Congratulations, You Successfully Completed a High-Five.

High Fives as we enter
Flickr: Hector Alejandro
I don't know about you, but I love high-5's. I don't know when I first started loving them, probably when I felt included by 'big people' when I was a little kid. I fondly remember being about 6 years old and being allowed to stay up a little late with teens and young adults on camp. I'm pretty sure high-5's were involved. Or maybe that's just me rewriting my memory to fill it with what I'd like to have happened! In my teen years, I didn't have much physical contact with my brothers, aside from rough ticking and poking! But sometime during my time at uni I started high-fiving a fair bit. Yep, I've started giving out a lot more high-5's, to friends whenever they land a good joke or well-timed friendly jab, to congratulate the students I tutor when they get a problem correct or to my siblings when I want to show a little more affection than just a quick wave when I arrive home. Move recently, I've been trying to come up with a new high-five with a close friend of mine. We both like high-fives, but we've agreed our high-five has got to be different from the very standard hi-5 or the down low. And it got me thinking, why do we Aussies high-five? What high-five variants are out there? And why are there so many haters?

Why do we Aussies high-five? Whether it's to congratulate a friend or colleague, celebrate a victory or a job well done, or greet a friend, the high-five is still alive and kicking in the land Down Under. Sometimes Aussies high-five just to say hello. Perhaps mainly in Christian contexts, guys and girls tend to give each other high-fives as preferred, neutral alternative to a handshake or hug. High-fiving in popular culture and indeed in everyday life is very commonly done when Person A i) agrees with Person B and ii) wants to conspicuously show their approval with Person B's remark. There's something satisfying about a well-earned high-five. Physical contact seals the deal; the crisp 'smack' (or 'whack', depending on the person!) is such a fitting way to culminate a job well done. I high-five my math and English students to encourage them in their learning, even when it can be hard slog for them. Aside from showing congratulation and approval, the two-person hand clap can also say, "I love you/I like you/I appreciate you/I'm on your team." It can also be used to include someone who doesn't feel particularly involved in whatever's going on. It's amazing how significant a simple physical touch like a high-five can be.

How is giving a high-five different from shaking a person's hand? Well, back in the day, apparently as far back as 4th century BC in Grecian art, giving a handshake was recognised as a gesture of peace. I believe it was also commonly used in the Middle Ages to show your fellow gentleman that you weren't going to stab him in the back with your special 'hidden-dagger-in-the-hand' trick. Nowadays, one would like to think that we are not worried that our companion will stab us in the back if we don't first check for hidden weapons! The standard handshake has been used for a long time as a formal greeting, so the high-five quite possibly became popular in Western culture as a move to a more relaxed equivalent. High-fives allow you to inject your own creativity and personality into how you do it. (Of course, this is definitely true of handshakes, too! There are countless variations of handshakes that are as diverse as there are cultures in the world.) High-fives are fun and this certainly one of its shining traits.

It seems that the high-five provides a way for adults to relate to kids. Kids love high-fives and haven't (yet) learned to be embarrassed about it! I personally love the game, "High-five up high! On the side! Other side! Down low- too slow!" But some kids are too quick for me, slamming down a five before I even have a chance to react! Seeing the massive smiles on kids faces afterward is gold. I find that often with kids about 12 and under there is a quick disarming effect with this simple tap. Once kids get older, they often become more conscious about how they appear to their peers and so become unwilling to do things in public that could be seen as silly or ridiculous or childish. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint!), I've no such qualms.

You thought that there was only one type of high-five? Think again. You can give high-fives as a run-up high-5, a little jump and slightly higher high-5, a double tap high-5, a self tap high-5, a Todd Five (add a click after the high-5), the virtual high-5 (for long distance relationships LOL), or a high-ten! And the list goes on. The limit is how much you're willing to look silly for the greater good. Enjoy your freedom, responsibly ;)

The high-five: you either love it or hate it. According to Tripp and Tyler playful take on things, high-fiving can be one of the most stressful things you can do in life. But fear not. They've got you covered.

I think the hate that the simple high-five gets is mostly due to the embarrassment factor when this seemingly simple way of greeting another high-fiver goes all messy. When high-five turns into a high-two, which is the equivalent to when a person just grabs the ends of your fingers when attempting to shake your hand, it's just not the same thing. It's a painful experience, both for your pinky and ring fingers as well as for your pride. But when when a high-five goes well -- when the decisive "Thwack!" of your hand connecting with fellow high-fiver's hand happens-- the euphoria is just priceless. But maybe the haters out there just think the high-5 is just too lame or childish. I understand, but that's no excuse haha. Do it for your inner child. You've got to stay young at heart. But hey, maybe haters have just had deprived childhoods and haven't received any successful high-fives? Maybe those failed high-fives scarred them for life? ;) As for me, when I give/receive a poorly done high-5, I immediately acknowledge, 'That wasn't a proper high-5," and then I proceed to reattempt until I get it right! Just recognise that I/we failed and then move on! We'll redo it until we get it right, unless of course we fail for the 5th time! In that case, we can always laugh and  give ourselves self high-fives? Fail-proof, right?

On a serious note, I suspect when we fail at our high-fives, it reminds us the painful reality that we fail at life. And that's awkward if you're not willing to face that reality head-on. But if it's reality, it's better to face up to it than pretend that we have it all together (including our high-fives!).

