Last week I was on my way to an Experimental Phonetics workshop with a classmate and I ran into a third classmate. N told us that she was withdrawing. This was a bit of a surprise since she had been in many of the same classes as me and I had gotten to know her reasonably well. She’s also an older student balancing part-time work and studies so I think we had some sort of rapport. No doubt the reason for N’s withdrawal is a little more complicated than what can be elided from a five-minute conversation but she specifically mentioned the coursework. We’re only doing two coursework subjects, Issues in Linguistic Research and Experimental Phonetics. N reckoned she wasn’t getting anything from Issues. She reckoned we were covering old ground (we were, they really should have synced up a bit better with the capstone subject in the previous year) and she wasn’t getting that much out of it because all the discussion was down the other end of the table.
The end of the table where I sit, the same end as the lecturer. I know what she means of course, I’m not shy of speaking out (perhaps understating things a touch) and similarly the guys who also sit up the front of this long table (it’s a shit room for seminars) are of a similar natural. Very little ends up being contributed by the far end of the table. I’ve been thinking about this through the weekend, initially tinged with guilt. The question is: Do I monopolise the discussion at the expense of other students? I suppose that question is motivated by the feeling that I’ve played some part in fostering an environment. A environment that N didn’t want a part of. This is actually related to the experience I had as a mature student through my undergraduate career but this event caused me to think through the issues more carefully, if only to confront these feelings of guilt.
At various points during my BA in Chinese/Linguistics, I had encouraged the introduction of electronic aids in some way into the coursework, or at least advocated various tools to my classmates to make life easier. Officially, I didn’t get anywhere. Partly because it still wasn’t absolutely gobsmackingly obvious that these methodologies should be built into any language course and partly because there’s a traditional Chinese culture in the department, one which cultural studies would describe as a high ‘power distance’ culture. Eg. I was a student, not a teacher, and therefore it is completely inappropriate to contribute in any way towards the teaching. Yet out of the blue I was lucky enough to be involved in a grant pitch to do exactly the sort of things I thought should be done, a grant that was subsequently successful albeit in a rather more modest scale than I hoped.
What this meant was that I needed to try work out what sorts of things were possible, the biggest bang-for-buck as it were, in order to introduce modern technology into teaching of an undergraduate Chinese language subject. Exactly what form these would take also depended on the course, in this case it was Modern Chinese Literature, a subject I’d done a couple of years previously. As it turns out, this is a good place to start in a sense, because the focus isn’t on the sort of form-focused nature of lower levels of Chinese but rather introducing ways to use annotating readers and to support SRS-informed flashcards in order to acquire the significant vocabulary introduced by the course. I had some good ideas about what to do but the first business was to get together a focus group and ask some students. It helped that I had specific ideas to suggest. It also showed up the sorts of things that aren’t obvious to me such as why, for example, did students tend towards low-quality free/cheap phone dictionary apps. The program would include a reference Wiki (of eLearning related stuff) and the importation of all of the course material into electronic form (from paper). An absolute truck-load of work.
Three years after I decided to go back to university, I finished my Bachelor of Arts degree with a double major in Linguistics and Chinese. On one hand this is cause for exuberance, the culmination of a long journey of learning with various trials and tribulations documented sporadically on this blog. On the other hand it’s a little anti-climatic because I decided to undertake a fourth ‘honours’ year which sort of means that I’m still an undergraduate and in a sense I haven’t finished my degree. As an illustration of how weird that is, it’s perfectly possibly to graduate twice, at the end of the BA and at the end of honours, if you had a penchant for dressing up in medieval gowns. So what’s the relevance of honours? Well, it’s essentially a shift from lectures and tutorials through to much smaller seminars and a full-half of the course load is devoted to authoring an honours thesis that should be a genuine contribution to the field.
In case this is a little confusing, particular for readers from the UK, a comparison with the British system may be enlightening. In the UK students enrol into honours degrees. Assuming they obtain a decent grade, they get a degree with honours and they do it in three years. There are significant differences between the UK and Australian system in that regard. Firstly, our three year undergraduate degrees don’t produce a dissertation or involved much in the way of original research. Also the contact hours are much less, typically, and students have part-time jobs and tend to live near their universities, usually in their family home. A very high proportion of students now go to university and the cost is offset by an extremely generous federal government loan that only needs to be paid back when earning a decent wage. Our universities are massive compared to British universities. Monash, another university in my state and Australia’s largest, has about 50% more students than Oxford and Cambridge combined. Lots of them are international.
