Friday, February 29, 2008


The university has this big unsanctioned, unapproved holiday that all the students call “Unofficial”… as in… Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day. Supposedly the local bars started this several years ago because St. Patrick’s Day (typically a big drinking holiday for stupid Americans) invariably falls during Spring Break when all the students are gone. The bars felt they were losing money because students were getting drunk in Puerto Viejo or wherever it is they go on spring break, so somehow this “Unofficial” was born. I never really remember it when I was an undergrad here; I think its just reached epic proportions in more recent years. Some people skip class to party, some people come to class falling-over drunk, decked out in green St. Patrick’s Day themed costumes. As you can imagine, professors hate this holiday. The university has done some mealy-mouthed things to try to put the smack down, but it seems to keep growing instead of dissipating.

At any rate, I was a little nervous about this holiday. This year it was to be an especially big deal, because whoever decides these things had placed it on Leap Day—a day that only comes once every 4 years. The students have been talking about this for weeks, obviously the excitement was high. All sorts of university warnings were issued to instructors, such as, “Call 911 in the event of an emergency.” Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t have figured that one out on my own….

So I was a little nervous about today. I had originally planned on giving the exams back today, but pushed that back to last Wednesday in order to avoid inciting antagonism when students were likely to be drunk. Less than half showed up for class today, and at least one of them had had a few. But he’d told me ahead of time that he’s a friendly drunk, and true to his word, he was.

All in all, class went really well. It was such a small group, and we were able to joke around while learning some about Apolipoproteins too. At least I hope they learned some things about Apolipoproteins. They were all asking me if they could get extra credit for coming to class today, and asking me to put something on the test that only they would know and the absentees would never guess. They said I should tell them some random fact about myself and put that as a question on the exam. After some brief consideration, I thought that maybe I could do that, so I asked them what they wanted to know. They thought for a moment and then one student asked if I had favorite monkey while I was in Nicaragua, and if so, had I given it a name.

Perfect. So I told them all about you-know-who, and they seemed to enjoy my stories (and impersonation). I told them not to mention this monkey to the other students and I will reward them for coming to class today by giving them the following extra credit question (which they’d all better get right): What is the name of Melissa’s favorite monkey? ______________________. I know that everyone reading the blog knows this answer!! Let’s see if the students can remember this and get it right! Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Throwing rocks at the creek (a long one)

Last Friday I gave the first exam to my class. I actually thought it was way too easy for them. I thought that there was no reason why anybody should miss any of the questions on it. Everything came verbatim from what I had said in lectures. I wasn’t even asking them to apply concepts… just basic information regurgitation. As I handed out the exam, I was thinking I really should have challenged them more… it seemed more like an exam for grade school children than for college students.

After everyone had finished, I paged through the exams, just to quickly glance at question number 2: “True or False: A chimpanzee is an example of an Old World Monkey.”

The answer is false, of course. I had made a slide about this that we went over in lecture. At the top of the slide, I had written in bold letters: "This will be on the exam!!" I gave them a hand-out about it. It was on the review sheet and I even specifically mentioned it again at the review session on the Wednesday before the exam. So, you would think they all got it right, wouldn’t you? Not so. A full 38% of them missed it. I was crestfallen. How was this possible? Cara’s sixth-graders all know that a chimpanzee is not a monkey. But college students at what is supposed to be one of the best universities in the country? Apparently not. If these are our nation’s best and brightest, we might as well throw in the towel.

