Rage Against the Machine

Ripley being awesome!


Do you remember that scene in Aliens when Ripley climbed into that robotic armor and kicked serious butt? I do. For her, the technology made her stronger. It allowed her to extend her reach, it increased her strength, and let’s be honest it looked pretty cool!

Last week, I spent a few hours with a machine. The machine I communed with, like Ripley’s, armor extended my reach, in an intellectual context it made me more powerful, but unfortunately it didn’t make me look super cool. Ripley had armor, I had a microfiche viewer.

It’s cool too. Right?

So let me break it down for you. You might be wondering how I would ever be able to compare these two pieces of technology.

1. Extending my reach: Just like Ripley’s armor the microfiche extends my reach. How you ask? Why it extends my reach back into history of course! In the two hours I spent in front of this machine, I was able to scan through of weekly newspapers published in Toronto from 1917-1919.

2. Increased power: Do I need to remind you all that Knowledge is power? I didn’t think so. The microfiche didn’t increase the strength of my punch, but it did increase my knowledge. For example, I learned that most front pages in 1917 were devoted to the discussion of conscription. Behold my power!!

3. Cool looking: Admittedly, the microfiche lacks the inherent coolness that Ripley’s armor possessed. However, the microfiche is not without it’s own unique beauty. Notice in the image above that the microfiche has a nostalgic quality that reminds me of the classic lines of an Atari system or my old commodore 64. It’s the same phenomenon that makes people eat at Fifty’s diners. Old stuff is cool.

So that’s my argument. The microfiche might be a relic of the past, but it has its own advantages. It the loudest thing permitted in the library. If you’ve never used a microfiche, try one and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. If you were ever to make that much noise doing anything else in the library, you’d surely get kicked out. But when you’re using the microfiche you can be loud vicariously through the machine. Just wait till you have to rewind the reel. It really sounds like a small helicopter is landing in the library! Literally, everyone will be looking at you with annoyed glares as they try to read or study.

It’s really great fun.

I encourage you, before you graduate, try a microfiche machine. Microfiche is the only way to view a large category of historic documents that have yet to be digitized. If you have patience, it’s a great underused resource for researching at the University.


Stone Cold Extensions…

Alas my friends I have fallen ill with the dreaded March head cold. There could be no worse time of the year to contract this virulent pestilence that renders my brain nothing more than a cloudy, congested dome of confusion.

It happened Saturday morning. As soon as I woke up I knew I was infected. My head hurt, my nostrils were clogged, and that little tickle in my throat that I had been ignoring all week had transformed from a tickle into more of a sandpaper on raw skin kind of thing.

Am I whining?


However, there’s a point to my whining. With three papers due in the next four days and an illness, I was inspired to write about extensions. No not hair extensions. Paper or assignment extensions.

I am in my fourth year here at U of T and before this week I had never asked for an extension. You might ask why. Most of my friends get extensions regularly. The reason I’ve never asked for one is that the whole process makes me nervous.

First you need to email or meet with your Prof. and request the extension. Usually you’d provide them with some justification for the extension ie. My computer was stolen, My dog died. Yet, most likely the conversation would be about how you need an extension because you have two other papers due the same week or a midterm on the same day. Worst case scenario you tell your Prof that you started too late and simply can’t finish it on time.

Having a conversation about any of these things with my Profs would give me serious anxiety. I mean why I would want my Prof. to know that I am horrible at time management, or worse that I finished all my other assignments before I even started to think about his.

Luckily, I only had to tell my Prof. that I was really sick and she happily gave me an extension. Even still I am left to wonder if she now thinks that I am a bad student for not being finished with the paper early, so that something like a cold wouldn’t get in the way of submitting the paper on time.

The other thing that makes me nervous about extensions is that I am convinced that late paper will automatically be graded more harshly. This might not be an issue if your class has 500 students, but in a seminar class with only 15 people, it’s pretty easy for the Prof to remember who was diligent and who was not.

I have no proof or basis to say this, it’s just a fear I have. I’m sue lots of Profs. grade papers equally regardless of whether they were submitted on time. I’m only saying that this aspect of extensions makes me very uncomfortable.

I actually found this great how to site on the web…How to ask for an extension! Take a look it’s very step by step and instructional.

I hope you all don’t get sick, but if you it might be the perfect opportunity to ask for an extension.


The Numbers Game

I often hear myself telling friends that university is a numbers game. Some weeks it is simply impossible to finish all the required readings and assignments. Often, we’re forced to choose one task over another.

The equations and ratios that are constantly swirling through my mind are migraine inducing. I am not a natural mathematician. I am always trying to figure out of which assignments will weigh more weigh more heavily towards my GPA, and which assignments I can afford to let fall below my normal standards.

