Archive for the Education Category

The Cancellation of Maynooth’s Student Centre

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 28, 2022 by telescoper

Here is a promotional video made just two years ago which describes an exciting and much needed new Student Centre at Maynooth University:

According to the Youtube page

This video is the first time we can share with you the vision for our new Student Centre. It gives you an impression of the dedication of MSU and MU in delivering a top-class student experience. We cannot wait to see the physical works begin and we will keep the student body updated as the project progresses.

Well, yesterday the student body was “updated” alright. The project has been abruptly cancelled by the Governing Authority. The reason is

The project has been adversely impacted by rapidly escalating costs, linked to technical construction issues as well as hyperinflation.

Not to be pedantic, the current economic situation in no way corresponds to “hyperinflation” as it is normally defined. However, it is true that costs are increasing especially in the construction industry and this will have put pressure on the University Management who took the easy way out by cancelling the project. I believe this to have been a very wrong, and indeed reprehensible, decision.

Students at Maynooth University voted in 2015 to pay a special levy of €150 per year specifically to fund this new Student Centre. Current students, who have just started the new academic year, will have paid this year’s levy – about 14,000 of them. All that money taken from students (many of whom struggled to afford it) has now been written off. Not surprisingly students feel that they have been fleeced. I say “not surprisingly” because they undoubtedly have been. It’s a scandal and a disgrace.

If you are on Twitter you can see some of the reaction under the hashtag #WheresMyLevy.

Here’s an example:

At very least the amounts collected should be returned. Whether that can be enforced by law is an open question.

The decision to sneak this announcement out while Ireland’s media were preoccupied with yesterday’s budget can have been taken for the purpose of burying it. The story did, however, make it onto the BBC website, and I’m sure the national media will follow. I hope this escalates to the highest levels of Government. I have written to my TD and I’m sure others will do likewise. Universities should not be allowed to treat their students like this.

UPDATE: The story is now on the main RTE News site.

The sum that has been wasted on this project in consultancy and architect fees up to now is so far undisclosed by Maynooth University, but I’m sure a Freedom of Information request will reveal it…

I’m afraid the decision to terminate the Student Centre is symptomatic of the current management of Maynooth University, which seems to think of students as mere commodity, and academic staff as a insubordinate servants. I could write about other reprehensible failures of governance here, but will refrain from doing so until proper procedures have been completed. Suffice to say that there’s a struggle going on for the soul of this institution, and at the moment it’s not going well.

I know this radical suggestion may prove controversial, but perhaps if university managements really want to get the best out of their staff and students then maybe they shouldn’t treat them like shit all the time?

Launchpad Saturday

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on September 24, 2022 by telescoper

Just a quick note to say that this afternoon I attended today’s Launchpad event organized by Maynooth Access Programme (MAP) on Maynooth University Campus for a panel discussion. Launchpad is orientation designed to support and ease the transition to third level for students who are coming to Maynooth University through entry routes supported by MAP (the Mature Student Entry Route, the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE)Turn to Teaching Progressed, QQI entry, or new students with a disability). 

The panel discussion I took part in was called Do I Belong Here? The answer, at least initially, was “no” because I went to the wrong room. I blame that on the fact I was wearing my new glasses. When I did make my way to the correct lecture theatre the discussion involved people from diverse backgrounds who have experience of finding their place at university and how to make a valuable contribution by retaining their identity and getting involved with opportunities and activities. I think it went reasonably well, and I enjoyed having the chance to chat to students afterwards in the foyer of the new TSI building.

On the way home afterwards I discovered that my local supermarket is selling bottles of Barolo at half price, so I bought one to have with my dinner which now beckons!

Michaelmas Memories

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth on September 21, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I gave my first lecture of the new academic year. It was the first lecture of the second-year Mathematical Methods module I’ve been teaching for several years now, and was about partial differentiation. Because of the late Leaving Certificate results this year, first-year students don’t officially start until next week but we have some doing my second module and most of them actually came to my first lecture. For most of the new arrivals this week is Welcome Week, with a variety of events – both social and administrative – to help them settle into student life before they start their education proper next week.

