard his hard luck story and said if he passed the final test, he could pass the class.

This took a couple backs and forths, a few likely rude questions on my part, but eventually the story clarified before me, and I said something like, “You mean, you need to get 60% or higher on this test to pass this class?” and he replied, “That’s right.” I think I repeated the question, just to be sure; the gears were turning in my mind, thinking about just how much information you could not know and still pass the test. Eventually I said, “OK. I’ll try to help you pass the test.”

The key to the whole exercise was deciding what exactly was required to get an answer on the test right. Not the underlying principles; he didn’t have the patience for those. My explanations were more like diagnosing a car’s braking system that was acting up. Something like, “If it’s a circle, then use this equation. If it’s a square, then use this one.”

At one point we got to Pythagoras’ theorem, and I said, if it’s a triangle, use this. Remember this. He replied, “All I have to do is use this when I see a triangle? That will get me to pass the test?” and I answered, “If you use this for all of the triangles, you should be able to get at least 60%.” We worked through the the problems he didn’t understand from our different past tests, and I think that was the most engaged either of us were in the class since the start of the semester.

The whole time I think our teacher was watching us, with an uncomfortable expression on her face.

The day of the final test came and went, and the last class of the semester I got my test results back, somewhere in the 90% range, although I don’t remember the exact number.

The student I had been helping, who had become downright friendly, came back from the front of the room with his test and hit me on the shoulder happily. It hurt. He showed me his test: 72%. We both smiled at each other. That was the highest grade he had gotten on any of the tests that semester. I wondered what he could have gotten if we had been working together for the whole semester, rather than just the last week of term.

He told me the day of his graduation to stop by his garage and he would change my oil for free. I think I may have even eventually taken him up on that offer.

Usually my students ask me after the story what became of him, and I wish I knew. We moved in different orbits; he was very much my senior, and left school after that semester. I went on to university and then moved to Japan in 2000. Wherever he is, I hope he’s found his happiness, and that geometry hasn’t caused him any more stress in his life.

Thinking back on it, this was probably my first taste of the appeal teaching can have; helping someone to understand something they hadn’t previously known. The joy of trying to figure out how someone else understands something, and what strategies may help them to understand it better. I’ve certainly run with it. I hope the young man I helped ran with his opportunities as well.