The purest eyes


What is volunteer teaching?

A long time ago, I seemed to long for going volunteer teaching. I picture volunteer teaching as going to a place deep inside the mountain, where the kids may often face the bare ground, but when they look up, you see the purest things in their eyes. Once I thought, volunteer teaching is going with your heart beating, and come back with starry memories, decorated with kids’ pure eyes and laughters. Thus, in the application form, I added one line, ” The best reward will be the purity in kids’ eyes.”

As expected, this volunteer teaching, I saw the purest eyes I’d always remember.

Our team was the most popular one among the five volunteer teaching teams. Among 400 applicants, only 32 volunteer teachers got selected. It wins a lot of awards every year, because of the careful planning, and experienced leaders and meticulously selected team members.

After four months of planning, weekly teaching practice and lesson design, we set out, to the town 2000 km away, Meitan.

Meitan is beautiful. It is located in Guizhou, which has third lowest literacy rate in China, apart from Qinghai and Tibet. Its education is still under-developed. What they lack the most is human resources – good teachers who are willing to go deep into the mountains to teach. Take English (subject I taught) as an example, as their teachers often have strong accent, many students’ oral English were very poor, and were often unwilling to open their mouth and speak. “Be prepared to hear some Guizhou English”, said one kid. This greatly compromised purpose of learning language – to communicate.

In the beginning, as these 400 students were not in their original classes with old classmates, bonding was important. We designed outdoor Outward Bound activities, to help them get to know each other in their newly formed classes, as well as their new teachers (us).

Ice-breaking outward bound activities

During the day time, we usually teach our domain subjects to our specialty, largely corresponding to the subjects of their college-entrance exams, including English, Math, Chinese, history, physics, biology, chemistry, physics, P.E. and music.

In my teaching, I focused on passing on English literacy knowledge in a non-traditional way. Majored in English language and literature, I know how captivating the beauty of language can be, especially in poem translation and literature. I wanted to evoke their interest in English (which was what led me a long way in my own language learning), through these beautiful language materials and learn English in an artistic way. As an example, I showed them different versions of translation for the same poems, let them see how different it could be, let them translate poem themselves.

14 days were short, but I wanted to help build up their confidence in oral English. I taught them lyrics line by line and practiced till the whole class was able to sing one of my favorite, powerful English song – <21 Guns> by Green Day. This is one of my proudest thing, because it was really touching to see kids who used to be timid in speaking English sing the song together.

We want to make this summer camp special for them, in addition to the 8 courses of domain knowledge they take, everyday (usually in the evening), we designed a different 2-hour STEAM activity, to practice their problem-solving skills, creativity and higher-order skills.

One of the most exciting activity, also was the first time we attempted this, was the basketball game. Girls in my class were at first reluctant to sign up, and only 1 signed up initially. We gave them some encouragement to try new things and told them the results don’t matter at all, and to our surprised 9 signed up at the end of that day.

I saw one girl looking sleepy when in class, and learned that it was because they were practicing for basketball after class and were tired. From that night I decided to practice with the students. Every sport has its risk, some of the teachers sprained their ankles, but I hated most to see students get hurt. Luckily no students were hurt badly except from scratches. They were all happy after the game.

Most students here does not have any education on psychology. Since our university (BNU) has the best psychology department in the country, we didn’t miss the chance of introducing students the charm of psychology. Who knows, this may open up a door for them and one may actually choose psychology as a major when it comes to the time.

One psychology experiment: With their eyes closed, students are asked to imagine their left hand hold very heavy steel, and right hand hold very light feather.
And then open their eyes—— ha!

On Broadway Drama Night, we encouraged students go creative with acting drama. One acted Titanic, another did Zootopia, most were hilarious (no matter if they intend them to be or not). During a singing evening, students were so smart to use flashlight and water bottle as the glowing stick that always accompany a real pop-singer concert.

Though it’s only two weeks, the density of what we experienced together build up strong bonds between students and us. We tried our best in making a memorable closing ceremony, (sing song with students, even danced!) Students couldn’t help themselves but crowded on the stage to hug teachers. Many shed tears.

So what is my volunteer teaching?

14 days of being together day and night, 4 months’ preparation, 400 kids, 35 people’s team, 1 goal, a team that is knitted beyond comparison, memories unforgettable for life.

