Monthly Archives: August 2014

The paper tower contest

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The tallest paper tower contest

This was the opening week of Fall 2014 semester at SJSU. I attended the first seminar in organizational communication class with professor Gomez. I was really charged up and excited to be a part of the intelligent discussion among a bunch of communication scholars. The suggested article for the class was also a delight to read because it was easy to comprehend. It was like the back to school night as I got to see all my friends from the same cohort and also met few new faces.
As an organizational activity, we were divided  in two teams. The only props provided to each team were some newspapers and paper clips. The contest was to make a paper tower as high as possible. We were given five minutes to plan the course of our action among the team. The next five minutes were assigned to make the actual tower without talking. This exercise highlighted the importance of synchronization in the team, working on assigned roles, communicating, planning, organizing and actually performing the activity without chaos.
I think we performed well in this activity because all the members in our team had equal opportunity to suggest ideas and participate, we were flexible to accommodate changes at the last moment, and we worked cordially towards the single goal of building the tallest tower.

Girls and Boys

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With the boys batch at Washington community center

While I am a strong advocate of women empowerment with education I also believe that there has to be a balanced approach in achieving it. Segregating boys in special STEM programs from girls does not really make sense because ultimately boys and girls live and grow together in their respective schools and communities. If we want girls to excel in STEM fields then we need their families to be equally supportive of them. So over a period of time, these girls can find compatible partners who will believe in equal opportunity. Likewise, it is important to foster a collaborative working environment for boys and girls to acquire confidence of working neck to neck in STEM fields. So the Jay Pinson STEM education program trains boys and girls under Girl/ Youth stem network.
In one of the summer sessions, I led cyber security program with a team of 23 boys at the Washington community center, San Jose. I enjoyed working with the boys because they taught me a unique perspective of learning STEM. We were scheduled to work with these boys for two consecutive weeks during the peak soccer world cup fever.  Everything around them was about soccer, so I tried my best to divert their energy into creativity by showing them new ways of making soccer games in Scratch. While teaching this bunch of kids, I observed that boys just dived into the computers to play without any inhibitions. They were more open to their friends, so they learned a lot from each other and enjoyed the whole process of exploring options in Scratch curiously. I also noticed that boys are not critical about themselves and so they are readily open to learn from their mistakes. I think these qualities of learning can be a big take away for girls to outshine in future.

Teaching with storytelling

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We as humans love listening to stories because they take us on wild adventurous rides and compel us to think, imagine and dream. Even before the advent of language humans passed knowledge, traditions, values and culture through stories. Ancient cave paintings, sculpture, carvings, murals and inscribed tombs are the testimony to human connection with stories. It is as if we are genetically engineered to learn, inspire, influence and motivate others with stories. Success of storytelling for instructing and informing is certain as long as the audience is able to link with the story by identifying with the situations, characters, struggle and solutions in it.
I used the theme of storytelling for my project in grad school because I find the human connection with stories fascinating. My thesis in instructional communication was on teaching with storytelling as a technique of problem based learning. For this project I worked closely with a fourth grade classroom in my home school. I noticed that children engage in the learning process happily with the creative method of storytelling. Children connect with the story characters and situations if they resonate similarities with their own lives and understand the reasons, purpose, consequences, and moral of the entire story. It is amazing to watch them imagine wide-eyed with astounding expressions on their faces when they listen to stories. Every child connects with the story individually and comprehends its meaning based on his/her interpretation of it. Children acquire comprehension skills by reading stories, while learning with stories boosts their subject knowledge and critical thinking. Enacting stories give children confidence in public speaking, performance and social skills. Stories also teach children to empathize with others, distinguish between good and bad and thus build their moral. My research suggested that storytelling is used as a popular technique of teaching at all levels including grad school because students understand difficult concepts easily with stories.

