Recovering from Runner’s Knee

Six weeks ago, I was forced to stop running due to intense knee pain. My doctor advised a complete halt to impactful exercise (running and Jazzercise) and then a gradual return to activity. Three days ago, I’d had it with waiting and went out for a tiny 1-mile run. Most of my body felt fantastic, loving that feeling of jogging once again. My knees weren’t as thrilled and complained for most of the run, but not to the point of making me stop. It was a slow run (the mile took me 11 minutes), but it was a huge improvement over one month ago, when I tried to jog along the sidewalk and didn’t make it 20 yards.

While my knees didn’t like the run very much, by the next morning they felt better than they had in a while. (Even going down stairs had been mildly painful.) My hip flexor, which had also been troubling me, also was greatly improved. It really seems that mild exercise, at least for someone with a sedentary day job like me, is good for the body.

Tonight I went for another 1-mile run, finishing in 9:30. My knees still aren’t at 100%, but there was noticeably less pain this time. I’m encouraged to keep at it.

I found some tips on dealing with runner’s knee, including:

  • Take glucosamine pills. I tried this for a week, and by the end of the week I actually did notice that my knees felt a little better (this was before my resumption of running), *but* my left knee got very swollen (fluid? glucosamine muck?). I have no idea, but after a while the puffiness bugged me enough that I stopped, and it went away. My left knee is the one with the torn ACL. So *maybe* glucosamine is good for joint issues but bad for a torn ligament? No clue.
  • Run on the balls of your feet. This reduces the impact your legs/knees absorb by “50%”, compared to running with a heel strike. It doesn’t feel natural (yet?), but it does feel softer. I put “50%” in quotes because this number appeared in a variety of places but without any data or authority to back it up, so it could just be made up. Running this way may be the same thing as pose running — or at least similarly motivated. So far this feels really weird, but I’m encouraged to keep at it.
  • Run in the street instead of on the sidewalk; asphalt is significantly softer than concrete. Okay, I’ll try that. And be sure to wear super-reflective clothes :)
  • Strengthen your quads. Apparently they absorb a lot of the impact as well, so stronger muscles can help save the knee. Methods for doing so include “quadricep setting” (flexing the quad with the leg stretched out flat in front of you) and (careful) squats. I haven’t tried this yet.
  • Less sitting. Sitting stretches the tendon over the patella, increasing pressure on the irritated part of the knee. I’ve been spending long periods at work standing instead of sitting, or just standing up and moving around periodically. I’m not sure if this is helping directly, but it makes me feel better in general.

Here’s to pain-free running, and building back up to multi-mile runs!

Creating teams that work

One of the assignments in my first Library Science class is to write a blog post reflecting on the “personal skills needed to succeed as an online student and as a member of an online team.” We were encouraged to review “Is an online program right for you?”, a checklist apparently crafted with me in mind. Based on this list, I’m well suited for an online program: I’m habitually organized and disciplined, I’m self-motivated, I work very well independently, I have tech skillz, and, oh yes, I *love* a challenge.

Next we received some tips on study habits and time management, emphasizing how the online course experience differs from in-person instruction. Online courses provide more flexibility (you work when you’re available) but therefore also shift responsibility onto the student’s shoulders. Suggestions include using a calendar to track deadlines and designating regular times to work on the course. I would have done the former anyway, but I appreciated the reminder about the latter; diving into the class opportunistically, as time permits, is not a recipe for success when all of your other daily demands crowd around!

We were given two videos to watch that focus on the skills involved in successful teamwork. I gather that we’ll encounter group projects in several classes during the course of the degree. I found these videos very interesting, realizing as I watched them that I’d never been explicitly taught how to approach group work. I’ve experienced my share of frustrations, disappointments, and communication failures, but I attributed this to the necessary evils of group work. In terms of personal skills, I’m a natural organizer, I’m very reliable, and I’m a good communicator and editor. My weaknesses include naively assuming that everyone has the same goals I do, imposing possibly unreasonable expectations on others, and a perfectionist urge to jump in and “do it right” instead of trusting others. Being aware of these things helps me head them off.

The first thing I learned from Dr. Haycock’s colloquium on “Working in Teams” was the power of the term “team”, as opposed to “group.” A team consists of people with a common goal and individual accountability. “Group” covers a range of gatherings, possibly with much looser structure and lacking defined goals and ground rules. Dr. Haycock also enumerated factors that lead to team failures: lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. These can be addressed by having clarity in team goals (including, for coursework, the desired quality of the resulting product; what grade are we aiming for? It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d need to ask this question!), clearly defined roles/responsibilities, and established ground rules (expectations for team meetings, how information will be shared, how to serve as checkpoints on each others’ work, consequences if rules aren’t followed). I was persuaded that taking the time to converge on these items up front could head off a lot of problems later.