But still. I didn’t give it that much thought. I assumed it was just a fluke and they had done well on the rest of it, and I went on my merry way. On Saturday was there a symposium at school all day. I was presenting a paper in the morning and was part of a panel in the afternoon. The paper I presented (“Dog attacks on mantled howler monkeys living at La Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua”) was pretty much a revision of the poster I had presented at a different conference last fall. This presentation went pretty well. It was a multi-disciplinary symposium—larger than just biological anthropologists. Much to my surprise, the cultural anthropologists in attendance were very receptive to this issue. After my talk there was a 10-minute break, but I didn’t even get to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water because people were coming up to talk to me about this. A cultural anthropology grad student told me she had never realized that primatology could have such a human dimension (the issue is really one of tourism and human encroachment rather than dog predation per se). Honestly, that means a lot, because sometimes I feel that biological anthropologists are vilified by other members of our department as “evil scientists.” And the irony is, of course, that some biological anthropologists have vilified (or at least picked on) me for even bothering to describe this instance because its simply not “sciency” enough. The thing that meant the most to me was when a cultural anthropology professor in the department told me—in front of everybody—how important and useful this was and how I really should publish this incredibly rich, detailed account. The cultural anthropologists were surprised that I hadn’t seen the same support from members of my own subdiscipline. Sometimes I feel like biological anthropologists are so afraid of not being taken seriously that they take themselves way too seriously and end up looking like idiots. Have we really become so jaded that the observance of an extremely rare, stochastic event (such as dog predation) is not deemed publishable simply because it doesn’t conform to the same cookie cutter format of every scientific paper?
Seriously, if you act like you’re testing an hypothesis, you can publish the biggest loads of crap.

At any rate, the symposium caused me to miss out on my dad’s birthday celebration in Roscoe, but at least after I got done with it, I talked to him on the phone and heard Logan’s antics described to me in real time.

On Sunday, I ended up getting up early and doing most of a 12-mile training run with the running club. Rather than starting out with them, I’d planned on cutting across town and catching up with them about 3 or 4 miles into it. The problem I hadn’t counted on was that nobody had shoveled their sidewalks after our latest snowstorm, so I was running through ankle deep snow (with a layer of ice underneath). Whenever there is the slightest hint of ice, I dodder around like an old lady; needless to say, the going was very slow. I finally managed to catch up with the group around Centennial Park, and I ran with them for the next 7 or 8 miles. It was nice; I had forgotten how much fun it is to do a long run with other people. There were only about 5 or 6 runners who had shown up for the training run, and everybody had stayed together, at the same pace. We talked, laughed, drank Gatorade, and the miles just whizzed by.

On Sunday night, I finally set about to grade the exams. As I graded, all I could think about was my high school English teacher from junior year, Mrs. Sullivan. She had a gold-lettered sign hanging in her classroom that said, “Excellence Expected.” Everybody loved her. She worked so hard for us and she was so sweet. She told us that when she was grading our term papers, she would get so mad at the sloppy way we’d written, that she would go out and throw rocks into the creek to diffuse her anger. Well, I really needed a creek to throw rocks into last night. I’ve spent about a million hours preparing my lectures, trying to make them as entertaining and as clear as possible. I have been pouring my heart and soul into this, in a way that I really thought was getting through to them. And there were some of them who did really well. But there were too many of them who did not. Some of the things they were missing, like the chimp question, there’s just no excuse for it. I feel like its just arrogant, disrespectful, insulting, for some of them to so flippantly blow it off. In the end, I realize that there are some who will be engaged and plugged in and motivated, but there will be others who will not be no matter what you do. Today some of them came to talk to me about the exam and I realized that even those who didn’t do so well aren’t really arrogant or rude. They’re just kids. And this stuff is hard for them. Its new material, and they don’t know what to expect. So I still stand by them. The class, overall, really is great and teaching continues to be a great experience. They really are good kids, even if they can’t remember the difference between a monkey and an ape.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Valentine

Two things just happened.

First of all, this morning I sent S.L. (el jefe) a draft of my poster for the meetings in April. At this point I should note that the meetings have been an underlying cause of stress for me since the moment I submitted my abstract on September 14. In truth I had no idea how I was going to write the paper I had outlined in the abstract. We have a couple of terms (coined by S.L. himself) to describe meetings presentations that have totally bombed. One is "train wreck" and the other is "jumping the shark." There are even hand motions to go with these, so that in a crowded lecture hall, you can gesture your disgust to your colleagues. At any rate, my complete lack of ability to do anything with my dissertation data over these last 5 months has been weighing on me like a ton of bricks. I'm not out to be the biggest name in primatology; my presentation doesn't need to shift any paradigms here, but I need to at least come up with something to present, and I know that S.L. won't let me present anything that either wrecks the train or jumps the shark.

