Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Doctors Ain't Doctors

If there’s anyone who reads this blog regularly, you may have noticed a couple of additions to the right hand column under the WeBlog title. I’m adding to this slowly, on the one hand because I find great lists of titles on blogs a bit overwhelming—how do you read them all?—and on the other hand as a list it is a true measure of the blogs I have come to enjoy and thus do read on a regular basis. At the moment all of the blogs listed are by people who reflect on the process of working, teaching and learning in a tertiary education institution. Since this is my plight as well, I find myself learning from their observations and empathising with their frustrations, as well as occasionally laughing out loud.

The first blog I listed (chronologically, not alphabetically) was Banana Lounge. Tseen responded to my foray into the blog world by promptly listing my blog on her site. This is very characteristic of Tseen’s ongoing encouragement and support of academics who are newer than her—and she is still quite new herself. I first had occasion to meet Tseen in the first year of my Master’s. She was in the office next door to me, finishing off her PhD, and at the time she was the treasurer of the postgraduate society. As I paid my membership fee, she was instantly welcoming to the university and expressed interest in my research work. A few years later I agreed to hand over a draft of my Master’s thesis to her, to provide background to an article she had been asked to write about self-identified Asian-Australian zines. I managed to send it to her after only a small amount of self-doubt induced hyper-ventilation. I told my supervisor what I’d done, and she said that being able to part with my work to someone other than her was a milestone in the sense that it was a sign that I was willing to go public, as it were. It was a positive experience, which is inextricable from the trust Tseen inspired. My work was in careful hands, and afterwards, I was able to cite Tseen’s article in my thesis.

I know I’m not the only one to benefit from Tseen’s generosity; the comments on her blog clearly indicate that her approach to academic life has assisted other self-doubting, anxious postgrads simply through her actions (and a yum cha gathering or two). It can be so difficult to remember that it’s possible to be intellectually generous and even emotionally supportive in what is an isolated endeavour, especially when the negative experiences make twice the impression (There are such terrible stories). For me, Tseen is a role model who demonstrates that you don’t have to cling to your ideas and be intellectually superior to any colleague that gets too close to ‘your’ territory. And I think she shows that you can begin your career in that spirit and prosper for it.

The second blog I listed, Sorrow at Sills Bend, is one I had read only occasionally before, following a link from a friend’s blog that is now out of commission. I’ve taken to visiting it regularly and have recently read on it one of those terrible stories I referred to above. You can read about it yourself if you’re interested.

There are various reasons why I enjoy reading Sorrow. First of all, I can’t go past the name, which made me click on the link in the first place; it could be the title of an E. Annie Proulx novel, but there’s something of Nick Cave in it as well. It’s the tale of an emotionally isolated figure living in grinding poverty in a remote American frontier town with a dash of incest and murder and unrequited love thrown in. Of course that’s just me being fanciful; it’s more a tale of an overworked young scholar attending a university in the Melbourne area, with more than a dash of public embarrassment, film reviewing and Australian Idol watching thrown in. I read it because it’s good to compare other postgraduates’ experiences.

The latest addition to the WeBlog list was a blogger recommendation from their ‘Blogs of Note’ links. Ah Yes, Medical School tells the tale of another kind of doctor in training. The writer is funny, articulate and self-deprecating about his experience of medical school in the US, both in the class room and in the application of his newly acquired knowledge.

While reading Medical School, it occurred to me, that as a former Master’s and soon to be a PhD student, my experience of postgraduate education is different to the MD student because, while gaining a degree in my field, I also teach in that field. Such an observation may mean nothing, but I think the dual role makes for a particular kind of experience. Now that I think about it, I do recall attending a seminar where the presenter spoke about the liminality of the research postgraduate’s experience; it’s a kind of in-between space that you occupy. It’s not so long since you were a student in a classroom, so you haven’t forgotten the distractions that compete for attention with university life, including paid employment and a social life. For me, it’s not too difficult, either, to recall the fear of failure that manifested itself in procrastination and perfectionism, which in turn became many an assignment extension request. When I teach, I try to remember the chronic insecurity about my ability to write assignments. It was only when I was doing my honours year that I came into my own with academic work. Because of this somewhat less than stellar start to academic life, I try, in my own teaching practice, to remember the kindness I was afforded by the academics who nurtured me, who I am grateful to for their belief in my work (when it was finally submitted). I don’t want to be a hypocrite by saying ‘no’ to extensions; I don’t even want to penalise people who submit their work late and don’t ask for extensions, but if the other tutors in the course do, then I have to, in the interests of ‘fairness’ (don’t get me started on what’s ‘fair’ or ‘equal’.)