For Chinese version of this blog (slightly different), see 湄潭求高的日子


Moments in my college life

Beijing Normal University, near the library

I spent most of my college days reading literature, teaching English as a second language in various occasions and building bridges to cross-cultural communication (usually between international students and local, Chinese BNU students).

I had chance building bridges between international students and local students

I love for language, thus joined the English Association one month after starting college. I was in charge of organizing weekly English Corner activities, which include designing activities, discussion topics, disseminating materials and setting up stages. We invited both international students coming from all over the world (Japan, Canada, Russia, Columbia, England and U.S.A. etc), who were studying at BNU at that time, as well as Chinese students. Chinese students were motivated to practice English and make new friends, and international students were also happy to feel connected and included. Every Sunday night 8-10 p.m. we gather at Muduo to share about different culture according to the prompts prepared, (but usually conversation just flowed), even in freezing winter wind or summer heat.

I enjoy teaching kids English

In my senior year, I interned at one of the best high school in China, Beijing 101 high school as a English teacher. Teaching students in 101 high school was far too different from teaching kids in Meitan, Guizhou where I did volunteer teaching. When I was in Guizhou, every kids have high respect for you as a knowledgeable teacher. But here in 101, since every kid comes enjoy much better family situation and more privileged educational resources, they don’t necessarily obey what teachers said. English is by no means unfamiliar to them, they can be deemed as being brought up in an international culture. It can be hard to get them to listen to you, especially as a young intern teacher who would only stay there temporarily.

So my first class was actually very noisy, what make matters worse, that was the day when students’ mid-term grades came out, so many students were checking their phones for their grades instead of listening to me.

It can be frustrating, but it is also a lesson that new teachers need to learn -how to build your authority. (I don’t like to talk about the word “building authority”, because from my experience interacting with many world-famous scholars later on, sometimes the more knowledgeable they are, the more humble and approachable they seem to be.)

Yet it can also be important. So, building authority does not mean appear to know everything, and definitely not obfuscating right and wrong, e.g. in time when students challenge you. I think building teachers’ authority may be better expressed as building professionalism. Professionalism expresses that you have high standard for yourself, which implicitly tell them that you have high expectation for them. We should admit our own limitation, though we should minimize that limitation.

As an intern teacher, besides teaching English, we also help organized and planned their STEAM outreach – agriculture learning, when students go to the farm and experienced “learning by doing”. For example, they observe how cows were milked, how tofu was made, how grains were harvested, etc.

I got to help some kids in need

Being member of the White Dove Volunteer Association, I provided English literacy assistance to students in Dandelion School in the winter of my freshman year. It is the first school in Beijing especially for children of migrant workers.

Although this school is in Beijing, it is located at the very edge of Beijing. We need to take several different buses and it takes 2 hour to get there. This is a school for children coming from low-income community. The students here usually come from family of migrant workers – who though work in Beijing, have no steady registered residency of Beijing. It’s almost impossible for students from these families to have any extra money to afford tutors, but many of them have very weak foundation in English, and limited teacher-resource, thus we volunteered to help out those who need further assistance to keep up with their study.

They don’t have enough classrooms for tutoring, so we sat around tables in their gymnasium. Usually I teach 6-7 kids at a same time, so I liked to engaged them to learn collaboratively. For example, since I believe in the importance of oral English and learning language as a tool to communicate, I sometimes assigned each of them to read 1-2 sentences of a passage one after another, to keep them focused and on pace, without feeling overly self-conscious about making mistakes. I also often set up small, friendly language game or competition within the group to engage them, but usually give all students some small gifts I brought (e.g. snacks).

AngelHome is another place where I volunteered with other members of Shiying Welfare Society in the BNU. AngelHome is a Children charity organization where that for children born with physical disability (e.g. Down’s syndrome ). Their biological parents were either unable or unwilling to look after them anymore. So these children are orphans who depended on the charity of the society and volunteers to live, get medical surgery or become adopted. I haven’t see children with disability before volunteering there, and was first at a loss seeing a room full of children, who are more delicate and vulnerable than normal ones, because they each may has a different kind of disability. Some can move normally, some cannot even sit or stand properly. They are too young to realize their situations, but luckily they are brought here and are taken care of. It’s hard to imagine the many others who do not have this privilege even. Any contribution counts, if possible, donation volunteer or adoption are welcome through the link above, to help more children. Many children were able to grow as healthy kids after medical surgery.