As often seems to be the case in late September, the weather is very nice today. The Welsh phrase Haf Bach Mihangel (Michael’s Little Summer) refers to this kind of spell. St Michael is also the origin of the term Michaelmas, which is the name of the Autumn term at Cambridge University. Michaelmas Day itself is on 29th September.

This all takes me back to when I myself left home to go to University in 1982, as thousands of fledgling students are doing in their turn right now.

I started my journey by getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today. It suddenly struck me this week that that was 40 years ago.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey on the train, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be very difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really that worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would immediately mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at school, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, just like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit”. Whatever that is.

Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyen’s building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realised that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed in a strange foreign land where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing. One thing I certainly didn’t think then was that 40 years on I’d still be wondering what I’m going to do when I leave University…

Strategic Plans

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 18, 2022 by telescoper

Maynooth University is in the middle a consultation exercise involving the construction a new Strategic Plan Envisioning Our Future for the period 2023-28. This is something higher education institutions do from time to time, and it usually involves dreaming up ways of spending money they haven’t got on things they don’t need. I’ve seen a few Strategic Plans in my time, but yet to see one that was worth the glossy paper it was expensively printed on. I can’t envision this one being any different,

You could dismiss the current Strategic Plan as merely an irrelevance but it is having a real effect, in that it has completed distracted the University management away from crucial operational matters, such as new appointments and fixing various failing systems. Moreover, it seems very likely, there being little chance of a substantial increase in government funding, that any new “initiatives” arising from the Strategic Plan will be paid for by further plundering already hard-pressed departmental budgets.

The other day I looked up “Strategy” in a dictionary and found

Noun: a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.

The biggest issue is not the plan of action bit, it’s the articulation of the aim and the interpretation of long-term as being “the next five years”. I know I am excessively old-fashioned but I think a university – especially a publicly funded one – should be aiming to be as good as possible at teaching and research. If we have to have a plan for the next five years, at a bare minimum it should involve increasing the investment in its existing departments and providing better teaching facilities. I don’t see either of those happening at all. We’ve got a new teaching building, but nothing has been done to improve any of the other teaching rooms on campus. It’s very dispiriting for front-line academic staff to appearance such neglect of what should be the core functions of the institution.

Anyway, now that I am no longer Head of Department and free of the requirement to attend pointless meeting after pointless meeting I am going to focus what remains of my energy on teaching and research, even if The Management does not deem these important.

Tomorrow (19th September) is the first week of teaching term for the 2022-23. Though new students don’t officially start until 26th September, some are already here and I have even spoken to them. Although we have had a very rough couple of years, our first-year numbers look healthy, which is a good point to be handing over the reins. I have two new PhD student and one Research Masters student arriving this academic year which should help me with my research plans.

Undergraduate science degrees and PhD degrees in Maynooth are typically of four years’ duration. I’ll be sixty during this academic year and over the last few weeks I have been doing a bit of strategic planning of my own. Although I can’t be made to retire until I’m 70, I think it will be a good time to go when the incoming UG & PG cohort finishes, i.e. four years from now. I love teaching and enjoy my research but there is a point at which one should step aside and make way for someone younger.

Assuming, that is, that: (a) I live that long; (b) I can sell my old house and pay off my mortgage; (c) my USS pension is not worthless by then; (d) I’m not sacked in the meantime for insubordination.

Writing Things

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 14, 2022 by telescoper

I learned yesterday from Keith Flett’s blog that the new King of England appears to have had a bit of problem with his writing equipment. It must be difficult to face such a severe challenge at such an early stage of his reign but I’m sure he’ll sort it out, or perhaps his servants will.

As a result of this important news I was thinking that I must be very old-fashioned in continuing to use fountain pens. I have four different pens like that, three for everyday use, and one for “best” i.e. mainly for signing important letters. Although I don’t have a blotter, I do fill my pens with ink from a bottle rather than from cartridges. I have noticed, however, that it is rather difficult to buy bottles of ink these days so I tend to buy several bottles at a time. Another issue is that not all forms of paper are suitable for writing on with a fountain pen. I use this as an excuse to buy quite posh notebooks. In particular, fountain pens are useless for doing crosswords as the ink spreads into an illegible smudge on the paper,

You might think I’m an old fuddy-duddy for using such pens rather than biros or even doing everything using a word processor but old habits die hard. When I was at school my handwriting was very bad so a teacher suggested I start using a fountain pen in order to improve it. That didn’t work, but I got into the habit of using that sort of pen and I’ve never broken it (though I have broken many nibs).