To wrap up, if you haven't got into the humble high-five, can I recommend you give your good friend or coworker a high-five the next time you have something to celebrate? It's worth a try. High-fives are pretty fun and they can relieve stress, help someone else fit in or relax. It's true, you can't get around the fact that there is an inherent risk with high-fiving: you might miss. But what's the worst case scenario? You have to repeat it and right a wrong! Simple. Crisis averted. Just like in life, you just gotta accept failing at high-fives. On the up-side, when you actually do successfully complete a high-five you'll be laughing.

Just Being Miley: A Failed Parody of Rape Culture

Cyrus (Left) with friend Demi Lovato

Miley Cyrus has made headlines in the past few weeks but not for the right reasons. Miley-- previously well-known and loved by kids as Hannah Montana from The Hannah Montana Show-- has done what she wants. Much of the Western world has heard of her co-performance with Robin Thicke for the Video Music Awards (VMA), a performance that was supposed to be rated as suitable for kids under 14. Miley has actually received a lot of heat for her hyper-sexualised performance in a playbear leotard-turned-latex underwear, however Robin Thicke has somehow received minimal critique as an older man simulating anal rape on Cyrus in the performance. Albeit, Cyrus is the one initiating the act. But does this lack of anger toward Thicke concern you? And let's not forget that MTV approved this performance to go ahead. Yet not many viewers are particularly angry with MTV. There are many issues that Miley's performance raises. How is blame meted out and how is this contributing to rape culture? By 'rape culture', I mean a culture which blames and condemns the victim rather than holding the perpertrator full accountable. How should we raise the topic of rape in art? Is sexualisation of child actors and performers in Hollywood being normalised and if so, why?

Who's to blame? Cyrus? Thicke?

We all like to dish out our fair share of blame. But are we too keen to quickly jump into blame mode without first thinking through who is at fault and are we in any position to judge? Miley Cyrus may rightly be criticised for her performance -- and indeed string of performances and music videos -- as being unhealthy and encouraging sexual violence, but what about blaming Robin Thicke as an older, married man for just casually receiving Miley's 'twerking'? What about MTV's flouting of content requirements for under-14 viewers? Robin Thicke co-performance with Miley Cyrus in his 'Blurred Lines' had obvious parallels with Miley's first song of the night 'We Can't Stop'. According to Thicke, this was all intended to parody rape culture. There are a few issues with this claim. Disturbingly, Thicke and Cyrus seem to both be endorsing male sexual advances to female 'animals' rather than critiquing them. In fact, Cyrus seems to be promoting female sex-crazy advances by women toward men, rather than questioning male predatory behaviour. And in both performances, Thicke receives the attention of hungry, one-track sex animals with no qualms or reservations.

Everyone has dirt on their hands 

Clearly then, Cyrus isn't faultless, but Thicke most certainly isn't either. I think the weight of the blame should be on MTV and Thicke rather than on Cyrus. Cyrus knows better, but they should know even better. They're males. They know how males' brains work: males generally aren't going to study the artistic merit of all this. Many men are going to self-righteously blame Miley for being all sexually-provocative and then go ahead and drool over the videos and images of her. And really we, as consumers, need to avoid pointing the finger judgementally. We fund the whole system by consuming this content and talking about it in a shocked way (which of course generates more views)! And those of us who are men need to look at our own hearts rather than thinking we are somehow immune to enacting on unhealthy, wrong sexual desires.

Pop Music: not a great medium for serious discussion? 

Pop music is not a great medium for parodying or even for raising the topic of rape culture. Or is it? I want to give pop the benefit of the doubt by saying it may be able to convey profound ideas effectively and helpfully, but pop is hardly a reflective music genre and both these videos position even thoughtful, concerned listeners to think, 'Oh, it's just another upbeat music video'. No big deal. Perhaps pop music is limited in what it can achieve. What then is a good medium for raising the topic of rape? It's an important question that we as a society should be taking seriously, if we want to do well in the fight against rape. Perhaps, just perhaps, pop music parodies are not the best way of addressing the topic of rape?

Kids are being sexualised because it makes adults more money 

Do you like me see a Western trend where children in the music and film industry are becoming increasingly sexualised, under the guise that they are 'growing up'? Whether it's Justin Bieber turning badass or Nikki Webster as a teen being labelled No. 96 in the 100 Sexiest Women poll, whether it's Daniel Radcliffe needing to ride a horse in the nude in the play 'Equus' (2007) or Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in the wake of the Twilight series, underage actors and singers are tending to show excessive skin, or at least create a persona of breaking out as 'rebellious' and 'adult' as their rite of passage. Back in 2003, senior lecturer in popular culture, Dr. Karen Brooks from USC made a telling comment about how Nikki Webster (then 16) was being sexualised.
“We are engaging in a type of cultural pedophilia. When we put young girls that look like they are under the age of consent and portray them in a sexual way, that is wrong.” Dr Brooks said the marketing of padded bras and G-strings at girls under 10 and portraying teenagers such as Webster in a sexual way were “all connected”. People who marketed the lingerie at children should have “a good, long, hard look at themselves... The crazy thing is it’s the spillover effect and mums wanting a ‘mini-me’,” she said.
In summary, kids in the public eye are sexualised because it means particular companies and adults can make even more money, regardless of the collateral damage both to the child model and indeed to every child in our society.

