Monday, March 2, 2015

The cranky lecturer's tips for reading a unit guide

 Taking on full-time study this semester, I am knee deep in unit guides. Every university has them although they may be called something else: guide, outline, synopsis, document (hell, your units might be called something else: subject, course, program, block, etc). Most of them are pretty bog standard and once you've read a couple, and it's easy to make the mistake of glossing straight over it. Having written a few, I know there are sometimes a few tricksy variations that can really bugger up a student's semester.

So here's my rough and ready guide to what you want to check out in a unit guide.

Contact details
Yeah, hi. You really should know who your coordinator/lecturer and tutor are (and how they spell their name). Your tutor's your first port of call for most situations (unless you need to complain about your tutor, in which case, ouch... contact your lecturer).

Learning outcomes
This is, ideally, what you're going to know by the end of semester. It might seem like something the lecturer puts on there to tick a box (it is) but it's also a really good gauge of the semester and how much you're going to have to hustle to meet those goals. If you already know or can do all those things, have a think about whether you need to be in the unit at all. Is there a more advanced version?

Semester schedule
There's usually a table with the whole class laid out for you week by week. Ours include the weekly topics/themes, due dates for assignment and where the semester breaks or public holidays fit into the scheme of things. Yours might also have tutorial questions you need to prepare, presentation topics, exam dates or study periods, practical components or placements or things along those lines. For me, the handiest thing about this is seeing everything in a 12-13 week timescale for the first time with the important semester dates all laid out.

All the official details about the assignments - the what, where, when, how and how much - will be in this section. I can't tell you enough how important it is to read this whole section and not just the highlights. The number of emails I received asking for details about assignments that were in the unit guide was mind-boggling - it's in the unit guide so your lecturer and tutor don't have to tell every student individually. Don't be surprised if you get a shirty email in response or get marks deducted from a half-arsed assignment if you clearly haven't read this section.

Assessment marking criteria
Not all units, but most, include an idea of the criteria or rubric they'll use to mark your work. Look at it. What is most heavily weighted? The critical analysis? The review of the literature? The quality of the written expression? These are usually big clues for what your lecturer/tutor want.

Assessment related policies
Most universities will clearly articulate or link to the assessment related policies close by the assessment details. These usually include rules about submission and return of assessments, getting worked remarked and plagiarism (what it is, how to avoid it and what happens if you're silly enough to do it anyway). It's also where the you find out about the rules and procedures for getting extensions or special consideration. Our Faculty used to have a blanket two-day extension policy for any student who asked for one (no reasons needed). Sooooo many students were caught out for the whole year after they revoked it. It was in the policy section of their unit guides but by then they'd given up reading it.

Required texts/additional texts
Yep, textbooks. Holy cow. I was lucky enough to avoid the monster textbook lists in my undergrad degree as we used readers prepared by the lecturer and sold at the cost of printing. Most of my classes this semester use a required/prescribed text and supplement that with readings that are digitsed and listed with the library. Some of the unit guides also supply a list of reccomended texts, which is a great place to start for any essay or assignment where you're required to go beyond the set readings. 

Week by week (optional)
I used to include a week-by-week synopsis of my units at the end of my unit guides, but it seems to be an optional extra. Some lecturers will give you a tonne of extra info here: readings, related readings, guides to the readings, tutorial questions, things to look out for, or information about where the topic sits in the overall scheme of the unit. These are all incredibly handy, especially for students coming to the university from a different language or learning background.

Overall, unit guides are great indicators of what's expected of you and how to perform well according to the standards of the lecturer or tutor. Read them, and after you've read a few, keep an eye out for the seemingly standard sections that can change without any warning.

Is there anything you wish was included in a unit guide?

Friday, February 27, 2015

His favourite song


Because the video of him singing AC/DC's 'Thunderstruck' was just that little bit too long. His other 'favourites' at the moment?

  • I love rock and roll - Joan Jett
  • You might think - The Cars
  • Bad to the bone - George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers
  • Route 66 - the John Meyer version
  • Real gone - Sheryl Crow
  • Sh-boom - The Chords
  • Fly - Jon Stevens
  • Love machine - The Miracles
  • Still I Fly - Spencer Lee
  • Bad romance - Lady Gaga
  • Cry (if you want to) - Holly Cole
  • Here comes the sun - The Beatles
  • You got a friend in me - Randy Newman
Now most of these appear on the soundtracks of his favourite movies, but I'm itching to make him his first mix tape (*cough* playlist).

Do your kids have a mixtape/playlist of adult songs?

Monday, February 23, 2015

It's O-week: what I won't be doing but probably should

Ah, Orientation-week.

From an academic's perspective this is when the relative peace of summer is shattered - gone are the long days of research and grant-writing and here is weird cacophony of a million students in the quad, searching for freebies and friends amidst the noise and haste. It's the week of rushing to get the late subject outlines out, setting up the online class sites, writing and re-writing the first lecture, preparing handouts, double-checking your lecture hall hasn't been double-booked by the Engineering faculty. Again.