I use a keyboard when writing documents nowadays but whenever I have to do calculations, I write out the complete thing (with equations), when I’ve checked it, using a fountain pen. After that I type them up using LaTex. The chaotic scribbles I produce during the actual process of calculating are usually done in pencil or biro, but the final version to go in my notebook is written out with actual ink.

Another example is when I am preparing to give a lecture. Although we have printed notes – like a textbook – I never lecture directly from them. I think a lecture should have a coherent structure to it so I always write out what I want to say with a beginning, middle and end. Writing it out longhand means it enters my mind far better than just reading from the notes.

On reflection, I think these approaches are extensions of the technique for taking lecture notes I used as an undergraduate student. Another teacher at school spent one lesson teaching us all how to write very quickly without looking at the paper. Doing that means you don’t waste time moving your head to and fro between paper and screen or blackboard.

Of course, the notes I produced using this method weren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing, but my handwriting is awful at the best of times so that didn’t make much difference to me. I always wrote my notes up more neatly after the lecture anyway, using a fountain pen. But the great advantage was that I could write down everything in real time without this interfering with my ability to listen to what the lecturer was saying.

An alternative to this approach is to learn shorthand, or invent your own form of abbreviated language. This approach is, however, unlikely to help you take down mathematical equations quickly.

My experience nowadays is that many students simply aren’t used to taking notes like this – I suppose because they get given so many powerpoint presentations or other kinds of handout –  so they struggle to cope with the old-fashioned chalk-and-talk style of teaching that some lecturers still prefer (and which actually works very well in mathematically-based disciplines). That’s probably because they get much less practice at school than my generation did. Most of my school education was done via the blackboard..

Even if I hand out copies of slides or other notes, I always encourage my students to make their own independent set of notes, as completely as possible. I don’t mean by copying down what they see on the screen and what they may have on paper already, but by trying to write down what I say as I say it. I don’t think many take that advice, which means much of the spoken illustrations and explanations I give don’t find their way into any long term record of the lecture.

And if the lecturer just reads out the printed notes, adding nothing by way of illustration or explanation, then the audience is bound to get bored very quickly.

My argument, then, is that regardless of what technology the lecturer uses, whether he/she gives out printed notes or not, then if the students can’t take notes accurately and efficiently then lecturing is a complete waste of time. In fact for the modules I’m doing this term I don’t intend to hand out lecture notes at all during the lectures, although I do post lecture summaries and answers to the exercises online after they’ve been done.

As a further study aid, most lectures at my previous institutions (Sussex University and Cardiff University) are recorded and made available to students to view shortly after the event. I have seen no evidence that availability of recorded lectures lowers the attendance at lectures. It appears that students use the recordings for revision and/or to clarify points raised in the notes they have taken, and if anything the recordings allow the students to get greater value from lectures rather than persuading them that there’s no need to attend them. Unfortunately we don’t have lecture capture at Maynooth, and a recent policy decision at high level is basically to ban lecture recordings here. I think that is regrettable to say the least, but since we don’t have proper equipment we can’t do it anyway so there’s nothing I can do.

I do like lecturing, because I like talking about physics and astronomy, but as I’ve got older I’ve become less convinced that lectures play a useful role in actually teaching anything. I think we should use lectures more sparingly, relying more on problem-based learning to instill proper understanding. When we do give lectures, they should focus much more on stimulating interest by being entertaining and thought-provoking. They should not be for the routine transmission of information, which is far too often the default.

As a matter of fact don’t think I ever learned very much about physics from lectures – I found problem-based learning far more effective – but I’m nevertheless glad I learned out how to take notes the way I did because I find it useful in all kinds of situations. Effective note-taking is definitely a transferable skill, but it’s also in danger of becoming a dying art. If we’re going to carry on using lectures, we old fogeys need to stop assuming that students learnt it the way we did and start teaching it as a skill.

