Penguin Theft

Reading this week:

  • Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations by Lina Benabdallah
  • Against Elections: The Case for Democracy by David Van Reybrouck

We set out today to steal a penguin. The semester here at Yale as been dragging on a bit (they eliminated all the breaks, for reasons which made perfect sense, but man we don’t get a break), and we needed to switch things up and add some excitement to our life. So we went to Mystic Aquarium with the intent to steal a penguin.

The “we” in this scenario was me and my super amazing girlfriend. She will tell you that we did not in fact set out to steal a penguin, but instead went to Mystic Aquarium because it is a nice place to go and also that she has fond childhood memories of visiting every summer, but she is just trying to cover her tracks. We visited exactly a week ago from when this should be posted, so it was a slightly cool October day up in Mystic, and I was a bit surprised at how many people were there. They had timed tickets, so I had imagined relatively controlled crowds, but there were about as twice as many people as I would have really been comfortable with. And not to complain too heavily about children, but they’re excited to see beluga whales and less excited to stay six feet away from people. I can hardly blame ’em.

My super amazing girlfriend’s loyalties when it comes to favorite animals at the Mystic Aquarium is split between sharks and beluga whales. Luckily the whales are up first and we got to see them get fed and interact with people through the tank. They seemed to be having an alright time, so were a delight to watch, and by hanging out a bit we established ourselves as normal tourists instead of daring penguin thieves. You gotta establish your bonafides, you understand.

The biggest takeaway from the day was actually that the Mystic Aquarium is super into Halloween. There were Halloween decorations everywhere. The polar bear at the front had a giant spider in its mouth. The majority of the fish had to contend with new neighbors in the form of skulls and skeletons. There was an entire skeleton island in the marsh, and the rain forest exhibit featured incongruous pumpkins and unfortunately congruous black cats. Do they buy new stuff every year, or does the Mystic Aquarium have a gigantic warehouse of Halloween decorations stuffed to the gills 11 out of 12 months in the year?

Anyways, back to the heist. After passing by the seal and sea lion exhibits, where we admired their grace, beauty, and the fact that it kinda sounded like they were sneezing whenever they came up for air, we head up the marsh walkway. At Mystic, you split off the marsh walkway to get to the penguin exhibit. We spent a chunk of time here, to scope out the scene, and also (on our second go-around) to call my girlfriend’s sister, who loves penguins. Here I learned all the penguins have names consisting of two colors (“blue grey,” “yellow red,” etc), and are identified by beads on their armbands. We also learned that in captivity they lived for 30+ years and had regular appointments with an eye specialist. Most importantly, we learned that two penguins sitting in a little rock hut and looking out are very cute!

Unfortunately, there were just too many people, so we called off the heist for right then and decided to see the rest of the aquarium. After the penguins and the marsh, the rest of the exhibits were indoors, which we braved out of a love of sharks. I think I failed to take any good quality pictures of sharks, but I did take this photo of a blue lobster which, I am told, is very rare, and must also be a criminal, relegated as he was to an individualized jail. Poor thing.

There were also jellyfish, which I don’t normally really like because I have been stung by them before, but I figured they would make a cool gif. I also briefly was in awe of a living creature of such a different sort than the vertebrates I normally interact with, but that passed as I moved onto thinking about blog content:

After seeing all the indoor exhibits, we went outside and took another lap around the outdoor exhibits, but alas the potential for penguin thievery hadn’t improved any. So we went to go say goodbye to the belugas who, I am sure, were as sad to see us go as we were to leave them, and then exited via the gift shop. I managed to buy a lapel pin, despite them hiding them in the absolute least visible spot. We then set off to eat some seafood, which now that I think about it was probably in bad taste? Tasted good though. I also took this very nice picture (I think) of a pigeon:

Zoom Pedagogy

Reading this week:

  • Small Country by GaĆ«l Faye

The pandemic hit and all my grad school classes went from being in-person to being on Zoom in the middle of a semester. I feel like this wasn’t as bad as it could have been (this is not a comment about the pandemic, which I don’t want to try to adequately address in a parenthetical). Since all of my classes had met in-person for half a semester, we all knew each other and so I think transitioning to seeing those same people on Zoom was pretty okay and you could maintain some of the same class dynamics. There were a lot of downsides, and frankly I couldn’t pay attention to online classes (I mostly just surfed Instagram in another tab), and my internet was pretty shitty then which made it difficult to attend class sometimes, but then again I had a pretty good excuse to simply not be in a class.

