Friday, September 16, 2011

Things I've Learned About College Freshmen, pt. 1

As the beginning of fall term approaches, my commercial endeavors are coming to an end and my academic life is beginning anew. As my recent lack of updates suggests, I've been busy preparing to teach Composition 101, a course that nearly all college freshmen at the University of Cincinnati are required to take and most would rather avoid. The first time I taught the course last fall, my lack of experience collided with a particularly troublesome bunch of students, and the results were rather unpleasant.

While I can't control what students enroll in my class, I can learn from my mistakes. My biggest challenge is to revamp my syllabus, the document that outlines my course policies and the assignments my students will be required to complete. Depending on the instructor, a syllabus may be a brief bullet point-style list of what is due when or an eloquently crafted pedagogical manifesto that makes Marx's writing look like a comic strip. For me, the ideal lies somewhere between haiku and epic, a document that is concise enough for undergraduates to actually read but thorough enough that they will understand what to expect of me and what I expect of them. Achieving that lofty goal, however, means addressing the following issues:

1. Most freshman have no idea what a syllabus is or how to use it. The word itself seems to scare them; it might as well be a venereal disease.

2. When presented with a syllabus, most students don't read it.

3. Those who read it don't necessarily understand it.

4. Those who don't understand it usually don't ask for clarification. They often fail to realize just how much they don't understand.

5. The majority of the questions students do ask are answered on the syllabus.

6. Those who have read and understand the syllabus still might not follow it, hoping it won't be enforced.

How does one prevent a syllabus from becoming a useless gesture? For starters, I've learned to do the following:

1. Explain what a syllabus is by comparing it to something more familiar: a rulebook, an instruction manual, a contract between teacher and student, a preview of coming attractions.

2. Assign the syllabus as required reading (give this assignment in class so they don't have to read the syllabus to know they have to read it).

3. Make the students explain it. Assign each student a section of the document (even if just a sentence or two), which they will need to read then talk about in their own words. If they don't report on it accurately, clear up the confusion right away.

4. When it comes to specific assignments, ask students to write down one question they have or one thing they're confused or frustrated about. Students who are embarrassed to admit they don't understand something are more likely to do so anonymously.

5. Students who claim to have no questions aren't off the hook; they have to write a summary of the assignment to demonstrate their understanding or lack thereof.

6. If students consistently ask questions that the syllabus covers, make them look up the answers, even if they have to rifle through their backpacks like raccoons in a dumpster.

7. Don't make rules you aren't willing or able to enforce all of the time. Students need and deserve consistency.

8. Let the students have a say. Don't wait until final course evaluations. Periodically throughout the term, ask them to write down one thing they like about the course and would like to do more often, one thing they despise and never want to do again, and one thing they haven't done but would like to. Throw out the ridiculous suggestions and give serious thought to the reasonable ones. Don't be afraid to make policy changes that will make class run more smoothly.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Soapbox or Adventures in Freelancing

Although I've lived in Cincinnati for a year, the city still feels very new to me. When classes were in session, I hardly ever went anywhere besides campus and the grocery store. In the past few months, I've slowly gotten to know my neighborhood but I've been to few places outside Clifton and the Gaslight District and I know very few people outside the UC  English department. Fortunately, an online publication called Soapbox has become my source for all things Cincinnati--and one of my few sources of income.

I've recently begun writing short articles on local nonprofits, some of which can be found here and here. Conducting interviews forces me to come out of my hovel and find out what the community has to offer. While I'm not currently in the market for a Kombucha brewing workshop or an excuse to march down the streets of Covington wearing a decorated shoebox on my head, I now know where and how to engage in such activities and how people like me can lend a hand and have a blast doing it.

I'd encourage anyone in the Cincinnati area to subscribe to this free weekly publication.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

How (Not) to Earn Money Online, Pt. 2

As I mentioned in Part 1 of my post, I've been exploring ways to earn a little cash from home and find out just how many of the enticing offers out there are even remotely credible. On the one hand, I despise the profit motives that have made health care unaffordable, the companies that bribe our politicians to keep their taxes low, and the industries that destroy the planet to sell us non-renewable resources, thereby polishing the brass on the Titanic. On the other hand, I realize that we all have to eat and, thanks to the aforementioned factors, healthy food isn't cheap these days. I don't judge others for trying to make capitalism work in their favor when it so often makes their lives harder, but I think it's important to recognize what we are doing and continually reevaluate our choices.

I'll be the first to admit that when I see ads on a website, I do my best to ignore them. Although I do purchase items online, I've always done it through the company's main website. I've never once clicked on a banner or a flashing box on someone's else's blog. I set my browser to block pop-ups and get very annoyed when one slips through. Choosing to put ads on my blog, therefore, is both a gamble and a violation of the golden rule; I'm hoping that my readers will be less annoyed than I am and more inclined to respond to the following three tactics.

