Archive for March 10, 2011

Sentimental Education

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on March 10, 2011 by telescoper

We’ve now reached the half-way point of the Spring Semester, which means that my teaching load has just doubled; I do the “Particle” bit of a third-year module on “Nuclear and Particle Physics”, which means I have 11 lectures from now until the end of the Semester to tell the students everything I know about particle physics. More than enough time.

Anyway, the first lecture today, as it was last year, was all about Natural Units. I always find it fun doing this, partly because the students stare at me as if I’ve taken leave of my senses. Come to think of it, they do that anyway.

The other night I was having a drink with some colleagues after work. Various topics came up, but we spent a bit of time talking about teaching. It appears that I’m in a small minority of my physics colleagues in that I actually like teaching. In fact, the older I’ve got the more I enjoy it. There’s always a limit, of course, and I wouldn’t like to do so much teaching that I couldn’t do other things, especially research, but I wouldn’t like to be in a job that didn’t involve teaching at all. I think most of my colleagues would jump at the chance to abandon teaching altogether. I can’t understand that attitude, mainly because I find it so rewarding myself, but I’m in a minority of one about so many things nowadays that I’ve ceased worrying about it.

I do sometimes wonder why I find teaching so rewarding. Perhaps it’s because I’m already middle-aged and don’t have any kids of my own. Teaching at least gives me a chance to play some sort of a role in someone else’s development as a person. I can’t guarantee that it’s necessarily a positive role, but there you are.  Another thing is that sometimes when I travel about at conferences and whatnot I get to meet people I taught years ago. It means a lot when they say they remember the lectures, especially if they’ve now embarked on scientific careers of their own.

One of the problems of the government’s push for greater concentration of research funds and the simultaneous slashing of teaching budgets is that the quality of University teaching is bound to suffer. If research funding is allocated only to self-styled research  “superstars” then Universities will obviously spare them from other duties. Teaching loads for ordinary foot soldiers will increase, with obvious consequences in decreasing enthusiasm among lecturing staff.

It’s already the case that teaching is grossly undervalued, and it’s probably worse in physics departments than anywhere else because, without research funding, most would simply go bust. Teaching funding is nowhere near sufficient to cover the real cost of a physics degree and in any case we can’t deliver advanced physics training without access to the research labs.

On top of this there’s the way teaching is entirely disregarded in promotion cases. On paper, promotion to Professor requires demonstrated commitment to teaching. In reality, all that committees care about is how much research income the candidate brings in. Excellence in teaching counts very little, if anything at all, in the assessment of a promotion case. I think this situation must change, especially with tuition fees set to rise to unprecedented levels, but all the forces currently at play are acting in precisely the wrong direction.

If we concentrate physics research funding any further then we’ll have a small number of rich institutions stuffed full of research professors whom the undergraduates never see. The less successful academics in these departments will be put on teaching-only contracts, not because they like teaching but because their alternative is Her Majesty’s Dole. Meanwhile, less favoured research labs – i.e. those who don’t get lucky in the REF – won’t be able to sustain world-class research or teaching activities and will be forced to shut up shop. Further research concentration is bad news all round for the higher education system.

But I digress.

One of the other things we talked about in the pub was the National Lottery. As regular readers of this blog might know, I put the princely sum of £1 on the lottery every Saturday. Some think this is strange, but I see it partly as one of those little rituals we all invent for ourselves and partly as a small price to pay for a little frisson of excitement when the numbers are drawn.

But I do sometimes wonder what on Earth I would do if I won a multi-million pound jackpot prize. Would I quit my job? Would I quit teaching? Actually, I’m not sure I would do either of those. If I could ditch the admin stuff, I would of course do so. I don’t have a car and have no interest in getting one, especially a fancy one. I don’t need a bigger house, or a yacht.  In fact, frankly, there’s nothing that I would really want to buy that I couldn’t buy already. It’s not that I have a huge salary, just that I’m not exactly very materialistic.

So even if I were rich I’d probably carry on doing pretty much what I do now. And that thought brings home just how lucky we are, those of us working in academia. For all the frustrations, the fact remains that we are fortunate to be getting paid for things that we enjoy doing.

Or am I just a sentimental old fool?

Anyway, I feel a poll coming on…