My challenges in grad school

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My first biggest challenge in grad school was to balance personal and professional life. Apart from being a full time student, I am also a homemaker and mother of two children, so on home front my life is pretty demanding. Therefore, attending evening classes at the University and keeping up with the readings and writing assignments was really tough. I found it extremely difficult to juggle between home and school in the first semester. Slowly, I learned how to organize my work at home and in college in order to run the whole show smoothly. I learned to let go of insignificant things and that way cleared my mental space from the unnecessary pressure. I started maintaining a separate calendar to highlight school schedule and write down my to do lists for every week that helped me keep up with the deadlines. I knowingly cultured the habit of working in every little pocket of my free time in between the daytime chores and that way I found my grounds in about four weeks of grad school.
 
My second challenge was to read the scholarly articles from academic journals. One can learn how to complicate a simple thing from these readings because a discovery that can be made interesting by writing in simple language is written in the most incomprehensive scholarly language in these journals. In fact, in the first semester I got the impression that these journals are used by social scientists as a medium to brag about their intellectual findings among fresh students like me. It started getting difficult for me to win the battle over sleep when in front of the articles. I think it takes endurance of a brave grad student to withstand such heavy reading material and have the persistence to face it again and again and again. I wondered how did my senior classmates read these articles with interest. It came to a point where I had to frankly consult about this problem with my teachers who advised me to research on how to master the knack of reading scholarly articles. It is then that I learned to read between the lines and only focus on the sections that present the most relevant information. Thus, it took me about three to four weeks to understand this genre of writing and sharpen my skills to make real sense out of it.
 
My third biggest challenge was writing reflections because until then I was used to doing assignments based on instructions from the teachers, or refer to the reading material for answers. In grad school, we are expected to write our reflections about the readings we read and discuss in the class. I struggled for the first three to four weeks because I was just not getting the hang of it. My professors helped me patiently to overcome this hurdle by showing me some old samples of reflective writing, by telling me how every student struggles with the grad school expectations, and their own stories of transition in grad school with such writings. Here, I have to mention that I really appreciate the professors in communication studies department at SJSU for being patient, understanding, always ready to help because without them I would not have reached this phase of scholarly life. Coming back, I spoke to lot of my senior classmates to try and understand how did they work on it, but it was just not coming to me. Dr. Fassett told me that the trick to writing reflections is by making real sense of the readings and connecting them to individual life experiences to find my footsteps through it. She assured me that once I find my path, nothing can stop me in writing reflections. In about six weeks time I started getting hold of the readings, classroom discussions, student perspectives and understanding where they were coming from and I finally got the “aha” moment when on one of our weekly writings I just went on and on. Then I realized that I had so much to share, and believe me, the two-page limit of the assignment started falling short. I found my voice in writing that represented the readings from my unique unmatched perspective. This whole experience helped me reinvent myself as a thinker and writer to analyze why I think the way I do. I realized how much my upbringing in a different country, my international experiences, education, family values and the strong cultural influences have shaped my perspectives and molded my voice. Also enduring reflective writing assignments tested my persistence, open mindedness, and dedication towards this new grad school challenge. Eventually, the biggest compliment I ever got on my reflective writings came from Dr. Fassett when she said my essay reminded her of the book “The House on Mango Street.”

Seminars in grad school

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Today I am going to talk about my unique grad school learning experience. What I liked the most about grad school learning is the whole unconventional classroom setup and the method of teaching. Typically, grad school classes are called seminars because they facilitate small group discussions about research and its practical application in real life scenarios. Students are assigned readings before the class, so that they come prepared to share their understanding about it. These readings are scholarly articles from academic journals relevant to the class. All the students along with the professor typically sit in a circle and discuss the readings. Professors initiate the discussion and ask the students to share their perspectives on the readings. The discussion includes personal reflection, likes, dislikes, what did the students enjoy the most, what did they find challenging, and most importantly the professor’s take on the topic. Every individual in the class is given equal attention and is respected for his/her interpretation of the reading. These seminars taught me empathy in real meaning by listening to tangent viewpoints without being judgmental. I believe such scholarly discussions nurture creativity and critical thinking because participants present their side of the story from a unique angle that is influenced by their priorities, experiences, knowledge and the culture they are brought up in. These in class exercises taught me a lot about different people, their outlooks, their differing ways of analyzing an issue and as a result the value of diversity.

