All posts by rhys

Teaching/lecturing/research – random thoughts (not necessarily in any order, or making any sense!)

A couple of blog posts ago, mountainsnowtiger left a long comment which I thought was worth highlighting and thinking about a bit. She (sorry if you’re a bloke by the way mst, I just always imagine you as a girl!) said:

Is there any solution to the fact that unis need to teach little students general info as well as letting big clever people do important academic stuff they’re passionate about?

(I ask this because your post comes a couple of weeks after I listened to two of my fellow students discussing a particular academic who works at the (fairly high-ranking) uni I’ve now ended up at. The academic in question is a scientist. It used to be the case that the final year undergrad students could choose between this guy’s course and various other courses and on their exams they could choose whether or not to answer a question in this guy’s subject area. The result was that this guy got no people attending his undergrad courses and no people answering his exam qus, hence his colleagues ended up with far more than their fair share of undergrad teaching and marking to do. The rumours are that this year the undergrad finalists will be forced to take at least one course by him and to answer at least one of his exam qus. Apparently every year students’ feedback forms say that this guy’s undergrad teaching is truly appalling and every year he gets told to sort it out. But the uni can’t actually do anything when he doesn’t sort it out (year after year), because his research is in some area which means he personally attracts an e-nor-mous pot of funding for his department, so they’re never going to get rid of him no matter how naff his undergrad teaching is. Obviously, that’s a story about one person needlessly being a complete PITA for his colleagues and students, but it seems like it’s symptomatic of the more general issue, which is that people enthused enough to be researching stuff get really bored and fed-up teaching the basics to undergrad students. Is there any solution?)

The short, sitting-on-the-fence answer is I don’t know (!). It is a problem – obviously this is an extreme example, but I can well believe it’s not the only example of this sort of thing going on. Being a head-of-department/head-of-faculty must be a nightmare for precisely this reason. I wonder if the solution would be a kind of two-tier system – having some academics who just do research/money-making stuff (we have one in my dept who brings in shedloads of money, and he does hardly any teaching at all, even though he’s actually not a bad teacher like the guy in mst’s example), and others who do a combination of research and teaching, and actually have them on different wage scales and contracts. It is a huge minefield, but I’m thinking about what happened a few years back in the NHS, when they introduced Agenda for Change – where all jobs were basically measured against a set of criteria, with the aim of introducing equal pay for equivalent work. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I think that it is something that could – maybe – be considered in academia.

One of the reasons I don’t much enjoy the teaching I’m doing at the moment is that I honestly don’t think I’m that good at it (that was the reason I didn’t enjoy teaching English as a Foreign Language years ago as well). And I think that that’s not fair on my students. Actually I do get good feedback from them, so I think there is quite a big element of beating-self-up/being too hard on myself, etc, but for me I’m aware that it’s not just about me me me, and that for the students their own learning is important too, so it’s important for them that their tutors/lecturers are committed to the learning and development of their students as well as to their own research. That’s why I’m not intending to apply for a straight academic lecturing post in a high-ranking university when I finish my PhD – I would definitely consider doing so if it was just pure research with minimal teaching, but I just know that I would feel like I was resenting the students for taking me away from the stuff I love doing (ie the research). And that’s not fair on them.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t teach ever again. I’ve always said I’d like to do some tutoring with the Open University (I did my masters degree with them), and recently I’ve started toying with the idea of teaching on nursing courses (something I said I’d never do!). In much of my nurse (and HV) training the standard of teaching wasn’t that great, but when I think about the stuff I’m interested in – sociology, research, ethics, amongst other things – those are subjects I could get enthused about passing on to students, and teach well. And it would also provide me with an academic home from which I could continue to do research as well, but with teaching that I enjoy rather than teaching that I resent.

Going back to mst’s situation – as I’ve got off the subject and started talking about myself again (!) – I’m not sure of the way round a) making the guy’s teaching a better experience for his undergrads and b) making the burden of marking between different courses and lecturers fairer. It sounds like by making the guy’s course compulsory the dept is trying to at least solve problem b) up to a point, but it does nothing to solve a). And when the money his research is bringing in is probably paying the salaries of his colleagues, there’s probably only so much they can do. Here’s a question for the academics here – are there any journals dedicated to further/higher education management issues? In the NHS there’s the Health Service Journal (I think that’s what it’s called) which is a bit newsy but which covered all the various thorny health service management debates. I ask as I’m sure the issue of poor teaching/great research with $$$ will have been raised over time immemorial, and surely there must be lots of suggestions and debates on how to approach this.