For example, last week I had a midterm for a H1F class that was worth 10% of my grade in the class. On the same day I had a twelve page paper due for a Y1Y course that was worth 30% of my grade. Simply mathematics  proved that I designate more time for the essay than studying for the midterm. The morning of the midterm, I was just finishing up my essay, so I never had the opportunity to study for the midterm.

As I was writing this midterm, that I didn’t study for, I was mildly panicked that I would earn a mark in the 20-30% range. However, I somehow pulled off a B+. I’m not sure if this was just dumb luck or if it was because I always attend the lectures and tutorials for the class. I was able to work my way through the test in a jigsaw pattern, starting with the dates and events that I remembered from lecture and then guessing my way through the rest of the test.

In a perfect world I would have had time to write the paper and study for the test, but as the end of March approaches and time starts speeding away I think we are all finding ourselves in these situations. Don’t even get me started on the cruel reality of daylight savings time and how it has robbed me of a needed hour of schoolwork!

If you need to pick and choose between assignments and studying then make sure you’re picking the right item to concentrate on. It is easier to recover from a loss of 10% than a loss of 30%. Don’t forget that Y classes count more heavily towards your GPA than half classes and try to spend the most time on the assignments that matter most.

It really is a numbers game and understanding how to spread your efforts in the most pragmatic manner possible will save you time and stress!



It’s Crunch Time!

It’s crunch time! I mean that literally because I have a twenty page paper due in a few days that is still in the midst of being born from my mind. I also mean that figuratively because during what has been a very painful three day essay writing marathon, I have been relieving my stress with crunchy food.

So I started on Friday night with carrots, a healthy option. These provided me with the crunch I was seeing and had the extra bonus of not messing up my writing space. This healthy option sustained my need for crunch for the night.

Saturday was required a snack with a crunch slightly more extreme crunch factor. This is why at 11pm on Saturday night instead of writing my essay I was searching through my storage room for my deep fryer. I found the fryer and proceeded to make these little wonders…

Beer battered onion rings my fellow students…mmmmmmmm! Admittedly not the healthiest of snack options, but with all that essay writing I deserved a treat. And also, onions are a vegetable…let’s justify it like that.

These are fast and easy to make…get an onion, slice it into ring and pop out the centre of the rings, in a bowl mix up some flour, salt, baking soda, and cornstarch and and then stir in a cup of your favorite beer. (If you don’t drink alcohol you can actually replace the beer with water.) Dip your onions in the batter and fry for 3 mins in oil warmed to 375 degrees.

So that was Saturday. On Sunday, i was feeling guilty for eating so many onion rings so I turned to another crunchy alternative that is a bot more healthy than onion rings. Toasted pita with eggplant dip.

The recipe for this is a bit more involved than the onion rings, so I’ll post the link here. This provided a low fat option that gave me the required saltiness and crunch that I was craving.

Three straight days of writing is exhausting. I don’t usually do this. I like to start my papers nice and early, but this term I simply ran out of time. Now I find myself scrambling to finish the list of assignments on my calendar that are all due next week.

I find taking a few minutes to eat something really good makes weekends like this not as bad. It’s a treat for every few pages I finish. It wards off sleep and lethargic writing.

If my tummy is happy then my brain usually works a lot better!

Happy writing people.



Once upon a time…

Once upon a time there was a girl who couldn’t decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. As she got older, she felt compelled to enroll in a post-secondary institution for no reason other than: everyone else her age was doing it.

She tried to find her way, attempted to find a program of study that fit her interests, but alas she could not. After three years of wasted tuition she gave up, resigned to the fact that she was not one of those people for which post-secondary education fit.

She carried on with her life, found a job in an office, worked her way up at a company from reception to accounting. One day she stumbled upon the University of Toronto’s website. She decided immediately that she would try again to finish her education.

She went back to school that year. She was older than all of the other students and for the first few months she felt as though she might be found out at any time. Soon she came to understand that her age didn’t put her at a disadvantage.

She studied hard, went to her classes, and soon she was nearly finished her degree, but in the course of the years she was at the university, she met many young students who, like her nearly twenty years before, were lost. She struggled with the urge to impart the wisdom she had gained from her experiences and the urge to not sound condescending.

She wished with all her heart that all of those younger students struggling with feelings of indecision and fear of the future could know that it’s okay to be lost…not everyone knows the path they will travel  when they are twenty years old.

Some of us take a straight path towards our future. For others, like me, the path wound and curved. My journey has taught me that conformity is not how I learn. I cannot be twenty years old again. I cannot pretend to write a paper or answer a question as though I bring only the knowledge of high school with me into the classroom.

I incorporate who I am and what I’ve experienced into all my learning. Even if you are twenty you can do this too. You may not realize it, but your experiences matter and they contribute to your perspective. You must own them.