Irish Times Supplement

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , on September 9, 2022 by telescoper

I don’t usually buy a newspaper during the week but I noticed that today the Irish Times published a special supplement to mark these momentous times so I made an exception. Yes, today is the day the full set of CAO points are published in the print edition, about a year since last year. The official low-tech results for Maynooth are here. Minimum points required for Maynooth’s most important course, MH206 Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, are 510 this year, down a little from 521 last year, but the same as two years ago. Generally speaking, as expected, the points for other courses seem roughly the same as last year.

Students now have to decide whether to accept their first-round offer or try to change course. I suspect there might be fewer this year doing that because of the accommodation shortage, but that remains to be seen…

P.S. There was another supplement in today’s Irish Times about the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

A Day for Celebrations

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on August 31, 2022 by telescoper

It’s quite a busy day today. I spent a slice of of this morning attending the Autumn Examination Board (online). Students taking repeat exams will get their results on Friday which, coincidentally, is the same day that this year’s Leaving Certificate Examinations will come out.

I have one major task to finish today, completing the revisions of a paper to get it ready to resubmit. I’ve been struggling with this over the last few days but I think only minor changes are left to do so I should get it done after lunch. I’ll be at the Irish National Astronomy Meeting tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday so I’d like to get that done before that.

I already have two causes for celebration today. The first is that my first Maynooth PhD student’s first paper has now hit the arXiv. The second is that today is the last day of my three-year as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics. As I wrote on the occasion of my appointment:

It’s about three years now since I stepped down as Head of School at the University of Sussex at which point I didn’t imagine I would be stepping up to be Head of Anything again, but to be honest this position has a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities than the one I used to hold so I’m actually quite looking forward to it.

The idea that the job would have “a smaller and much better defined set of responsibilities” turns out to have been one of the worst miscalculations of my life, entirely for reasons outside the Department and not only because of the pandemic. Suffice to say that it’s been a difficult three years. I have to say though that the staff and students in the Department have been great to work with over this period, and their support is the only thing that made the job bearable. I will of course be continuing to work with them as a teacher and researcher and will do the best I can to support my replacement, assuming the University management gets around to appointing a successor, which it has yet to do despite having many months to do so.

Now, to finish revising that paper.

The Notional Lottery

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on August 29, 2022 by telescoper

On Friday evening I got an email to tell me I’d won a prize on the Euromillions lottery. My excitement was short-lived, however, as I discovered on checking my ticket that my winnings amounted to the princely sum of €5, not the jackpot of nearly €100 million.

As regular readers of this blog might know, I play the Euromillions every week. I use the same numbers each time and always stake the minimum amount (€2.50) . Some think it 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 the huge jackpot prize. I have no dependents. 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, or a private jet.  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. I would of course pay of my mortgage, but that wouldn’t make much of a dent in €100 million!

Would I quit my job? Would I quit teaching? If you had asked me those questions a decade ago I would have said a firm “no” but now I’m not so sure. If I could ditch the admin stuff, I would of course do so. I still enjoy teaching and research, though. On the other hand I’m pushing sixty now, and my departure from a paid position would open up opportunities for someone younger. I might carry on in some voluntary arrangement if this were possible.

So what would I do with the money? I think what I would probably do is set up some sort of philanthropic foundation to give most of it to good causes, including the arts and sciences; the latter would include a big donation to arXiv.

One thing I wouldn’t do would be to give the money directly to universities, as any donation would be swallowed up by the central coffers and most of it would probably just be wasted on management salaries and vanity projects instead of education and research. I suppose if I set up a foundation I could give grants directly to researchers and students for specific purposes bypassing the top layer.

Anyway, all this is notional because I only won €5. Maybe next week…

The ABC of A-levels

Posted in Biographical, Education, Rugby with tags , , , on August 25, 2022 by telescoper

Yesterday I was having a bit of a clear-out of my office at home ahead of the new teaching term when I came across the above clipping at the back of a box of old papers. It’s from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in 1981 and it shows the number of A-levels passed that summer by pupils at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, which I went to.

I don’t know why I’ve kept this for so long, neither do I know why the local paper felt important to list this information. It probably isn’t allowed to publish such things these days owing to Data Protection regulations but it did so routinely back then. I think it’s OK to publish it now because it has been in the public domain, technically speaking, for over 40 years. The Chronicle also published O-level passes with names, and I have the list with me in it from 1979.

