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Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before September 25, 2010

Posted by calvinus in Teaching, The Academic Life.
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Summer holidays? What are they, you will have to remind me?  Something is wrong when you actually look forward to the students come back as it brings with it a hint of normality (only just a hint, mind) and a slackening of workload!

This summer I have had to supervise/run/deal with 18 project students (not all my own). Not all passed, some may even have been stupid enough to steal some material from published work.

Too thick to know shortcuts

How often do you have to repeat yourself?

Do not plagiarise. Plagiarism is theft.

Do not copy form books/journals/tinterweb.  Plagiarism is theft.

Do not plagiarise, you will fail.

So…lets say you have to hand in a project report and it is found to contain 67% of thefted material, lets say you have thefted 42% from one source.

How to deter students plagiarising?  Partly this is cultural – many of our students are used to rote learning, many are not used to putting things in their own words, many leave things to the last minute and obey Hess’s law to submit any old tosh for the deadline.

How to deter students plagiarising?

This is doing my head in. Spend 6 months trying to get someone through a project only for them to hand in a regurgitated version of wikipedia gets to be a little tiring.  My first reaction when marking plagiarised work is to wince.  It’s painful to discover you have wasted your time.

And the pain was enough to make
A shy, bald, buddhist reflect
And plan a mass murder
Who said I’d lied to her?

S.P. Morrissey, 1987

The student still doesn’t know she is being done for plagiarism.  That will come. Another fun day of interviewing thieves awaits.  Joy of joys.

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A thousand cuts: flaying higher education starts here. December 23, 2009

Posted by calvinus in The Academic Life, Training.
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And so it begins.

Universities funding cut by £533m for higher education.

I know this is inevitable and it isn’t as large a cut as I first feared but it is only the first.  There will be many more.  However, it isn’t the size of the cut that worries me, nor is it the fact that the information has crept out when the country is worrying about the weather and getting back for Christmas.  What worries me more is the following,

The government also wants to see more degrees completed over two years rather than three as a way of easing the funding crisis and to broaden education to a wider range of students.

This would tend to appeal to those doing more vocational subjects such as engineering and law.

More degrees to be completed over two years, rather than three? That is not a degree.  The three-year degree is bad enough, and rather typical of the English education system in that it is far, far too focussed and results orientated.  Spitting people out of the system with a two-year degree, most likely a foundation degree by the looks of things is just a way of keeping young people in a system, off the statistics sheets for as long as possible.  2 year “vocational subjects”.  Be honest.  Invigorate some form of apprenticeship programme that doesn’t involve Siralan, you muppet.  Universities are not the place to that.  Of course, it will help you reach the target of 50% of da yoof in higher education.  “Higher” than what, remains to be seen.

I am, sadly, resigned to very hard times ahead for the HE sector, especially at “widening participation” institutions such as my own.  I am resigned to the cuts in funding, I am resigned to the massive spike in workload and the job insecurity.  Don’t make matters worse than they already by adding insult to injury with bizarre, illogical directives that will obliterate any semblance of quality in an already stressed system.  I have no idea what will be left of the HE sector by the end of this.

Mathematically Safe (falling off a log) December 12, 2009

Posted by calvinus in The Academic Life.
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Two first year students were in my office yesterday.  We were going through an impromptu tutorial on UV/vis and the Beer-Lambert law (or Beer-Bouguer law if we are to acknowledge the actual originators).  Calculators were out and it would appear that there is some difficulty calculating absorbance (A) from transmittance (T):

A = -log10(T)

A simple enough equation for a first year student you might think, but once we got over the problem of logarithms, we struck on the increasing problem of how to use a calculator.  Both students are studying life science degrees and one suggested that we should teach maths classes.  Now, I happen to agree fully with this and am not entirely sure why we don’t (at least, not sure enough to comment openly here).  Unfortunately, what the student had in mind was not teaching actual maffmaticks, but use of calculators as what followed was a 15 minute “masterclass” in using the [shift] button to go from the log of 1000 being equal to 3 and back again.

Looks like we are not alone in this as the following image came from the website of The Pharmacy Examining Board of Canada:

I realise, or course, that this is a common problem for those of us at the frontline of “widening participation” institutions such as mine, but it will get worse.  How many of “da yoof” use/own calculators these days?  Not that many.  I’ve lost count of the number of times that I have narked at people using mobile phones in the lab, not for communication, but for working out how many moles of hydrochloric acid are in a 25 ml sample!

Exponentials?  There’s an app for that, innit?