If university is about finding your voice, you can’t ignore any part of what makes you, you. Embrace it all the good, the bad, and the ugly and make it your own. For me learning is about polishing all the parts of what make me the person I am. Unlike, what some people may think, coming back to school hasn’t changed me…it’s helped me to remember who I am.


Book vs. Film

So reading week is upon us and I am buried in course readings. I had planned to buckle down and start reading a few days ago, but alas I procrastinated and started to late.

Realizing that I would have to read for five straight days without sleep in order to finish the three novels and stacks of course readings that are waiting for me, in a panic I decided that I would find these novels on film.

I’ve never done this before. I am of the firm opinion that the book is always better than the movie. However, when the choice is to not read any of the book or to watch a bad movie about said book, which will not be read in time, then the movie will at least give me some point of reference for class discussions.

I lucked out big time with this attempt at condensing my readings into film format. Unbeknownst to me one of the books I was assigned was actually the script to a documentary. In a case such as this it just doesn’t make any sense to read the book. I mean it was written for the screen. It’s like reading Shakespeare…an effort that in my opinion that deviates far too much from the original intention…plays are meant to be watched not read.

So this documentary, that I was assigned to read was actually really great. The narration was written by one of my former professors, which is cool in itself, and it did a great job of bringing the course material to life. I feel that in this case seeing the documentary and reading the book are of equal academic value. Watching the book was just so much easier and more enjoyable.

Is this cutting corners? I don’t think so. As long as I get the intended information into my brain, it doesn’t really matter much to me how it gets in there. If in some cases that movie or play is a more effective way for you to learn the course material then more power to you.

In this particular case, the movie beat out the book hands down. The U of T Library website has a massive collection of movies that are free to borrow. Check out their page and maybe one of the books you are having difficulty getting through will be on film.



How the snow thawed my brain…

I have a whole lot of stuff due this week and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Speaking of icebergs…

This weekend I had a ridiculous amount of work due, but I still managed to find time to for procrastination hiking. I enjoyed the snow day last week, but I hadn’t gotten a chance to get out in the white stuff and play. I was stuck inside studying. I forced myself out of the house on Sunday and I’m so glad I did.

I recently moved to an area that is ripe with rock formations and waterfalls…if you are even vaguely aware of Ontario’s topography and you consider the fact that I study at the St. George a campus, then you could probably guess where it is I live. That mental game will give you a few minutes of needed distraction.

So like I was saying, I finally got out into the snow and it was magical…really it was. An hour of fresh cold air, the invigorating sensation of cold snow in your boots, the adrenaline rush when you almost slip five feet into an icy cold stream…it was all good.

After hiking to a nearby ravine I was face to face with a, icy twenty five foot waterfall. We spent about an hour playing in the snow, just being I awe of the natural beauty that surrounded us.

Before I went outside I was feeling really defeated, with a bad case of writer’s block. I was struggling to get any words down on paper and I was frustrated.

I’m not sure if I had just been in a waking sleep all day and the winter air just woke me up, but whatever biological or mental process that occurred during my winter hike cured my writer’s block!

So I really killed a few birds with one stone.  I got some exercise, I spent some quality time with my kids, I enjoyed what may be the last snowfall of the season (if Wiarton Willy is right) and I expelled all the stress from my system.  I was able to sit down at my computer after my hike and hammer out six sold pages of writing.

If you’re suffering from a writer’s block like I was, try a nice winter walk or some other form of exercise. I guess the experts are right it does really help!



Where did I put my dunce cap?

Have you ever been told something and in that exact moment you are wondering how it is possible that you ever lacked this information. You wonder if you really did in fact know this information. You convince yourself that you must have been aware of this nugget of knowledge, even though you know deep down that you really had no clue.

I’ve been a student here at U of T for nearly four years. In that time I have been enrolled in approximately sixteen classes. Each of these classes, except for one,  was accessible via Portal. Just put this in you back pocket for a moment while I explain what it is I’m writing about.

Last week in one of my classes my Prof. led us to the library for a research seminar with a librarian. This is at least the tenth time I’ve attended  one of these seminars. I always enter the experience a little suspicious that there is anything about the journal search engines that I have not already been told. Yet, every time I am pleased to leave the seminar with a new skill in researching.

Last week, I was perhaps a little more short-tempered than usual…bogged down with essays and fast approaching mid-terms I really didn’t feel like attending another research seminar. I can humbly say that I am so happy that I went.

Mid-way through this particular research seminar the librarian mentioned the library resources tab on Blackboard. Remember a few lines ago I mentioned how many courses I’ve had on Blackboard…take that out of your back pocket and now integrate it I know this little tale.

Okay so I was like, “ya, I know that tab. It’s useless. It’s empty or it just takes you to the Library homepage.”