1. Pay-per-click. Google AdSense, in my opinion, is one of the best options because it does not require anyone to purchase anything. Another pay-per-click program is Bidvertiser, but I've had problems getting their banners to show up correctly. With pay-per-click, a few cents are deposited into your account every time someone who visits your blog clicks on an ad (only one click per person per ad per day is counted). I don't feel as if I'm imposing too much if I ask people who visit my blog to contribute a few extra clicks, and now that I know how the system works, I'll be doing the same on every blog I visit. Have I made money? Yes, but only about $30 in the past month.

2. Affiliate links. Sites such as Linkshare, PayDotCom, Clickbank, and Commission Junction provide ad codes that you post to your blog. The ads you see to the left for APY 60 and the Only Natural Pet Store are some of the products I promote. I also promote products in greater detail in my posts, such as the Anatomy Study Course and The Thyroid Solution. If someone just clicks on the link, I get nothing. But if someone actually buys the product through my link, I get a commission, either a flat dollar amount of a percentage of the purchase. In addition to links on my blog, I recently took a free trial of an online data entry course where I learned how to submit links to search engines, classified ads, email safelists, etc. Have I made money from any of this? Not a cent, which is why I'm not promoting the course here.

3. Referrals. The links on the left for Linkshare, InboxPays, and SendEarnings (the second two are discussed here) are examples of referral links. If someone signs up using my link, I get a commission. I haven't made any money from referrals yet, and the fact that I just admitted I've made no money from affiliate marketing is probably enough to dissuade my readers from wanting to try it. If they did, however, it would only cost them a few minutes of their time and they might be far more successful than I have been.

Why have I not been successful, you ask? Here are just a few of the snags I've hit so far:

1. Clicking requires clickers. In other words, if your blog doesn't get much traffic, neither will your ads. I'm currently taking steps to get more traffic, but in the mean time, my main source of revenue is a handful of friends and relatives who click faithfully. Thanks, Mom!

2. Lack of a niche. A big part of the equation is posting ads for products your readers are likely to want. For example, if you write a cooking blog, your readers are likely to respond to ads for cookbooks, kitchen supplies, restaurants, etc. Google does some of the work for you by generating contextual ads based on your blog's content. My blog, however, is, by definition, eclectic. A reader who is interested in leopard geckos, for example, probably won't be interested in books on thyroid function. For this reason, I may eventually divide my posts into several blogs by topic. Contextual ads can also backfire if your niche is very specific. If you write a vegan cooking blog, you don't want an ad for a steakhouse to pop up, but Google is likely to do just that.

3. Many products available for affiliate marketing are obviously shady. For every legitimate offer, there are countless magic pills for super fast weight loss and penis enlargement. I refuse to promote any product that makes these kind of claims, especially when it is targeting people with chronic illnesses who are desperate for a cure.

4. The Law of Gravity. "Gravity" is a calculation based on the number of affiliates, number of sales, and a bunch of other figures that make my math-challenged brain hurt. First I made the mistake of trying to promote products with very low gravity, figuring that I'd make more sales if I'm the only one selling them. It turns out no one was selling them because they just don't sell. Then I made the mistake of picking products with extremely high gravity, which means that someone else has already sold them to everyone. Somewhere in between, there is a happy medium, but I've yet to find it.

Although I've failed to generate much of an income, I've learned a great deal about a world I never knew existed. Now I'm eager to learn more. What experiences have you had with blog advertising? What ads do you respond to? How annoying do you find my ads? What does it take to be a successful affiliate? What worked for you and what am I doing wrong? Your criticism is welcome.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Spotlight on Leopard Geckos

As a child, I was crushed when I found out dinosaurs were extinct. At story time, I always rooted for the dragon instead of the knight, and at the movie theater, I felt sorry for Godzilla. It's no surprise, then, that I fell in love with lizards and other reptiles. There's something magical about having a pet that bears such a striking resemblance to creatures of myth and bygone eras.

Today, a wide variety of lizard species are available, but not all of them are recommended for beginners. Anoles, for example, are adorable and fun to watch, but most if not all of the anoles in the pet trade are wild caught, and their tiny size, agility and flighty temperament make them difficult to handle and easy to lose. Iguanas, on the other hand, are intelligent lizards with big personalities that are fun to interact with. However, they grow extremely large, are difficult to house properly, and can be dangerous if they become aggressive. If you're looking for a lizard that is small enough to live comfortably in a 20 gallon tank, docile enough to be handled, and not prone to leaping out windows or tail whipping house guests, a leopard gecko would be a good choice.