I suppose where I do become less accommodating in my teaching practice is with classroom behaviour. I can’t abide it when students, who haven’t done the preparation for the tutorial, i.e. attend the lecture and do the reading, turn up and either a) sit there with an insolent expression on their face, without contributing anything to the class for the entire semester, and then proceed to give you a bad teaching evaluation, b) talk, pass notes, send sms and/or leave their mobile phones to ring while others who have done the work are making valuable contributions to the class discussion, c) talk incessantly, completely off-topic, because they think it will cover up the fact that they haven’t done any of the work, or d) challenge everything you say to demonstrate that they are more knowledgeable than you about everything, while remaining completely oblivious to how their behaviour is negatively affecting the learning experience of other students. It’s not overstating it to say that I hate rude and ignorant, yet entitled, students. If, however, a student shows evidence of consistently engaging with the set material, but has a few time management issues, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, every time.

One of the best posts on Medical School, comes from the writer’s first year where he observes the behaviour of those classmates whom he labels ‘hyper-talkers’. When I read the Fake Doctor’s study of these people, I get humour envy. I think perhaps I'm too bitter about the boy who once said in my class, ‘This is boring’. In response I said ‘I beg your pardon?’. He said, ‘I did this at school’. I asked, ‘What did you do at school?’ He said, ‘The myth of Narcissus’. As I recall my comeback was really lame, but what do you say to someone who thinks Greek mythology is anything but obliquely related to psychoanalytic feminist approaches to film? If you want to read a more humorous version of how self-important incessant students suck the life out of everyone around them, then read the Fake Doctor. I mean, he categorises them into genus, type and sub-species and then he formulates an algorithm to calculate the amount of his time they have wasted! Ha ha ha ha ha! It should be compulsory ‘hyper talker’ reading.


Tseen said...

holy smokes, kirsty, you sure know how to give someone a head-swell.

next time anyone asks me for a job reference, I'll just point them to this entry! heh.

it's funny seeing your narrative of how we met / how we know each other. it's not something I've ever thought of because, in the nicest possible way, I take knowing you for granted.

Lucy Tartan said...

Ok, I have to comment now. I've been lurking for a couple of weeks, did you know? I like your blog too. I liked it straight away. *blushes*

I only haven't added you to my links yet because of forgetting then remembering in inconvenient places like the shower or while driving the car.

Sills Bend is a local place near my house - an actual bend on the Yarra. It is a good name for my blog because like everything else a person might read there, I chose it without considering how much it might give away to a determined and curious stranger.

I try not to write about my students, even though they are so interesting and great, because I'd hate it beyond anything if one of them thought they recognised themselves and felt laughed at. There must be a way to blog semi-anonymously about teaching without that being an issue, but I haven't found it yet.

Galaxy said...

I'm glad to know I have a couple of regular readers! Although if I think too much about an audience I will begin to blush.

Sometimes I feel so consumed by teaching; I often think it would be better to be more detached. I feel confused/hurt by some of the things that get written in feedback... I have had constructive feedback, which I've taken on board (it was good advice--Relax!--and much appreciated) and really lovely comments offered spontaneously in emails and face to face meetings with students. I guess it's another case of remembering the negative instances.

As for students reading this, I almost certainly have a false sense of security about that possibility. I suppose the student of the Greek mythology anecdote would recognise himself. He ended up withdrawing from that course, but I've taught him again this semester. One of his friends said to me after the last class 'thanks for putting up with me this semester' and I was truthful in my response when I said 'it's been a challenge'. I hope I haven't embarrassed them, but I would like them to know their behaviour has an effect--although, of course, this forum is not the way to communicate that. Trouble is they often don't want to talk to you one on one, without the back up of their friends...

Oh, I've still got heaps to learn about this teaching gig!