I think that in my dept *I* am the solution to problem b)!! Essay questions are set by a number of lecturers, but there are always one or two questions which nearly everybody goes for, which means that before I was employed, the lecturer that set those questions had tons of essays to mark while the others maybe only had a handful. Now they’ve got me, I just mark the lot – problem solved (except for me!). I actually think it is better for the students, in that having spoken with the lecturers who set the questions about their expectations I realised that some leant much more to being generous with their marks than others, whereas with me doing all of them they get consistent marking whichever question is chosen. However – the course I tutor on is the level 1 (1st year) course so doesn’t count towards the degree – by the time you get to final year getting the department GTA (graduate teaching assistant) to do this is out of the question. And (without wanting to sound too modest) I think my dept has been very lucky with me, as I’ve got enough nous and life experience and common sense to deal with the crap and work out ways of dealing with it which will make it easier for the next GTA who starts next year. I just need to work out the best way of selling what has been a bit of a crap experience into CV-worthy impressiveness that would make me an ideal employee for when I start applying for jobs again ๐Ÿ™‚


I had a good supervision session yesterday – I really am very lucky that I have two supervisors who ‘get’ what I’m doing and who offer both praise and constructive criticism and suggestions in a good combination which leave me feeling good about myself and my research but also striving to improve it. I realise that not everybody is this lucky.

I’m back down south now, and happy to be back with HD. I must say, I’m just tired of being tired all the time. That’s all. I’m not complaining (whingeing maybe, but not complaining!) or asking for sympathy. Just saying.


I think I’ve figured out why I like this year’s students. It’s because there’s nobody who has hit my radar yet that I feel I would need to brace myself to teach them. In previous years there were usually one or two who, right from the beginning, for whatever reason, had an attitude that I just didn’t gel with. I remember one who was a real ‘flouncer’ – she would flounce into tutorials, proceed to make them all about her (she had family links to the subject, so had some really interesting things to say sometimes, but was so OTT it was really stressful and disruptive). Another was very sarcastic about the course, was doing it as a last resort option and wasn’t remotely interested (though, irritatingly, was very good at it). So he did the work, participated in classes with intelligent contributions yet in such a sarcastic and belittling way that the entire group was affected, and I found it really difficult to manage. This year, so far, I haven’t come across anyone like that, and it’s just such a relief. I can cope (at the moment) with not-brilliant students, as long as they make an effort (which they seem to be doing, so far) and don’t exude that whole “I don’t need to be here” superior aura thing.

Thanks for comments on yesterday’s post. I know it’s what it’s all about, and yes I can usually muster up something to get enthusiastic about (with the exception of the role-play tutorial, which I loathe with a passion and always will). If in the course of the discussion I see a connection I hadn’t noticed before or otherwise have some sort of lightbulb moment, that’s satisfying and I think I can put that across. If one of the students says something analytical rather than descriptive, and show that they really do *get* it, it’s still really rewarding. But, none of that will stop me from feeling sick on Monday nights and not wanting to teach on Tuesdays. I think it’s a Pavlov’s dog thing – when I realise it’s the night before teaching, I get an automatic response. It doesn’t matter how irrational it is, I’ve been doing it for long enough now that it seems to be hard-wired! Anyway – I will pick up on a couple of the comments in a separate post some time – but not now, the teaching has worn me out! ๐Ÿ˜‰

Monday night

I know I said last week that I liked my students this year (so far), but that hasn’t stopped the Monday night “I feel sick and I don’t wanna!” feeling that I always get before Tuesdays (teaching day). Bah.

I realised today as I was doing the reading (rather half-heartedly, it has to be said) for tomorrow’s tutorials, that a lot of my tutorial teaching is a big act. A big act that I know all the stuff (which I do, but I’m no expert and I know it), and, right now, a big act that I’m even vaguely interested in it. A big act that I’m not resentful about the time it’s taking away from the work that I do want to do.

I’m tired of acting. When I’m talking about my own research, I get animated and ranty and interested and funny and passionate and heated. When I’m doing the tutorials, I just don’t want to do it, and it’s getting harder and more tiring to pretend that I’m not bored silly with it.

Achievement, part 1

So, apart from a couple of sections, one of which I will write next week and one of which I can’t write till I’ve done more work on another aspect of my thesis, today I finished my first draft chapter of this thesis. I’m very sure it will be very different in the final version, but as a start I’m very happy – I have something down on (virtual) paper! Hooray!

Suspicious cartooning

First of all it was Dave Walker. Producing cartoons about impossible filing systems that made me convinced he could see directly into my flat. Then it was PhD comics, which all too often replicates my life to the letter.

And now, today, xkcd does it. What I want to know is, where is that hidden camera that is recording my entire life, and why is it the cartoonists on the other side of it?