The Verdict: Thicke and MTV culpable; family and money speak volumes

Where should we go from here? Should we give Miley Cyrus a break? Yes, and instead focus more of our criticism on MTV and Robin Thicke for condoning and encouraging such behaviour. Sure, Miley is 100% culpable for her own behaviour, but MTV is made of adults who know the content requirements for a family-friendly show, and yet they wilfully put on something that made even adult audience members squirm. It's not fair just to attack Miley without attacking the huge team behind Miley. And again, our comments need to be taking into account our own hearts: we're culpable as well. After all, we consume and get entertained by this trash. We feed this exploitative industry if we consume this content without speaking out against the supply. We Westerners are neck deep. If we really want to stop these negative trends of sexualisation of kids, then we need to put our dollar where our mouth is. And instead of complaining to our friends on social media about the demise of our society, why not write a letter of complaint to the producers and suppliers of aforementioned content? Finally, if we want to properly address rape in the public forum, why don't we think more carefully about our jokes, about what we're saying on social media and what we're doing in our families to encourage our next generation to be wise and kind when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex?

Driving on the wrong side of the road

The following is a blog post that I wrote over six months ago but didn't publish! Here it is!
Kangaroo and its joey
Flickr: JoshBerglund19
As you might have guessed, I like hats -- my pseudonym gives it away— and one of the 'hats' that I wear is being an Aussie who speaks French. Yes. From September, 2010, until June, 2011, I lived in Lille, France to do student exchange at a left arts university, Charles de Gaulle Universite (Lille III).  It’s funny the sort of things that I noticed when entering a new culture, but a very normal thing I noticed was that everyone drove on the wrong side of the road. At least, it’s the wrong side for Australians. The French would be technically correct, though, to say that they drive on the right side of the road!  #BOOM I didn't ever drive in France, but it took me about two or more months for the road side change to become ‘normal’ for me. For quite some time I was cautious and had to double check to make sure I knew which direction to expect cars to come from when crossing the street. 

Riding kangaroos to school and other cultural differences

It’s funny the type of differences that we notice when in a different culture. Also funny are our reactions to those differences. For a fair few of my French friends, the concept that Australians might drive on the left side of the road was incredible! They would stare at me in surprise. (Sure, they also would ask me questions about native Australian animals, particularly kangaroos. I enjoyed watching their gaping mouths when I stated with a deadpan that we Aussies often have a couple of kangaroos in our backyards and sometimes kids ride them to school.) Our surprise reaction to little cultural differences, like a change in the side of the road that locals drive on, or the proliferation of unusual animals, points to our assumptions and the way our cultural context shapes how we see the world. 

What is normal?

These little details tell us what is ‘normal’, and so when we enter a new culture we get a shock at realizing that ‘normal’ is different, depending on where you live. Of course, this shock can lead to positive, neutral or even negative feelings. You might simply think, ‘that’s cool, I like different.’ Alternatively, ‘It really doesn’t matter.‘ can be a reaction to some cultural differences, despite the perhaps slight feelings or unfamiliarity or discomfort. But from time-to-time, foreign visitors go through negative feelings, too. 

Not so little differences: on negative feelings

I remember how the slow and seemingly inefficient bureaucracy of French governmental departments as well as of the Lille III university got on the nerves of my fellow international exchange student friends.  I learnt to laugh at some differences when I felt tempted to get angry and get into a negative thought cycle. Other times, I tried to just ‘give ‘em a chance’ when my initial reaction to a cultural difference was negative. Sometimes I discovered there were good reasons for things that the French did (some paperwork processes). Other times, I just thought, ‘Hmm, that’s probably a selfish thing to do. Not good citizen behaviour (not cleaning up after your pet in the street).’ 

Current status: reflection mode

Going to France helped me think through my assumptions and reevaluate how I relate to foreign visitors to Australia. I realised that many foreign visitors to Australia must feel shocked at our seeming rudeness as a culture, due to our scathing sarcasm and teasing. Sometimes I think they have valid cause to be, as Aussies can be quite nasty with their words. Other times, it might help just to explain to an international that 'it was just a friendly joke,' and that they can relax. I certainly gained an appreciation overseas for how much language includes or excludes. It must be pretty hard sometimes for newcomers to Australia to understand us, as we speak with a different accent to the accent they are often taught in (UK Posh accent or 'American' accent). This language barrier can contribute to newcomers keeping to themselves and being quite lonely. I think it's great how various groups have formed on my campus to help international students fit in. I look at foreign visitors differently now, having had a taste of what it's like to be the 'other' and have your sense of normalcy knocked about a bit. 

Conversations: face-to-face in a virtual-crazy world

United but disconnected?

Recently I read some articles about how we as 21st century westerners are communicating more than ever before and yet have never been so disconnected. We do funny things like barge into people on the street, because we've been absorbed by our little mobile screen while sending a text. (In fact a lady would have quite possibly bumped me off the path today, if I hadn't kind of stepped off the path and stopped, waiting for the collision!) I personally find it bizarre when I see a couple at a cafe texting rather than giving their 100% to the very person in front of them. Or is it the homeless man that sits in the concourse next to our train station with whom we try to avoid eye contact? Perhaps we're too eager to avoid people who require effort and time and inconvenience?