I read literature and participated in activities

Another big part constituting my college life is literature reading. From British to American to Japanese literature, from Enlightment to Beat’s generation, from <Beowulf> to <The Chrysanthemum and the Sword>, to <My Country and my People>, from Shakespeare to Shelley and Wordsworth. Reading literature makes me peaceful, and I never regretted majoring in English Language and Literature in my college, even though it has its limitation. I initially chose it because of the love for language, and it never let me down. Maybe choosing a different major would endow me with more skills in a particular domain, but I never regretted this time spent reading and thinking critically. They made me more clear on who I am and what I want, and nurtured my soul to be stronger in the long run.

Beijing and my university gives me the stage to practice myself through many competition and events, including Future Educators -Teaching Competition, Dubbing Competition, Star of Outlook English Talent competition, National English Writing Competition. What make me especially memorable is the last one, among more than 1000 submitted essays, I was selected as one of the two students, representing BNU to compete in province level, and won a second prize.

It’s hard to summarize a college life. But I am grateful that my college endowed me with chance to engage in volunteer work, contribute my effort to make the society a bit better by helping the kids and students in need, and empowered me with the knowledge and ability to think critically, which goes a long way in my growth.

Double-edged sword of connection in education/work

A few months ago, I was listening to this talk of Dr. Candace Thille. She talked about three ideas that have transforming power for education, which is very interesting.

1. Access/ convenience

2. Simulation/ personalization

3. Connection/ crowdsourcing

She asked audience who think 1, or 2, or 3 truly has the power to transform education.

While I am not taking sides (and think that all three parts are important), the idea of Connection and Crowdsourcing being one of the transforming power is intriguing.

Having worked in this area a bit in my research, I find myself now very sensitive to the daily enlightment of what power people have over their learning, by the mere act of connecting them together. Partly influenced by the belief in the power of crowd, this semester I took initiative to form study groups in two of my classes.

However, today when opened up my computer, I have come to realize that these connections people build, can also hurt people’s learning. They can be a lot, and can become a burden, maybe partly due to the psychology of FOMO(fear of missing out).

Now officially, we have Piazza, Slack, emails, informally, we can talk about work/study in messenger, wechat, whatsapp etc. So a lot of the time can often be spend reading, responding to people’s message, which are all work-relevant, yet not real work. The real danger of this, is probably, you think you are learning or doing work, yet you are not really 🙂 You might learn, or get some work done, but may also be easily dependent on and distract by these “educational”/ “professional” social platform, even Piazza. I guess that’s the risk of using any social platform – not being able to be alone.

If I reflect how come these are time-consuming, isn’t it just asking question and answering questions? I think one reason is these also reflect your social presence and social image. People tend to keep a good social image, and to do can take a lot of energy. If you hang out on the internet all the time, it can be like hanging out with people all the time, maybe those who you are not very familar with. Internet and these connection is now putting us not private, where you might feel constantly watched.

Tips on survey design for children- feedback from psychology professor

Here are some tips I summarized from feedback given by Prof. Liz Nilsen in Developmental Psychology, on the survey draft I designed on children’s perception on robots that make mistakes and how they learn from it, that I think are generalizable and might benefit future survey design.

  • Avoid asking double-barreled questions (two question in a row)
  • Pay attention to the sequence of sections that you ask the question in, also, within a section, pay attention to the sequence of which should go first and which should go later. (Some question may build on former ones)
  • If we are targeting kids, read the question twice and pay attention to whether they can understand it. Some tips that might make questions more understandable:
    • Use verbs that are tangible (did the mistakes made by robot surprise you?)
    • Use comparison (Does the robot make same mistakes as kids/ your friends do?)
  • Instead of yes/no question like “Is there anything that frustrate you, what are they?” try use more question that get at the degree (e.g. start with How…)

To make it more friendly for novices- four strategies I learned from a CS tutoring video

  • CS education related
  • Four strategies I learned from a tutoring video about linked list, that I feel will make it more accessible and novice- friendly
  1. Start with intuitive variable name (e.g. box), and replace them gradually with more commonly use terms (e.g. Node).

