Archive for Department of Theoretical Physics

New Term Ahead!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on July 28, 2021 by telescoper

I know that there are quite a few people out there who think the summer is one long holiday for academic staff. Well, it may still be July but after my 10 days away that’s the holidays over as far as I’m concerned. Still, ten days’ summer holiday is ten days more holiday than I got last summer.

Next week the Repeat Examination period begins; it lasts from 4th August to 14th August. Once again these examinations are online and once again they have to be supervised by a member of academic staff. I have five paper scheduled and have to be at the screen for all of them. Then there’s the marking, checking, collation and uploading of the marks which must be done by 18th August. After that there’s an Examination Board before the final submission of all the repeat exams by August 23rd.

Incidentally, I was just checking over my Semester 1 repeat examinations and it seems like decades since I taught those modules last Autumn! The pandemic has played havoc with the perception of time!

After the Repeat Examinations are done, I have the unenviable task of preparing teaching for the next academic year. Although I’m stepping down as Head of Department of Theoretical Physics at the end of September I am still in that position until then so that task falls to me. Quite apart from the continuing uncertainty about what the Covid-19 situation will be like at the start of term (20th September), I have to deal with the fact that three out of our six full-time permanent lecturers are not available for next year. One is retiring this summer, one is departing for a position in Germany and another is on sabbatical.

The appointment of a temporary lecturer to provide sabbatical cover is normal, but the two other departures have not been replaced with permanent staff but by two one-year temporary lecturers. None of these new staff will be in post until 1st September but will have to teach a full complement of modules from 20th September onwards. Half our modules will therefore have to be reassigned, which means that the organization of teaching for the new academic year is not just the usual slight rearrangement of the previous year’s assignments but a major overhaul.

Losing two of our permanent staff to be replaced by temporary staff will of course have a negative impact on our research but that doesn’t seem to be important.

On top of al this the University is pressing ahead with a complete reorganization in the form of a merger of the Departments of Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics which it intends to force through by 1st October 2021…

While glad that we may at last be emerging from the pandemic I’m dreading the next two months, not only because of the huge amount that has to be done by the end of September, but also because I think that period is going to set the scene for the longer-term future. I know I’m not the only academic who fears the massively increased workload dumped on us during the pandemic is going to become, to use a hackneyed phrase, “the new normal”.

Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on May 19, 2021 by telescoper

Just a short post passing on the information that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. You can find the details here.

The position is for one calendar year starting in September 2021. I know it is a short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic to gain some teaching experience while carrying on their research in a lively and collegiate Department.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Tuesday 8th June 2021 and you should apply through the Maynooth jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Reminder: Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on March 7, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve got a very busy week in front of me as we head towards the St Patrick’s Week Study Break so I thought I’d take the time to remind you all while I remember that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, the deadline for which is a week from today. You can find the details here.

The position is for 10 months, starting in September 2021, and is to provide teaching cover for Professor Jiri Vala who will be on sabbatical next year. He originally intended to take his sabbatical this academic year, starting in September 2020, hence the previous advertisement of this post, but it was postponed for reasons of Covid-19 and the previous position was not filled.

I know it is a relatively short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic, perhaps someone straight out of a PhD, to gain some teaching experience.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday March 14th, i.e. about 4 weeks away, and you should apply through the jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please feel free to pass this on to anyone who may be interested!

Job in Theoretical Physics at Maynooth!

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on February 17, 2021 by telescoper

Just a short post passing on the information that we have a fixed-term job available in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. You can find the details here.

The position is for 10 months, starting in September 2021, and is to provide teaching cover for Professor Jiri Vala who will be on sabbatical next year. He originally intended to take his sabbatical this academic year, starting in September 2020, hence the previous advertisement of this post, but it was postponed for reasons of Covid-19 and the previous position was not filled.

I know it is a relatively short appointment, but it seems to me that it would provide a good opportunity for an early-career academic, perhaps someone straight out of a PhD, to gain some teaching experience.

The deadline for applications is 23.30 on Sunday March 14th, i.e. about 4 weeks away, and you should apply through the jobs portal here.

