Sentimental Education

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…


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22 Responses to “Sentimental Education”

  1. Hi,
    I wanna get me some natural units….do you have a link to your lecture notes?
    Cheers
    Mat

    • telescoper Says:

      If you’re a Cardiff student you can get them off blackboard. If not, you’ll have to wait until my textbook comes out!

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Yes, there is *nothing* I enjoyed more than teaching people who were motivated to learn. This mattered far more to me than their abiilty. Conversely, nothing got me down more than students who didn’t care. All the lectures I gave were to postgrads who were keen, and I knew that my radio talks on popular science were to a self-selected audience who were interested. Supervisions of undergrads on Cambridge’s 1:2 or 1:3 basis were where I interacted with the keen and the not-so-keen (some were planning to drop physics in favour of other sciences after one year), and it was a fascinating comparison.

    There is of course no correlation between being good at research and being good at teaching; the point is that people are bribed to teach by being given the incentive of doing their own research. Call me cynical for that if you will, but I call it realism.

    “So even if I were rich I’d probably carry on doing pretty much what I do now.”

    Well said Peter. As a Research Fellow with rooms in my Cambridge College and a free 3-course meal every night I once had the following conversation with a man who was going into the City (ie, financial sector, pre-quant):

    He: If you are rich then you can do what you like.

    I: I *am* doing what I like.

    He: Yes, but I mean REALLY rich – then you can do what you like.

    I: I *am* doing what I like…

    At that time there was nothing in my life I would have changed (except perhaps my car) if I had unexpectedly become really rich. And there isn’t all that much now. In between I went through a want-it-all phase, but I eventually grew up.

    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree that teaching and research are statistically uncorrelated. That means of course that there are many good researchers who are good teachers, and many poor researchers who are poor teachers. In the current system, the former are removed from teaching and the latter given more. It’s mad.

  3. Its heart-warming that someone in your position has this sort of attitude towards teaching – very few do. Education and public outreach, whether informal or formal, is always looked down upon as a soft alternative to the ‘manly’ business of research. Like getting an ASBO some lecturers see being bad at teaching as being a status symbol.

    When I meet student’s I’ve taught years after they’ve graduated, I feel very proud that I contributed (in a small way) to where they are now. The funny thing is those students always ask if the bad lecturers are still bad.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: The way my mind thinks, I find it best to learn subjects other than sciences by reading their history, so that my learning proceeds by Haeckel’s famous assertion that ontogeny is a short recapitulation of phylogeny.

    Units is a case where history might help students even in the sciences. Suppose you define mass by reference to a particular lump of metal sitting in Paris. Then you redefine it according to the number of atoms in that mass, taking care to be consistent with previous experimental work. Then you develop some more accurate kit and find that the number of atoms in that Parisian lump is slightly different from what you thought. What effect does this have on experiments past and future? Students who figure out the answer to that for themselves will have a full understanding of units. You could also exploit an analogy with vector (or gauge) notation: just as nothing physical changes if you rotate your x, y and z axes used in describing physical phenomena, so likewise when your units change.

  5. […] the original here: Sentimental Education « In the Dark This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged half, now-reached, particle, reached-the-half, […]

  6. I have been lucky enough in my career to do quite a bit of teaching. I agree completely that it can be highly rewarding. At the same time the admin that comes with it (and is sometimes necessary) can be sapping.

    A cautionary tale for early career researchers keen to teach.

    When I came back to the UK after a fellowship in the US I got a short contract as a lecturer filling in for a senior lecturer who was on unpaid leave, visiting another institute; I took on his teaching load and a number of administrative duties, including rehashing some of the course that happened to need it at that time.

    The teaching aspect was highly enjoyable but in retrospect I am not sure I’d do it again.
    Don’t get me wrong I got a job which luckily led back into a research position and I am thankful for that; it was a door back into the UK that was required at the time.

    However taking that job put a dint in my research profile that I have had to work hard to address. And although my CV is full of teaching experience, when people are judging you for a permanent position (i.e. one that requires you to teach) I feel they value that experience much less than your research output which is potentially more valuable to them in terms of money they can attract, as Peter says above.

    • telescoper Says:

      I completely agree that appointment and promotion panels value teaching much less than research. In fact, as I said in the post, teaching basically counts for zilch in most universities. I’ve seen promotion after promotion to Chair positions of people who are awful teachers and who don’t give a toss about it anyway. It’s enough to make you scream if you let it bother you. I deal with it by just doing the best job I can. That’s its own reward.

    • A senior academic at a career event told me if you want a lectureship whatever you do do not spend any time teaching, which seems bizarre given that is a sizeable fraction of the job. Maybe that will change not students are paying 9k per year and expect good teachers.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think having some teaching experience will probably help you get a lectureship, because the appointment panel can then tick the appropriate box. But once you get a permanent job, the system does nothing to encourage you to take it seriously. Quite the reverse in fact: if you’re so bad that students complain, you’ll just be given more time to do research..