(Hmm, I wonder why I couldn’t get the image to embed?)

The end of the world is nigh ….

So, I’m writing the first (very rough) draft of my methodology chapter at the moment, and I want to include a figure in it. Unfortunately, there is only one place I have been able to find it – it’s killing me, but I’m about to reference wikipedia! I’m so mortified, and I’m sure I’ll get struck by lightning in a couple of weeks when I give my students the “don’t reference wikipedia on pain of death” diatribe. I’m so, so, SO embarrassed, though I think my supervisors will see the funny side (they are well aware of my feelings on wikipedia). I will of course keep trying to find a more reputable source, and I’ll just use wiki for now until I find that more reputable source.

Oh the shame of it!

And another one …

Dear Mr. Brewer

We are writing on behalf of 498 supporters of cartoonist and blogger Dave Walker, a group which includes bishops, national journalists in the UK and US, lawyers, clergy, and concerned members of the public.

We would like to ask you please to contact Dave Walker and withdraw the demands made in the ‘Cease and Desist’ letter which you sent him in July. Your letter, as far as we know, instructed Dave to remove all his posts about the recent history of SPCK bookshops or face action for libel. With the pressures of the impending Lambeth conference, and a very short deadline given by yourself, Dave complied. He commented at the time: โ€œI have therefore removed all of the SPCK/SSG posts on this blog, as, although I believe I have not done anything wrong I do not have the money to face a legal battle. The removal of these posts is in no way an admission of guilt.โ€

Many of us have read the posts concerned, and are surprised, to say the least, that they could be called libellous. Indeed, the first three posts make no mention at all of yourself, the Society of St. Stephen the Great, or anyone associated with you. The 4th post reports your takeover of the bookshops with the comment โ€œthis is splendid news.โ€ Another post is a simple link to your SSG video on YouTube. Other items include verbatim reports of your own statements, and in the simple post on the death of Steve Jeynes, dozens of people used the comments to expressed their grief and condolences to Steve’s family.

Dave is a reasonable man, and if all critics were as fair as he is the world would be a better place. If you were able to reconsider, and point out specific statements and claims you were unhappy with, we are sure Dave would be happy to correct them where appropriate. This is the normal process of debate on the internet, and in real life, and follows the strong tradition of free speech for which our countries stand and are rightly proud.

So this is a polite request from all of us: please contact Dave Walker, advise him that your โ€˜cease and desist’ communication no longer stands, and let him report freely.

Yours sincerely

Rev. David Keen, Rt. Rev. Alan Wilson (Bishop of Buckingham), Rev. Colin Alsbury, Rev. Mark Bennett, John Cooper, Annette Gaykema, Steve Thackray, and Matt Wills on behalf of the โ€˜We Support Dave Walker’ group.

One of those days

This is the 2nd week of my half-and-half weeks – first half of the week UpNorth, and the second half DoonSooth. To be honest, I’m knackered already, and starting to beat myself up – I need to organise my time better, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah. But I also need to sleep! When HD left this morning I thought to myself “I’ll get up in a minute”, and the next thing I knew it was 9.40! So I was stressed out already (I have an extension to some work that was supposed to be in on Monday, but we have rearranged it so I submit it tomorrow, but even that’s stressful and too soon!), but I also had various errands that needed doing. The most pressing one was sending my driving licence off to the cop shop (sigh – my first ever penalty points). I wandered down to the post office, to find that it was shut (great), and was also out of all the food that I needed. The world is so against me! After that I needed to phone the conveyancing company who are sorting out my remortgage, but all I got (on an 0870 number, so megabucks) was occasional muzack punctuating a lot of loud interference. So I have emailed instead, and (of course) got no response yet. This is quite important – for some reason they are saying they are going to advance me more than ยฃ8,000 more than I’ve asked for or want (what financial crisis? Lend it to people who need it! Gah.), AND as if that’s not bad enough, they keep spelling my name wrong. Grrrr. I’ve never had much luck with conveyancers – when I bought my shared-ownership house in London the housing association’s solicitors drew up the plans and got one of the boundaries wrong, and when my solicitors pointed this out they told them to just tippex it out and redraw it in the right place! Honestly – the world is full of numpties.

What did cheer me up though was last night when I got here. My sister-in-law is doing a 2 day course in London so is staying here as well, and she was telling me that whenever they see Jodie Kidd on the current series of Strictly Come Dancing, my nieces (who are all old enough to know better) all say “Look, it’s Jackie!” OK, so it’s not as impressive as Angelina Jolie being mistaken for Rosamundi, but it made me laugh. It’s like looking in a mirror, obviously ๐Ÿ˜€