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Lifelong learning

Temperatures continue in the early 20s at and I marvel at the sunshine from my window in the mornings . This crispness of the light doesn’t seem to belong to the city below. We are entering Autumn in New York, that evocative phrase that makes you want to check out flights and crackle through leaves in the Park. I haven’t been back since my first week but I have found an alternative walking route much nearer home.  I usually  walk up my street (121st,  and those numbers make so much sense to me now) I turn left into upper Broadway, and walk down as far as I feel like it, maybe cutting across to Amsterdam to return. This gives me a 30-45 minute walk  with plenty of people and things to look at on the way. Now I have ventured across Broadway, cut across to the next block and found Riverside walk, a leafy zone running parallel to the river.  It is frequented by joggers, dog owners and parents with small children, and is one of those peaceful recreation areas that are all the more miraculous because they are located in a big city. This has now become part of my beat.

I am still struggling to organise all my study requirements. No sooner do I finish one assignment than another two are presented. The pace is so relentless that I have got a deadline list on my desktop to keep me on track. I was chastened this week to find I had been marked down quite ruthlessly because I had embedded some information within the text rather than use separate paragraphs for each point. What I had thought was a contents checklist was actually also a formatting template.  I had to rewrite the paragraphs and send them to the lecturer to regain those eight (four for each paragraph!) lost marks. Apparently they are sticklers for formatting here and every undetected proofreading error, down to an extra space between sentences, is circled. It will be a crash course in rigour.

One of my duties as testing coordinator is assigning rooms for the classes, the kind of task that has me shuddering with distaste. But Ron, my administratively gifted office manager, gives me an Excel workshop and patiently takes me through the stages of organising 16 teachers and their classes on a beautiful colour-coded spreadsheet. This has used bits of brain I have long neglected and I feel hopeful that I might develop some modest competence in the area.

In a pre-satnav era, London cabbies had to pass an exam to show that they had the Knowledge, i.e. that they knew all the streets and shortcuts of the city by heart. There was rumour of a study that showed that a part of their brain, the hippothalmus I think, was larger than the rest of the populations as a result. I am wondering whether, with all the things I am learning, this might happen to me.

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Pails and fires

My weeks are settling into a pattern. Monday to Friday are intense,  with classes, testing-related activities and the inevitable administrative chores. Weekends are peaceful and dedicated to reading for assignments, and skyping friends and family.

My learning curve, in all senses, is perpendicular. I am taking three classes on testing and assessment and the amount of reading assigned is huge. I remember Yeats’s comment that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. I enjoy the reading but wonder if I will remember who said what. My advantage on this course is that I have I have got the 10,000 hours of practical teaching and testing that constitute expertise under my belt and can make links between theory and practice. The presentation with Heidi on Tuesday prompted a good discussion. We analysed two articles written by Carroll in 1961 and 1968, and found that most of the testing theory and principles today (communicative competence. integrative testing, the importance of reducing variables affecting performance) can be traced back to what he wrote, in less sophisticated language, 40 years ago. The other strand of my learning curve is technological. In the US everyone is taught to touch type at school and as a hunter and pecker,  I need to build up speed in keyboard skills. Another co-requisite for research in this field is a knowledge of statistics, both handling the programmes and interpreting the figures.This is actually more interesting than it sounds, but takes time to become familiar with. But I will get there, hopefully sooner rather than later.

My major achievement this week is overcoming my fear of travelling underground and taking the subway down to the Financial district and back. It is as if the other new things I am doing in my new life have made that particular phobia recede. Or as Carly Simon sang ” I haven’t got time for the pain” . This is definitely a positive outcome.

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Baptism by fire

On Tuesday, ten minutes into my first seminar, I knew why I had come here and the waiting in line and bureaucratic hoops had suddenly became worth persevering with. Next week  I have to do a presentation with a fellow student.  We have to read a couple of influential articles and present the main ideas to the class,  but first send the slides to Jim by Sunday lunchtime for his approval. One of the things I have noticed here is that everything is done to tight deadlines.  I’ve always considered myself a quick worker but this timeframe seems a tall order, not least because it has to be multitasked between reading for my other two classes and my work in the language centre. But I am also excited to be kicking off the term with the first presentation. I spend the next 24 hours struggling with the online library system and eventually access the materials.

I am getting to know my fellow students, who are polite, helpful and in some cases, genuinely friendly. Their acceptance of this ingenue in their world touches me. I have even found a walking buddy whose speed and distance objectives match mine closely. It is early days to establish close friendships yet but for the moment there are enough opportunities for social contact for me not to feel isolated. On Wednesday Jim took me out for a Welcome Martini and dinner.  I chose Cajun Chicken as a silent homage to my favourite crime writer, James Lee Burke,  and we had a couple of glasses of wine which were a treat for me.

Thursday evening I had my first real falter. These first assignments were looming  and I couldn’t see how it was possible to reconcile my study and work commitments. I stayed late in the language centre entering fiddly data into the programme.. Fatigue had set in and having to redo the data columns was making me feeling rather sorry for myself.  But, I managed to call myself to arms and finally finished the job. It was an exercise in perseverance and I rewarded myself with a burger and beer before going back to my room to work on the paper.

