Archive for the Education Category

Back to work in Cardiff..

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on March 19, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am, then. Back in the offices of the Data Innovation Research Institute in Cardiff for the first time in almost a fortnight. The four-week batch of strikes over pensions has come to an end so I have returned to work. No agreement has been reached so it seems likely there will be further industrial action, but for the time being normal services are being resumed. In fact it’s not exactly back to normal because there’s a large backlog of things to be done (including marking coursework and setting examinations), but I mean at least that lectures resume and will be delivered on the normal timetable. In my Physics of the Early Universe module I have only given four (two-hour) lectures and have missed three. I return to the fray tomorrow morning to give Lecture 8. Frustratingly, that’s the only lecture I have before the Easter break which starts on Friday and lasts for three weeks. Assuming there are no further strikes I’ll be giving lectures 9-12 (the last a revision lecture) after the holiday.

I now have to figure out how to cope with the six hours of lectures missed because of industrial action. That will be tricky, but I’ll do my level best to ensure that I cover everything needed for the examination. I spent most of this morning trying to figure out how to reorganise the remaining material, and I think I can do it as long as we don’t lose any more teaching time. At any rate I have made the decision not to give additional lectures to cover what I’ve missed. Owing to the timing of the strikes (and the fact that only work half the time here in Cardiff) I have been on strike for all the days I would have been working for three weeks. That means I will lose three full weeks pay. Even if it were logistically possible to fit in 6 hours of extra lectures after Easter, I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to do that for free.

While I was on strike a group of my students emailed the Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University (copying me in) to point out how much teaching they were missing and request some form of compensation. I have a lot of sympathy for their situation and in no way do I want to damage their education. I will do what I can to mitigate the effect of the strike but won’t take any action that reduces the effectiveness of the industrial action. It remains to be seen if any compensation will be offered by the University management, but I think their best policy would be pressure Universities UK to stop pratting about and find a speedy settlement of the dispute.

Anyway, today is a bank holiday in Maynooth – St Patrick’s Day fell on a Saturday this year – and the rest of the week is `Study Week’, so there are no lectures or laboratory sessions. I’ll therefore be staying in Cardiff all week, which gives me the chance to go to a concert on Friday at St David’s Hall – the first for quite a while.

Now, time to get back to writing tomorrow’s lecture…


Other People’s Code

Posted in Education, mathematics with tags , , , on March 16, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know if this is just me being useless, but one of the things I’ve always found difficult is debugging or rewriting computer programs written by other people. This is not a complaint about people who fail to document their code sufficiently to see what’s going on, it’s that even when the code is documented it seems much more difficult to spot errors in code written by other people than it is when you’ve written the program yourself.

I’ve been thinking a lot since I’ve been teaching Computational Physics here in Maynooth University. One of the standard elements of the assessment for this module is a task wherein the students are given a Python script intended to perform a given task (e.g. a numerical integral) but which contains a number of errors and asked to identify and correct the errors. This is actually a pretty tough challenge, though it is likely to be one that a graduate might have to meet if they get a job in any environment that involves programming.

Another context in which this arises is our twice-weekly computing laboratory sessions. Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve been asked for a bit of help by students with code that wasn’t working, only to stare at the offending script for ages and fiddling with a number of things that made no difference, without seeing what turned out to be an obvious mistake. Last week it was an incorrect indent in Python (always a hazard if you’ve been brought up on Fortran). This week it was even simpler, a sign error in a line that was just supposed to calculate the mid-point of an interval. I should have been able to spot these very quickly, but I couldn’t.

What makes this so difficult? When given a mathematical calculation to mark I can usually spot errors reasonably easily (unless the working is illegible), but with code it’s different (at least for me). If I’d been given it on a piece of paper as part of a formula, I reckon I would have spotted that minus sign almost immediately.

One possibility is just that I’m getting old. While that may well be true, it doesn’t explain why I found debugging other people’s code difficult even when I was working on software at British Gas when I was 18. In that context I quite often gave up trying to edit and correct software, and instead just deleted it all and wrote my own version from scratch. That’s fine if the task is quite small, but not practicable for large suites written by teams of programmers.