If you’d like to know any more please feel free to contact me privately.

Oh, and please feel free to pass this on to anyone who may be interested!

Teaching after Covid

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on January 26, 2021 by telescoper

I know it’s a Business lecture, but at least there is a periodic table on the wall to remind students of the time when Universities used to care about science.

Near the end of a planning meeting this morning I was asked to give my thoughts about any long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on teaching and/or research. That also echoed a discussion I had with staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics on Teams a while ago, which touched on the same question.

My own view in general is that although we find ourselves constantly saying things like “When we get back to normal…” I think we have to accept that the pandemic is going to change many things irreversibly. We’re going to have to get used to new ways of working in both teaching and research. Some changes will be made to make financial savings owing to loss of income over however long the pandemic lasts, and some of those will no doubt be painful and sad. Others will be opportunities created by us learning how to do things differently and a number of these could be very positive, if we seize the initiative and make the most of them.

One specific thing in the latter category is that Maynooth University installed a system of lecture capture to help deliver teaching when access to campus was restricted (as it is now). The hardware and software installed is fairly basic and isn’t by any means perfect, but it has worked pretty well. The main problem is that the cameras that have been installed are very limited webcams and are not capable of capturing, e.g. a blackboard.

One thing I hope will happen in the long term is that we include lecture capture as a routine way of augment students’ learning. That will require additional investment in infrastructure, but I think it would be well worth it.

Some years ago I blogged about this at another institution, which had facilities allow lecturers to record videos of their own lectures which are then made available for students to view online.

This is of course very beneficial for students with special learning requirements, but in the spirit of inclusive teaching I think it’s good that all students can access such material. Some faculty are apparently a little nervous that having recordings of lectures available online would result in falling attendances at lectures, but in fact there is evidence that indicates precisely the opposite effect. Students find the recorded version adds quite a lot of value to the “live” event by allowing them to clarify things they might not have not noted down clearly. In my experience they rarely watch the whole video, instead focusing on things they didn’t get first time around. And if a few students decide that it’s good enough for them just to watch the video, then so what? That’s their choice. They are adults, after all.

I’ll add that I do feel we should still make the effort to return to doing live lectures in some form and not rely entirely on recordings. I think that what you can do in a lecture is fairly limited part of the overall educational package, but that’s not the same as saying that they should be scrapped. Many students do enjoy lectures and find them very helpful. I just think we should make the best of the available technology to offer as wide a range of teaching methods as possible. No two students are the same and no two students learn precisely the same way. Let us offer them a variety of resources and they can choose which serves them best.

Another important, but perhaps less tangible, aspect of this is that I think education is or should be a shared experience for students. Just having everyone sit in the same room “enjoying” the same teaching session is a great benefit compared with having them sit in their room watching things on a laptop screen. I think that’s one of the worst issues with remote teaching, and wish we had found better ways of dealing with that over the past year.

There is a benefit for the lecturer of having a live audience too, in that actually seeing the people you’re trying to teach helps you gauge how well you’re getting it across.

Anyway, I started a poll on lecture capture a while ago before the pandemic. Feel free to add your opinion. It will be interesting to see if opinions have changed!

Plan B for Teaching

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on September 21, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday’s Covid-19 figures for Ireland were a bit of a shocker, with 396 new cases (241 of them in Dublin). The latest 7-day average is 283.1 new cases per day. We haven’t seen figures like this since April. Here’s the latest log-linear graph:

Just a reminder: I keep a complete record of the daily figures here.

The surge in cases in Dublin is the the reason for the imposition of additional restrictions. Although we’re not in Dublin, many of our students travel to campus from the areas of West Dublin where the rate of infection is high (such as Tallaght) so Maynooth University has decided to ‘escalate protective measures‘. This means, among other things, that the maximum class size for in-person lectures on campus is 30.

So this morning I’ve been grappling with the implications of this for our teaching plans in the Department of Theoretical Physics. Student registrations are coming in now and though they are not complete we have a much better idea of how many students we will have in each class. The limit of 30 really just makes a difference to second year Mathematical Physics modules where the class size is around 40. We had intended to teach these all together but now they will need to be split into two groups to be taught separately. It will also impact our teaching for Engineering and Product Design, both of which have more than 30 students in class.

