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Breakthrough!

Today was one of those days that makes you want to dance. In order to explain why I need to back up a bit and describe a little about the teaching I’m doing here at RGUKT. Many of the students at RGUKT are from rural communities and the vast majority are here on scholarship. Their main language is Telugu, and although they are taught in English, not all of them speak it perfectly. The university aims to admit students who excel at their local school from all over Andhra Pradesh. My understanding is that students are not required to pass any national exams before being admitted. This means that while the students here are smart and motivated, they may not all have equal background. They spend their first year (or two?) here covering needed pre-college material.

RGUKT has a very large student body, all taking the same classes at first, and courses involve a combination of lectures and watching videos. The students all have access to shared laptops at least once a day (if I understand correctly — my understanding has been shifting over time) and do their homework either on paper or on laptop depending on the assignment. Internet access is carefully controlled and quite limited, though the campus does have a fairly fast connection (unless several thousand students are hitting it all at once ūüôā ). Internet is not usually turned on in the classroom, and when we requested that this change in our class, it took much of the first class to get everyone up and running. Outside of class, we had to download the documentation and files for our programming course so that students could access them without Internet (through the campus LAN).

The students here live on campus, and many only see their family members when they head home (the trip here is difficult and visits usually only last one day). Girls and boys live in separate dorms, sit separately in class (girls in front), eat separately, and do sports in separate locations. Impressively the student body is at least 1/3 (maybe even close to 1/2) female.

There is time for exercise and recreation, along with studying, every day. The students are friendly and cheerful, and often visit (usually to kidnap one or both of my children for fun, sometimes to talk to myself or Anind). When we join them in the sports fields or the mess hall, many are eager to talk and ask questions about the best engineering field to major in (this is an engineering focused school), how they can use their degree to make a difference at home, what jobs are best, why we are here, and much more.

We are each teaching three sections (“batches”) of about 70 students (a total of about 420 students) for an hour each, 5 days a week. The students rotate through the same set of laptops, which brings challenges (it is impossible to easily give them each a clean environment, or even to ensure that they each have their own set of files, especially given the confusions they have early in the course over which file to edit, where to find them, and so on). As described above we (now) have Internet access in the classroom (most of the time). Because of this, it is a precious opportunity to let them work on code/the interactive, online class pages (created using OLI). We do this 3 days a week (T/Th/S). To add to the challenge, Internet is not always available, and sometimes the power goes out for some or all machines as well (luckily not too often!). The day we had the worst power troubles, the students had to move in ever larger groups from laptop to laptop around the room as each died.

In the class room, the students are very different … or at least have been for the last week and a half. They all rise politely when I enter, speak in unison in response to my “Good Morning.” They sit quietly during class with notebooks open and scribble down as much as they can about what I have to say. Getting them to interact with me instead of their notebooks is very very difficult. The typical answer to a question I ask is “Yes ma’am,” ¬†while the answer to “Are there any questions” has been a uniform shake of the head or empty silence in most cases. As an instructor, my job, then, is to find out why. Luckily, and slowly, the dam has broken open. The mother hen of the campus, a kind and wonderful, fatherly man who has taken care of us along with hundreds of students with which he is close friends or more ¬†has given us feedback, as have the instructors who are helping us with the course. I speak too fast, we are covering a huge amount of material, my accent is difficult to follow. These issues, combined with cultural differences in question asking and answering, and stylistic differences in RGUKT teaching versus my own make it difficult to make forward progress.

Here are some of the things I have tried to use to rectify this in the last week plus:

  • Ask the students to stand up and sit down only if the answer to [pick a question] is [pick an answer] (this after the first time I asked them to vote on something and got no hands raised for any option). Verdict: It got us over the first hump (not answering even yes/no questions) and doesn’t require students to speak in a language they are uncomfortable with
  • Ask the students to discuss my question with a neighbor and then vote again (rinse and repeat until most students vote). Verdict: Also fairly effective early on, though often I have to ask more than once to hear more noise in the room when they are supposed to talk with their neighbor!
  • Tell the students that they have to ask a question but it doesn’t need to be about the material. Verdict: Mixed results. In one section, when I suggested the question “Ask me what I like most about India” I got a bite, but another section didn’t respond at all
  • Hand out my email address and respond quickly and kindly to email messages. Verdict: A definite success. It got me comments (“ma’am, please speak more slowly”) which I told them about in class, and I think helped them see that I was open to answering questions
  • Walk around the room while students try a task. If a question is good, go back to the front and answer it for everyone. If it is asked twice, tell them so and ask anyone else with the same question to raise their hands. Then point out how many hands are up and ask again that they speak up when they have questions. Verdict: I think this one takes time to sink in but helps.
  • Regale them with crazy facts when they have no questions to ask (did you know dog owners in America pick up their dog’s poop?) and make them laugh when they do ask questions (I can make myself into a Picture object and point at my own Pixels. Today I explained the “private” keyword by comparing my “teach()” method to my “kissHusband()” method)