I think one problem is that other people rarely approach a programming task exactly the same way as one would oneself. I have written programs myself to do the tasks given to students in the computing lab, and I’m always conscious of the method I’ve used. That may make it harder to follow what others have tried to do. Perhaps I’d be better off not prejudicing my mind doing the exercises myself?

Anyway, I’d be interested to know if anyone else has the same with other people’s code and if they have any tips that might improve my ability to deal with it. The comments box is at your disposal…

USS Pension Proposal: Poll

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last night I saw the news on Twitter that negotiators on behalf of the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) and the employers’ organisation Universities UK (UUK) under the auspices of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) agreed a proposal to end the strike over pensions that has been going on since the end of February.

The text of the agreement can be found here (PDF). This proposal will have to be discussed and ratified formally, but the negotiators hope this can be do today and that the strike will be suspended from tomorrow.

The proposal suggests a transitional period of three years from April 2019 during which a much reduced Defined Benefit scheme will operate, but it still affirms the much disputed November 2017 valuation of the scheme which means that it is overwhelmingly likely that after three years the dispute will be back on.

I shall be leaving the USS scheme in July 2018 as I’m moving full-time to Ireland where I will be joining a Defined Benefit scheme so the changes outlined in the document will not affect me. Moreover, though I have supported the strike I am not a member of UCU. If I were I would not be in favour of accepting this deal because it seems to me that it amounts to an abject surrender on all the main issues. But given my personal situation I don’t think my opinion should carry much weight. The few friends I have discussed this with feel the same as I do, but I’m interested to know what the general opinion is. If you feel like filling in the poll below please feel free to do so. I’ve divided the responses between UCU members and non-UCU members to see if there’s a difference.

On one matter however I am less equivocal. The document calls on staff to `prioritise the rescheduling of teaching’ (lost during the strike). I have a one-word response to that: NO. Not only will it be logistically impossible to reschedule so many teaching sessions, but I am also not going to do extra teaching for free when my pay is being deducted for days on strike.

As usual, I invite your comments through the box below.

UPDATE: Here is a Google Document showing how UCU branches are responding to the proposal: at the time of posting, it is solidly `reject’..

UPDATE: Following on from the above, the UCU has now formally rejected the proposal. The strikes continue.

Why I’m taking part in the UCU Strike Action

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 21, 2018 by telescoper

In case you weren’t aware, from tomorrow (22nd February) the University and College Union (UCU) is taking industrial action over proposed drastic cuts to staff pensions funded by the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). You can find some background to the pensions dispute here (and in related articles). A clear explanation of why the employers’ justification for these cuts is little more than fraudulent is given here and here you can find an example of the effect of the proposed changes on a real person’s pension (ie a cut of almost 50%). I also blogged about this a few weeks ago. There’s no doubt whose side the Financial Times is on, either.

I am not a member of UCU – I left its forerunner organisation the Association of University Teachers (AUT) as a result of its behaviour when I was at the University of Nottingham – but I will be participating in the industrial action, which takes place over four weeks as follows:

  • Week one – Thursday 22 and Friday 23 February (two days)
  • Week two – Monday 26, Tuesday 27 and Wednesday 28 February (three days)
  • Week three – Monday 5, Tuesday 6, Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 March (four days)
  • Week four – Monday 12, Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Thursday 15 and Friday 16 March (five days)

This is a bit complicated for me because I only work half-time at Cardiff University (usually Mondays, Tuesdays and half of Wednesdays) and at Maynooth University the rest of the time. The USS only covers UK universities, and the dispute does not apply in the Republic of Ireland (though it does affect higher education institutions in Northern Ireland) so I won’t be on strike when I’m working for Maynooth University, which includes the first two strike days (tomorrow and Friday). I will be participating in industrial action next week, however, and have today sent an announcement to my students they hear from me that the strike has been called off there will be no lectures on 27th February, 6th March or 13th March.

All staff will be docked pay for days not worked owing to strike action, of course, but that will be far less than the amount to be lost in these pension cuts. In my case I will be docked the equivalent of three weeks’ pay as 2.5 days a week I work are all strike days in Weeks 2-4. Moreover, I shall be leaving the UK for Ireland this summer and the pension cuts will not affect my pension anyway – any changes will not be made until after I’ve left the USS scheme. Nevertheless, this is an important issue and I feel it is right to take a stand.