Everyone has a story

The other day, I had a chat with a homeless man in the city. I'll call him Ed. Ed told me how he had been on the street for about three years now, with little to show for it. In fact he hardly had a second pair of clothes. As I looked at the overcast sky and then back to Ed, I figured that Ed was probably feeling the bite of the wildhorse of a wind that was rushing around us. He freely told me about how he had left his wife or partner due to various issues that she was not willing to deal with. I sensed that he was sad about the path his partner had refused to back out of, a life of prostitution and drugs. But Ed also gave an insight into how he viewed society: "You have independence, but I have freedom." Ed explained, weakly grinning, that thinking this was how he kept putting one foot in front of the other. But he did raise a good point about how you can have independence from parents, for example, but may not have freedom from financial troubles and money-obsession. As we were chatting, I really felt like Ed was just another guy, you know? He may look disheveled and dirty, but in the end, a homeless guy is indeed a fellow human. It was good to hang with him, not least because listening to his story was a simple gesture of valorising and connecting with him.

Surprised on the train...

Emboldened by my good chat with Ed and culture-watch articles, when I sat down for the train back home, I was looking for any natural conversation opportunities that might come my way. I looked to my left. Nope, a lady had already plugged in her earphones and was absorbed by the device on her lap. I looked at the empty seat to my right. Soon enough, it was filled by a large, full-bearded man. I took the plunge. "G'day, I'm Mark." And a conversation began. You never know about the people you board buses and trains, and this guy was no exception. I was surprised when I discovered after a bit of to-and-fro that Garry was working for an engineering company that I was semi-interested in applying at. Later, I mentioned my convo with Ed, including his point about freedom and money. Garry nodded when I reflected that money can be a pretty ordinary boss. Yeah, you can be a slave of the dollar, that's for sure. And before we knew it, it was our station. Garry agreed to let me use his name in my application letter to his company's HR.

 At the very least, our conversation had made our otherwise painfully silent train carriage just a little bit friendlier. I could see a smile on another passenger's face as she caught snippets of our little chat. I think it's safe to say that Perth public transport is very different from public transport in Zimbabwe. A friend from 'Zim' tells me that, back home, ticket inspectors will ask, "what's wrong with you?" if you're sitting with others and are not talking! Maybe we westerners can learn something from Zimbabweans.  

What Makes a Great Engineering Lecturer?

Photobucket: Faryal the lecturer *

Is it possible to be a good researcher and lecturer at the same time?

Have you ever had a really good teacher or lecturer who has just made a subject interesting, applicable and even a bit fun? I hope so, because an exceptional lecturer is a rare breed, it seems. I guess that's why they're exceptional! And this is particularly true of engineering at the University of Western Australia (UWA). UWA is a research university, meaning that any given engineering lecturer is also juggling various research projects, and for some lecturers, have up to 20 thesis students to supervise. This of course affects the quality of the lectures I receive as an engineering undergraduate. Can lecturers can be much older than students and still give good lectures? And what kind of things will a good engineering lecturer do to keep student interest up as well as ensure their content is being understood? Are there character traits that are needed, too? Indeed. And presumably many characteristics of an excellent engineering lecturer will overlap with those of an excellent science, arts or music lecturer. I'm going to tell you a bit about my own uni experience of lecturers, as well as briefly comment on some elements of good lecturing.

Vague and boring?

In one sense, I would say that engineering lecturers' research actually enriches their lectures, as they can enthuse about their research work. However, it can mean that a lecturer is in his or her own world, and so are vague or simply boring when presenting talks. It can also mean that we end up with lecturers who are endearingly quirky. I wonder sometimes whether some lecturers just view their class presentations as necessary inconveniences, which are stopping them from getting more research done. But I think that is a fairly rare attitude. Usually, my lecturers have been both approachable and helpful. Nevertheless, research lecturer often have the problem of forgetting the difficulties they themselves faced when they were learning the same content a while ago in their undergraduate degrees. And so they explain concepts either in an academic, dense way or simply in insufficient detail with an assumption that the concept is fairly obvious. But we engineering students thrive on examples when learning new formulas, and yet lecturers often give surprisingly few illustrations on how to apply those weird-looking math equations. Those valuable examples are usually shown later in the smaller tutors run by PhD students or upper-year students, thus making tutorials the place where much of our deep learning happens.

Making the numbers come to life

I'm just reflecting on all the lecturers I've had throughout my engineering degree. My lecturers have ranged from about 35 y.o. to about 75 y.o, mostly in their forties, I think. I've had excellent lectures from both the younger and older academics. According to my recollection, I've had 31 male lecturers and about four female lecturers. I've had one German, at least three Poles, two Malaysians (I think), one Mauritian, one Italian, one Swede, one Bulgarian and over 20 Australian lecturers. Each one has had their own unique sense of humour, personality and teaching style. The level of spoken English has been a limiting factor for some of my lecturers, but usually they get around this by explaining content in another way, having good powerpoint slides or having good lecture handouts. Sometimes it's just a bit too difficult for them, and so then students need to spend extra time working by themselves to understand the content. This can be quite time-consuming. Interestingly, there are some cultural trends in humour (eg. the Polish lecturers often have a cynical or sarcastic sense of humour) and style (eg. overall, the Australian teachers seemed to give more examples in lectures). Two of my female lecturers were Electrical Engineers turned lecturers, while the other two women were from the School of Mechanical Engineering.

Two big factors: Enthusiasm and Experience?