I dreaded the fall semester being online. I was pretty excited when Yale announced that we would be “hybrid,” which meant and as of this writing means a host of things, but I was excited for the chance to not be on Zoom. However, my internship over the summer was remote, so I got a lot more used to Zoom, and the prospect of being on Zoom all day no longer felt as bad. Plus my at-home setup improved significantly (I got a better chair and a second monitor), and now whenever I have to actually walk anywhere to go to an event it feels downright burdensome. All this is good, because all of the classes I am taking this semester are online anyways, so while some people are going to class in-person, I am not one of those people.

However, this has me thinking a lot about Zoom, and I think I have been to most versions of a Zoom class at this point, and so I think I have some authority to pontificate on the Dos and Don’ts of teaching over Zoom. My biggest regret on behalf of virtual students everywhere is that we missed a huge opportunity over the summer to really think through how an online class should work. The number one lesson we should all get out of this is that a Zoom class is not a regular class. I think a teacher that just tries to do their normal thing except into their webcam is not going to have crafted a particularly good experience. I also don’t think it would ever be easy to simply switch back and forth, because the kind of class you teach in person must be so different than the one on Zoom.

Other people have thought about this, but I don’t think we have thought about it enough. I particularly enjoyed this article about what videoconferencing could look like, and I think all the points are spot on. Zoom itself is probably a terrible way to classes in every scenario, and it is unfortunate that was what was ready to go when we all needed it. A quick google search for “zoom pedagogy” will also get you a number of articles giving you some tips, but I don’t think a lot of people have done that Google search. At the beginning of one of my classes this semester, the professor asked us to think of some ways to make sure the class was productive, and people were suggesting things like respect and making sure you do the readings. I was googling Zoom tips as fast as I could and people seemed surprised to be thinking about the idiosyncrasies of the Zoom format. All of which is to say we need to think more about how to teach a class over Zoom before we start barreling in! I shall now barrel into my thoughts:

An absolute minimum amount of time should be spent on Zoom. Staring at a computer screen is way shittier than staring at a teacher in real life, so I think lectures should not be held on Zoom. I think they should probably be pre-recorded, with automatic transcription added and then also posted in such a way that people can speed them up or slow them down. Then, class should be reserved for actual discussion and questions. Some teachers I know ask you to watch the pre-recorded lecture, and then just hold the lecture again. This is unhelpful and dumb.

Teachers need to make a much larger effort to make the class interactive. I think any class without time in the breakout rooms is an entirely wasted class. Even in a class of 15 people I hate trying to pipe up with everybody, but throw me in a breakout room with 3-4 people and suddenly we can actually have a conversation about a topic. Then maybe we can report back to the class or something, but have your students spend time actually being able to interact with people. I also think teachers should incorporate polls or other interactive things to just make students have to focus back into the class once again. There are also plenty of game platforms teachers could use to help students interact.

Make sure to enforce breaks! For serious, take a five-minute break every hour. Staring at Zoom sucks.

Teachers need to radically modify their expectations for presence. I think almost all of my classes at least state that students should be on-camera “as much as possible,” with a potential exception for bandwidth. I think this is a bad expectation and needs to be eliminated. There is an equity issue here, where students might not have the space at home where they can feel comfortable presenting themselves, even with virtual backgrounds or whatnot. It also helps with bandwidth, and although like I said many make an exception for it, once it is the class norm to be on-camera people feel pressured to be on-camera. I personally also find it very distracting to have myself staring back at me, and I suspect that builds anxiety for a number of people about how they look and how they’re presenting themselves. I realize people are visible in a classroom, but it’s a much different environment when people are largely focused on the teacher and the students are just another member of the “audience.” On Zoom, everyone is on equal footing, and everyone can be watched, and given that you can see yourself you are very aware of this. Just eliminate this expectation to be on camera. Zoom is never going to be a good substitute for the classroom, and so it will take some getting used to but we need to establish different norms for that presence. Also in here should be a point about being very flexible about whether people can show up to class at all.

Teachers should call on people. As a guy who will pipe up readily in real-life class, I find it awkward to say anything in a Zoom class. It feels more like a performance I have to get ready for when I’m framed on a camera, and it’s just awkward to figure out who’s trying to talk or who is about to unmute or who has their virtual hand raised or their real hand raised or whatever. Teachers should be in charge of calling on people and coordinating who is speaking when. My super amazing girlfriend teaches a section with few enough students that they can all see each other on one Zoom screen and everyone can see who wants to talk, but Zoom can quickly scale to where that’s no longer really possible, and that changes too if someone is screen sharing. This is probably also a great opportunity to ensure equity in the classroom, and making sure it isn’t just white guys dominating a conversation. So just call on people.

