PhD – Life – Play – Fitness Balance (or, the Otter is pretty silly)

28 08 2008

No, don’t worry… this is not going to be some philosophical posting full of lots of zen mumbo-jumbo. Just a bit of a story of my weekend and what else is happening besides my PhD.

Those that know me think I am a bit crazy. It is on a number of levels, but the main one is my ease of being swayed into physical activities. One thing that Monash University does well is their Team Monash program. This is Monash putting formal teams into major Melbourne fitness events, including the Portsea Swim Classic, the Mother’s Day Classic, Melbourne Marathon, and Around the Bay in a Day ride. Why I am crazy is that I do each of these. The Team Monash banner is addictive though… you get looked after well, get gear to run/swim/cycle in, and get be part of the big Monash group.

So, October is coming fast, which means I am running and cycling very soon. Before you think I some kind of Superman (which I am most defintely not), I am not running a whole marathon. That is just for crazy people. I was going to do a half marathon, but it is the weekend before the Around the Bay ride, which is my favourite, so I am just doing the 10km run. But it finishes in the MCG so I am pretty excited about it. My main focus is on riding around the bay.

For those of you not from Melbourne, we are situated on a bloody big bay (Port Phillip Bay). Someone, sometime decided “Hey, we could ride around this thing!”, and thus thousands of us looneys decide to do it each year. How far I hear you ask? Well, 210 butt wrenching kilometres, that’s how far. Yes, it is a long way, but it is also believe it or not it is really fun.

Below is a Google Map of what we ride. Scale is obviously hard to tell, but it is about 210-220km of riding. We get a ferry from Queenscliff to Sorrento about half way, so we literally do go around the whole bay.

This is where the title of this posting comes in… at some point I had to tell (well, force) myself to say “Hey, you need to train for this… get on your bike!”. The main problems have been:

  1. I really want to get this PhD done
  2. Our winter has been pretty cold and wet this year
  3. Training means doing rides of at least 100km (ie at least 4-5 hour sessions)

So the weekend gone I said enough is enough. Sunday, being a pretty nice day, I threw the bike in the car, drove to my favourite spot in East Malvern, and started riding. I headed into the city via the main bike trail and went through to Port Melbourne, and the start of the famous (or infamous) Beach Rd ride. And that is where it hit me.

As I headed on my way to Frankston I had one of those kind of zen moments. I thought to myself “It is a beautiful day, I am on the water, I have nowhere to be, and this is great!”. I think it was a combination of a cold wet winter, not having been on my bike in ages, work being crazy, and the fact it was a nice day with no wind. But it was just one of those blissful moments.

So I proceeded to ride close to 120km over the next 4.5 hours. Yes, it is a lot, but I needed to kick the training into gear. But if 120km can be peaceful and enjoyable, this was it.

Anyway, that is the end of the story. What is the moral? Well,

  1. Yes, I’m nuts
  2. I discovered I am pretty fit (I do a couple of gym RPM classes a week to keep my fitness and sanity)
  3. Sometimes you just need to say “Sorry PhD, today is for my body, not for my brain!”

If you are struggling with trying to fit these things in, sometimes you just have to do it. Nothing like registering to ride around a bloody big bay to get you motivated. See you on Beach Rd!

… Matt


Otter? Jungle? PhD?

10 05 2008

So, I hear you ask. An otter? What’s this all about? And what does it have to with jungles and PhD’s and things? Let me explain…

Otter: Can you answer the question What animal am I? Well I can, and it is an otter. A lunchtime discussion about this very topic had me thinking. I love otters. I can watch them all day. I just see a cheekyness in them that I admire. I also love their industrious nature and sense of closeness to friends and family. So keeping that in mind I thought, maybe I would be an otter myself. Or maybe a beaver, given my engineering background. But I was pretty sold on an otter. So anyway, the internet is home to quizzes about everything so I found a What Animal Am I quiz and gave it a crack. Who would have thought. I was an otter, and pretty much for all the reasons I dig them. Oh, and if you put your hands too close to an otter they will bite a finger off. True. I admire that too.

Jungle: So what is this jungle business? Well, think about what a jungle can be. A dark, mysterious place, full of dangers and strange creatures. Sometimes you can wander aimlessly for what seems an eternity, and then you find your way out. That brings me to…

PhD: PhD? Yep. In the end, this is what this blog is all about. My PhD journey (as well as Lucie’s own trek up Everest). Well, not the whole journey… about the last 12 months. In late 2002 I started a Masters, which 12 months later I decided to upgrade to a part-time PhD. I undertook it for a couple reasons. First, it was kind of expected, being a full-time lecturer. But secondly, I wanted to. Even as an undergrad, I always thought one day I would be doing postgraduate study. And so it was a PhD.

My PhD is all about learning problems for novice programming students. Having taught introductory programming for 6 years now, I see some of the same problems year in, year out. In fact motivation came from a heated discussion with a student in my first year of teaching. Without boring you, I think there are some fundamental learning problems with conceptually high level programming concepts. These problems are made greater by a lack of feedback in the programming process for these elements. And I want to deal with these things. No, I am not curing cancer. But if we have been teaching programming fundamentals for decades now, why do these problems still exist? Hopefully not for much longer…

A Journey Through the PhD Jungle: So that is where we are. I guess the last question is why a blog? To answer that let me backtrack. In my third year project class I teach, I expect my students to keep a reflective diary of their projects. I suggest that reflecting on the process lets them discover what they are learning, what they are good at, how they deal with challenges, and ultimately give them a good diary of their experiences for later on. After 5 years I have finally taken my own advice. In the last month I have had some great successes with my PhD and have felt an urge to write them down. I am not sure why. Maybe for me to read back in a couple of years. Maybe to share with others. Maybe to get excited. Maybe to just stay excited. Which, in a part-time PhD, sometimes you need to do all you can to find the exit to the jungle.

Welcome to the Jungle

9 05 2008

I know what you are saying… goats and otters don’t live in the jungle. Well, most normal people do not embark on a PhD either!

Enjoy the adventures of a goat who is researching Czech Animation and an otter who is trying to solve the problems of programming students. Along the way you will learn what makes a PhD student tick, the difference between quantitative and qualitative data, what colours we are currently breathing, Friedman tests, NVivo, successes, challenges, and ultimately why people work for all these years just to get the letters Dr. before their name.

More posts soon…