This week I have worked quite hard but it has been strangely satisfying, especially the data sheet.ImageImage

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The M104 uptown

It is now ten days since my arrival from my roomy house in an Italian village to a student dorm in a metropolis,  and I am coping reasonably well with the lifestyle change so far.  In practical terms, I have worked out the essentials for my new no-frills lifestyle:  a microwave steamer to prepare healthy meals;  a mini clothes horse and small tableIMG_14540-1top ironing board; a  large coloured cushion and tasteful throw to convert my bed into a chaise-longue for daytime study. My computer multi-tasks as a radio and DVD player as well as a study and social networking tool. Supermarkets continue to be a challenge when certain products I am used to are not available here. It shouldn’t unsettle me, yet it does, perhaps because these are the differences I least expect.  But I am trying to rise above this.

My first week of work and study was daunting, intense, but doable, and I am starting to organise my time into blocks of study, relaxation and exercise.  One of the most thrilling discoveries I have made is the college dining room with grand piano for people to tinkle on should they feel inclined to do so. And they do.  The other is the M104  bus which runs along Broadway uptown. I caught it yesterday evening back from 66th street after a last minute walk downtown for a pillow case.  This is where you will see the cast of diverse and fascinating people living in New York.

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Effortful attention

Somebody mentioned the phrase ‘effortful attention’ the other day to describe the mental exertion involved in getting to know a new culture. It sums up perfectly my own experience over the last few days. Every day I add new events to my repertoire of understanding, so that gradually I adapt to my new life. I notice that people cross the road even when the red hand is showing, and now, instead of waiting obediently for the green signal, I too assess the situation and walk quickly across if the road is clear. I like the fast walking as it makes me feel youthful and native.

I am bold about asking if there is a student discount in shops ( there is, in many) and have already found a hairdresser who gives a whopping 20%. I like the way New Yorkers are ready to open up a conversation. Yesterday a woman canvassing for the primaries next week offered me a leaflet. When I apologised, saying I was new to the city, she said “Hey we spoke the other day!”. It was true. She had  stopped me at the Farmer’s market on Saturday’ for another candidate. She asked me how I was getting on, introduced me to the candidate, and wished me well.

Yesterday was learning-intense. I went from the bank (opening an account), to declare my arrival to the International department ( follow up appointment this morning) , on to the financial departments to check my  money is on its way, and finally to the department  orientation meeting. This was a full sensory experience with high octane welcomes and detailed information delivered at speed. Imposter syndrome kicked in briefly as i was introduced as part of the testing team but I smiled and waved, convincingly I hoped. Afterwards I had an appointment with my supervisor, a clever, big-hearted man who has taken on this ripe doctoral student with an extraordinary disregard for convention. More meetings with other members of staff to sign contracts and fill in more forms, this time for anti-discrimination and tax reporting. I leave at 5 needing a long walk, so I stride down Broadway (this has become my beat) to finally set up a telephone plan. Last box of the day ticked.

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Going native

It’s now day four and I am gaining confidence in my new life. I swipe my ID card noncholantly as I enter college buildings , an extra swipe at the desk in my student residence, to let the security guard keep a tally of who’s in and who’s out I presume. The security guards are polite and patient in dealing with my numerous requests for help. Yesterday, as I swiped, one said, slightly puzzled, “are you a student?’. ‘oh yes’ I grinned, ‘of the non traditional kind’ , and we had a chat about mid life achievements: he had published a book at the age of fifty five. Every day small acts of kindness or engagement like this boost my confidence that this venture might turn out good in the end.

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The first day

IMG_1494 My bed is positioned along  the length of a large window, and I am relaxing on it to type this, Carrie Bradshaw fashion, with the sounds of Hispanic music at a discreet volume wafting over my urban panorama. After the unpromising arrival last night it  has been a very promising first day.  This morning I walked downtown to buy some bedding. A very helpful assistant mediated all the bedding terms in American English which are completely different to what I’m used to. It seems to me that my cultural confusion lies less in interaction with people and more in interaction with things. I don’t know if this is a sign of how attached I have become to material goods. I think instead that its more to do with wanting to have the right linguistic terms to hand. When I use the term ‘toilet paper’ and the assistant reformulates it as bathroom tissue, I feel a bit out of kilter.

I took the subway back which for me, with my claustrophobic tendencies, was a small triumph.  I’m also managing the lift to my 10th floor bedroom very comfortably too, so this project is a coming-of-age in more ways than one. After lunch I went to the language centre to meet my colleagues for the first time. They were really friendly and supportive as Americans tend to be. But that doesn’t disguise the fact that they have this enormous work ethic and I’m going to have to get up to speed on that. But I came away feeling that this is going to be a welcoming academic community. The day ended perfectly when I returned to my student residence and found that both my parcels  have arrived. I went to the mail room where a broadly smiling guy in the stamp of an elderly James Stewart  sorted me out very quickly.

What a difference a day makes. I feel like a completely different person to the one who arrived last night.