Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Teaching Process

I think most faculty would agree with the statements that follow.  First, I love teaching and working with students.  It takes a lot of time, but the teaching part can be and, on a number of occassions each semester, is rewarding and fun. However, I hate assessment - writing and grading assignments and exams. This also takes a lot of time, and is neither fun or rewarding.

Sometimes writing an assignment or exam problem can be fun. Like when I am able to work in a pop culture reference.  For example, I've written capital budgeting problems where Vandelay industries is considering shifting to in-house latex manufacturing in addition to sales.  And I've written questions about Rob Blagojevich's income statement, and the expense budget at Sterling Cooper ad agency.  Unfortunately, students don't appreciate my humor while taking an exam (or any other time for that matter). But I digress.

I am still relatively young, and can understand/remember the student perspective.  While an undergrad, you think you are busy.  How do I study for that exam, finish the paper I've been procrastinating, attend my club meeting, prepare for that job interview......and play 6 games of Madden tonight?  Maybe the paper can wait, and I didn't really want that job anyway.

But I don't want to make students sound lazy or naive.  They are simply optimizing under the constraints they face within the system they have been placed.  Grades matter.  So do other things like extracurriculars.  And the social aspect of college is also important.  If you are going to go out drinking three nights a week, your early 20s is the time to do it and get it out of your system.  I did.  Now, I often find myself falling asleep by 10 pm on a weekend (and it is glorious). But I digress again.

Students want the best grade possible while having to put in the least amount of work.  That is not a slam, that is what they should do.  They are reacting to their incentive structure. While some don't mind studying, most can think of other things they would rather be doing (there is the odd, often in more ways than one, exception to this rule - the academic).

We (teachers/instructors/professors/faculty) would like to maximize the amount a student learns (which is positively correlated with effort for most people), and we could really give a crap about grades. 

Grades are a ranking system, pure and simple.  It is what the purchasers (employers) of our product (trained students/employees) demand.  They need a metric (or at least a finite group of metrics) to be able to tell who is good, and who is not so good - thus, the GPA.

The solution to this problem, like any constrained system in economics, involves tradeoffs. The students work a little harder than they would like, learning less than we would prefer, and earning a grade a little lower than they would prefer.  Simple. Elegant. Perfect.

If only I didn't have to write and grade those damn exams to reach this equilibrium....

The Applesauce

In my continuing attempt to eat healthier, I am always on the lookout for things to snack on. Carrots tend to be what most "experts" suggest in terms of calorie and appetite control.  They are not wrong.  After eating a handful of carrots, you don't really feel like eating anything else, especially if that anything else is another handful of carrots.

I seem to have "returned to my youth" (which sounds better than saying I have regressed) as of late, and become fairly obsessed with one specific healthy alternative.  Applesauce.  Specifically, 48 oz. plastic jugs of Musselman's (regular style, no cinnamon or chunks for me).

Double Trouble

Applesauce is fantastic.  It is a fruit, so is automatically healthy, and has fewer calories than other sweet alternatives (like candy).  According to the nutrition facts, a 1/2 cup serving is under 100 calories, almost all of which come from carbohydrates (sugar).  It even contributes a bit to my suggested daily intake of fiber.

This is all well and good, until you get to me.  Standard serving sizes do not (and need not) apply.  For example, I usually have some applesauce with my PB toast and coffee in the morning.  Then I also bring some in my lunch for the day (or maybe an actual apple if I have any - I also eat these at a bingeworthy pace). I'm guessing I dump at least a full cup of applesauce into my bowl/tupperware, double the serving size on the label. 

And then there are the multiple, nightly passes I make by the fridge.  Most of the time I open, talk myself out of eating something, but then reward myself with a massive gulp - straight from the jar - of applesauce.

Don't judge me.  I live alone, so drinking out of the container is cool in my household, even for non- or semi-liquids.

This rule applies to most things in my fridge, so visitors beware.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Locker Room

I have one question: At what age do men decide that it is totally cool to break what I think is standard locker room etiquette and just walk around naked while doing everything?

Being naked is required in the locker room for things like changing, showering, etc.  I can understand and accept that.