From a student's perspective, especially a first year student's perspective, it's the mad slide in a largely unfamiliar world with largely unfamiliar people and largely unfamiliar tasks to perform. It's crazy and fun and scary and overwhelming and holy shitballs somebody pass me a paper bag to breathe into.

It's my first week back in coursework study in a long while. In fact, I haven't done the lecturer-student-assignment relationship from this side of the fence in 10 years. I should probably brush up a little. 

If it's your first time at uni, or your first time back in a loong time, O-week is well worth attending. It's both a week long party and hand-holding session: the academics and administrators run formal welcomes, the student services let you know what they can and can't offer, and the student organisations vie for your membership (or, you know, whatever, only if you want to).

Here's what you're expected to do in O-week from the official point of view:

It's time to get your studentcard
O-week is usually when the student service centres have express lanes to get through the million or so students who need photos taken and student cards processed. Check a mirror before you enter the queue, because you'll be living with that photo for a few years (and it'll also be available to your lecturers on a photo-roll so they can figure out who you are). I had to renew my staff card a few weeks ago so managed to do the student card thing early and avoid the rush.

It's time to buy textbooks
Ideally, you would have had access to your reading list weeks ago, but in reality academics won't post these things till the last possible minute, which will force you to buy your textbooks on campus at huge mark-ups instead of online.

It's time to put together your class schedule and study timetable
Bahahaha... no, really.

It's time to scope out where everything is
Sometimes the maps are unreadable or the thoroughfares newly blocked. Taking a campus tour looks and feels a bit dorky but it's pretty handy for knowing where the cheap eats are and avoiding being late to your first class.

It's time to take a library tour
These are handy not just to know where the books are (books? huh?) but they're also an introduction on how to find things within the virtual library. Never used PubMed or Expanded Academic ASAP,? Get thee on a library tour!

It's time to find out about all the support services
If you know you'll need additional support, this is when all the student services are out flaunting their wares. It's okay to just know what's available in case you need it, but you are usually expected to register with the Disability Liaison Units in O-week to save hassles and delays later. 

It's time to brush up on your study skills or learn how the big boys do it
Think you learned how to write an essay in high school? Yeah... no. Learning and assessment tends to be a different beast at the undergraduate and then again at the postgraduate level. Language is different, standards are different, policies are different. Just trust me that it's different. Most libraries or learning centres have a whole suite of classes and online tutorials to help make the leap in this new learning environment. Having been the big meanie with the red pen for the last 10 years and published academic works in that time, I'm reasonably confident I don't have much to brush up here.

It's time to get to know your Faculty-specific information and expectations
Each faculty tends to have their own unique structure and standard practices. This might be in terms of what phone number you call, where you submit essays, what referencing system you use, how you get special consideration, and so on. This will probably be the only event I'll attend because of work and the fact that it's the only bit that's really new for me - new Faculty, new modes of assessment, eeep!

And the less official stuff? Hoo boy.

It's time to booze it up
Der. It's the first week of university life. Of course, you're meant to spend it pissed and yelling about the current government's poor record on environmental protection (for the record, in my typing haste I left the r off 'poor' in that sentence. Still works).

It's time to join
Clubs! Groups! Societies! There are heaps of them for every flavour of the student rainbow. Nationalities, cultures, sexual orientations, sports, fandoms, study help, games, dressing up, taking it all off... I may or may not have met my Lovely Husband in one of these. Just saying.

It's time to join in
So many events and shows and lunches and protests. 

It's time to explore
Never been to Melbourne Gaol and tried on Ned Kelly's helmet; never paddled boarded on a dead-flat bay; never played chicken with a tram? If you're new to the city or never bothered to look around, most unis organise tourist-type events or trips to show off their home turf.

It's time to talk to strangers and make friends
Mostly O-week is a chance to start finding your tribe. Chances are your old friends aren't on this crazy ride with you and you've forgotten how to make new ones. It's easy: just say 'hi' to the person sitting next to you... if they launch into a drunken tirade about the current government's poo record on environmental protection and that's not your scene, try the next person.

Have you ever survived O-week? Any war stories or recommendations?

Monday, February 16, 2015

Outdoor adventures: an introduction to camping with kids

Over the weekend we eased ourselves into camping (and when I say 'we' I mean 'me' because I seemed to be the only person worried about it). I've never been camping proper - I never made it past Brownies; we didn't do it as a family and there was an aborted attempt with Lovely Husband in the early days but there was a small issue of missing poles from the borrowed tent. Needless to see, I was feeling a mite anxious about camping with a three year old.

So we I enlisted the help of my brother and sister-in-law, who are seasoned campers (and parents to my super-fresh, squeezy-cheeked nephew), to hold our my hand the first time and we went all-in and kitted ourselves with tent, camp stove and self-inflating mattresses when they were on super-sale. Lovely Husband stocked up on gadgets and I started making lists in my head.

My bro picked the place (a caravan park on Phillip Island) and we headed south east for an overnighter. They were cruisy and chill and I was a mess after a last-minute dash with Dear Boy to the doctor. All my plans for a cruisy and chill couple of hours to finish packing disappeared, so we I ended up getting super snappy and stress-sweaty - lovely - and forgetting things. Namely pillows.