One final comment. Last week Cardiff University sent an email to staff including a link to a website that stated:

If staff refuse to cross a picket line and they are not a member of UCU they will be in breach of their contract of employment with the University.

In fact, any strike action (even by a union member) is a breach of contract. The law however prevents employers dismissing staff who participate in industrial action, provided that it is lawful (i.e. following a ballot, and with due notice given to the employer, etc). The government website makes it clear that non-union members have exactly the same protection as union members in this regard. The Cardiff website has now been changed, but I’m very unhappy that this extremely misleading communication was sent out in the first place.

I sincerely hope that there is a negotiated settlement to this issue. Nobody wants to go on strike, especially when it has the potential to damage students’ learning. But there comes a point where you have to draw a line in the sand, and we have reached that point. I hope I’m proved wrong, but I think this could be a very prolonged and very unpleasant dispute.

Learning Technology

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2018 by telescoper

I’m just taking a tea break in the Data Innovation Research Institute. Today has been a very day as I have to finish off a lot of things by tomorrow, for reasons that I’ll make clear in my next post…

It struck me when I was putting on the brew how much more technology we use for teaching now than when I was a student. I think many of my colleagues make far more effective use of the available technology than I do, but I do my best to overcome my Luddite tendencies. Reflecting on today’s teaching makes me feel just a little less like a dinosaur.

This morning I gave a two-hour lecture on my Cardiff module Physics of the Early Universe which, as usual, I recorded using our Panopto system. Although there was a problem with some of the University’s central file storage this morning, which made me a bit nervous about whether the lecture recording would work, it did. Predictably I couldn’t access the network drives from the PC in the lecture theatre, but I had anticipated that and took everything I needed on a memory stick.

After a short break for lunch I checked the lecture recording and made it available for registered students via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), known to its friends as Learning Central. I use this as a sort of repository of stuff connected with the module: notes, list of textbooks, problem sets, model answers, instructions and, of course, recorded lectures. The students also submit their coursework assignment (an essay) through this system, through the plagiarism detection software Turnitin.

This afternoon the students on my Computational Physics course in Maynooth University had a lab test, the first of four such tests, this one consisting of a short coding exercise. There are two lab sessions per week for this class, one on Thursdays (when I am normally in Maynooth to help supervise) and another on Tuesdays (when I am normally in Cardiff). I have a number of exercises, which are similar in scope but different in detail (to prevent copying) and the Tuesday lab has a completely different set of exercises from the Thursday one. In each exercise the students have to write a simple Python script to plot graphs of a function and its derivative (computed numerically) using matplotlib. The students upload their script and pictures of the plot to the VLE used in Maynooth, which is called Moodle.

In the manner of a TV chef announcing `here’s one I did earlier’, this a sample output produced by my `model’ code:

I wonder if you can guess of what function this is the derivative? By the way in this context `model’ does not mean `a standard of excellence’ but `an imitation of something’ (me being an imitation of a computational physicist). Anyway, students will get marks for producing plots that look right, but also for presenting a nice (commented!) bit of code

This afternoon I’m on Cardiff time but I was able to keep an eye on the submissions coming in to Moodle in case something went wrong. It seemed to work out OK, but the main problem now is that I’ve got 20-odd bits of code to mark! That will have to wait until I’m properly on Maynooth time!

Now, back to the grind…

`Pass-the-Harasser’ … to Turku

Posted in Education with tags , , , on February 2, 2018 by telescoper

I noticed yesterday evening that there has recently been a substantial increase in the number of people viewing my posts about Christian Ott, the former Caltech Professor who eventually left his job there after harassing and committing ‘gender-based discrimination’ against two female students there.

It wasn’t difficult to find out why there had been an upsurge in interest: Christian Ott has got a new job, at the University of Turku, in Finland. As far as I understand the situation – and please correct me if I’m wrong – he was `head-hunted’ for this position, so his appointment was not the result of an open competition and it seems the position was specifically created just for him.