 This is Nimue (pronounced Nim oo way), named after a character from Arthurian legend. I purchased her from a breeder when she was five months old. She just celebrated her seventh "hatch day" in June, so she's an old lady but could potentially live into her teens. Here's a shot of her a few years ago when her spots were still coming in:

Let me address a few common questions. Yes, her tail is supposed to be that fat. Just as camels store fat in their humps, leos, as they're commonly called, store fat in their tails to survive when food is scarce. The only skinny leo is a starved one.

No, I did not feed her a box of crayolas to make her that color. Leos have been selectively bred for many generations and come in an amazing array of patterns. Here are just a few, courtesy of Ron Tremper:

And finally, no she is nothing like the Geico mascot, who is modeled after a day gecko. While day geckos are sleek, diurnal, arboreal rainforest dwellers, leos are chunky, nocturnal, ground-dwelling desert lizards. Despite not having a career in TV commercials, Nimue is still a bit of a ham. Here she is posing with Santa at a SPCA fundraiser and making a Valentine's Day appearance:

Because a gecko's needs are very different from those of a cat or dog, I recommend doing some thorough research before bringing one home. You can find basic care sheets here and here. In addition to the recommendations these breeders make, here are a few things I've learned along the way:

1. Geckos and sand don't mix. Nimue has always lived on paper towel, but I've known other geckos who suffered fatal complications from calci-sand as well as regular play sand. Pet stores and even some books recommend keeping leos on calci-sand because it is a source of calcium. Don't believe it. What the company that sells it fails to mention is that the sand is in no way digestible and can cause intestinal blockage. Leos do need a source of calcium to prevent metabolic bone disease, but it should be given in the form of supplements.

2. Geckos are clumsy. Unlike most of their cousins, leos do not have the ability to walk on vertical surfaces. Their little claws allow them to scramble over a rock or log, but that's the extent of their athletic prowess. Nimue has no concept of heights and will walk right off the edge of my kitchen table if I don't watch her. It's best to handle leos while sitting on the floor so they don't have far to fall.

3. Geckos only eat live bugs. I knew this from the start, but some owners have tried to trick their geckos into eating freeze-dried insects or cat food. That won't cut it, even if you use one of those gimmicky vibrating dishes. Leos need a steady diet of crickets and meal worms who have been fed a nutritious diet themselves. If the thought of wrangling crickets or keeping a tub of hibernating meal worms in your fridge sends shivers up your spine, a leo is not the pet for you.

4. You can lead a gecko to crickets, but you can't make her eat. Nimue once went several months without eating (though her tail was still plump). Improper housing conditions are usually to blame for anorexia, but I couldn't figure out what I was doing wrong. I dragged her to multiple vets before I discovered she was ovulating. Female leos produce eggs even if they've never been bred. Most are content to lay them in a nesting box, but Nimue always holds onto hers until they reabsorb. If your leo goes on a hunger strike every year between March and June, this may be the cause. Be sure to consult a vet who has experience with exotics to determine the best course of treatment. In Nimue's case, she needs to be syringe fed until she starts eating again.

5. Moisture is important. Most sources will say that leos are desert lizards who need a dry environment and that a box of moist peat moss is all that is necessary. That may be adequate, but if your apartment is particularly dry, your gecko may have trouble shedding her skin. Nimue started having problems recently when she retained the skin on her eyes and couldn't open them. The problem cleared up when I started giving her warm baths twice a week and leaving a moist cloth in her tank.

6. Consider using UV. Some lizards get their vitamin D from sunlight, so they require a UV light when kept indoors. Because leos are nocturnal, they need to get their vitamin D from their food. Recent research, however, has shown that leos may benefit from UV light, so I decided to add a light fixture. So far, Nimue seems completely indifferent.

I hope you enjoyed learning about my baby. I'd love to hear from other exotic pet lovers out there.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pet Spotlight

I'm an equal opportunity animal lover. In other words, I react in the same sappy way to a tarantula as I do to a puppy ("Awww, look at your little furry legs!"). Even the most cold-blooded creature warms the cockles of my heart. In the past seven years, I've been owned by a green anole, a leopard gecko, a Russian tortoise, a Syrian hamster, six mice, two hairless rats, two Chinese button quail, three hermit crabs, two bettas, two African dwarf frogs, two Oriental firebelly toads, a fiddler crab, an apple snail, a ghost shrimp, three Madagascar hissing cockroaches, a banana slug, and a medicinal leech (the partridge in a pear tree is still on back order.) Perhaps the only thing they all have in common is that they are all small, caged critters who fit easily into a one-bedroom apartment where more traditional pets are not always allowed.