The remaining issue is the first year Mechanics & Special Relativity module MP110 which is a much larger class that I’d already decided to split into three groups. The problem would arise if the size of these groups exceeded the capacity constraints. First-year registration has not yet finished but it looks at the moment that we’ll be OK with Plan A. Possibly.

One of the difficulties will be communicating the arrangements to new students in time for the start of lectures on Monday 28th September, a week today. It is important that we don’t have students turning up for sessions to which they have not been assigned. There will be a lot of messages flying around about this for the rest of this week and over the weekend. Even even set up a departmental Twitter feed which you can follow here:

If the situation in Dublin (and nationally) continues to deteriorate we may well be back in the situation in which we found ourselves in March, with everything going online but that isn’t where we are at the moment. The limit of 30 on class sizes is a challenge, but it is our intention that lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead on campus starting next Monday.
How long it will take to move to Plan C is anyone’s guess.

The Year Ahead

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 6, 2020 by telescoper

Tomorrow sees the release of the 2020 Leaving Certificate results which this year are based on “calculated grades” rather than examination results. It seems that for about 79% of students these grades will be the same as the teacher’s assessment, about 17% will be lower than the teacher assessment and in about 4% of cases it will be higher. It remains to be seen whether the results will create the sort of stir that this year’s A-level results did.

That seems to imply that CAO points will be a bit higher on average than previous years so more students will make the grade for their first choice of course, which may have a significant impact on recruitment.

We’ll find out all about that next week when the details come in. Teaching term starts on Monday 28th September so there’s very little time to get things organised for the new cohort, especially on the Omnibus Science course on which students have a wide range of alternatives from which to pick their first-year subjects.

Next week at Maynooth University we also have our repeat Examination Board (a week later than usual). After that we will have a good idea of how many students will be returning for Years 2, 3 and 4 and how many will not progress.

So soon we will have enough information to fine-tune our teaching plans. These are challenging this year because of the reduced capacity of the rooms we use for lectures and tutorials due to physical distancing. Some rooms are affected more than others – it’s far worse for large lecture theatres than for tutorial rooms – so we have to look at each module separately.

We had a (virtual) meeting of teaching staff in the Department of Theoretical Physics to coordinate the approaches to different modules. Among other things, that showed how very sensitive everything is to numbers of students taking. If a room can take N students then if the actual number taking the class is less than or equal to N then the class can proceed as usual but if it exceeds N, even by just one, then we have to split the class somehow.

Having detailed numbers is essential to sorting all this out but students can change modules during the first few weeks of teaching, we’re likely to be reorganising as we go along.

All this causes multiple headaches but, despite the extra complications this year, I’m looking forward to seeing the students on campus again. I haven’t given a ‘proper’ lecture since March 12th.

I was so busy last week, grappling with these and other matters, that I missed the fact that I took over as Head of Department on 1st September 2019, a year ago last Tuesday. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for…

From May to September

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2020 by telescoper

So here we are, then. The final pair of examinations online timed assessments for students in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University have just started and the students’ submissions will come in later this afternoon. By a curious coincidence the last two comprise a 3rd Year module on Special Relativity and a 4th year module on General Relativity, both of which happen at the same time (in the reference frame of the students).

I don’t want to jinx this afternoon’s proceedings but the switch to online assessments has gone much more smoothly than I imagined it would. I’ve been keeping an eye on all of them and there have been very few problems, and those that did arise were sorted out relatively easily. I’m immensely relieved by this, as I think I’ve been more nervous during these examinations than most of the students!

After this afternoon we will have to knuckle down and get these assessments marked in time for the round of Exam Board meetings. We have been allowed an extra week to do this because grading will be a slower process than usual, especially for the kind of mathematical work we do in the Department of Theoretical Physics. We’ll have to see how it goes but I’m confident we can get the results ready by 18th June, which is the date of our (virtual) Exam Board.