Two big factors overall in the teaching quality of lecturers I've been under from 2007 to 2012 have been simply their lecturing experience for their units as well as their personal enthusiasm for teaching. As their confidence and familiarity with their lecture slides and notes has increased of the years, the smoothness of their presentation and clarity of their explanations have doubtless improved. Also, as the lecturer receives feedback from previous students, they can expand on their previous explanations and powerpoints. But all this is negatively affected if the lecturer isn't enthusiastic. Some lecturers I've had seemed to be counting the places they'd rather be. This isn't lost on the students. If lecturers don't want to be there, then students don't either. What a surprise! On the flip side, if a lecturer like Cosimo Faiello is enthusiastic about their  topic, even about one as mundane as Project Engineering Practice, then that can motivate and interest students to study more and take greater ownership of their learning. Cosi, as the Italian lecturer asks us to call him, not only exudes energy and enthusiasm about his course, but he also uses personal stories to back-up his points. Of course, this isn't easy to do with most engineering units, but it does indicate that stories do really help in engaging audiences and placing info in context.

Researching and teaching: not the easiest juggling act

So what makes a good engineering lecturer? They need to be approachable. They'll make sure that their lecture slides, handouts and comments in their lectures address questions that students are asking. They'll often talk about their research or tell stories to help students get a picture of how a principle will work in the real world, as well as to make a talk more interesting. Generally, by being themselves, as research academics, they can be quite entertaining. I really treasure the good teachers I've had a uni, and I recognise the challenges of being a good engineering lecturer (or a good lecturer in anything, really).

*Faryal (pictured) isn't one of my lecturers, he was just included so I could have a lecturer-looking picture. Actually, it's very rare at UWA for an engineering lecturer to be wearing a tie when lecturing. 


The Art of Evading Mr. Distraction

 Have you ever stopped a conversation sometimes to answer the phone or check for a text? Have you ever gone onto Facebook when you meant to do something else? (Have you ever ended up reading a blog post when you meant to write to a friend? hehe Oh, the irony, if you're distracted, reading a post about distraction!) I've recently been reflecting on the times I get distracted. Why do I succumb? Why do I find it so hard to focus on a task?  I hope this blog post is of help in dealing with your own distractions. 

Know thine Enemy. Know thyself. 

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. - Sun Tzu

As the above quote implies, it's useful to know what you're up against and know your own strengths and weaknesses when you're about to do battle. To beat distraction in a battle, we need to understand how distraction works and how it 'gets' to us. To reflect on that, let's imagine Jack, a year 8 boy, who has just arrived into the school library after the end of a hot, tiring day of classes. He's got his English homework paper that's due tomorrow and he wants to get it done.

 It'll only take 30 minutes max, he tells himself. So he quickly sits down in the quiet spot of the library and sets his things up. Just then, he notices a new issue of PC User magazine sitting on the bookshelf nearby. He tells himself to focus. But the more he tells himself, the more appealing the front cover of his favourite mag looks. He gives in, but just for five minutes, he tells himself. Ten minutes later, he closes the last page, dreamily. Mr. Distraction--1, Jack--nil. Better get back to the old homework sheet, he mutters. He gets to work and is pleased that it's actually not that hard.

 About a minute later, a friend walks past and whispers "nerd". He sticks his tongue out and makes a face at his new distraction. Make that 2-0. After a few minutes, he tries to again concentrate, but he can't help wondering why everyone is crowding around his friend's iPad and laughing. What's the joke now? He gets up, just to check. He gets in on the action and soon becomes immersed in a funny Spunge Bob Squarepants episode. The next thing he knows, his phone is ringing. It's his mum. She's waiting at the school entrance, ready to pick him up. He had gotten about five minutes of his homework done. Doh! I guess I'll work on it tonight, Jack rues.  3-0. Mr. Distraction wins again. 

How Mr. Distraction works

In the story, Jack sees something (the magazine) which he cares about, but initially resists the temptation to look at it. The appeal is strong. He wants to read it, even though he has a task which is a higher priority for the moment. But as he plays around with the idea of finding out all the cool games, tech,etc. inside, his focus is taken off his work and onto this fun, relaxing alternative. He's fighting a mental battle. Not that it lasted very long. Easy and fun distraction looks better than hard and boring assignment. And so he turns, and grabs the new issue. Without realising, he quickly gets carried away, and his imagined short break quickly doubles. When Jack realises he's gotten distracted in the story, he either admits failure and return to task or he revels in the distraction. Mr. Distraction ("Distraction for short--he doesn't like formalities) would prefer Jack revels in any diversion, but he's pretty pleased if Jack loses focus even for a bit. So, the cycle of distraction could be The Appeal, The Battle, The Turning, The Admission of Failure (and then, hopefully, The Return or…) The Revelling. The Return is the good choice--a decision to get back on task, despite failing to stay focused -- whereas the The Revelling is going into denial mode and getting more distracted. 

The different sides to Mr. Distraction

We can be distracted in different ways. We could be working along on a hard task, and the we get distracted by another activity that's easy to do. Perhaps we don't find our project very exciting. Actually, to be frank, it's rather boring. So we play an online game or join an interesting conversation--basically, do anything more interesting than that task! Maybe we don't think that the task we're focusing on is important. So we find something else that's a diversion. Anything! Even if the diversion doesn't really matter either! Often, I think, we confuse rest with work. We want to relax, but we also want to get a job done. At least, we partly do. The problem is that we want our rest now! A common way I get distracted is confusing activities which are important with activities that are urgent. A conversation is often more important to me, but an assignment might be due at the end of the week. Maybe I could chat with them another time? Just because the conversation is more important than the task doesn't mean it is a good idea to have the conversation right now. 

