Monday, January 30, 2012

Two Months

It was two months and one day ago that I left home for Kigali. The first two months here have been fun, interesting, intense and challengeing---both in ways that I expected and ways that were totally unexpected. In honor of the milestone, here's a list of things I like about Kigali and a list of things from home that I miss. This isn't an exhaustive list by any means. It's some of the first things that come to mind as I write this late at night on my balcony.

Some stuff I like about Kigali:
  • My new colleagues in the physics department. My department chair and my office mate have been especially kind, supportive, and friendly. They've made me feel welcome here and have been tremendously helpful.
  • One of things I was looking forward to about teaching here was being able to really dig into some physics topics I don't get to teach back home. I've certainly gotten this out of my statistical physics class. I like statistical physics a lot and it's been really fun to teach it and to think about the subject in new ways. The book I'm teaching from is fantastic.
  • I am grateful for my students' patience as I figure out how things are done here. I am sure it is not always easy to have a professor from far away with a funny accent. I have especially enjoyed getting to know the students in my statistical mechanics class. (This class has only 9 students, whereas my other classes are 44 and 196. So it's hard to get to know the students in those classes, unfortunately.) My statistical mechanics students ask excellent questions and are patient when we have trouble understanding each other. They are a sharp group of students that are fun to work with.
  • Kigali itself is a very pleasant place. I like the city a lot, especially at night. As I've remarked frequently, the nights here are perfect: not hot, not cold. It is pretty easy and inexpensive to get around, it is very safe, and it generally has a nice, relaxed feel.
  • There is some great food in Kigali: amazing Chinese food and very good Indian and Ethiopian. I like that there are a few places that I go to semi-regularly that are starting to become part of my routine.

Some stuff I miss from home:
  • It goes without saying that I miss Doreen. It is hard being in a new and sometimes challenging environment when my best friend is so far away.
  • My cats. I miss them tremendously. They are a great distraction from life and are a source of companionship and entertainment. In general, I miss a number of activities that constitute down time---things that help me relax or use different parts of my brain than teaching and doing physics.
  • Cooking. I like cooking a lot. I like both making some standard dishes that I have perfected over the years and also trying out new things. Cooking is fun and relaxing for me. I miss cooking in our nice kitchen with good music turned up loud.
  • The food here in Kigali ranges from good to amazing. Nevertheless, there are some foods that I miss. The beer here is not very good. I miss good, hoppy, flavorful but not sweet beers. I've had some good salads here, but I miss big interesting salads like I make at home. I also miss whole-grain/wholesome sorts of foods: brown rice, veggie stews, good whole wheat bread, etc.
  • Watching hockey games. When at home I watch as many New York Rangers games as my schedule permits. It is fun watching games; I can't really explain it, but I like it a lot. It is another activity that is mental downtime; it is not very intellectually demanding to watch hockey. Fun and interesting and exciting, yes. Intellectually challenging, not exactly. The Rangers are having their best season (so far) in quite a long time. It disappointing that I am missing the season, although I do get to see highlight of the games via the internet.
I am unwinding after a long Sunday of work. I am still behind, but less so. This upcoming week is week 9 of 11. Just three weeks to go. Wednesday is a holiday, so I'm viewing this week as two mini two-day weeks.

It is a darker night than usual and the sky has a milky character to it. It must be hazy. I can't see any stars. A radio plays in the distance and, as usual, the crickets are chirping. But tonight seems a little quieter than usual, as well. The air is still.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where I live. Where I work.

It is a pleasant Friday evening in Kigali. I don't quite have the energy to write much, so I thought would post some pictures I took a little a while ago.
The picture above is of my room at the guesthouse of the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology. The room is small, but it's all the space I need. The bed is quite comfy and firm. In addition to the main room there is a bathroom and a small entryway in which there is a wardrobe in which I keep my clothes and some other stuff.
This is a picture of my bathroom. But you probably figured that out. It takes a little while for the water to get hot, but once it does, there is plenty of hot water and the water pressure is pretty good. I didn't like getting out of a shower and standing on tile, so a few weeks ago I got a towel to use as a bathmat. It is light blue/purplish and has teddy bears on it.
The highlight of my living quarters is definitely my balcony. I do most of my work outside on this plastic table. It is where I am now as I write this. There are some trees in the way, but it has nice views to the east and south. Evenings are very pleasant here, so the balcony is a great place to work. Even at midday, the balcony is shaded and usually quite nice.
This is my office. It is on the fourth floor of the KIST III building, which houses the Faculty of Science. The building is about 200 meters from the guesthouse. There is not too much in my office. There are two desks, one for me and one for my office mate. There is a table and a narrow bookcase that are not in the picture.
I like my office. When I open the window there is almost always a nice breeze. And the view is great. This picture is looking down. One can see the parking lot for my building and one of the main entrances to KIST. It is unusual that it is so empty. I think I took this picture on New Year's day when nobody was around. Usually there would be students and a few cars in this scene.
This is a view from my office window looking out to the east. I get a great view of the city toward the airport. Sometimes I can see storms sweeping across the valley. Of late it has been dry and the view is somewhat hazy.