When viewing a about linked list (a data structure), the anchor started off calling the Node box, and then after a while (1-2 min) when people are perfectly familiar with the intuitive term of “box”, he replaced it with “Node” . A lot of tutoring materials in CS does this, I find this very helpful and make the knowledge more accessible for people unfamiliar the specific grammar of the programming language, constructors terminology etc.

Presented a bit similar to the way of “faded scaffolding”, but this I think this – start out with a variable name that are intuitive and gradually replace it with more commonly used term – could be especially in CS because the term can be especially intimidating and confusing.

2. Repeat the awkward, manual, repetitive codes, before introducing a more elegant method

Another way is to start with the awkward, manual way, e.g. in this example, he created the nodes in the linked list manually. Then, he said there is a less awkward way, of using a constructor/ class. This also makes it more novice-friendly. Because when you do it the manual way, though awkward and repetitive, sometime it is exactly what the novice need to understand what you are trying to do, what is your purpose, because the repetition gives them time to think.

3. After writing the code, use the example to explain how the code work on that example.

This is straightforward.

4. When explaining a concept, try to use one example consistently from the beginning to the end.

The teacher only used one linked list of 6,3,4,2,1 as exapmle. This reduce the cognitive load for students to keep track of multiple examples.

This teacher is a really good teacher, I subscribed his youtube channel (CS Dojo).

How to advise students – tips for the future self :)

I want to jog down some things that may be worth a try when I have students to advise, maybe in the far, far future, when I become a professor.

High Expectation

I think one of the most valuable things that a mentor can give an advisee is idealism. Your students will not grow if you do not have high expectation on them. Sometimes, to a certain extent, the higher expectation you have on them, the more successful they will be (of course, based on a healthy way of communication and advising).

Something I learned from my own advisor, one of the most healthy way of communicating that you have high expectation for your students and advisees’ work, is, instead of telling them directly about this expectation or standard, showing them how high standard you have for your work. Of course this is more demanding of you too, but it might also be a motivation for the advisor too.

Advise the advisor too.

I will let them give me at least three pieces of advise every month, in how they want to see me or the lab to change or improve on. This can be how I can better advise them (advising style, e.g. should I give them more ownership to the projects, or more/or less guidance); this can be about research direction, do they think I should pay more attention to a particular area or domain of research; do they have any suggestions in general on how to improve their life & work here. Reason for this is I think students don’t get to openly express this to their advisors a lot, and if it is going to five years, it is kind of important Ph.D. in a way is a working environment too.It is important to create this open pathways for communication in working environment in general.

To a Ph.D. student, the most important person in their work is probably their advisors. Students are equally important to professors too. I might tell the students, I may or may not be able to make changes in any promised amount of time. But no matter if these changes are made, it is better to get these feelings out because I am interested in hearing what you care about.

Interact with people around and create community

I will want to make sure that people in the same lab have frequent time to meet each other, create such opportunities that they can talk about communicate with each other. Seminar is a good way where people come in and pitch ideas on research. I heard in DELTA lab they set aside 1-2 hours every week so people can do pair work – (whoever need help or want to help on research, e.g. pilot study, giving feedback on writing pieces). Academic life and Ph.D. journey can get lonely, your cohort get you through a lot of this difficulty. Sometimes, even just being in the same common space, even if you don’t talk, you will feel less alone.

Leading a research project for the first time – what I learned from my advisors

A long time ago, Hu Shi (1891-1962), a very respected Chinese scholar said to do academic research we should “make assumptions boldly and prove it carefully”. (大胆假设,小心求证). This is a very famous saying that I have been hearing a lot in various occasions since my childhood, though I never really empathized with this saying, until one day it exemplify itself through near the end of my project, when Vincent spent three hours on Saturday morning to give me careful feedback on the 20-page paper. When reading the feedback and reflecting on recent meetings, I realized the way of research they guided me to do, was “make assumptions boldly and prove it carefully”. And it occurs to me, that in an interesting way, good scholars do research in similar way, regardless of their nationalities, or era for that matter.

I spent around nine months leading my first research project, regardless of the experiment results and paper result (yet to be known), it has really been a very gratifying experience and this all have my caring, intelligent, and experienced collaborators (Vincent, Ken and Joseph) to thank.

I have once heard the saying that, having yet to learn about doing research is better than having learned the wrong way of doing research. Through this my first time of full research cycle, my collaborators all exemplified the most rigor, patience and support, thus no matter what the paper result is, I believe what I have learned through this process is at least a right way to do research.