Dr. Haycock then described four stages of team development: Forming, Storming (dissatisfaction), Norming (resolution), and Performing. Two comments he made struck me here: that all four stages are normal (so expect some dissatisfaction and know that there are ways to work through it), and that not all teams make it through all four. He noted that many teams hand in their final project, never having made it to the Performing stage. Sounds like a painful experience!

I liked his suggestion to designate a “process observer” within the team whose job it is to take a minute or so at the end of each meeting and comment on whether the team succeeded in sticking to its ground rules. Presumably this could be a rotating duty, and presumably this internally generated feedback could help to remind members of the rules or to inspire changes in the rules, if needed.

The second video was “The Monster Inside Library School: Student Teams” by Enid Irwin. She offered additional advice for successful team experiences, including learning about your teammates’ skills and being willing to mentor teammates (the latter skill being something you may use day-to-day in a library position!). She also noted that one reason teamwork figures prominently in the SLIS program is that librarian jobs often include a lot of teamwork, so learning functional team skills now will serve you well later. I reflected that I participate in several groups (not all what I would consider “teams”) at work, and none of them are as structured as the ideal described here. Perhaps I can incorporate some of these ideas into improving teams at work, too.

The pursuit of excellence

As someone subject to perfectionist tendencies, I enjoyed reading this article on Excellence vs. Perfection. The former is defined by its focus on process, while the latter focuses on results.

While the article highlights perfectionism’s negative impact on self-esteem, I couldn’t help also noticing that the excellence-focused path just seemed a lot less stressful.

“The pursuer of excellence sets realistic but challenging goals that are clear and specific whereas the perfectionist set unreasonable demands or expectations.”

This goes beyond just setting realistic goals for a single task — but also to time management and prioritization: how many tasks can you realistically accept? If you are constantly striving to do or complete more than you realistically can, and unsatisfied until they are all done “properly”, are you setting yourself up for unremitting stress and, ultimately, burnout?

“The pursuer of excellence would examine the situation and make decisions about what is most important to do, where they can set limits by saying “no,” and when they can delegate.”

An excellence-seeker can accept criticism and suggestions, since they aid in the process of improvement. A perfectionist instead sees them as challenges or reminders that they have not reached their goal.

The article also encourages us to slow down and to be patient in our pursuit of excellence.

“The pursuer of excellence finds enjoyment and satisfaction in the pursuit of goals whereas the perfectionist is usually unhappy or dissatisfied. When goals or risks are challenging and achievable and are not attached to the self-concept they can be fun to pursue.”

Overall, this was a welcome perspective. I’m already predisposed to value the process of learning or acquiring skills over the end result. (So far this has worked quite well with my violin practicing, possibly because I’m not aiming for any kind of recital or skill level but instead simply to improve over time.) But it’s easy to get sidetracked by evaluations and grades in a school setting, or deliverables and publications at work. Here then is a nice reminder!

Graded by your peers

I’ve been experimenting with some of the new massively multiplayer online course offerings from Coursera. In the spring, I took Cryptography, and I am now taking Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. These courses are offered for free, for anyone who wants to take them. I’ve been curious about the (eventual) business model, since there will have to be some way to recoup the investment in web site architecture and content. The lectures do seem to be “record once, replay forever”, but it’s still a big effort to do up front.

One way they’ve kept the ongoing costs reasonable, though, is by offloading one of the biggest time consumers in traditional education: grading. The Cryptography course was conducted in an entirely auto-grading mode. The homeworks each week were a series of multiple-choice or fill-in-the-blank questions. The feedback was actually quite good from these exercises — if you got something wrong, there might be a clue as to where to look, and if you got it right, there was usually an explanation, which you could learn from if you’d just gotten lucky with your choice. Further, you could attempt each homework 4 times, a process designed to encourage “mastery” (progressive learning). I know what you’re thinking. Four tries on a multiple-choice test should basically ensure you get 100%, since you could explore all possible options. Not so! They’ve made the process more sophisticated, producing a new mixture of answers for each question each time you attempt it. You really do have to think through the problems each time. I approve.

The F&SF class is different. Our assignments consist of 300-word essays, which can’t be auto-graded (with any real reliability). First I must note that I found WRITING a 300-word essay to be particularly challenging. How can you say anything of substance in 300 words? How can you call out something of interest in a 400-page book using only 300 words? But, as in haiku, the limitations of the medium are themselves a spur to inspiration. So then, how to grade them? Coursera has adopted a peer grading strategy, in which you are assigned to grade a random set of your classmates’ essays, and your essay correspondingly is sent to a random set of peers to be graded. In this class, we’re required to grade four peers, but allowed to grade more. The grading itself is very coarse: you assign one score for Form (grammar, organization, etc.) and one for Content. Each can be given a score of 1 (poor), 2 (average), or 3 (exceptional). You are also required to provide some text feedback.