Having a civil conversation with Mr. Distraction 

So, there's a process to getting distracted and there are different things that distract, but how can we actually fight distraction? You might need to have a civil conversation with Mr. Distraction. By that I mean you might need to respond to distraction by telling yourself things. Self-talk. There. I said it. Imagine you are writing an essay which is due soon, but you want to check how the item you're selling on Ebay is faring. "Which is more important? The essay is. The Ebay item can look after itself. I can check Ebay after I've finished my work."  You can mentally remind yourself of what are your priorities. Perhaps write a list of what tasks need to be completed, in order of priority. I've found that works for me. Of course, writing lists can be a distraction, too! (I warned you, there are lots of sides to Mr. Distraction. He's sneaky--that's all I can say.) Imagine this: you're tired, but you want to write a page of notes (it's a crazy story, I know). Maybe Mr Distraction has a genuine point: you need to take a break before getting back to this energy-sapping task. Probably put a time-limit on that break, though! Speaking of tiring tasks, if you've got a few of them that you'd like to complete on the same day, why not do the more tiring ones when you have the most energy? Usually, that means starting the harder tasks earlier on, rather than leaving them until you're more tired. 

Three last thoughts

1. Distraction, I believe, is fundamentally a symptom of a bigger problem that humans have. It's called sin. Humans have the habit of thinking that their way is better than God's. I want to do things my own way, for my interests and I'm no. 1. Whether I acknowledge this superiority complex or not, it does leak into many areas of life, negatively affecting my ability to make good, hard choices which are for the long-term good of myself and others. 

2. I believe the God of the Bible can and often does help us with our distractedness. We can ask for help in staying focused. 1 Peter 5:7 encourages followers of him to 'Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you.' I find this helps me enormously in not only avoiding beating myself up when I have become very distracted and wasted time, but also in keeping perspective that God is indeed in control and does aid us and work for our ultimate good. 

3. I spoke to a wise, highly disciplined man recently and he commented that you can build focus over time. As you practise staying on track with a task, you become better at staying on other tasks. 

Taking myself less seriously

Write you my valentine
Have you ever written a sentence, just any sentence, and then after you look over it, you become dissatisfied with how you've written it? You first notice that you've mispelt 'cynicism' and then you realise you need to put a comma before the 'and', and finally you realise what you wrote didn't make much sense after all! So you 'select all', delete what you wrote and start again. That's been my experience as a writer. I'm trying to word things well. Unfortunately for me, this produces a reluctance to do regular writing, because of my desire to write at a very high standard. Now I don't really want to lower my standard, but I do want to write more! I think I'm going to take myself less seriously, so to speak, so that I'll write more. I think my writing will improve in terms of natural flow and clarity. I can come back over what I've blogged later and fine tune the grammar side of things.

So, I look forward to presenting you with more regular (but lower quality) posts! :P A little part of my inner perfectionist just died when writing that last sentence hehe.
A plus tard.

Nine-tenths of education is encouragement: the reflections of a tutor

Tutor portraits
Tutoring kids is a wonderful job. By 'tutor' I mean a private after-hours 1-to-1 student assistant. Speaking from experience, I view tutoring as a joy, as it is an opportunity to share precious learning moments with young students, seeing them mature in personality and character. Tutoring is also a juggling act. It often involves more than just explaining core concepts that the student doesn't understand; often it also involves 'behavioural management' for when kids misbehave or become restless, due to their limited attention span. Tutoring kids is a partnership between the tutee and the tutor, an agreement to go on a journey of learning together.  Any teacher will know that teaching children involves a healthy dose of humility. To tutor a child is to give them a gift, teaching them skills and discipline which will hopefully be of valuable long-term.

"Nine-tenths of education is encouragement." ~ Anatole France

A joy

Tutoring is a joy. Aside from knowing I'll be a little more tired than I was before a tute, I look forward to tutoring. When Michael* (year 8) has a 'Eureka' moment when he 'gets' something he hasn't previously understood before, it is indeed a precious thing. Whether it's the priceless look on his face, the simple thank-you or the magic of the learning process on those around, tutoring is special. I think of every tutoring session with Michael as a fascinating character and childhood study, as I observe and interact with him as he learns. I just feel sorry for his parents who don't get to share much of this fun journey with him like I do.

A juggling act

Tutoring is a juggling act. Kids have their quirks and differing needs, so tutoring is an act of multitasking between making I am explaining things clearly and checking that my student is actually listening! Josh (year 8) often needs to be brought back to reality from day-dreaming, so I often break up tasks with a bit of 'Simon says'. This takes his mind off the math problem at hand and allows him to relax and stretch a bit before refocusing. 'Simon says, "Get back to work!"' Tutoring involves relating to the student as an individual, which means asking myself 'am I addressing their unique abilities, attention capacity, difficulties and barriers to learning?' I'm currently tutoring two year 8 boys in both maths and English and one year 7 boy in fast-track ESL English, and during this last semester I've improved in my juggling skills!