So now that the paper is submitted, I want to take some time to reflect on what I have learned from this research and from my mentors. Some are not about doing research, but more about being an academic, and these are only my own perceptions and personal reflections, which may or may not fit every situation.

About importance of research questions

Coming up with research questions – 11 weeks.

It took us at least 11 weeks to finalize on what we are doing. These 11 weeks we tested out and discussed about different research ideas, I sketched out different design mock up, the initial ideas were actually very distant from the one we end up doing. It got a little frustrating to me near the end, because I felt I was marching on the same spot. But later I think, it is through this training, that I understood how important it is to ask good research questions, which I also keep in mind here in the new lab.

So the first and foremost thing I learned is the importance of the research questions. I know this is not new, (though I feel it wasn’t stressed enough sometimes). Having a research question guide us all the way through and clear a lot of confusions and help us do research with a stronger purpose. At one meeting, I remember Vincent asked explicitly if our research questions are settled as statements (as there were many iterations before). In his critic of my paper draft, the most commonly seen one is that I should make sure the analysis, discussion,(basically any sections existed in the paper), are linked to research questions. If they are not directly answering the research questions, they need to be “motivated separately” – meaning we need to say explicitly why it is interesting to write about them.

About advising students

Even though it may not be immediately applicable (as I probably wouldn’t have students to advise soon), but I actually learned a lot of tips from my advisors about how to advise students. None of these “tips” or “principles” were explicitly said or advised by them, and may be conscious or unconscious behaviors, but these are just what I believe may be good strategies judging from our interaction.

Be Professional and Approachable

My mentor Ken was finishing his fourth year Ph.D. when he joined the project, even he is somewhat more like a peer and more approachable than professor, I was swept by how knowledgeable and how helpful he was and the professionalism he demonstrated. Though they are all very busy, Ken was always responsive and very positive (always prompt in helping me with questions and replying with meeting availability), and I have never heard him saying about being busy, all that I felt was they are really trying their best to help. I can really feel their good intention, and that whenever they can, they are prioritizing helping others.

The professionalism I am referring to here is not only superficial or external representation of professionalism, but the devotion of your mind and heart into your work, the dedication and deep care for your work and your students, the high standard you always hold for yourself and your work. This is very important, because it conveys silently to your students your expectation of them. This is also very contagious, one of the strongest power I felt for being in CMU – many people themselves are the Andrew Carnegie motto – “My heart is in the work”.

Be Encouraging (especially when students are less experienced)

It can be very important for new students to feel the support and acknowledgement from their advisors. At probably the hardest time (around 2-3 months into the project when I was a bit stuck with the experiment design and research questions), I remember for several times coming out of Vincent’s office, he would always say to me cheerfully, “Okay, we are making progress!”, which was really a relief especially when you have some doubts about the progress and yourself.

Give Students the Ownership

Another big thing I learned from this experience was the importance of having students taking ownership of the project. This can be important in cultivating students’ motivation and research interest, and it’s really tricky because it is a fine line, between holding them by hand (over-scaffolding) and inadequate support, but I think my advisors managed it perfectly. I felt adequately supported and yet also felt the perfect amount of ownership and responsibility for the project.

One example was in a meeting when the four of us was discussing about the framing and practical contribution of the paper, even though they are more experienced in this, as others mentioned their thoughts Vincent suddenly turned to me and asked, “What do you think is the practical contribution of the paper?” I really appreciate this gesture of him to ensure student’s voice get heard do not just nod along others’ opinion on the discussion about important piece. In POL office hour, Vincent also did the similar thing, when my teammate asked him questions continually and explained, he said “yeah I understand, I was trying to take a step back and (let you guys decide).” Ken also similarly said it could be “good practice” for me to come up with analysis plan, and I really appreciate these learning opportunities while we are working.

Letting students running the meeting is perhaps the first step to ensure ownership too. So usually in the beginning of the meeting, they would ask me “What should we talk about in this meeting?” Being the one to make agenda and meeting slides is great because I can more or less control the pace of the meeting and make sure the most important questions get addressed first.