But is it necessary to be naked while standing in front of the mirror to shave, brush your teeth, comb your hair?  Why is it so hard to keep your towel on? (OK I lied, I obviously had more than question).  I live alone and don't even do this in the comfort of my own home.

This week I was even exposed to a middle-aged dude clipping his toenails, with his foot up on the sink, naked. Personally, I don't want to operate a toe or finger nail clipper (or any tool with sharp edges or a pinching function) with nothing between it and my man parts. Doing it spread eagle in front of a group of relative strangers takes it to a new level.  I have been trying to erase that image from my memory for three days.

Am I homophobic for having these thoughts?  I don't think so, and I hope not.  I just prefer not to accidentally catch a glimpse of:

Gross is right. No disrespect to old(er) dudes.

My final question: Is it the same in women's locker rooms?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Hills (or lack thereof)

In addition to being a downhill specialist, I also consider myself of decent cycling ability on the flats.  Which is good, because we have a lot of that in central IL. I can easily sustain ~20 mph for a few hours or ~16 mph pace all day (pending wind of course).

I am, however, not the best climber.  Now this particular skill could most definitely be improved if I were to say, lose some more weight.  Or I could always just spend a few thousand dollars and get myself a lighter bike (check).  But I think the fact that I live in central IL and fall to the back of the pack on climbs is not mere coincidence. 

Let me provide an example: Monticello Ride

If you follow that link, it will take you to my Garmin stats for a standard 40ish mile ride that I do on the weekends with a group of people from work.  Roughly 240 feet of climbing over 40 miles. If we are "climbing" for half the ride and "descending" for the rest, that works out to an average grade of around 0.2%. 

Not exactly the Tour de France.

I like the challenge of climbing hills, and would actively seek them if I could.  Unfortunately the best I can do, beyond driving at least a few hours, is plan my commute to include both freeway interchanges between my house and my office.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Race

I have never been exceedingly athletic.  I was a mediocre (at best) football player and don't completely embarrass myself on the golf course, but I have never been good enough to be a star in a team sport or excel in any kind of individual athletic competition.

Until this past Saturday. Kind of.

A few of the graduate students in my department and I kept a short-lived tradition going of having an informal "just for fun" sprint triathlon.  The race was opened up to all faculty, staff, and grad students.  We swam 1/4 mile in an indoor pool, biked a 13 mile course, and ran a 5k.  This was all followed by a bbq.  Participants could do the whole thing or just certain legs; whatever they wanted.  The goal was just to get people out to enjoy some (hopefully) good weather, good food, and interact a little outside of the work environment.

The weather totally cooperated (80 degrees and sunny in mid October - thank you global warming), but there ended up being only 4 of us who did the full race.  One other person did the bike and the run, and a handful of people just did the 5k. 

As you may have guessed, I actually won the race. As in I beat everyone (all three of them).  Handily, I might add.

Last year we did the same thing, and my time this year was a considerable improvement.  Better yet, my fellow competitors were all in their 20s.  Regardless of the number of people, it was a lot of fun to actually win a race.  It would have been even more fun if there were actual prizes/awards, but it was still a thrill.  Best of all, it is good to have some small victories like this to motivate yourself for more training.

While I plan to continue training and do some longer, formal events next year (I am planning to do at least one Olympic tri in June), I have no illusions about ever getting even a podium finish within my age group in a real race.  And I'm guessing those students I got lucky and beat this year will come at me with a vengeance for the departmental race next year.

But like I said, this thing was informal and not real competitive.  Still, had I finished in last place, I would have told people I finished fourth and simply omitted the total number of participants from my retelling of the tale.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Weight (and I think bikes get jealous)

I returned early this week after traveling for 6 days for work.  This means I did not get to ride any of my bikes for a full week.  I can now safely say that bikes get jealous, and they know how to get even.  They are like a vindictive girlfriend in that regard.

Revenge of the (Carbon) Road Bike
I put the Madone in the Park stand after the 70 mile ride I went on before leaving for the work trip.  I even admired it as I was doing this.  Upon returning from my trip, the rear tire was flat. Anyone ever gotten a flat when the bike was suspended midair on their bike stand?  Is this even possible?