Ya. No.

Unbeknownst to me this tab is actually useful. How did I not know this?

It is possible that at some point in my first year I clicked on the Library resources tab for one of my courses and it was empty. It might even be possible that this tab wasn’t active on all my courses. Whatever the case I had no clue how very amazing the contents of this tab are.

Apparently, when a Prof sets up their course they are able to request customized course specific library sources under the Library Tools Tab.

I’m four years in people. I’ve spent four years fumbling through journal databases for specific subject content. I could have been using this tab for four years!

I felt like a fool. I really felt like the kid in the corner with the dunce cap!

Well live and learn…right? I don’t know how many of you out there in the U of T universe are aware of this function on Blackboard. If you are then, stop judging me and if you aren’t then you’re welcome. I’m not a statistician, but I can confidently confirm that this little tab has cut the time I spend researching by at least 25%.

So I implore you…go to Blackboard and click on this tab. If you have a proactive instructor he will have customized this tab for you.

Happy Essay writing people.


Basket weaving, Vikings, and Birds…

So you’re staring out your window day dreaming, while you’re supposed to be writing  a fifteen page essay about the history of conscription in Canada and you see a cardinal…true story (see photo below) and you think to yourself, “I wonder if there’s a course at U of T about birds of Canada.”

Perhaps you have some free time in your schedule next term and you’d like to hone your knowledge of basket weaving or Vikings, but the prospect of searching through the phone book sized course calendar is intimidating you. Well now there’s an easier way to find your courses.

Drumroll….it’s the new Course Finder Tool on the Art and Science web site.

So maybe I’m a little bit too excited about this gadget. Give me a break it’s been a really slow month. Apart from my obvious need for senseless distraction from my schoolwork, this tool is pretty awesome.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent leafing through the course calendar in search of a course that a friend’s friend’s roomate’s TA’s little brother’s friend told me about that sounded so very interesting. Invariably, I always only remember one word from the name of course. I’m so bad with names, I admittedly don’t know the proper name of half the courses I’m enrolled in…I make my own names up for them.

But I digress, the art of course selection is a skill that must be developed and the new course finder tool is just the thing I need.

I shall demonstrate…watch.

See how easy that was? I just typed birds into the search field and the engine returned all the courses that U of T offers in ornithology…talk about a bird course! From here you can scroll through the courses at leisure and click on any ones you might be interested in to get more course info.

One caution: I had trouble running the course finder in Google chrome, bit it works fine for me in Explorer.

I hope you’ll have as much fun with this little gem as I did!


Practical life skills at University?

It always surprises me when I learn a practical life skill in class. Does that sound anti-academic? I don’t mean it to.

A lot of the knowledge I gain from my classes is interesting and it usually helps me to understand content from other courses I’m taking, but usually this information has little importance in life outside the classroom or academic circles.

I realize that if you are a humanities student like I am that this is par for the course. It’s more about rounding out your knowledge than learning one specific skill that you might want to use in the “real world”. So, you’ll understand why I was so shocked to learn something useful in class last week.

I’m currently taking a class in communications and conflict resolution. It’s one of those rare practical humanities courses. In class we learn how to communicate and resolve conflict more effectively.

I wonder why courses like this aren’t a part of any humanities degree. I’ve heard it more times than I can remember, a Bachelor of Arts degree is about finding your voice, about becoming a critical thinker, and about becoming more articulate. It seems to me that this is all about communication.

The focus of better communication is always on attention. It’s about learning how to pay attention to what matters. This skill is exactly what is needed to accomplish those three goals of a Bachelor of Arts.

One way to practice this is through meditation. It’s about forcing yourself to pay attention to the little things and turn your busy brain off for a few moments. This is so much harder than it sounds. So it’s not so odd that this should be practised in class too.

I still find it off-putting to go into class and meditate. It’s a hard thing to get used to when you’re accustomed to sitting in lecture halls and having little to no contact with the instructor. However, I’m coming to understand that this course is the one that’s going to help me when I go to find a job after school. It’s also the course that will help me to maintain good relationships with my future co-workers. I always find it disheartening when I’m trying to talk to someone and they are obviously distracted. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone nowadays without them checking their smartphones. Meditation helps you learn to focus on the person you are listening to. I’m always surprised how great of a reaction I get from people I’m listening to when I give them all my attention…I mean really pay attention to what they’re saying. When you do this future employers and co-workers will take notice.

If you don’t have the opportunity to take a course like this during your undergrad, there are a plethora of books on the subject. The one I’m reading is called “Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others”. It’s a really easy to read How-to guide to learning effective communication skills.

If I could sum up what I’ve learned about communication so far in one useful sentence, this would be it: Communication is much more about learning than talking.