So, I made Rob crunch some numbers for me in Mathematica, I took these numbers and ran some really clunky statistics, and have spent countless hours immersed in writing about the lack of significance in my results. I put this together into a poster and sent it to S.L. this morning. I didn't expect him to get back to me right away, but when a reply from him showed up in my inbox just now, I couldn't take another breath until I opened it. Much to my surprise, he said he had looked over it and thought it was generally okay. The biggest problem is that I am throwing out way too much information, and he had some suggestions about how I could pare it down. It will still be a lot of work to get it into shape in the next few weeks, but at least it seems manageable (so long as I keep to my schedule of working into the wee hours of the morning). I am not yet to the point where I can breathe a sigh of relief and turn off the fight-or-flight response that is raging through every cell of my body, but I think that I will eventually be able to get there.

The second thing that happened was immediately after receiving S.L.'s email, a message from Leda popped up in my inbox. She wished me a happy Valentine's Day! Of all things! She said that she hoped I had plans to come back to Ometepe soon and that everything was going "super bien" for me. It still amazes me, how small the world can be. Here I am, wearing 3 layers of clothes, staring at the computer and trying to make a punch-line out of a year's worth of data. And there she is, in the blistering heat, having been washing tourists' clothes by hand and cleaning bathrooms since 6 o'clock this morning. It feels like we must live in 2 separate worlds, and it is so nice to have this reminder that its really one in the same. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Rob's favorite dinner

On Thursday afternoon I got an email from Leda. In her graceful way, she sent me greetings from Ometepe. It always makes the world seem like a more hospitable place, to be sitting here in the cold working on my dissertation and then suddenly get a message from Leda in Nicaragua.

This week I made Rob’s favorite dinner again: spaghetti squash with chick peas on the side. At this point, I should note, it is not actually Rob’s favorite dinner. In fact, I think he hates it. But I feel like its healthy and pretty easy to prepare, so I have made it a couple of times. You take a spaghetti squash and microwave it for a couple minutes, until it is soft enough to cut. Then you slice it long-ways, scoop out the seeds, and place it cut-side down in a baking dish with a little bit of water. Bake for 45 minutes and its done. The sauce is where I’ve been getting creative. My secret ingredient: cumin seeds. Heat a little bit of olive oil and toast some whole cumin seeds. Then add whatever vegetables you have on hand. For me, this is usually quite a selection. The first time I made this, I used leeks, kale, and green peppers. Last time, I used onion, broccoli, red pepper, kale, and mustard greens. Then I put in some organic crushed tomatoes (Full Circle Organics makes some very nice ones that are low in sodium) and some spices: Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, and a little bit of cayenne. You can just scoop the flesh out of the spaghetti squash (it comes out in nice long strands, just like spaghetti!) and put sauce on the top. Then sprinkle on some parmesan or romano cheese. I also make a side dish of chick peas. Again, not Rob’s favorite, but I love it. You take chick peas (either straight out of a can or dried beans that you have soaked and cooked), toss them with olive oil, Italian herbs, cayenne pepper, more cumin seeds (the secret ingredient!) and a little bit of sea salt (but skip this if they were canned). Spread out on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 for about 5 or 10 minutes. They come out tasting wonderful, if you ask me. The beauty of this whole thing is that with spaghetti squash, a little goes a long way. One cup has something like 45 calories (and is chock full of vitamins), and it is surprisingly filling. A whole spaghetti squash makes several nights worth of dinners and leftovers that I can take to work for lunch.

The first time I made this a couple weeks ago, I was very excited to be trying something new. I love butternut squash, but in all my years I don’t think I’d ever had spaghetti squash. Rob generally eschews any type of squash, but I thought maybe he would find this concoction more palatable. “Rob, its just like spaghetti, only its squash!” I said excitedly as I dished up the dinner. He eyed it cautiously and said, “Is there any reason we can’t just have spaghetti?” Since then, I have referred to this as “Rob’s favorite dinner.” He eats it like a good sport, but I am not sure he is really all that huge of a fan. I think he will eventually come around though. I’ve heard that you have to taste something 10 times in order to start liking it. We’ve had it twice already, so just 8 more spaghetti squash to go. Thanks for reading.