We I forgot to bring pillows. Forehead slap.

Here's what else we forgot or didn't think to bring but might have been handy to have around:
  • sponge/scourer for the washing up
  • dish washing liquid (luckily the seasoned campers had plenty to share)
  • plastic/garbage bags
  • dustpan and brush (to try to keep some of the grass and sound out of the beds)
  • rubber mallet for the tent pegs (some of those suckers just couldn't be banged in with a shoe; again, seasoned campers to the rescue)
  • big container of water (to save multiple trips to the taps; yup, seasoned campers to the rescue)
  • some kind of bright, fleuro ties or markers for the tent pegs and guy ropes (the small person seemed blind to all of these)
  • pegs (we had wet towels slung on the back of chairs and over guy ropes - they mostly stayed damp)
  • cards or other simple entertainment
  • nibblies (because sitting around in camp chairs needs nibblies) 
  • books for bedtime for Dear Boy (he can live without everything else from home; we ended up scrounging a tiny old Mr Men board book from the car, but it just didn't cut it)
The pillows were the real killer; our mattresses were super comfy and I could live with the stereo-snoring from Lovely Husband and the guy in the tent next door but no pillows was wretched for getting a good night's sleep. Dear Boy coped fine.

Here's what else was fine even though I had some concerns about it beforehand:

Safety: Dear Boy getting out of the tent and disappearing without us realising (haha, no ninja skills could mask the sound of those zippers opening); that something would happen so close to the water (he wandered off to the fence line quite a bit but the worst thing that happened was his foot slipping down a little hole and he banged his chin - he also got a splinter but who knows where from); he'd burn himself on the camp stove and Trangia (he was curious but steered cleared after we told him it was hot).

Toilet training: the progress on toilet training would fly out the window (we set the potty up in the tent and he used it several times, Dear Boy isn't keen on peeing al fresco); how the hell do you clean a potty when you're camping?! (I'd found a pack of potty liners last week and threw them in at the last minute; any plastic bag would probably do, but it was super simple to lift off the potty seat, tie up the bag and toss it, no cleaning necessary).

Boredom: how to entertain a three year old while camping (we took a few small wheeled toys but he pretty much entertained himself, throwing leaves and sticks and stones into the water, chatting with his cousin; the only real problem was when he woke at the crack of dawn and wanted out of the tent befor eeveryone else was awake - if we'd had a small supply of books, this would've been easier); how to entertain adults while camping (the seasoned campers were right on the money with this one - you're usually busy with the business of camping - cooking, washing, exploring, etc, that you need the downtime to just sit around and chat, maybe play some cards).

Weather: I am no good sleeping when it's hot (we kept an eye on the BOM and were prepared to cancel if the temps got too high - ended up perfect weather though with warm days and cool nights - it was super hot and sweaty when we were putting the temp up but cooled down in the afternoon); rain and thunderstorms (both were predicted and I didn't want a wash-out to marr our first camping experience - we got some sprinkles but no downpour, and some mighty black cloud cover but no storm); too cold at night (I brought lots of blankets and socks).

Here are some of the tips from the seasoned campers and others hacks I found online that are worth passing on:
  • Bring a pair of gumboots for the kids for hanging around the campsite - these are super easy for littlies to pull on and off so helped stop grass getting tracked through the tent - plus good for walking on campsite bathroom floors and great if it rains, and better protection than thongs if they're bashing through the bush.
  • Bring socks and at least one set of opposite weather clothes - I remembered this for everyone else but forgot to pack myself a pair of shorts and sweltered; also cold feet in a tent, not fun.
  • Do lots of the food prep at home - chop the veg, cut the meat, etc.
  • Let the kids get dirty and stay dirty - saves on the stress, just wash their hands before eating.
  • Wipes and hand santiser -because you don't want dirty to become an invitation for bugs (of the gut or creepy-crawly variety).
  • Spray or wipe the tent zips with insect repellent (of the human friendly variety) so bugs don't come flying in after you every time you open the door.
  • Pick a place with something to do - the seasoned campers like spots near water and walking tracks.
  • Invest in earplugs if you're a light sleeper - tents offer no sound protection whatsoever. Whatsoever.
  • Camp chairs are worth their weight in gold - avoids bugs, wet bums, spilling food, etc.
  • Invest in a lidded tub or two - this keeps all your gear together so you can just throw it in the car and go - cookware, crockery and cutlery, fire lighters or matches, batteries, head torches, small tool kit, first aid kit, hand santiser, wipes, paper towel, and small containers of basics like oil, S&P, tea, etc.
We still need to figure out the esky situation - what the ultimate cooling methods are for short and long trips - do you buy the bag of ice, use ice bricks, bottles of frozen water, etc? (Maybe there's a 'science of...' post there) - and a few other things that weren't really an issue at a caravan park with all the mod cons nearby (wildlife, al fresco toileting, no running water, etc)... but we had a good time. Pillows certainly would have helped, but we still had a good time.

We're going again soon.

Are you a n00b or seasoned camper? I'd love to hear any tip or hacks or excellent camping spots (in Victoria) you want to share with us me (especially if you've got the answer to the esky situation).


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