Following on from the last post, I made the decision to stay in linguistics. For the last two years my plan has been to move into computer science at the end of my BA in linguistics in order that I can pursue computational linguistics. That would mean jumping across to some sort of post graduate study in computer science in order to build skills and act as a pathway into a research degree, or at least that’s what I thought. In the last week I decided not to do that but instead I will pursue further studies grounded in the school of languages and linguistics at UniMelb. It’s a pretty big decision and this post is intended to be a record of my thought process.
When I grew up in Darwin, we had a saying: “It never rains”. For anyone with even passing knowledge of Darwin in Far North Australia, Eg. the fact that it the annual monsoon results in solid days of torrential rain, it might seem like an odd saying. It’s basically a shortened version of “It never rains it pours”.
I feel like that now. Last semester it was pretty hard to see the attraction in pursuing further studies in linguistics, given my computational linguistics bent, so I had a plan to jump ship to computer science. It’s not that there isn’t stuff to study in Linguistics, quite the contrary I think linguistics is doing the vast bulk of the work necessary to improve the world’s human-computer systems than computer science is. It was more about ongoing worries on whether linguistic academics were receptive of computational approaches, and concerns that there might not be any grant money, opportunities for employment along the way through years of study and so on. (That’s still a concern)
In the first week of this, my final semester of a BA in linguistics (if I didn’t do honours), every single day has thrown at me astounding opportunities while every single subject offers the chance to spread out into my specific areas of expertise. It’s going to be an exciting semester with the chance to work on several areas I’m very fond of and it seems impossible that I wont have a really good idea of next-steps by the end of it.
It never rains. Right now, though, I’m thoroughly enjoying the drenching.
A cold but sunny morning marked my first day back this semester. I’m always amazed at just how wonderful it is to be on campus, there’s a sort of vibe that’s sorely lacking from the ‘real world’. Doubtless the youthful exuberance of the average student plays a role but I think there’s other factors too, like the periodic refreshing of long breaks and a change of subjects being taught and so on. This semester I’m going heavy on linguistics, anticipating these to be my last. I’m doing Phonology, Computer Media Communication and the ‘capstone’ subject of Exploring Linguistic Diversity. I’m also doing my last Chinese subject, Chinese News Analysis.
Computer Mediated Communication is particularly exciting for a few reasons, not the least because I’m able to pursue my own interests in the area for the final assignment. This blog has fallen into disrepair of late, the last depressive post covers why. Being short on cash and being unable to take up my Taiwan scholarship has made me less inclined to want to talk about Chinese studies. On the other hand, given my long and involved history with CMC, pre-dating the widespread adoption of the Internet, I’ve had years to observe and think about this field and a lot of it has come into greater clarify through my studies in linguistics.
Moreover, I’m looking to turn my job-less status into an asset by building some technology to complement my studies. My desire to pursue NLP in particular plays well to collecting and analysing real-world data for CMC, and of course there’s also opportunities in Phonology too. Another option would be to kick out my posts on Google+, since I use that more than anything else, but I think it’s fair to say the posts wont be interesting to most people who have me in their circles, and longer posts don’t really do well there. Unless I posted a cat gif with each one perhaps. I’m currently of a mind to basically summarise a post and link the blog post. We’ll see how that goes.
Swotting for a classical Chinese exam tomorrow, I need something of a distraction so I thought I’d describe the place I’ve been lately. Mostly it’s a place marked with dull routine study, self-doubt and uncertainty for the future. Once these exams are over, I’ve a month off and then the final semester of my BA. I lost my part-time writing gig which makes this period a little easier to deal with study wise but now introduces the problem of money and as a knock-on effect, it’s also made me think more clearly about next steps and how to pay for it.