I’m not sure what made the difference, but today things finally changed. Looking back I can see it wasn’t just today. One student told me that others might be embarrassed to speak up (I asked him to please set an example for others by speaking up himself), another asked me what this “learn by doing stuff” was for anyway, an email message asked me to speak more slowly, … each time I got feedback of this sort I made an effort to let the students know I understood the difficulties they faced and how much I was asking of them, and to tell them about the feedback I had gotten and show them that I did not feel upset or criticized.

All I can say is I was ready to dance for joy in class today. When I stopped after presenting each new bit of material and asked for questions I usually got one, two, three or more questions, spread across multiple students. This happened in multiple sections. Perhaps they can understand my English just a little bit better, or have gained some confidence in my expectations. For my part, I praise their progress and let them know I have a long way to go in both speaking (slowing down) and understanding (I still have to walk up to each student and ask him or her to repeat the question until I understand it — between their accent and the ambient noise of the fans in the room I have a hard time). Perhaps they feel more comfortable with me, or have resigned themselves to the fact that I won’t give up. I don’t know for sure, but each question is a gift, especially knowing how far it had to travel. For me teaching has always been a conversation, and not a one-sided one. I am grateful to have achieved that, with the students’ help, here at RGUKT.

Traveling to RGUKT

One week ago we all got in a car and spent 7 or 8 hours traveling cross country from our location. Although the trip was difficult (especially for my son, who woke up vomiting an hour before we were supposed to leave, and continued to do so throughout the drive), it was also beautiful and full of fascinating sights. Here are a sampling of the pictures we took, more can be found on flickr.

Mountains on the road to RGUKT 

This doesn’t really capture the craziness of the driving, but… we shared the road and beeped horns as needed …

  Sharing the road

Pretty much everything looked overloaded!
Perhaps its in this enormous basket
Poor oxen -- out of focus and overburdened

Memories of France…
Grandma and Grandpa eat your heart out -- echoes of france (but much shorter!)

Doing the laundry
Doing the laundry

We had hoped to take the train (and it sure might have helped my son!) but we ended the trip like this instead.
Thank goodness we've moved from vomiting to sleeping

Impressions of home

We have been living in Hyderabad for a week now, and are pretty well settled in. The children seem to have gotten over their initial homesickness for the most part, our flat has furniture and dishes (and has been cleaned), we’ve met with all of the people who so kindly helped to arrange our trip, and have the settled the kids into a school.

Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment
Our apartment has a spacious porch. When we open the doors to it, a cool breeze fills the whole apartment

Our second floor flat is spacious and breezy (luckily, our area of Hyderabad seems to have an almost constant breeze), with fans in every room and a set of double doors leading to a nice porch. It lacks any softness for now but the cold stone walls and tile floor help to make it cool and comfortable. Although this is monsoon season, the rains have been weak so far, so the temperature on some days has been quite high.

The flat is part of faculty housing at IIIT Hyderabad, and our neighbors have been kind, friendly and helpful. The children already have a new friend who lives just below us. IIIT has also provided us with a staff: someone to sweep and clean, someone to do laundry (an extra perk we very much appreciate as the alternative is scrubbing our own clothing by hand), and an electrician and carpenter on call. The differences in status among people we meet are highly visible. For example, many of the staff do not wear shoes, and I have seen Dhoti worn only by working men while more affluent men tend to wear western clothing. Women tend to wear traditional clothing such as a Salwar kameez¬†or a Sari, and some wear a tunic and pants, while working women wear the Sari almost exclusively. Personally, I find the Salwar Kameez to be the most comfortable option in the heat here although I imagine a Sari would also be comfortable (I don’t yet own any).