After the Exam Boards we would normally be thinking of relaxing a bit for the summer, and doing a bit of research, but there’s no sign of that being possible this year.

Among the urgent things to deal with are managing the `return to work’ of staff during the various phases of the Irish Government’s Roadmap. This document does not give much detail and there are serious issues to be solved before we can even start Phase 2 (due to commence June 8th) never mind finish Phase 5 and return to some semblance of normal working.

Iontas Lecture Theatre, Maynooth University

Slightly further off, but no less urgent is the matter of how to deal with the start of the next academic year, assuming the progress of the pandemic allows this to happen at all. One of the big uncertainties is how many potential students will defer their university study until next year, which makes it difficult to predict how many students we will have to cater for.

I have to say I’m very annoyed by recent reporting of this issue in the Irish Times, which includes this:

The fact that most lectures will take place online, along with changed economic conditions facing families and inability of students to secure summer work, may make it less attractive for many students to go to college in the coming year.

The second word fact (my emphasis) is the problem, as it describes something that is not a fact at all. A lot can happen between May and September, but we are currently planning on the basis that most of our lectures in Theoretical Physics will go ahead pretty much as normal. That may in the end turn out to be impossible, e.g. if there is a second wave of infection, but at the moment it is a reasonable scenario. And even if we do have to move some or all lectures online we will still have face-to-face teaching in the form of tutorials, exercise classes and computer laboratories.

A slightly less misleading article can be found in the same newspaper here.

A couple of weeks ago, Cambridge University announced that there would be no face-to-face lectures at all next academic year. I was amused to hear a representative of that institution on the radio sounding as if he was saying that “at Cambridge, lectures have very little to do with teaching”. I think what he meant was that tutorials and other teaching sessions would still go ahead so the loss of in-person lectures was not as important as it sounded. That may very well be true of Arts and Humanities subjects, but I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Cambridge (many years ago) and I can tell you the vast majority of my tuition there was in the lecture theatre.

Neither is it the case that Oxford and Cambridge are the only UK universities to have tutorials or small group tuition, but I digress…

My point is that, while I can’t promise that it will be business as usual from September 2020, it’s quite wrong to give potential students the impression that it would be a waste of their time starting this academic year. I can assure any students reading this of the fact that we’re doing everything we can to give them as good an experience as possible.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers!

One down, Thirteen to go..

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , on May 17, 2020 by telescoper

As I mentioned in a recent post, Saturday saw the first of our new-fangled examinations online timed assessments in the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University. Despite all the planning I was quite nervous as the time for that test approached and it wasn’t even one of my examinations on that occasion!

Happily the event went ahead without any significant technical hitches and all students who took the paper managed to upload answers.

The type of mathematical problems we set in the Department of Theoretical Physics means that students will work out their answers by hand on paper which then requires scanning and converting to a PDF. That’s not very hard to do but it’s not as easy as writing an essay on a laptop then uploading a document file which is what some subjects involve.

In this sense, I think we ask a bit more of our students than many other Departments, and I very much appreciate the effort they have made to master an unfamiliar system. That goes for the staff too – this is all new for all of us!

I thought that anything significant was going to go wrong it would do so in the first one, so the fact that nothing broke not only brings relief but also builds confidence for the thirteen further examinations we have over the next two weeks.

A Head Again!

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on July 4, 2019 by telescoper

Today is Independence Day – on which all joint probabilities P(A,B) can be expressed in the form P(A)P(B) – and by coincidence I received a letter that I’ve been expecting from the President. No, not Michael D. Higgins (nor Donald Trump for that matter) but the President of Maynooth University, Professor Philip Nolan.

Despite it being marked Strictly Private and Confidential I have actually read it, and it says that I have been appointed as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics at Maynooth University, with effect from 1st September 2019.

The appointment is for three years in the first instance, with the possibility of renewal for another two years `subject to satisfactory performance’. So just the three years then.

The current Head of Department is taking a sabbatical next semester (from September to January) and just this morning we have been interviewing candidates for a temporary to provide teaching cover for his absence. Now we officially begin the handover (including, I suppose, moving offices…).

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.

But first I’m going to take tomorrow off.