Most weeks I spend around 16 hours teaching or in lab. I go shopping a few times a week and eat out a couple of times as well. But aside from that, I spend the vast majority of my time either sleeping in my bed, or working on the balcony or in the office. I am getting to know these spaces quite well. It is late, and so I will soon make my nightly transition from balcony to bed. Tomorrow morning I will do it in reverse. After I awake I make a cup of coffee downstairs in the kitchen and then have breakfast and coffee on the balcony as I begin a new day.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


My mantra for this week, and for the weeks ahead:

done is better than perfect.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese Food

Finally a picture. And it's of Chinese food. I'm sure this will disappoint and possibly annoy some readers of this blog. I know, you want gorilla pictures, or pictures of Kigali or the university I'm at or something. I have some of those, and I'll post those later. But I like the idea of having my first Kigali picture be of Chinese food. There are many reasons. Let me explain.

Chinese food is comfort food for me. I grew up eating Chinese food in New York City. We would occasionally eat out, but quite commonly order it in. Sometimes I would go out for some quick Chinese during lunch when I was in high school. I'm not sure what it is, but Chinese food almost always is satisfying and comforting. Even "bad" Chinese food is good. Some people feel this way about macaroni and cheese, or maybe pizza. For me, it's Chinese food. I don't know that I have "roots" in any normal sense. But if I do, Chinese food is part of them.

So Chinese food is a connection to comfort and home. I also feel a connection between China and my work here in Kigali. I had essentially no experience working internationally, and only modest international travel experience, when in 2004 I was invited to lecture at an interdisciplinary, international program in China. It went well, and I had a great time. I lectured again the next year, and then was co-director of the program for three years. It was hard work, but incredibly satisfying and rewarding. I came to like China a lot. When the program faded away due to lack of funding, I felt a surprising void. I had gone to China every summer from 2004 - 2009. The summer of 2010 felt a little empty. It was time to figure out what the next adventure would be.

So I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship. In my application I discussed in some detail my experiences in China. And a colleague from China, the professor who co-directed the program with me, kindly wrote a letter of recommendation. So it was in many ways my work and experiences in China that led me to where I am now: on a balcony in Kigali, overwhelmed but mostly surviving, teaching far too many students, and learning a lot by being in a new and different place. So some Chinese food seems like a fine image for this blog.

And it's really good Chinese food, no less. I found an awesome restaurant, Tangren. The food is excellent. They have fish-flavored eggplant, which is the dish pictured above. Fish-flavored eggplant, which doesn't have any fish in it, is eggplant cooked with lots of chili, garlic and ginger, and also some vinegar and sugar. This gives it a tart and tangy taste to go with the sweetness of the sugar and eggplant, together with a big spice kick from the chili and ginger. It is a great combination. I ate it all the time in Beijing. But I haven't found it outside of the China. Until now. It is awesome.

Today is the Chinese New Year. It is now the Year of the Dragon. This is supposed to be a good sign; the Dragon is the luckiest year. I don't know that I believe in omens like this. But it is hard not to like the idea of a lucky or auspicious year. The last year hasn't been bad, but it has been challenging. Lots of hard work. Maybe too much. So I am happy to welcome a new year with a post about Chinese food in Kigali, Beijing and New York.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Maybe not the Midpoint

In my last entry I noted that I had passed the midpoint of the term. Maybe not. I have been told repeatedly that the semester was ten weeks long. But last night I did some subtraction---end date minus start date---and came up with eleven weeks. I asked my officemate and he also concluded that the term is actually eleven weeks. I have queried my department chair and not heard back. So I'm not sure exactly how much longer the semester will go.

I usually write blog entries from the balcony outside my room, but today I am in my office. It is a nice night and my office has a great view to the east. The not-quite-full moon is rising higher. It is white now. Earlier it was a big orange smudge against the Kigali sky.

