Observation from the sidelines


(Almost) Daily Academentia -

“Audit some classes” they said. “It’ll be fun” they said.

Although in this case it was myself who said these things, so for the fact that I am in a weekly class on Tuesdays from 1830h to 2130h (and inevitably run over until around the 10pm mark, when everybody looks like they’re wilting a little bit), I can only thank/blame myself. It is a class for postgraduate researchers developing a topic where each week half of us present progress we have made on our work, and offer up any problems encountered or questions raised for debate. This renders it like a mixture of researcher development and also a nice, contributory working environment. Great!*

Yesterday, we discussed the communication of failure. (This is where I mentally made some note about the virtues of trial and improvement over trial and failure. I also coupled this with research into risk communication, and information regarding uncertainties in scientific research.) In my experience, the Chinese as a whole, is a country that favours the communication of successes (who doesn’t prefer this though, really). As a child, I was told not to show any weaknesses at any time. I see this reflected in my fellow students in that they are extremely prepared for all classes: anything requiring a form of presentation will be accompanied by several pages of handouts, and a rehearsed speech, no matter the degree of formality.

I can find this quite intimidating sometimes, but mainly feel that I should be equally prepared when it is my turn to present, which is all good.

The class leader certainly doesn’t think twice before raising their voice, or cutting somebody off mid-sentence. Another friend, who took this class in past years and is graduating in a month, suggests that the reason said leader cuts people off is because he has failed to see value in what they are saying, and does not want to waste any time listening to the next five minutes of speech. While I can understand the friend’s argument, a train of thought is a train of thought (only in China it is a 思路 -si1lu4 – a “thought road”), and as prepared as these students are, I feel fairly certain that there is something of a narrative in their presentations. Ergo, it may be frustrating to listen to a perceived “pointless” presentation, but it is equally disruptive to even a follower of a presentation when the presenter is cut off every 15 seconds. The constant cutting off makes it difficult to weigh in at the end, considering it is usually the thought process and topic approach that makes a difference to the successful development of a project. Fragmented renditions are harder to piece together for the purpose of providing feedback.

What this actually results in, is the fact that my fellow students, whenever I mention any research-based insecurities of my own, will say “but the teacher never shouts at you“, seemingly implying that my immunity (because I’m a visiting student or otherwise) to verbal admonishment from the teacher is a strength (as opposed to, dare I say, any presentation or research skills I may possess as somebody further along at university). The race is on to be the least scolded pupil in class, like in primary school. As far as I am concerned, this is entirely beside the point of what the class is actually trying to achieve, which is strengthening the abilities of young researchers through a small project before letting them loose on the big, bad masters thesis.

Otherwise, I am continuing the week with contemporary collection strategies in science museums and science centres; and also with getting an emergency measles jab, because there has been an outbreak in my building. Consider this your forceful reminder to GET THAT SECOND MMR INJECTION even though it’s easy to forget six months after the first shot.

Finally, to take the edge off this, for me, serious post:

Holla! (=/= Halal? Yes. Yes? No.)

Holla! (~ Halal? Yes. Yes? No.)

Very on point. Like a good presentation. (In the interest of full disclosure, those are chicken sausages.)

*Off the academic record, a social event with a bunch of international students brought up the topic of how “great” with a British accent cannot sound anything other than sarcastic, bar ironic. Unfortunately, I am finding this to be true. Sad times.


As uttered by many men with questionable motives.

Daily Academentia -


I sat through a morning’s worth of pre-submission Masters presentations on the history and philosophy of science. The presentations were mostly for the purpose of students receiving last minute feedback from multiple academic staff – in addition to their individual supervisors – for a well-rounded thesis. Or at least this is how I read the event. I feel that having a massive feedback session roughly a month before hand-in is a bit perilous, not least because if any significant changes are to be made, the only practical choice is to apply for an extension. Other reasons include that students receive all their feedback in front of each other, and not all of it is necessarily encouraging.

One of the staff, when commenting on a student’s work said, among other things, “since we have an issue such as over-population, I wish we could continue the world with all the good people intact, and invent some way to make all the unsound and backwards people vanish (sic).”

While discussing this statement with a friend – mostly about how, what essentially is, “bad people” could be interpreted in infinite ways – I did wonder whether it is an exclusive to academics to discuss eugenics, along the vein of genocide, so casually? Either that, or it was too early in the morning for my tiny brain to contemplate such things.



There will be a post soon. I won’t bother with excuses as to why there has not been one for a little while because I am certain you can guess for yourself anyway.

But SOON. Look, I even went out with the big camera to photograph for the post. It has a narrative. Ooh. Stay tuned.


Weekend Intervention!

I was originally going to write a far more frivolous title, but did not wish to bring anybody here under false pretences.

After spending a couple of weeks re-setting up camp and getting started with work (academented post coming later), I have decided to step up the museums game a notch. Inspired by Miriam Clifford, Cathy Giangrande, and Antony White’s CHINA: museums, I will aim to visit one museum or heritage site each week, and then present it in the blog, with extra consideration in the direction in which I would like to take my research – the role of museum staff in the communication process. In this manner, I wear the visitor’s hat, and will hopefully be privy to the authentic visiting experience. Are you joining me?