A partnership

Tutoring is being in a partnership. It's certainly much harder to work with students when there is animosity between you and them. It's also better in the long-term for students to know a teacher is approachable and not superior to them. It's a tricky balance sometimes, though, as some young students at times take advantage of friendliness and take it as an invitation to misbehave. As a tutor, I realise that I cannot make students love learning. I might be able to show unmotivated students that there is value in learning or inject fun into an otherwise bland subject for them, but if they have already decided that school is boring, then it's difficult to change their mind by age 12 or 13, if not earlier. However, when a young student does view learning as a joint venture and a venture that is worthwhile, even fun at times, then that makes tutoring much more enjoyable and effective.

A sense of humility

If tutoring is a partnership, then this means that, as a tutor, I need to be willing to admit I don't know something at times. It also means congratulating the student when they find an alternative approach which works. When I tutor in maths, I sometimes have to sit for a minute and figure out the problem without being of much help to the student. I try to get the student to explain to me what they understand about the question (while buying me thinking time!). And actually by not explaining everything and instead getting the student to do that, this deepens the learning process for the student. I need to be humble enough to listen and not always be the one talking, whether it's English or Maths tutoring. Regardless of the tutoring subject, humility is an important ingredient for the effective tutor as there is lots that we don't understand as teachers, and we're always learning how to better communicate the ideas we do understand.

A gift

I love being a tutor because to be a tutor is to be a gift giver. I get this sense of gift-giving when I tutor Josh in English as a Second Language (ESL) classes each Thursday afternoon. I am essentially given Josh the key to communicate and engage effectively in writing and speech. Being able to communicate well is a priceless, life-long skill. It's exciting for me as I see my student make improvements in his English grammar and reading comprehension. Tutoring Josh in English is also indirectly aiding him in his ability to appreciate English literature. Indeed, helping a child be able to appreciate others' good writing is a beautiful gift. I realise being paid for tutoring may seem like it contradicts idea that it is gift-giving. I think this is an example of how getting paid for serving in the community doesn't lessen the good of that service, although it might expose the motives of the worker. Overall, I've immensely enjoyed being a tutor and view it as a great job. It is a joy to tutor the next generation. It's also a juggling act. It also requires a sense of humility. Finally, tutoring is giving a gift that keeps on giving. I recommend you students out there who have enjoyed learning under a good teacher(s) to giving to others a helping hand in learning by being a tutor yourself in some form.

*Students names have been changed.

Deciphering Her


Hey, Bec?
Hello, who is this?
Jase. I was wondering...wanna come down to The Hangout at Jesters Corner? 
Um, Ok! Sounds great! 
Cool, I'll be there in like half-an-hour, once I've finished my shift.
He slowly walks with her, deliberately bumping into her shoulder as they walk through the shopping complex to The Hangout cafe. She grins, looks at him for a moment before looking away in slight embarrassment. Bec wonders what she is going to be working on tomorrow and when she'll need go to be to wake up at a decent hour. Jason tugs at Bec's jacket and she comes back to reality. 
Dine-in or take-away? 
Dine-in, Jason grins. 
Please take a seat. We'll be over with you shortly. 
Where would you like to sit? Jason asks his sister. 
I don't mind. 
Ok, why don't we sit over on the comfy couches? I love sitting at the corner. 
Ok, she smiles. 
They sit together, giggling about who should sit down first and be squished in the corner. Jason insists that she sit down first. 
She obliges. Bec and Jase drink in the menu with their eyes, wondering what delicatessen chocolate flavours to try. Jason goes potluck and picks the flavour that looks appealing but one that he hasn't tried before. Bec is more hesitant and wonders for a few more minutes, before picking one. Why not order a nice hot peppermint tea to go along with the mini chocolate pieces? Why not, indeed, agrees Bec. 
The waitress nods approvingly and flutters away and rushes back with deliciousness. They enjoy what she brings. Jason bites into half of his pistachio piece and rolls his eyes in part exaggerated humour and part in sensory enjoyment. Bec is more proper, even using her knife to cut the already small piece of almond de chocolate into slivers of goodness. She wants to savour this as long as possible. But, soon enough, both siblings' pieces are gone and so the tea washes down and makes snugly warm.   
Jason leans back and looks into Bec's eyes, lovingly. How's your day been? he mumbles. 
It's been pretty good. 
They sit back contentedly, in the warm of the tea inside them, their similar lapelled jackets and in the presence of good company. They are at ease with each other. Jason jokes that people probably think they are a pair. It's becoming a rare thing these days that siblings get along so well and actually hang out together, he muses. 
She nods slightly and looks across the room, noting the couples, groups of friends and waitresses. It's a packed house tonight. 
Jason looks again at Bec and she looks back. They squint, pretending to suspect the other. It gets more tense, before they both break out laughing. They're looking at each other again. Bec's frowning at his jacket. Jason looks down, worried he's spilt something on it, but she just laughs. 1-0 to me, she thinks. Jason glances quickly to the wall of the room, examining the design. She follows his gaze. Before she knows it, he's seated himself right next to her, swung his head to face hers with noses touching and she's still looking at the wall! Sly. 2-1. Bec pushes him back with a grin, regaining her personal space. He acquiesced and then suddenly started explaining what was on his mind. She nods in agreement at some points, at others crooks her head to one side, listening intently, while at still others she sits back, unmoving. Just when he pauses for a long moment, she leans forward to reach for her cup of tea. It was the wrong moment. Jason raises his head after having been bent down in intent conversation. His forehead and hers connect. It's very clearly 3-1. After recovering, Jason mutters resentfully, it wasn't a competition anyway. 
Pirates or ninjas? Um, pirates, Bec responds.
Cakes or casseroles? Er, cakes of course!
A nice book or a indoor wood fire? Hard one, but probably a good book. 
On a hot day, ice-cream or lemonade? Icecream, of course! Bec sniffs in mocked disgust. How could he not know the answer to that one? Jason enjoys playing this games of sorts, even though he knows the answer most of the time. 
Your turn, he insists.
Pirates or ninjas? Bec asks. Ninjas, cos they're super fit. 
Zucchini or brussels sprouts? Hmm, I'd have to think. Zucchini.
Pride and Prejudice, BBC  or US version? He can't believe she'd ask that. He's technically not supposed to have even watched them.BBC version, of course! They both laugh. They agree on a lot of things and this answer surprises neither of them. The BBC version has had a prominent place in the family's VHS collection for ages.
Fishing or canoeing? Tough one. I think 'fishing'. It is somehow less tiring. They laugh together. Bec looks at the time, Jason not failing to notice. Time to go? he sighs. 
I guess we can stay another 10 minutes.
Sometimes Jason doesn't know if Bec is bored of something or if she is just tired. Perhaps she's thinking of her studies tomorrow already or maybe she just... he doesn't know. He's still learning to read his sister. The next few minutes pass like sand from an hourglass, and they're soon standing, paying, leaving. Jason knows that his sister likes chivalry, so he surprises her with opening her car door for her. She is so surprised and grins the rest of the way home. It's funny how the little things count, he muses as they drive back home.  