Post-grad and post-doc training (a naïve melody) June 14, 2009

Posted by calvinus in The Academic Life, Training.
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Having now got marking exam scripts and project reports out of the way (for the time being, at least) I am actually beginning to get enough oxygen to be able to think. This explains the extended hiatus in posting.  Fortunately, I notice I am not alone in suffering this although post doc ergo propter doc seems to manage much better than I.  That said I still have 10 post-grad projects to supervise, which is rather like herding cats given the characters involved: one lad was meant to start in January, only turned up in June. An easy mistake to make, I guess…

Nonetheless, there has been some good news in the meantime and we are hiring various staff members as well as trying to scout around for that elusive winning grant. Both of which combined to set me thinking about staff development, both my own and those in my charge (both now and in the future). Part of this, if I am going to be honest, is that it is no loner enough to simply ask for a post doc or a PhD studentship on a grant. You have to show how they would benefit from the time spent in your lab. How are you going to provide training for them and what training will they get. Looking back on my career to date, aside from the standard training that is along the lines of “this is the equipment you will use, this is how you use it”, I can’t say I was particularly well supported. Not that I feel that this did me any harm, per se, as this was the prevailing wind in academic circles and I was able to concentrate of my research, but I can’t say it was particularly constructive. I don’t remember any offers of training during my PhD, which may or may not have been a while ago, and in my last post-doc, despite the fact we received frequent email missives from HR, I was actively told that I would not be put on a number of training events as I was not a member of academic staff. Remember, this was personnel who said this, not my line managers. Thanks for defending my future career progression guys. The university shall not be named, but lets say that it is probably the most northern of these isles.

So where are we now?

At my current institution, PhD student training seem to be largely the responsibility of the supervisor, which to an extent is fair enough. I send my students to the usual group and inter-group seminars where they are expected to talk and discuss the work of their peers. The university expects students to audit their skills at regular intervals and draft an outline of where they think they need specific training or where there are gaps in their skills. Although I strongly defend this (many of the students and supervisors feel it is an utter waste of time) it stops well short of helping the student or supervisor with bridging any skills gap that has been identified. At the moment, it would appear that aside from a one-off induction session, the skills audit and a yearly ethics day, little is offered at the institutional level. This may change as it looks like there will be a range web-based staff development courses soon to be rolled out by the post-graduate office. I will probably return to this at a later date when I get a chance to see what is on offer. I am not holding my breath as I suspect that “on-line” was seen as a cost effective way of doing “something”. Call me a hoary old cynic if you wish.

So if PhD student training appears on the radar of the university, post docs seem to fall continually between the cracks. I cannot figure out what is actually available for post-doc career progression. Given that most post docs and junior researchers tend to be on short-term or fixed-term contracts, I find this is somewhat unjust. We are about to enter into a period where post docs will be expected to:

  1. get results
  2. publish said results
  3. aid grant writing to prolong their contracts
  4. assist teaching
  5. supervise projects
  6. run the lab

All the while on short-term contracts? It does seem to be a bit like modern academic slavery if you ask me. I am not aware of any relevant training that is currently offered that would mean that they finished their contracts with additional skills or knowledge apart from the usual possible list of papers (but if you are on, say, a one year contract, is it likely that you will have a long list of papers published in that time period?).

It is not just my institution who are guilty. I would imagine that the vast majority are culpable. Imperial College sounded like they had an excellent set of courses the last I heard. Credit where it’s due.

Part of the reason for this will probably be down to the fact that I don’t believe my institution knows what a post doc does (again, I may be being cynical). In addition, one could raise the question, what would actually be beneficial for post doctoral researchers? What training should be provided? What will be their next career move? What would be useful for future employers? Even if we do not answer these specific questions, it seems that, at the very least, any future employment would involve project management and some form of supervision of staff and/or students. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of your average university to be able to provide such training, especially one with a business school. Or am I being naïve?

The Academic Life – Welcome Back May 15, 2009

Posted by calvinus in The Academic Life.
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I’ve just been away for a holiday, which was nice.  Wasn’t too bad: the weather was pretty good, food excellent and the company fantastic.

One catch.

Being an academic, for reasons I cannot quite explain (not to you, dear reader, nor to myself) I spent nearly three-quarters of my time inside a university staring, and swearing, at a computer screen.*  Now, in my short career so far, it would appear that holidays tend to be a few rushed days at the back end of conferences or the time spent doing the mad military sweep of friends and family when I return home between Christmas and New Year.  This was meant to be my first proper time off for a while.  What I ended up doing was divving around doing minor bits and pieces of admin and fiddling around with various computational chemistry stuff (primarily Autodock, since you asked).

Oddly, I should probably stress that I am not complaining about this.  Yes, it would have been nice to have been able to profit from the French countryside and do a bit of cycling (always good for the soul) but most of the “work” was actually doing something I honestly find interesting.  This is part of why I am in the job I am in – I get to study the subjects that I find interesting, I get to pick at them and see what makes them tick, and I get to teach it to people who might actually want to learn.  Given that we are currently smack bang in the middle of exam season, we shall shortly find out how effective I have been at the latter, but the point is, there is a lot of freedom to “play” with the things you find interesting.  It is very liberating.

It is very liberating, provided you can survive all the admin that goes along with it.  And the excessive working hours.  And the disrupted holidays.  And the stress levels.

On returning home, on the welcome mat behind the door was a letter.  In this letter was a form.  On the form I had to put a cross in a box.  Two boxes in fact.

Are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of strike action?

Are you prepared to take industrial action consisting of action short of a strike?

Welcome back.

* Why is installing flash player in CentOS or Ubuntu not as facile as the forums/fora make out?