My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat
My son and daughter playing on the rocks outside our flat

Outside, the land looks arid compared to what I am used to, with brown earth, short thin trees, and wispy underbrush. However Hyderabad is actually in quite a lush region of India. In fact, although we must take care not to drink unfiltered water, it is used abundantly in daily life. Food is grown everywhere: Huge palm trees full of coconuts line many roads, farms are mixed among buildings and food plants can even be found growing in the dirt along the side of buildings. This neighborhood of Hyderabad (Gachibowli) was apparently mainly a farming community just 10 years ago. On campus, the road we live on continues past our building to a farm with cows and about an acre of growing space.

The area we are staying in is booming, with construction around every corner. Rickety bamboo and stick scaffolding surrounds new construction, filled with workers doing everything from bricklaying to work that might be handled by a crane in the States, while women walk by underneath carrying stones and debris in baskets on their heads.

Hyderabad is a study in contrasts. Below the new buildings and construction, many streets are lined with small shacks built of sticks and tarp. Our dishes, appliances, furniture are built to last (stainless steel is commonly used here for plates and cups, for example). At the same time, everything from oil to milk is purchased in throw-away plastic bags. We have shopped for supplies at small roadside stands, but a few kilometers away is a mall that is only obviously Indian in the style of clothing displayed in some of the store windows.

Amazingly, despite the novelty of our surroundings, we already feel at home. New friends, new spaces, new foods, so many things to see, all keep us busy so the days fly by. But at the end of the day our familiar routine takes over — dinner, stories, bedtime — and the comfort of being a family brings us home again.

When anything seems possible

When starting fresh for a year, it seems as though there’s no limit to the possibilities for what can be done. I’m working on a list of things that I hope to accomplish while I’m away on Sabbatical, and I’m starting to wonder how realistic it is. I’m going to share them here for a few reasons:

  1. I happen to know from my research that public commitment is a great way to help make goals happen
  2. It should be interesting to look back at this list in a year and see what’s been done, what hasn’t, and what unpredictable things have been added.

Just to keep things simple, I’m only going to put work stuff down here.

  • Learn about other ways of thinking through sustainability. I want to take the time to deeply explore my own beliefs about sustainability, cross-cultural understandings of sustainability, and how both relate to my chosen field. I am planning on spending at least an hour a week just thinking and writing and reading about ethical/social/planetary issues relating to sustainability. I am also planning on teaching my course on sustainability in both of my sabbatical locations. Total time commitment: 5-6 hours per week.
  • Expand my toolbox. I want to learn more about hardware and machine learning (I’ve posted about this before on this blog). My current plan is to take a class on machine learning (I have a handy virtual one with me, or I can sign up wherever I’m at) and teach myself hardware using slides from a CMU class & hands on experimentation. I figure if I spend 2-3 hours per week on each (in parallel if possible, in series otherwise) I should make good progress on this over the year. Total time commitment: 4-6 hours per week.
  • Finish hanging projects. I have: Three projects that require analysis only and two-three projects that require writing code. I plan on doing these for the most part in series, unless I am able to recruit local talent to help with the latter two. It’s possible they won’t all get done, but I hope at least some will! Estimated time commitment: 4-6 hours per week.
  • Start new projects that I’ve already thought about. I have two in mind. Estimated time commitment: 4-6 hours per week if done in series.
  • Write a large NSF proposal [already started]. Estimated time commitment: 1 hour per week through November.
  • Continue supporting students. Estimated time commitment: 3-4 hours per week of meetings, 1 hour per week of prep & planning.
  • Meet new people, start new projects, develop new ideas. Estimated time: 4-6 hours per week.
Ok, that’s the first time I’ve attached time estimates to this list. I guess I should add them up and see if I’m crazy! It looks like I’ve scheduled between 26 and 36 hours per week (depending on whether my min or max estimates are correct). I must admit, I’m surprised it isn’t more. This means that I could be significantly underestimating some things and still come out ok. I am prepared to cut some things if needed, but I’m pleasantly surprised that it all seems to fit.

On the road!