Many of my pets lived to their maximum lifespan, while some were the victims of random catastrophes, a previous owner's neglect, my own ignorance, or simply a lack of available information. In this series of posts, I'll be sharing both my successes and my failures, in the hopes of educating others.

As much as I love pets, I spend a lot of time trying to convince people not to buy them. When I walk into a pet store and hear an employee giving customers misleading information or outright lies in order to sell them the most expensive and exotic creature in their inventory, I can't help but speak up. I've been banned from more than one store just for revealing what an animal really eats or how big an animal will actually get.

Pet ownership raises no shortage of ethical issues. I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are a few basic principles I follow:

1. I no longer remove animals from the wild or purchase them from people who do. I say "no longer" because my first pet was a green anole, whom I thought was captive bred but turned out not to be. I won't be making that mistake again. I've taken in injured or displaced wild animals occasionally but only to place them in the care of a wildlife rehabilitator. I've also taken in rescues that were originally wild caught but had been in captivity so long that they could not be released back into their natural habitat.

2. I don't purchase animals from pet stores or anyone who breeds for profit. Responsible breeding, where the welfare of the animals and the improvement of the species are the top priorities, is expensive, time-consuming, and rarely more than a hobby. With the exception of the aforementioned anole, who was purchased at a fair (not recommended), all of my pets were either rescues or purchased from small private breeders.

3. I don't breed my pets. Procreation may be natural but that doesn't mean it's necessary, and taking simple steps to prevent critters from multiplying can actually increase their lifespan. There are plenty of experienced breeders out there and countless unwanted pets who need homes, so I have no desire to join the ranks of the former or contribute to the latter. To be honest, I feel the same way about breeding humans, but that's another post.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Thyroid Solution

One in ten Americans has a thyroid disorder, but few people understand exactly how this gland functions in the body, and most are not aware that depression, anxiety, and memory loss can be symptoms of a thyroid imbalance. The Thyroid Solution presents a groundbreaking mind-body approach to identifying and curing thyroid disease. 

Dr. Ridha Arem, a leading authority in the field of thyroid research explains:
  • What the thyroid is and what it does
  • How thyroid hormones affect mood, emotions, and behavior
  • The difference between hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism and why both conditions are often misdiagnosed
  • The connection between the thyroid, weight gain, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome
  • The role that stress management and diet play in correcting a thyroid imbalance
  • The benefits of antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and other supplements
  • What every woman should know about the thyroid's involvement in reproductive health
  • How thyroid treatment can help depression when antidepressants have failed
For more information on this revolutionary program, click on the link to the right of this post.

Fibromyalgia: the Bad, the Worse, and the Ugly

In a previous post, I mentioned that I have a chronic illness that limits the kind of work I can do and the hours when I can do it. I suffer from depression, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia, but it's actually the last two that are the most troublesome. For a brief overview of fibromyalgia, go here.

When my chronic pain began about five years ago, my doctor said I needed to lose weight. He was right; I'm 5'6'' and weighed 280 lbs. Over the course of three years, I've lost about 100 lbs and continue to work my way toward a healthy weight. With every positive change I've made in my lifestyle, however, the pain has gotten worse, not better. What began as a stiff neck has developed into constant pain in my neck, shoulders, chest back, pelvis, hips, and legs, with periodic pain in my hands, arms, feet, head, face, jaw, and abdomen. In other words, I hurt all over, all the time.

The activities that aggravate the pain seem to defy logic: I can walk for an hour on flat ground, but struggle to trudge up a hill or a single flight of stairs and can't stand for more than 10 minutes. I can do moderate free weights and yoga, but carrying a light back pack on my shoulders or a grocery bag by my side is excruciating. My friends always know when I'm approaching because they hear the rumble of the giant wheeled suitcase I drag behind me, and strangers on campus sometimes leap out of my way, assuming the noise is a skateboard.

The first time I saw the word "fibromyalgia" was when I looked at the diagnoses listed on a medical bill. My doctor had never told me what he thought was wrong with me. When I asked him about it, he said it was just a word for pain that won't go away and that he hadn't brought it up because there was nothing that could be done about it. I've dedicated the last four years of my life to improving my health and proving him wrong. Stay tuned for future posts where I discuss what I've been doing about fibro.

One of the most challenging parts of this condition is that any number of related illnesses accompany the pain. Thyroid disease is a prime example. While no one knows whether hypothyroidism is a symptom of fibro or the cause of it, it's important to understand the role that the thyroid gland plays in our health, which is the subject of my next commercial post.