To date I’ve been trying to ensure good marks so I leave the door open to doing honors in linguistics. Now that seems like the least attractive option. Not because I wouldn’t like to do it, but because I’m not sure what I’ll do for part-time work and because the field of (theoretical) linguistics seems to be entirely rooted in academia. That means your job prospects are in academia which would be alright, if it also didn’t seem quite light on … hmm, vibrancy? I suspect a lack of practical outcomes means much less research money, which explains why there seems to be much less staff in each university despite the relatively high number of students.
Coming to the end of my second last semester of my BA and as I’ve said earlier one of the things I’m not happy with is the situation with Chinese. I did a couple of years of the regular language stream and it’s just not possible to continue with that without wanting to cut my own throat. At least I’m unwilling to risk that it’s anything like last year. Thankfully the Chinese literature and subjects have been great. Those don’t really do anything for me in terms of everyday communication ability and, realistically, nothing at UniMelb is going to help that. So on a whim I applied for a Taiwanese government scholarship for a semester at a Taiwanese university and… I got it!
In this last day of the year blog-rush, I’ll take a stab at describing the ‘road crash’ of university Chinese language instruction. This is probably going to come across as a bit of a moan but then if you can’t moan on your own blog, where can you moan? Therefore this is almost more of a diary entry to tie up a thread of the last two years, you can read more after the break if you are inclined.
It’s been pointed out to me, ahem, that I’ve not posted since September. The biggest reason for that is the growth of Google+ and my preference for using that as an outlet. It makes the difference between about 20 views and 6,000. That said, this blog has a distinctly different theme. Namely things relating to Chinese, linguistics, returning to university and so on. Therefore I’ll use the last day of 2011 to blast out some mini catch up posts because there’s a lot that’s happened…
First of all, I’ve now completed two years of my undergraduate degree in linguistics. I’ve completed the normal Chinese language instruction stream, or at least as far as I’m willing to take it at UniMelb. Now it’s literature based subjects which I’m actually good at and is much much better taught, so I’ll be feeling a lot better about Chinese in the coming year.
As I’ve said before, my direction has solidified towards the field of computational linguistics although I find myself in niche area that’s quite hard to pilot. I’m more interested in using computational linguistics as a tool within linguistics proper, rather than as a sort of vocationally-focused computer science dominated field of computational linguistics. Just after semester I attended another academic conference and I came away feeling much better about the prospects of finding a good path ahead.
Another major aspect I haven’t spoken about a lot on this blog is my revived interest in all things to do with ‘making’ or ‘hacking’. I have for some time felt pretty strongly that the consumer electronics boom has a lot to answer for in the atrophy of skills and the generally lesser inclination of your average man to get down to the shed and do something for himself. This comes from something of a perfect storm of events, mostly documented on this blog. Starting from the introduction to Python I had with the first computer subject I took as breadth. It might seem absurd, but I had forgotten how … capable (willing more than ability?) I am at just knocking things up out of the whole technical chain from web browser through to little things soldered onto a board. 2011 was the year of awakening of Mat as a Maker.
So at the very end of 2011, where am I at and what am I doing? It’s another couple of months until uni starts again so I’m firmly in the time-rich portion of the year where I get into projects. Some of my projects:
- The Inf0cube – A sort of kitchen-based explosion of old and new visualisation. Heavy electronics and coding project, probably the most impressive single thing I’ve ever built.
- Higgins – The Android-powered telepresence robot. Chassis works, Android hookup works, now crafting some genuinely innovative ways to use a dirty cheap and powerful smartphone as an all purpose robot brain.
- Home Brew – I have brewed beer for years, on and off, but only as a ‘kit and kilo’ operator. Eg, you buy cans of stuff and just chuck it in a drum. Since I’m so poor now, I began brewing again just so I could remember the taste of beer. As my obsessive personality dictates, this wasn’t enough and I’ve progressed to ‘all grain’ brewing. I think this is a keeper, it’s easy, fun, lots of geek-out potential and everyone appreciates the results.
- Melbourne Mini Maker Faire and new Melbourne Hackerspace. I’m helping to organise this first maker faire event in Melbourne. It’s on something of a tight schedule. I’m doing things to do with writing about makers, bit of PR and marketing, and offering unwarranted opinions. The event is in January.
So that’s where I’m at. Now I should follow up by drilling into those subjects…