Communication studies major

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If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough by Albert Einstein

 
 
People frequently ask me what do you do as a “communication studies” major, and what kind of job do communication majors get? These questions intrigue me the most especially because not many people think of communication beyond public speaking. Therefore, today I want to talk about communication major in length and breadth.
 
Before moving on to the types of jobs for communication majors, we will try and understand the competencies of this versatile field. Communication study is an offshoot of social sciences and English major. In this major we learn the historical development of theories that shaped this field, and continuous contemporary research that leads to new trends in communication with evolving technology. Some of the specialized areas of communication we study are conflict management, dialogic communication, persuasion, argumentation, mediation, interpersonal, organizational, small group, inter cultural, and pedagogical communication. We learn to practice these specialized communication skills in real life scenarios with group projects, colloquiums, seminars, debates, discussions, presentations, teaching and community service. We are trained in conducting qualitative and quantitative research like ethnographic analysis, focus groups, interviews, surveys, and experiments. This program specially emphasizes on critical thinking and writing in academic, descriptive, expository, and persuasive forms like autoethnographies, abstracts, reports, research papers, speeches, thesis, literature reviews, and annotated bibliographies. Communication major incites diversity and collaborative work to bring creative outputs on the palette. Communication is “the major” that focuses on critical analysis of our social and ethical responsibilities as scholars in the society.
 
Now let us move on to finding the areas where this knowledge can be pragmatically implemented. Communication majors are required in every organization for roles that manage internal and external communication, handle public relation activities, be a part of HR communication team, work in marketing and sales teams, planning and organizing teams, mediation teams, work as content writers for websites or social media, can be technical, fiction or nonfiction writers, be social media experts, work in customer service and support roles, take up social science research roles, get in teaching and training in academic as well as corporate setups, and work in non profit organizations. Communication majors can essentially customize their specialized skills to jobs in emerging markets of health communication, environmental communication, and in information technology. Thus communication specialists gain domain of skills in all forms of spoken and written communication that can be used in practically every professional setup.

American college system for Indian students

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Many people ask me how different was my experience of education in America as compared to my student experience in India and I reply that American education is mainly practice oriented. I had to plan and organize ahead of time to get in the college and finish my program objectively. Following are the striking differences I found while studying in the US:
  • Students have to plan and apply one year in advance to get in the college of their choice.
  • Colleges run on semester of 4 months or quarter of 3 months pattern. In America, every degree program is credit based.
  • There are a wide variety of classes offered throughout the day to help the students choose classes as per their convenient timings unlike a fixed schedule with predetermined classes for every year of college in India. American Universities offer flexibility to the students to finish the degree at their own pace.
  • A green sheet is given in the first class with syllabus, and detail schedule of dates for submissions, quizzes, midterms and finals. It is imperative to follow the green sheet unless any changes notified by the teacher. Students are kept on their toes throughout the semester and it becomes difficult to catch up if any one of the tests is missed.
  • Mostly all classes have projects involving research work to introduce inquiry of the subject. In fact, in grad school all the course work is research based.
  • All classes are technology based, so having a personal computer is a must because assignments, papers and tests are taken online.
  • A wide variety of online classes are available which offer students the flexibility to learn from home.
  • Students are encouraged to do the assignments and take classes involving community service. Most of these classes give credit towards course work. Such classes play a pivotal role in teaching the students about how much change they can bring in the society as educated citizens. Apparently, every major in the college is attached to a community service group that works in specialized area of interests.
  • It is mandatory to meet the advisors and counselors every semester to track the degree progress and plan in advance for the next semesters. 
  • Professors can be consulted during their appointment time.