A few things struck me about this list. One is that, while I can put faces to many of the names, there are many to which I can not. Indeed some of the names don’t ring any bells at all. I’m sure I’ve been forgotten by most people in the list too! When I arrived at the school in 1974 I was assigned to a “House” called Eldon along with about 30 other boys. In the first year we were placed at desks in our classroom in alphabetical order. Obviously the first people I got to know were those sitting in adjacent desks. It’s interesting that seven years on, the two names preceding mine in the list above were also in Eldon and had been sitting next to me on the very first day I arrived and they are among the few people from RGS that I am still in regular contact with.

The Sixth Form (two years, “Lower 6th” and “Upper Sixth” to coincide with the length of the A-level course) was divided into Arts and Sciences. The Arts are listed first in alphabetical order, then the Sciences. I was in the latter group. My 4 A-levels were Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Physics & Chemistry. I also did two special papers, in Physics and Chemistry. After A-levels, along with about 20 of the people on the above list, I stayed on for a “7th term” to do the Cambridge Entrance Examination, and the rest is history.

I also note that very few of us had only a single first initial like me. That’s a Coles family trait. My Dad always said that you only use one name so why have extras?

One final comment. Near the bottom of the list you will see the name “J M Webb”. That name is not to do with the James Webb of Space Telescope fame, but Jonathan Webb did go on to play Rugby for England. I didn’t know him well at school because, as well as being separated by alphabetical considerations, he was in a different House (Horsley if I remember correctly).

In Defence of Blackboards

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , on August 21, 2022 by telescoper
Lecturing from Home

I wasn’t very surprised to find that the large lecture theatres in the swanky new building at Maynooth University are not equipped with chalkboards, as I had been told that the powers-that-be were finding it difficult to “source” boards of the appropriate size. I was more surprised and disappointed to find that none of the smaller teaching rooms have blackboards either; the best they have is very small whiteboards which are useless for teaching mathematical subjects.

I know people think I am very old fashioned in persistently using a chalkboard (a better word than “blackboard” as many chalkboards are actually dark green). They also find it quite amusing that I bought one especially so I could do lectures during the pandemic from home using it. One reason for that is that it’s far easier to get a decent contrast on camera than using a whiteboard. I also find that standing up and walking around allows me to communicate more effectively, at a decent pace and with a reasonable amount of energy which made the lectures from home a little less unbearable to give and, hopefully, to watch. Here’s the green blackboard in my office that I used to give some lectures during lockdown:

The very chalky chalkboard in my office on campus

It was never the intention of course that the board in my office would be used for lecturing. We have such things to facilitate the communication of ideas during a discussion by scribbling mathematical expressions or diagrams.

I found some time ago an article about why Mathematics professors at Stanford University still use chalkboards. I agree with everything in it. The renowned Perimeter Institute in Canada and the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge also have blackboards, not only in teaching rooms but also in corridors and offices to encourage scientific discussions.

For teaching I think the most important thing for the students in a lecture on a subject like theoretical physics to see a calculation as a process unfolding step-by-step as you explain the reasoning, rather than being presented in complete form which suggests that it should be memorized rather than understood. Far too many students come to university with the impression that their brain is just a memory device. I fill it’s our job as lecturers to encourage students develop genuine problem-solving skills. The example in the first picture above – Gaussian Elimination – is a good illustration of this. Most of my colleagues in Theoretical Physics and in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics seem to prefer chalkboards too, no doubt for similar reasons.

I know that many in Senior Management think of us as dinosaurs for clinging to “old technology” but the fact is that new technology isn’t always better technology. Whiteboards are just awful. As well as being impossible to read in a large room or to record from, the marker pens are expensive, filled with nasty solvent, and impossible to recycle when empty. Unfortunately the purveyors of these items seem to have cornered the market I hate whiteboards so much I call them shiteboards.

Anyway, with the new academic year due to start in a month, and there being no likely resolution of the accommodation crisis, it looks like many students will be unable to attend lectures in person. It doesn’t matter whether rooms have blackboards or whiteboards or enhanced multimedia digital display screens if the students can’t get to the campus…