It’s official — I’ve left my home city, not to return for a year. The house is cleansed of years of clutter (most of it went to donation), packed and polished. The children, the dog, the gerbils, myself, and two 6 month trips worth of clothing (to accomodate the different cultural and climate conditions of the two halves of the sabbatical) all caravanned to our first ¬†destination (New York) yesterday. Today is the first day of … well summer vacation for the children, and “using my last week wisely!” for me.

I have colleagues who claim that travel of this sort can help to clear the todo list. Not for me. I am teaching up until the day I leave, and trying to finish up a number of other obligations at the same time. My most urgent todos include NSF reports, a grant submission, expiring IRBs, and students who still need attention and support regardless of where I am in the world. Still, my load feels lighter, de-cluttered, like my home.

During the last week, I was reminded how lucky I and my family are to have many close friends, colleagues, and family members. The visits by friends, our goodbye party, the help our parents gave us with the move, and all the other small and large gestures were a reminder of how much we are leaving behind. Knowing we will be back in a year made it much easier to go — goodbyes became gestures of friendship rather than sadness. Still, things will change before we return, friends will move, children will grow.

I hope to change too. One of the most interesting questions I was asked in the past week was “What do you hope to get out of your sabbatical?” Personally, I have not been able to travel much due to health and family obligations. Seeing a new part of the world, in a style my body can handle, is something I’ve looked forward to for months now. Additionally, it is my hope that the children will learn about their language and culture, and get a chance to be away from some of the more toxic aspects of our home for long enough that I can learn whether they are affected by such things. My professional hopes for the sabbatical start with learning. Even after all these years, one of the joys of my position is the ability to learn new things, and I plan on making the time to study machine learning and hardware. I have packed an inventor’s kit ¬†and related supplies, along with a set of lectures on machine learning (in case there is no local course I can take). I am also hoping to¬†finish¬†a number of exciting projects I currently have no students for, and start new collaborations and projects for the future. Finally, I am hoping to gain insight into the new cultures I will be entering and their relationships with sustainability and health, partly through my teaching the ever evolving environmental hackfest¬†¬†course.

So yesterday marked the fresh beginning of a journey that in some ways I’ve been on my whole life. I look forward with excitement and curiosity to what will come next!

Happy Goodbyes

Party Time!

This weekend we held a goodbye party for the kids’ friends (and some of ours as well :). The children helped prepare adorable signs (“I love you.” “I will see you soon again!”) and we served Mango Lassi and a swiss cheese pie made with rice as the “crust” in honor of our planned travels.

I was not sure what to expect — tears, difficult goodbyes, and worried children all seemed like possibilities.¬†Leaving, in my recent experience, has always been a large permanent move (graduating from College, graduate school, moving from one coast to another, and so on). Not something to be taken lightly, but rather a time of tears and heartache mixed with excitement and planning.

This time around it seems different … more reminiscent of going home for a summer. The children enjoyed every minute of the party and shed not a tear. They swam in the pond, put up a “No Adults Allowed” sign on the treehouse, and generally owned the yard. Thanks to all our friends for helping create¬†¬†a wonderful collection of memories and photos that will carry us forward through the time away.

6 weeks and counting

In just over 6 weeks, my family and I will be getting on an airplane to Hyderabad, India, to begin approximately year of living on two different continents. Suddenly, it all seems so close upon us. Rather than trying to do everything necessary to prepare, I’ve tried to keep tiers of importance in my mind. Health, first, of course. Vaccines. Next, a place to go (school for the kids, work for us, housing, etc.). Third, finances (salary, rental of our home, and so on).

Only after those three are done (and they are ūüôā ) did we start paying attention to other necessities (tickets, visas, maintenance issues such as a yard person, someone to look after maintenance inside the home, and a place to keep our cars and our pets).

All of that is done (and it has taken months!), I just keep telling myself everything else is gravy. Packing? Sure — but if we forget something, I’m sure we’ll be able to fix it. People? We’re throwing a goodbye party, mainly for the kids’ sake.

Of course, the “gravy” is eating up lots of time, and probably will until the moment we get on the plane. But rather than stress about it, we just keep reminding each other about what’s important — working together as a team and being ready for whatever twists and turns we encounter between now and when we return. So while it’s a lot to do, I’d rather do it in 6 weeks than have a year to plan: Whatever happens next, we’ll be getting on that plane in 6 weeks and entering a new country, learning a new language, changing everything.

Luckily, one thing will be the same no matter where we go: Our family.