    • This argument is often heard, but it is probably wrong. At the level of an individual student it won’t work “improve your lectures or I will transfer to another university” since this is usually not possible and even if it is then it is probably too much trouble. Also, the same problem exists for students: when applying for a job, it probably carries more weight to have studied at a university renowned for its research, rather than for its teaching. Even if the latter were not the case, the first probably wouldn’t work at the level of “I won’t apply to university X since it has a bad teaching reputation” since by the time that reputation has become established, things might have changed.

      Even more ridiculous is the claim that a student could say “I’m a customer; give me what I want.

  7. steve eales Says:

    I used to put money on the lottery by using the IAU positions of my favourite radio sources. After it won me ten pounds, I decided to retire on my winnings.

  8. Peter: I remember you teaching me natural units at Nottingham in 1999/2000 in your particle physics class there… now I’m a lecturer in experimental particle physics. So, you can’t have done too bad a job. 🙂

    I just started teaching labs, which I’ve really enjoyed. Its a chance to pick up on what individual students have missed and then get them to think and (hopefully) understand.

  9. John Peacock Says:

    Peter, I enjoy teaching as much as research and think it is important for academics to do both (even if you have a buy-out like an RS Professorship). But I don’t agree that too many people put teaching 2nd; on the contrary, most research-strong people I know are too conscientious for their own good and as a result do far too little research during the teaching term. This is not the teaching as such, but all the junk that goes with it. We invest an absurd amount of effort in creating exam papers and subjecting them to N iterations. This could be done in 1/10 the time if we just accepted that papers will not be of a uniform standard and that this doesn’t matter. Then there is a whole raft of course monitoring bureacracy, which derives from the philosophy that academics can’t be expected to do a good job without being under constant scrutiny. A lot of these procedures are subject to mission creep from non-academic teaching staff who have no other priority. But because we are nice guys who don’t want to be accused of letting the side down, we do all that is asked of us and our research suffers – because your research is still what gets done when all the other demands that universities make on you are satisfied. It’s ironic that universities continually increase the pressure for people to earn research funds, while systematically eroding the time that they have for doing this.

  10. Bryn Jones Says:

    The satisfaction I got from teaching depended on the control I had over the teaching task and the sense that I was having a significant positive effect on students’ learning. Some of the teaching activities I did as a postdoc or postgraduate were rather routine with not much control over the task. They were not particularly enjoyable. Others, such as tutoring or supervision were more interesting.

    However, lecturing was much more enjoyable, although planning lectures, preparing lecture materials and assessments are very time consuming. There is even a thrill to be had when you can inform, interest and enthuse students. Perhaps the responsibility of standing in front of a class and being solely responsible for conducting the lecture well is an exciting challenge. I don’t know how I would have felt if formal feedback from students had been mediocre.

    Teaching well is actually quite difficult, something that may not be understood by all people who try it. It requires conscious efforts to analyse each and every small teaching task to try to find effective ways of explaining material. It is necessary to try to assess correctly what students already know, both in terms of the actual material and in terms of the whole set of ideas, definitions and assumptions that are often taken for granted in more advanced treatments.

  11. Feynman turned down a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton because it didn’t involve teaching. The then offered him a joint appointment with Princeton University, so that he could do some teaching. He turned that down as well. (He later decided to move to Caltech from Cornell after changing his tire in the snow and realising that in California it was warmer.) Of course, he perhaps wasn’t too keen to go back to Princeton, as this was the source of “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman” which was the response to his answer (“both”) as to whether he would like milk or lemon with his tea.

  12. “But I do sometimes wonder what on Earth I would do if I won a multi-million pound jackpot prize.”

    Don’t worry, Peter, I can solve that problem for you. Contact me when the time comes.

    • Back to Princeton: When Einstein was “negotiating” his contract, a salary was mentioned, and he replied “Could I live on less?” Einstein, of course, was not a good teacher, didn’t like doing it, and no-one was ever awarded a doctorate for working with him. IIRC, the non-teaching aspect of the IAS was specifically to lure Einstein there.

  13. Things might have changed in the meantime, and perhaps I have some details wrong, but it seems to me a good solution to the teaching/research issue is offered by the Swedish system. Universities hire people to teach, full-time. This kills a lot of birds with one stone. First, the pressure is on Universities to really hire good teachers. If such university teachers want to do research, they can apply for a grant, which includes a fraction of their salary. They then teach correspondingly less, and the university reduces their salary correspondingly. This creates several advantages. Second (first is above), all research is paid for by grants which are peer reviewed. Third, one can decide oneself how much one wants to teach and how much (subject to the constraint that one has a full-time teaching obligation if one has no research funds). Fourth, the dilemma of hiring someone for research who burns out and is seen as a burden vs. keeping people on short-term contracts and wrecking their personal lives in the process no longer exists. Fifth, the money the university saves is used to hire younger people on short-term contracts. This allows them to get teaching experience without the university having to make a commitment. Also, since they are on a lower payscale, one can hire more of them to cover the teaching load due to permanent people doing research, which means that these young people are paid to teach but also have time for research.

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