This weekend will be the weekend of writing exams. I am teaching three classes (one with a co-teacher), and I have to write my final exams for all three. Why so soon? They need to get looked at by the department and then sent to an external examiner for further review. The former is largely pro forma. I'm not sure about the role of the external examiner. He or she is supposed to look over the questions and see if they adequately span the syllabus. I don't know that the external examiners intervene too heavily, and likely they wouldn't with me since I am a foreign visitor with a PhD, but I'm really not sure.

Regardless, I need to write all three exams and get them to my department chair sometime Monday. I also need to write solutions and the grading scheme. And as if that's not enough, I also need to do the same for three supplementary exams. These are exams that are given as a second chance to students who fail the first exam. Failing is not that unusual here, so it is highly likely that my supplementary exams will be needed.

I also have midterms to grade for two of my classes. One class has 44, the other 196. That will be the fun tasks I'll turn to after the final exams are written. Work seems to be never-ending, and now I don't even know when the term ends. I think once I get through the crush of writing finals and grading midterms things will get a little better. At least I hope so.

I had dinner tonight at the Shake & Sip It is a little place opposite the UTC building downtown. It is sort of a cross between a burger place and Indian snack bar. I like it a lot. I get an "aloo pindi burger," which is a veggie burger with some sort of Indian spices. It's quite good. It comes with some good fries (chips as they're called here) and the burger has sautéed onions along with lettuce and tomato. It's a tasty and satisfying meal for just 2000 RFw, which is $3.33. Not bad. They have a bunch of other veg Indian dishes that I am tempted by, but the aloo burger pleases me so much that I haven't ever decided to try something else.

I will wrap up this entry and turn my attention to a few quick tasks I hope to complete tonight before sleep. I should get to bed early, since tomorrow I have labs from 8am - 1pm. Four different lab groups, totalling almost 100 students, will test Hooke's law.

Monday, January 9, 2012


Tomorrow is the sixth week of the ten-week term. So we are at the halfway point, at least as far as classes go. Classes are followed by a week-long study period and two weeks of exams. It is hard to believe that the first semester's classes are half-done.

I spent the weekend working. I had a bunch of COA work that I should have finished long ago that I finally finished. And I did some class preparation and wrote the midterm exam for my huge general physics class. It was a pretty dull weekend. I did very little beside work and sleep. I am fighting a cold, and there has been a lot of haze and smog in the city the last few days, which isn't helping. Judging by the coughs and sneezes I heard in my classes last week, I'm not the only one struggling with a cold.

The highlight of the weekend undoubtedly was finding an amazing Chinese restaurant, Tangren. It is a little far from where I am in Kigali, but it is not too difficult to get there. I had a spicy eggplant dish that was fantastic. I know the dish by the name "fish-flavored eggplant." I ate it frequently when I was in China. The dish doesn't have fish in it, but is supposed to flavored as if it has fish in it. It is spicy with lots of ginger and garlic.

The eggplant at Tangren was perfect. Moist and sweet, but cooked so it was a little crispy, too. Pleasantly spicy but not overwhelming. It was amazing. I've never had a good version of this dish outside of China. Until now. When I was done I found the Chinese guy who appeared to be helping run the place and I tried to explain to him how good the eggplant was and how happy it made me. I tried a few words of Mandarin and also French. He spoke no English. I don't think I got across much of what I was trying to say, but I am confident that he understood that I was pleased.

It is a little past 1:00am and I am on my balcony. I should be asleep, but I was working late writing the midterm exam. I am now unwinding with a beer. The night is quiet, although there are occasional choruses of barking dogs. I can hear crickets and the distant hum of a propeller plane at the airport.

There is much work ahead. I will have enormous amounts of grading the next few weeks, and I have more than a few letters of recommendation to write. If I can keep this momentum going for another week I'll be ok. I am buoyed by the knowledge that there is amazingly good eggplant a 15-minute moto ride away.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Exams and Tests, Then and Now

I gave a midterm exam. It was timed (one hour and 45 min) and students could not use notes. Midterms here are called CATs. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with cats, but instead stands for Continuous Assessment Test. The idea is that it is part of the assessment that goes on during the term as opposed to the final. Final exams count for 60% of students' final grades here. CATs, which include homework assignments as well as midterms, make up the rest.

I haven't given an exam like this since the 1990's. I have never given such a test at College of the Atlantic, my home institution. Such tests have never made sense given my learning goals for my courses. I want students to learn to work carefully and deliberately, to consult their own notes, and to be able to figure things out by reading books. All of these skills are penalised on timed, closed-notes tests. Challenging homework assignments and open-notes tests have always made more sense to me.