Mrplaywrite dedicates this story to his sister. 

Back to uni again...

It's a strange feeling of being excited that you're leaving a long period of relaxation into study and work, but that's what I'm feeling. (Mind you, there are plenty of uni students who work hard and earn lots to help them either stay at their residence or continue to pay off the up-front uni fees. There's also another group of uni students--most of us-- who dislike getting back to uni because it means effort. At the same time, it's a convenient socialising venue.) When you've had a few of those incredibly long 3-month holidays given to uni students around the world (some get less--shock! Horror!) you start to get used to it. I'm not sure if that is a good thing. It really depends on how you use it. But I remember feeling a little uneasy during my first 3-month holiday after year 12 and before going on straight into my undergraduate engineering degree. I didn't know what to do! I got a bit of manual work for two weeks, but other than that, I don't know what I did. I think I made an epic list of 'smart' books I wanted to read, but I never got around to it, because that required discipline, and discipline was not my strong point during a 3-monstrous-long-month holiday. For that matter, discipline is not my strong point DURING semester. But at least I'm less bad at it then other times.

It's been a refreshing experience to rub shoulders with eager-eyed first year uni students who are barely out of high-school and have comparatively little world-experience. Many write down every point that the lecturer makes, trying to do everything right. Some will boast proudly that they have bought all their text books on the first day at the Co-op bookstore and that they lugged them home, despite the huge weight. Other first years are just glad to be out of the System and are living this whole experience up. Now that the faculties have been restructed, the Science faculty is very large, embracing Agriculture, Plant and Animal Biology, Sport studies, Psychology, etc. This has meant that a lot of first years pick a variety of 'generic units' which will technically help them to 'diversify their skills and knowledge sets'. What I fear it will lead to is many uni students feeling disorientated and apathetic as they need to plow through non-central units before they focus on their actual specialisation in their masters. It remains to be seen how it goes. But I think many freshers won't really detect the significance of these changes.

I am enjoying immensely the reactions I'm getting when I get asked by a fresher, 'What year are you in?' Oh, I twiddle my thumbs and look absent-mindly around the room, 'Sixth year.' It's usually involves them being shocked and doing a double take. It's a similar sort of story when people ask me how tall I am and then I tell them. I remember when I was a fresher that I viewed a third-year student even as something of a 'uni veteran'. They must be so smart and so worldly-wise. What a disappointment to come to sixth year and realise that we know NOTHING. There is something helpful about that realisation though. You realise you have absolutely nothing to be proud or superior about toward others, based on your knowledge or intellect. It's just plain stupid to boast about NOTHING. Anyway, the little that each of us mere mortals know is a gift, a passing-on of collective knowledge (Unless of course you are a PhD student/ researcher and in that case you may just maybe passing on a tidbit of info that humans hadn't known before. If so, thanks.)

Yesterday, I was taking note of what everyone was wearing. It was like a free, unofficial fashion work. Hey, the models didn't even know they were performing! They hadn't a clue that they had an audience of at least one person that day! 'course, we all know that everyone watches everyone. But let's just pretend that that isn't the case. I was the only spectator! I noticed that for guys it's the light, washed-out look for short shorts that was common as well as jean-shorts and boardies. For the ladies, mini-shorts were featuring a lot with one girl sporting a high-waist minishort. Lots of shirts tucked into the short--surprising how fashion is so fickle,as  few years ago this would have been a huge no-no--as well as big shirts folded at the sleaves. Loose, thin-material tops were also very common for both genders. One article of clothing I forgot to observe closely was shoes!

Well, that's it folks. A run down of fashion, freshers and feelings @UWA, 2012, Week 1. Stay tuned...

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