These are just technology complaints. I don’t think you should try to play a video over Zoom. You run into bandwidth issues and it becomes choppy half the time and the other half of the time you listen to it without the audio because the teacher didn’t click the right button. My super amazing girlfriend thinks there shouldn’t be any videos in a class anyways, so there. Also please teachers double-check the breakout rooms. I spent part of a Spanish class in a breakout room by myself, which was kind of relaxing but not very helpful.

Overall, I actually think it is a really great thing that the world has become much more adept to videoconferencing. A year ago, if you wanted to meet someone virtually, that would have been difficult to coordinate. But now, I am able to ask a whole range of people all over the world for a Zoom call and that is a perfectly normal request people are adept at handling. I think that radically changes the ability to network and connect with people, because instead of dragging someone out to a Starbucks you just need to ask them to click a Zoom link, and you could be in say, Connecticut while they are in DC. I also was able to conduct an internship remotely that in other years would have been in DC. It was much different than an in-person internship I think, but I really really hope the world retains this capability. That would open up internships and other opportunities to all sorts of people who would not otherwise be able to move themselves to DC or New York for the summer, or who need to be able to take care of a child at home or any other reason they can’t sit in an office 9-5.

I really hope there are a lot of people out there really thinking through how to improve the online presence and online teaching paradigm, in ways that aren’t just improving the camera quality. Now that we’re all comfortable with the concept of having classes and meetings online, we can really think through a new paradigm to make it as good and equitable an experience as possible. A boy can dream.

Apple Picking Redux

Reading this week:

  • Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont

It is fall in New England so we went apple picking. Couple of points here. First, as you can tell from the title of this post including the word “Redux,” this was an event we also did last year, when it was also fall in New England (being a year ago, you understand). Despite the similarities in the season, and despite the fact that I again busted out my super sweet safari jacket (modelled above), there were a number of differences. I have not recently read any Steinbeck, so I didn’t ponder as closely how our adventure related to the plight of the American worker. I also haven’t talked about Marx nearly as much in the past few months as I did in the fall of last year. I feel very overworked this year; maybe the decline of Marx in my life and the increase in work is related.

The most significant difference between last year and this year, however, is the huge difference in the use of “we” in the sentence “we went apple picking.” Last year we got official funding from Yale to go on a group-bonding expedition, and so the we was a whole host of people. This year, “we” includes only myself and my super amazing awesome girlfriend, who is awesome, and who totally exists, despite the fact I felt weird about posting pictures of her here because I haven’t asked her about it. Unlike me, who is from the Southern land of Maryland, she is from New England, up in Massachusetts, and she goes apple picking every year. It is a pandemic and all, which is why we couldn’t go with all of our closest friends like we did last year, but going apple picking was a nice respite from the looming threat of death and a lifetime of heart damage.

We were not the only ones who felt this way! As you can’t see from the picture above (I really promise I was not the only person in the apple orchard that day), a number of people were there that day picking apples. But that’s not all! The orchard also had pears (I am fairly surprised by the wide range of fruit that grows up here in the frigid reaches of Connecticut), and people (including us) were picking those too. They had a corn maze that didn’t strike us as worth $7, but others disagreed. So it was a grand ole day staying warily apart from other people in a field as we picked various fruits off of trees. We filled up a whole bag, and took various photos so we can someday admire how young and sprightly we once were. Here, the super amazing girlfriend I have mentioned so often took an action shot of me picking an apple:

This was all very fun! We had a great time. I wish I had written this blog post closer to the actual event so I could relay to you more intimate details, instead of what I currently have, which is a hazy memory of having a really nice day outside among some trees.

This apple picking is a healthy activity, involving healthy fruit and walking outside in the fresh air, so we had to rectify that with a trip to the farm store on the way out. This particular farm store was much more of a supermarket, but it had cider donuts and cider and that is what we were there for so we were quite successful in that. I took two pictures of things that were funny:

The image on the left I enjoy because it makes me feel bad for the plantains, whom I am sure would like to be defined as something other than what they are not. And as a fan of plantains, I want to defend them here by saying if they’re not as sweet, they’re just as nice. The image on the right is an AMERICAN chicken pie, which is not the funny part. The funny part is right under that label, which I hope you can see, which says NO VEGETABLES, which I think is just a standard food label but I like to think it speaks to the AMERICANness of the pie.

After all this we went home. Please stick with me, I will write better blog posts in the future. I am quite swamped with work!!!