Their advising style is they usually voice many of interesting ideas in the meeting, they tried their best to help when I am stuck or really need help, but most of the time they give students the freedom to make the decisions, and never make any arbitrary decisions for the students without giving them sufficient reasoning. I think this is a very important thing to do when advising students. Because I feel the hardest thing in research for novices is making decisions – big and small ones. If we can’t make decisions by yourself, we can never grow as a researcher. At first I was more worried about making the wrong decisions, but gradually I become much more comfortable in making decisions.

About being an academic

“Here to learn? here to contribute.”

When deciding independent study topics, I attended a small team meeting where there are 3-4 undergrads, Jonathan and Vincent. In the beginning I introduced myself and said I was “here to learn more about what the group is doing”. I remember Vincent saying, “Here to learn? (you are) here to contribute.” I ended up choosing a different topic and did not contribute to that team’s work, but this saying of his stay in my memory for a long time. Ph.D. students are no longer the consumer of knowledge, but producer of it. And I think this saying captured a lot about how my advisors identified their roles in the community too.

For numerous times, I see them contribute just for the purpose of contribute. That’s probably why, at the time of my graduation, when I asked for some “final word of wisdom” from Vincent, he said , ” … I could not think of a better job (than being a professor), though you have to be dedicated.” It wasn’t until later that I realize gradually what this dedication means. It’s easy to be dedicated to things you love, but being an academic is not all about things that you love. This “dedication” may mean even though sometimes you are very tired, or there are tasks/ jobs you don’t particularly want to do at the moment, you would still push yourself to do it, and do it with your heart, because you know others need it.

The first time is very important, and I am very thankful that I get to be mentored by these great people. This very much shaped my perspective of research and being a researcher. The project went on for quite long time, it is because my mentors’ continuous support and encouragement, that keep me going forward and lead to this fulfilling experience.

There is another Chinese idiom – influence and teach by one’s words and deeds (言传身教). This may capture well a lot of what’s written here. Very little of what I learned taught to me in words, but exemplified in what they do in the past 9 months, which speaks much louder than words.

Ph.D. advice repost

[Repost from Quora, think it is a great answer –]

My advice is based on the advice I received from my PhD supervisor, my own observations of my behaviour and those of my colleagues, and testing these conclusions by sharing them with others who have been through the process.

  1. Any pressure to overwork is all in your head. Doing a PhD is not, intrinsically that hard. It is a long process aimed at inducting you into the culture and practice of research. At the end of this process, your “exam paper” will be graded by three examiners. There is nothing intrinsically that difficult in this process. By definition, it’s basic-level research! However, most (but not all) students will blow this up into a highly stressful event, and will overwork it. Some other students just take a “by the numbers” approach to their PhD, doing exactly what’s required, and not fretting about it, and getting it done in 40 hours a week.
  2. Overwork is the road to perdition. The ones that get it done in 40 hours a week are the same ones that go on to high-paying jobs in industry, and to top academic positions. Why? Because it requires keeping a calm clear eyes on the goal, focusing your energies, and working efficiently and effectively. These are all required to be a top future producer of quality research papers, or to run a division in a science or tech company.
  3. The PhD is designed to bring out the worst in you. Every education program has two aspects: the so-called explicit curriculum, which is what you see in the course catalogue, and the tacit curriculum—how the education is structured so as to make you fit for a future role in society. In an undergraduate degree, the instructors set the problems, and they know the answers, and they grade you against their knowledge of the answers. This prepares you for a low-grade, managed position in the economy. In a good master’s degree, you work with a professors on problems they are working on: they set the problem, but they don’t know the answers. This sets you up for managerial, professional and technical work, in which your client or senior manager sets you problems to which they don’t know the answers. The PhD amps it up in this way: not only do they not know the answers, but they won’t even tell you what the problem is. And you have toil away for years under these conditions of maximum uncertainty. This sets you up for high levels of industry decision-making, or to be researcher capable of establishing new research programs. But this uncertainty has a tacit role: our natural (and wrong) response to uncertainty, under the mistaken notion that since we don’t know what we’re doing, doing more will increase the chances of getting it right. It plays to this. But that response is exactly wrong. Overcome that response, and you’ve passed the tacit test.

Therefore, I’m worried about advice which implies that you are working to the max during your PhD, and have to be reminded to call your mother or take a day off. Because if you need to do this just for a complicated academic exam, you will drown in the real world.

In short:

Whatever the explicit content of your PhD, its social function is to teach you to work autonomously under high levels of uncertainty. If you respond by working insane hours for years on end, you are failing. The PhD is not that complicated a task, and if your response is to max out, you simply don’t have what it takes to be a high performer in the more complex situations that follow.