So far, I found the grades I received from my peers to be fair, but I don’t think I’ve learned much from them. Most of the feedback was compliments, with a few rather surface-level critiques, rather than the kind of feedback you’d get from a professor or TA. But one reason for this is the bizarre organization of this particular class. You are required to do the reading, write an essay blind (on no suggested topic, simply something that “will enrich the reading of an intelligent, attentive fellow student”), and only THEN are you permitted to view the professor’s videos with his analysis of the readings. Perhaps this is intended to reduce “bias” from the instructor, but ultimately all it does is set you up to be evaluated tabula rasa (with respect to the course content), so I don’t see how the assessment has anything to do with what you have learned. These should be pre-tests rather than the sum of the grade. With the current scheme, the lectures themselves unfortunately become less of a priority, because by the time they’re available, you should already be moving on to read and plan an essay on the next reading. That’s a shame, because Dr. Rabkin is clearly a thoughtful and knowledgeable source. I’ve found most of his lectures to be interesting and thought-provoking (even though I disagree violently with some of his analysis of Grimm’s Fairy Tales! Ugh!). So, two weeks in, I’m not very enamored of this kind of peer grading. I hope Coursera continues to experiment with new strategies.

You can check out Coursera’s statement of pedagogy in which they explain their design choices and include references to some external work on their efficacy. It’s mostly reasonable arguments. I’m on board with the mastery learning comment, for example. However, I found the argument for peer grading to be weaker. The main motivation (never articulated) has got to be the challenge of providing feedback for thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of students, which is a scaling issue. Instead they cite research on the benefits of peer review, which are valid, but I think never intended to be the SOLE source of feedback for students, and the strengths of crowd-sourcing, which depends on large numbers for reliability, which four random grades from others in the class don’t provide. I’m not asserting that this is an invalid method of instruction, but I’m not convinced by the evidence they’ve offered.

In working through these courses, I’ve already gotten ideas for how I would experiment creatively with this new teaching medium. Watching slides is boring. Watching a talking head is boring. I love, however, the occasional pauses that require you to answer a question (pop quiz!) to proceed. It’s great for capturing attention that may have been wandering. The Cryptography class made good use of these. The F&SF class doesn’t use them at all. If I were teaching, I’d also bring in props or direct students to relevant websites or otherwise increase the level of activity and interactivity as much as possible. Right now, the only interaction in the F&SF course is through the essays (anonymized) and the discussion forums (which no one can keep up with). I’d like to foster more interaction with the professor, without inundating that person. I think well crafted video lectures can improve on this front.

A cookbook that teaches!

Most cookbooks tell you what to do, but not why. Not so “The New Best Recipe”, in which the superlative is not advertising-speak but instead quite literal: here you will find the recipes that produced the best results in a professional test kitchen.

Initially, the idea of using this mighty tome to create a meal felt like being asked to write an essay based on an encyclopedia. Where even to start? What’s good? Then I started flipping through it, and realized that the point of this book is that it’s ALL good. Unlike most cookbooks, here each item is preceded by a short discussion of what the ideal properties of that item are (“Gingerbread should be tender, moist, and several inches thick. It should be easy enough to assemble just before dinner so squares of warm gingerbread can be enjoyed for dessert.”), followed by a summary of a battery of test experiments that hone in on what’s needed to achieve that ideal (akin to my own experiments with how much baking powder to use in biscuits, but far more extensive). Then comes the final, polished, optimized recipe.

This means that, in addition to getting a really great recipe for gingerbread, you also learn a smattering of fundamental cooking and food science principles in the process. Further, by the time you get to the recipe, you now understand why they made the choices they did (milk over water, molasses over honey, white sugar over brown, etc.). I LOVE IT!

“We start the process of testing a recipe with a complete lack of conviction, which means that we accept no claim, no theory, no technique, and no recipe at face value. We simply assemble as many variations as possible, test a half-dozen of the most promising, and taste the results blind. We then construct our own hybrid recipe and continue to test it, varying ingredients, techniques, and cooking times until we reach a consensus.”

The basic philosophy behind this book (an assumption that good cooking is definable, testable, repeatable, and achievable) is wonderfully comforting to my fundamental personality type. Cooking is art, and skill, but (here) it can also be science. Here’s the book’s phrasing: “All of this would not be possible without a belief that good cooking, much like good music, is indeed based on a foundation of objective technique. Some people like spicy foods and others don’t, but there is a right way to saute, there is a best way to cook a pot roast, and there are measurable scientific principles involved in producing perfectly beaten, stable egg whites.”

The book also includes hand-drawn illustrations of cooking techniques (like how to measure different kinds of ingredients and what style of measuring cups works best) and pictures of failed outcomes (like five blueberry muffins that do not qualify as “best”).

Now I can’t wait to actually try out one of these best-recipes. I think I see some “Chicken and Rice with Saffron and Peas” in my future tonight. Thanks to my friend Elizabeth for a fantastic gift!

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