Seven points on academented etiquette

Last night I was set to go to a birthday party (Friday after all), when my supervisor here rang to ask if I could come to dinner with a newly acquired PhD student, and a potential Hist of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine – although if you’re reading this blog, I almost suspect you know this) masters student (and her father – somebody high up in another university here in Beijing, although I had to figure this one out when I arrived). The latter two attendees were not mentioned on the phone. I made an admittedly feeble attempt to imply that I had plans for the evening, which were swept aside and ignored. This is point number one: if you are engaging in postgraduate research here, you are expected to follow orders.

Mind you, I ended up running a little late for the meet-up (no more than five minutes, but still… tsk tsk, bad habit – temporal optimist) but apparently this was okay. (Make this point two.)

While I was being introduced, there was a discussion as to what how we should all address each other. From my perspective, the two teachers get their honoraries (surname+”teacher”); the PhD student – who is from Taiwan and also unfamiliar to these orders of the PRC* – gets surname+”PhD”, as is proper at university (although I hope we end up on first name basis). The masters student, due to being below me in the academic hierarchy but will be supervised by the same teachers as your truly, refers to me as, per google translate, “senior sister apprentice”. What it actually means is “teacher sister”, implying that we belong to the same fraternity of students supervised by the same tutor; I refer to her by name. Call this points three and four.

So we sit down and order food. I am made to order the first dish, despite my protests of “but I don’t know northern Chinese cuisine”, but I think it turned out okay: the plate of pan-friend lake-shrimp and chilli was empty at the end of the meal. The main point here surrounds conversation topics. When the two teachers were discussing something, it seemed like us three students basically just fell silent and turned to “listen and learn”-mode. People asked me about settling in in Beijing (briefly), and my project (in depth), and while it was great to have interested parties willing to discuss my project with me, there were moments when I felt that I kept talking and talking… (yes, friends, even though I have moments when I seem to love my own voice (hello blog), I don’t really like playing porte parole. For too long. But they all seemed interested, and the masters student even said she might be interested in helping me conduct my studies, so woop! (Douze points for me! Err no. Nevermind.)

THEN, we turned onto the issue of how my supervisor is not so sure his daughter (who is nearing the end of her UG degree) should stay in her field (computer processing/engineering, etc) due to it being male-dominated. At this point, the other teacher chipped in that “girls are best off in inter-disciplinary fields (sure why not), and only men make it to the top in STEM subjects (ahem)”. Had we even been having afternoon tea, I might have gone ahead arguing my little corner of “why the hell should young women not have a go in the STEM subjects?” BUT. Besides not arguing (too much) against teachers, I did not want our civilised dinner to turn into a massive debate – especially when my Chinese has not completely revolved into its former glory (yet), meaning I’m not yet ready for full-on verbal sparring. Point six.

At dinner there was another issue.** Baijiu was involved. Now, as a student, I am expected to partake in the drinking a little, but as a student of the female variety, I should not be too invested in the drinking. So I settled on “I’ll have a little, since we’re celebrating [the successful interview of the male PhD student]“, when asked. Then I was presented with a tiny jug of the stuff, along with a tiny cup from which to drink. After that, there was a whole host of toasts for all reasons that we were all to drink to, and I because rather invested (i.e. overly second-guessing, probably) in whether or not I was drinking more than a ‘dainty little lady’ should. Anyway, dinner over, jug empty, head apparently still fully on. THEN, supervisor says, “ah, so you (that’s me) can drink”. I have no idea if this is a good or a bad revelation.*** And that’s the final point to today’s academentia.

I decided not to show my hipster self to these new acquaintances immediately, so here is an unrelated picture!

This was taken on the coach from the airport into town, and fairly close to the airport at that. This basically means that there shooould be some mountains in the background, but the smog is in the way. The smog. We will talk about that another day.

This was taken on the coach from the airport into town, and fairly close to the airport at that. This basically means that there shooould be some mountains in the background, but the smog is in the way. The smog. We will talk about that another day.

Quick research update: I have two lists of new contacts who need ringing. Unfortunately the person who seems to be the best first-port-of-call (professionally) – a content developer at China Science and Technology Museum and former student of my Chinese supervisor – has just had a baby, and the soft bits of my heart does not want to bother her too much…

*That’s People’s Republic of China, in case somebody is reading this in first-thing-in-the-morning groggyness.

** I say “issue”, internally I admit I was going, “oh good, here we go”.

*** HELP.

Academented in Beijing – supervisor edition

The other day:

The Prof: “[...] so that’s all good for planning; what do you want to do afterwards?”

Me: “Well, I was just going to actually get this PhD first, while keeping an eye out, taking contacts down along the way…”

The Prof: *disdained* “Don’t you have an idea as to where you want your career to go?”

Me: “Of course I do, I just don’t want to get distracted right now.”

The Prof: “But you still need to tell me where you want to go after this degree, so that I can introduce you to the right people.”

Is this commonplace in British doctoral supervision, or is this usually an implicit practice?

I was also much thanked for bringing gifts, then instructed not to “indulge in bad Chinese habits” (i.e. the gift-giving).

BONUS food pictures:

Some days you arrive at lunch already full with the disappointment of lacking hunger. This was not one of those days.

The most decent coffee I’ve found on campus so far, accompanied by “Cheese Taste”.

So where is my cheese? There is taro cream and red beans in here – delicious – but the cheese is notably absent.