So if you find yourself working and stressing excessively, take the cue and use your PhD process to change your approach, and learn to do it in a relaxed and comfortable way.

If you don’t believe me: read the accounts of Einstein during the years in which he developed the three papers of 1906, or Feynman’s accounts of his time at university. Look at photographs of them at the time. They were both having lots of social activity, and they were having fun.

Now you may think “because they were geniuses”. But I suggest: it’s the other way around. They were able to do ingenious work because they didn’t work too hard, and had a lot of fun.

That’s your indicator that you’re doing it right.

NAACL-HLT 2019 Reflection

This is the first academic conference in NLP that I have attended and presented on, I have experienced a lot, acquainted some friends, and had a really good experience at Minneapolis.

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I learned more in the NLP area, including the different problems that they are working on. Some novel things I heard include using visual cues to help increase the accuracy of co-reference (HKUST), fairness and bias in nlp and machine learning is a quite, QA, discourse analysis and dialogue system, and combining cognitive modeling with NLP.

Sadly, I notice I have lost all the notes taken at the conference, only left with a few pictures I took at Keynote. They are almost all about gender bias and fairness in ML. So this is not going to be a complete recollection of my reflection and what I learned, but only part of it.

Some Inspiring Pics

This is an interesting picture, showing what words are and should be gender neutral, and what words are okay to be biased toward one gender.

This is a picture signifying that language bias can be caused by difference language, so to say, language itself can cause stereotype, because there seems to be a difference in bias between different languages.

This is when the keynote speaker was confronted with the question that, is the act of studying AAE itself promoting bias(that would be ironic because they are researching to reduce bias in the ml system)? Why should there be a kind of African American English?

The answer he gave was that the distinction is merely in linguistic, without implying any language is inferior or superior than the other.

This is a very refined and interesting experiment, it is not asking people to put words associated with a certain gender to a certain side, but it is measuring the reaction time and using that as a measure of bias.

The experiment is that participants are asked to sort to two sides of the screen boy/girl name, and some other items that are supposed to be gender neutral, (such as addition, books, graph, story). The items are either about math or about story.

The idea is, if people have gender bias, then it would be easier and faster for them to categorize the words that are related to stories to the same side as girl name, and those item words that are related to math to the same side as boy’s name. It seem the result is that people do have a difference in reaction time, and that reflect gender bias.

An interesting experiment, smiling women stereotype. This means those people who smile are more likely to be considered as female.

DISRPT Community

I presented at the DISRPT workshop, for the work of applying rhetorical structure theory to students essays in order to give structural feedback.

The people in the DISRPT community are nice and does great work. Prof. Amir Zeldes does great work along with his two graduate student Siyao Peng and Yang Liu, they devoted a lot of effort in making RST Web a better tool for researchers, and are continually adding features to it yearly. Shujun Wan and Tino developed a tool that can calculate the agreement of RST trees (annotation) between two annotators, making use of the methodology of Iruskieta. That is really useful, because when I annotated with Shiyan, it was very hard for us to calculate agreement, and we had to build consensus after every passage, and never really enter the independent annotating stage. Shujun said to further improve the tool, a GUI is necessary, look forward to seeing that!

After my talk, I talked with Xinhao from ETS, who are doing similar work in applying RST to speech, in order to do automatic scoring. That seem interesting because with the amount of data ETS can get hold of, it is likely that their model can achieve the state of the art accuracy. I am also happy that Mikel Iruskieta expressed interest in the intelligent tutoring system we built, and he is interested in adapting that into Basque and Spanish. It is nice to hear that people are inspired by your work.

Other interesting topics

There are a lot more interesting topics that I got to understand a bit better through NAACL. My mentor at RIT, his research is more related to accessibility, specifically he is researching on how to help deaf workers have meetings with hearing people. The regular automatic translation while they can achieve somewhat high accuracy, there are some mistakes more costly than others, such as the important details (dates, time of a meeting). Ashutosh Adhikari (from U of Waterloo), presented on how the simpler model beating complex models. Wei Yang and Yuqing Xie, they focus on QA topic in NLP. Conversation with these people are very inspiring and eye-opening.

Conference is very rewarding, and look forward to the next time:)