Jul. 9th, 2012

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For whatever reason, the last few entries have given a sense of general displeasure with the world, and I write now in an attempt to reverse that trend by describing my current sense of overall approval of the world. Here is a list of all the recent things that have gone right:
  • I finished teaching that summer class (upper-level introduction to linguistics) that was consuming every waking hour (two hours a day, five days a week, plus homework-grading twice a week) Overall, I think it went reasonably well. Of the seventeen people who stuck it through to the end, fifteen of them learned enough linguistics that they could take any other linguistics class in the department. Mission accomplished!
  • Related to the above bullet: I am a huge whiz not only at Beamer, but I've also taught myself a little bit about tikz. There is a lot of programming knowledge out there.
  • Yoga is done! Hurrah. It's a bit of a pity, because I loved how it made me feel physically, but I hated doing it. So I'll probably end the summer flabbier than I am now, but less annoyed.
  • I've started a jazz dance class. It's going to be much more fun than yoga; I can tell that already. The instructor is a super-smiley fellow who is really good at demonstrating everything in such a way that no one feels shy about trying what he shows us (and by "no one" I mean "me." There is one poor fellow who's extremely insecure and through the position of his name in the alphabet he always goes last in a much smaller group whenever we do across-the-floor exercises, so he always ends up trying a new step after everyone else has finished and are standing and watching him and the maybe one other person in his group. Poor fellow.) No matter how silly it feels, the instructor embraces the oddness and demonstrates all the moves in what I think must be a slightly exaggerated manner, and it works. All of the steps, when put together, I'm sure look terrific, but when you're practicing just one part--say, jazz walks--over and over again, back and forth across the floor, even the instructor looks a bit odd. I've had to make a bit of an effort not to feel shy, so I'm being almost aggressively not-shy, but as long as I don't start clamming up I think I'm going to have a blast.

    I've found in my grad school career that there is a huge difference between teaching an introductory academic subject and teaching an introductory skills based subject. With math or linguistics or whatever, it's always possible to start with very simple topics and build them up as necessary, not moving on until each previous step has been mastered. It's much easier to separate arithmetic from, say, algebra, or to learn the basics of simple phrase structure grammars before elaborating them into Minimalist type theories of syntax. But with skills-based subjects, from the beginning, no matter how small you start, you're never going to master even the most basic skills until you've gotten a lot better at it as a whole. If you're learning a foreign language, your accent is going to be bad on day 1, and it will continue to be bad as you learn your tenses and declensions and subordinate clause structures. If you're learning volleyball, your footwork is going to be bad on day 1, and it will continue to be sloppy as you learn passing and setting and spiking and serving. And if you're learning jazz dance, your jazz walks are going to look and feel absurd on day 1 (as I discovered on Thursday). But although it is probably smart not to teach your students algebra until they know how to deal with fractions, and I would never dream of trying to teach phrase structure grammar to students who don't know the different parts of speech, it would be foolish to say, "No, I'm not going to learn how to conjugate a verb until I've got the accent right," because in skills based classes, every sub-part is tied to every other sub-part much more intimately than in other academic subjects, and you can't separate them out and learn them piecemeal as easily as you can separate algebra from geometry from trig, or phonetics from phonology from syntax. So teaching an introduction to a skill, like dance, where the nature of the beast is that you're going to look and feel ridiculous from the beginning, requires that the instructor be inviting and friendly and create a safe space where the students feel minimally embarrassed to try and fail and look ridiculous. I had the good fortune to take a Russian class with such an instructor here last year, and I think that this jazz dance instructor is another such a one, so I expect to have a great time over the next five weeks.
  • I finally flipped an omelet without a spatula! Two of them, in fact. Mr. Philena and I received a very nice non-stick skillet as a wedding gift, and every time I make omelets in it I've observed that, at the moment when they're ready to be flipped, they always seem to be sliding around so smoothly and freely that I should be able to make it work just by doing that in-the-air pizza-dough type move that you see in fancy cooking shows (and that I saw in my college dining hall when Carly was manning the omelet station on Thursday nights.) But, of course, I like omelets, and I hate cleaning the stove, so I always did it the safe way so that I wouldn't make a mess and lose my dinner if I the omelet missed the pan on the way down. But this time I felt adventurous, so I gave it a try, and it worked! Twice!
  • I finally cleaned the bathroom. Although Mr. Philena and I have never formally sat down and delineated who does what chores, we've sort of settled into a routine. We both do laundry and vacuuming and cooking and washing up (with me a bit more leaning toward the cooking and Mr. Philena a bit more leaning toward the washing up). Mr. Philena does car maintenance and pays the bills. I do computer maintenance and clean the bathroom. And the bathroom had not been cleaned in a very long time while I was teaching, with the result that there were some pretty impressive yucky deposits in various places that I attacked with a spray bottle and a toothbrush, and the result was extremely gratifying. And even more gratifying was my successful attack on the bathroom sink with baking soda and vinegar. That stuff really works, and brings back memories of papier mache volcanoes in the process. 
  • I've been reading science fiction! Recently I've been working through the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. The first three are pretty good, but in the more recent books he's been having too much fun dealing with how various political machinations by ambitious but unscrupulous government types lead to war because political machinations are bad things that are done by bad people, and it's been getting rather tiresome. I'm hoping that now that there's a new war that's been started by the bad peoples' political fumbles we'll get back into the space-ship battles, but I'm a bit concerned that he'll have trouble pulling himself away from plots that are based mostly on people sitting around tables and talking. Even Tolkien couldn't make that (Council of Elrond) work.
  • Oh! Tolkien! I saw a preview for the new movie of The Hobbit! In true Peter Jackson style it's coming out in December, and it looks just wonderful. Like, really wonderful. Really, really wonderful. I didn't agree with all of his changes to LOTR, but he has an earnest approach that I think is true to the books in every way that matters, and I thoroughly enjoyed the LOTR movies, and I can't wait to return to that world for the Hobbit. And I must say, from the previews, it looks as though it will be undeniably the same world. And I love Martin Freeman.

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