I am writing this while I sit in the front of the classroom while 44 students take my midterm. (I am jotting this down on a note pad. I typed in into the blog two days later.) I fear I made the exam too short and/or easy. Halfway through the allotted time and a few people are already done. It is sometimes difficult for me to predict what students will find hard and how long assignments will take. I maybe have miscalculated. I am still getting to know students here and am learning their strengths and weaknesses.

Except for one class that I taught while in grad school, the last time I wrote and gave timed, in-class tests was when I taught high school math and physics from 1991-93. I tried to make tests entertaining. I would include jokes sometimes and also pictures and cartoons. This was before the world wide web, so my source of illustrations was usually the Village Voice, to which I had a subscription.

When giving a test in class, there is the question of what to do in class when the students are taking the test. Today I spent a while fretting and revising my far-too-long to-do list, and then I started writing this. My writing has been interrupted a few times by students raising their hands with questions. I then try and walk to their desks, which is not an easy task since the room is packed full with desks and students. There is little room in which to manoeuvre.

When teaching high school I would usually bring a book to read. One of my closest friends, an English teacher, encouraged me to do so, arguing that it set a good example for the students. I didn't need much encouraging. It seemed like the natural thing to do.

In the spring of 1993, my last year teaching high school, I remember heading to my classroom to give a test and, needing something to read, I grabbed my Norton Anthology of Poetry. I had it from my tenth grade poetry class. Now I was bringing it to read while tenth graders took a physical science test.

I gave out the test and flipped through the book and landed on "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. Somehow I had never seen the poem before. I was just 23. I started reading and was captivated. It is hard to explain the feeling I had encountering---experiencing---Howl for the first time in a room full of tenth grade boys, wearing ties and dutifully taking a physics test. It was one of those surreal moments where things are suddenly so unexpectedly strange and awesome that reality seems to crackle and buzz. I read line after line and kept looking up at my students. I felt almost awkward reading such a poem in their presence, and yet somehow it seemed perfect.

And so I look up now at my physics students. Two-thirds of the time is up and about half of the students are finished. I think about this strange university, which of course is not strange at all---just strange to me. I don't know if I like exams, but they are a fact of life here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Moving Along

I have several ideas for longer, more interesting posts, but neither the time nor the energy to write them. Perhaps this weekend. This pretty much sums of the state of affairs here. Things move along. I am doing the best I can with a large workload in a different setting than I'm used to. I'm learning how things work. I think teaching is going ok. It is both very interesting and there is also a lot of somewhat dull work. I think I am getting less behind, but it is hard to know.

Tomorrow I give a midterm exam. It is an in-class test, timed, in exam books. I haven't given a test like this since the 1990's. After the exam I have a three hour computer lab session. Friday is five hours of intro lab and two hours of GRE review. I will be happy when the weekend is here.

I have been looking longingly at the weather back home. It was 7 degrees F (-13 C) last night. Although the cold get tiresome after a while, the first major cold snap is always nice. I like how clear the air gets and how everything sounds different when it is that cold. It will be about a year before I experience seriously cold weather again. The last few days here have been free of rain and a haze has settled over the city. The lights on the hills still sparkle, however.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Digging out of a Hole

The term marches on here in Kigali. This will be week five of ten. Almost at the halfway point. Soon it will be time for midterm exams. Which then means it will be time for grading midterm exams.

I did some list-making and assessing today and realized that I am in a bit of a hole. I'm more behind on a bunch of work things than I like to be. I am quite good with deadlines, but for small things without firm deadlines, sometimes I let them slip and they accumulate. This has definitely happened. (I apologize if I own you an email or some other piece of work.)

It has taken a lot of energy to navigate the newness of Kigali and my situation here. And there have also been some minor logistical challenges; I'm not yet familiar with how things work here. So I have had less energy than usual and lots of things have been taking a little longer than I'm used to.

There is no way out but through, as the saying goes. So I hope that the next couple of weeks I can put my head down and dig out. It's a bit of a daunting task, but I think I can do it. Today was an ok start. I got some good sleep and then had a fairly productive day. Not super, but not bad either. I'm not at full speed, but I think I am gaining momentum.

The internet in my room wasn't working well, so I am in my office now and not on my balcony. The view from my office is pretty amazing. I have a great view to the east. The lights on the hills twinkle and I can see the occasional headlights of distant cars as they snake their way around the city.

It is time to head back to my room and start winding down. I will start some grading---or marking, as it is known here---for my Computational Physics class, while I listen to some music and have a cold beverage.