Revenge of the Mountain Bike
The Cobia was much more vengeful. After a full week away, I decided to sneak out of work early and head over to Kickapoo the afternoon of the day after I got back. The trails were dry and, while I consider myself a downhill specialist on the road, I am a downhill wimp on the trail.  My disutility of getting injured is prohibitively high (sorry for the nerdy economics reference of my utility function). I locked my front brake up trying to come out of a tight switchback on a (relatively) steep descent.  This turned my beloved hardtail into a lever which catapulted me into a tree.  Luckily the left side of my rib cage took the impact.  Unluckily it now hurts for me to sit, stand, walk, run, and breathe (pedaling still seems to be OK though!).

The 2.1 Abides
My trusty 2.1, the road bike that started it all for me, seems to be comfortable with me ignoring it for a few days.  I took her out today for a 30 miler and had a couple of realizations on my solo ride.  First, this bike is still my favorite (sshhh, don't tell the others).  I am a sentimental sap when it comes to this bike (thousands of miles, 3 RAGBRAIs, many other organized rides, hundreds of training/recreation rides over the past 3 years), and I will probably never sell it. Second, riding with a backpack containing a laptop, change of clothes, and shoes sucks.  This has kind of become my commuting bike since getting the Madone last August, so I rarely take it out for an actual ride anymore. Finally, losing weight makes you faster.  I've dropped 20 lbs in the past few months, but it has been hard to notice an increase in speed/power on the bike I ride regularly for training rides (the Madone).  But I could really tell on the 2.1 because I haven't really ridden it, other than commuting, since losing some weight.

I believe I shall continue to diet and work out daily.

The Elk

Last weekend I spent a few days in Banff, AB (Canada) while attending a work conference.  Banff is a resort area nestled in the mountains about an hour west of Calgary.  Since I am "training" for a trail "race" at the end of October, I thought it prudent to get a longish run/jog in on the trails around my hotel. 

Shockingly, I actually woke up at the intended time of 6 am.  I had a hike planned for later in the morning, so wanted to make sure I got up early enough to get the run in, shower, and eat breakfast.  Unfortunately, the sun is not up at 6 am in Banff in early October.  As I watched Canadian Sportscenter, eh, I learned that the sun is barely up even at 7 am in Banff in early October.  Anyway, I made my way outside for my run in shorts and a baselayer.  I should have brought tights and a thermal.  Luckily, I am one of the hottest individuals on the planet (temperature wise).

As I got this big trail run underway I realized two things, the second of which led to the title of this post.

First, I think I might actually enjoy running, and maybe even begin to refer to myself as a runner, if I lived in the mountains and had access to interesting running/hiking trails right outside my backdoor. The 4 miles I had originally intended to run turned into 6.  I never run farther than I plan to. Trail running is easier on the shins/knees, and running through the forest with picturesque views of the mountains in every opening makes the whole running thing more tolerable than usual. Instead I live in a new subdivision in central IL, so I will continue to refer to myself (loosely) as a cyclist or, better yet, a fat cyclist (but not THE fat cyclist).

Second, elk are large, intimidating animals.  Especially bulls who are protecting their harem while they are out getting breakfast.  Most especially when you stumble within 30 meters (that is about 100 feet, but since I was in Canada my brain automatically switched to the metric system just like when you cell phone grabs the time from the network when you cross into a new time zone) of them after rounding a corner on a trail run while not paying attention.  Elk are also fast. Especially when they move toward you menacingly. See below for a dramatization of what I was facing. 

Now, I have been closer to an elk. In fact, I have been so close to a large bull as to actually touch it. Of course, this elk happened to not have a body attached to its neck, being rather dead and mounted on the wall in my grandparents' house and all.

This was different.

So I took a 10 minute break from my run.  And hid behind a tree until the elk had eaten their fill and moved on.  Of course I did not have a camera.  Not even my crappy blackberry camera, as I had told myself that real trail runners wouldn't carry a cell phone with them on a rugged wilderness run (but my Garmin Forerunner was totally fine). Then again, real trail runners probably don't worry about having an "accident" while cowering behind a tree and hoping the large animal on the trail in front of them will lose interest and move on.