UPDATE: the post was advertised here, but the gap between the deadline for applications – 10th December 2017 – and the appointment being announced is too short to be consistent with the usual processes of academic appointments. Moreover, the advertised job descriptions includes teaching duties; see below for why this is relevant.

Not surprisingly both the appointment itself and the circumstances by which it was brought about have provoked considerable reaction. A group of Finnish astronomers and astrophysicists has written a Statement on Harassment, which you can sign in support (here if you’re Finnish and/or based in Finland) and here for other concerned academics. I have signed the second one.

I have two personal comments to make. The first is that I’ve seen people say that Ott should get a `second chance’, and it would be unfair for his past transgressions to force him out of academia.

This is what I wrote in an earlier piece about this:

It remains to be seen what Christian Ott does. I am not familiar with his work but he is, by all accounts, a talented scientist so he may well find a position at another institution. If he does, I hope, for his and for his future colleagues’ sake, that he has learned his lesson.

I think that makes it clear that I have no desire to see Christian Ott ruined, but I don’t think that means that I think due process should be subverted to help him, as appears to be the case here. In fact I’m bound to say that if I were a Head of Department I wouldn’t under any circumstances have offered this man a position, after what he did.

Had Ott committed a different disciplinary offence (such as plagiarism or other research misconduct) he would not have found it so easy to get another job than because it was `just’ harassment. Why should these offences be treated so differently?

Once again, research esteem seems to trump everything else. That attitude is one of the most poisonous elements in modern academia. The `Great Man of Science’ is indeed a dangerous myth.

The second thing is that, as far as I understand it (and again please correct me if I’m wrong), Ott’s new position is as an `independent researcher’ and he will have no teaching duties and minimal contact with students. I suppose that is supposed to make everything alright. It doesn’t. Indeed, there are many academics who would regard a cushy research-only contract as a reward rather than a cost. It’s a slap in the face for teaching staff at Turku that funds have been found to create a bespoke position in the way that has been done here.

As always, comments clarifications and corrections are welcome through the comments box.

UPDATE: 7/2/2018. The appointment of Dr Ott has been cancelled.

The Quickening of the Year

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 1, 2018 by telescoper

It’s 1st February 2018, which means that today is Imbolc, a Gaelic festival marking the point halfway between the winter solstice and vernal equinox. This either happens 1st or 2nd February, and this year it is the former. In this part of the world – I’m in Ireland as I write- this day is sometimes regarded as the first day of spring, as it is roughly the time when the first spring lambs are born. It corresponds to the Welsh Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau and is also known as the `Cross Quarter Day’ or (my favourite) `The Quickening of the Year’.

So, talking of quickening, the pace of things is increasing for me now too. This morning at 9am I gave my first ever lecture in Maynooth University in a lecture theatre called Physics Hall, which is in the old (South) part of campus as opposed to the newer North Campus where the Science Building that contains my office is situated.

After that it was back to the Department for some frantic behind-the-scenes activity setting up accounts for the students for the afternoon lab session, which is in a computer room near to my office. Students attend one two-hour lab session in addition to the lecture, on either Thursday or Tuesday. The first lecture being this morning (Thursday) the first lab session was this afternoon, with the same material being covered next Tuesday.

I was far more nervous about this afternoon’s lab session than I was about this morning’s lecture as there seemed to be many things that could go wrong in getting the students up and running on our Linux cluster and getting them started on Python. Quite a few things did go wrong, in fact, but they were fewer in number and less drastic in outcome that I had feared.

So there we are, my first full day teaching in Maynooth. I think it went reasonably well and it was certainly nice to meet my first group of Maynooth students who, being physics students, are definitely la crème de la crème. I’ve got another 6 weeks like this (teaching on Tuesday in Cardiff and on Thursday in Maynooth) before the Easter break so it’s going to be a hectic period. Just for tonight, however, I’ve got time to relax with a glass or several of wine.

Incidentally, I was impressed that Physics Hall (where I did this morning’s lecture) is equipped with an electric piano:

I wonder if anyone can suggest appropriate musical numbers to perform for a class of computational physicists? Suggestions are hereby invited via the Comments Box!