Archive for University of Edinburgh

Staff Whereabouts

Posted in Education with tags , , , on April 19, 2016 by telescoper

There’s been a predictably strong reaction from academic colleagues to an announcement by the University of Edinburgh that it is introducing a new staff monitoring policy that will require employees to tell management if they leave their “normal place of work” for half a day or longer.

Some have argued that this is measure is simply unenforceable and that the University concerned will have to employ extra people if all academics have to notify a management person every time they travel somewhere off campus. Perhaps the plan is to have all staff fitted with microchips like we do with pets so we can find out where they are if they go wandering off, or get temporarily adopted by friendly neighbours.

I did some time ago draft an April Fool email in which I claimed  my current employer was going to extend the attendance monitoring we perform with undergraduate students (which is partly to assess usage of teaching spaces and thus improve timetabling efficiency) to include academic staff, so we could assess usage of office space on a similar basis. I never sent the email because I thought too many would think it was real and get very angry. Although being at least slightly credible is an essential part of an April Fool, causing a riot is not.

Here at the University of Sussex academic staff are obliged to inform the University (via an official form) if they are travelling elsewhere in the course of their duties. In practice this form comes to the Head of School, which is me in in the case of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. This bit of bureaucracy is primarily for insurance purposes, but also means we have a record of where to contact people in case of emergency.

Most staff comply with this procedure  if they are travelling abroad, but they don’t always do so when they’re travelling in the UK for a day or so, e.g. for doing a PhD examination or something like that. Staff also often fail to let us know if they are working from home, which some (especially theorists and mathematicians) do a lot in order to get on with their research without interruption. Although this doesn’t often cause problems, I think it is reasonable that we should be able to get in touch with staff when they’re doing that (in case, e.g., one of their academic advisees has a problem) but it seems to me excessive that they should have to inform someone at an official level every time they work off campus for whatever reason. Leaving a contact phone number for use during working hours is quite adequate.

It seems to me that behind this move by the University of Edinburgh there’s the managerialist suspicion that everyone must be a shirker at heart. In fact one of the problems I have as a manager is not persuading staff to work longer hours, but to  stop working  excessively long hours.  I don’t think I’ve succeeded, largely because I haven’t found a way of doing my job at the same time as achieving  a sensible work-life balance.

Anyway, the point is that academic contracts do not usually specify where staff should work. There is a good reason for this, which is that the job is very diverse and replies flexible work arrangements. Academic contracts do not usually specify fixed hours of work per week, either, for the same reason. Some don’t even give a specific holiday entitlement. Staff in technical and professional service areas generally have contracts that specify both. I floated an idea at a staff that academics should file an official log of official leave. It wasn’t a popular suggestion because academic staff thought there was an implication that they were skiving by taking excessively long holidays. In fact my motivation was quite the opposite: to try to ensure that they take all the leave to which they are entitled.



Giant Steps, from Astrophysics to Jazz

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 21, 2012 by telescoper

I’m indebted to Alan Heavens (currently of Edinburgh University, shortly to move to Imperial College) for drawing my attention to outstanding young jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Dan’s music, over the past few days and I think he’s brilliant. What’s even more interesting about him from the point of view of this blog is his background:  he is a former Astrophysics student (at the University of Edinburgh). He changed direction away from academic studies in order to focus on his music, relocated to New York and has subsequently received rave reviews for his performances both live and on various albums. He tours extensively in the USA and worldwide; next time he’s in the UK I’m definitely going to check out one of his live gigs. Do visit his website; as a taster here’s his  highly original (and pretty long) live version of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps..

To Edinburgh and Back

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , on November 10, 2011 by telescoper

I’m back home now after a trip to and from the fine city of Edinburgh which, in case you weren’t aware, is known to the locals as Auld Reekie. I wonder if there’s a local internet guide called Reekipedia?

The excuse for this trip was an invitation to take part in an exercise called a Teaching Programme Review in the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. The TPR is an exercise that looks at the courses on offer in the department, how they are taught, as well as the technical and administrative arrangements to back it all up. The Panel involved people from other departments inside the University and a couple of external advisers (both physicists), of which I was one. The Panel will be writing a detailed report on our findings which I hope will turn out to be useful, but it definitely wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on the details here.

What I will say here is that, although it was a very intense and busy few days, including face-to-face meetings with all kinds of academic and support staff, as well as current students, it was extremely interesting. As well as hopefully providing some input and suggestions to the TPR, it was also a chance for me to see the inner workings of another department and pick up a few ideas for the way we teach Physics courses in Cardiff.

One of the striking things about this visit was how similar are many of the problems facing Edinburgh to those we encounter in Cardiff. Another is how easy it is to recognize kindred spirits. It may not always be obvious to the students, but physicists are passionate about their subject, not only in terms of their research but also in terms of nurturing the talents of the students in their care. In the Brave New World of Higher Education we’re all supposed to see universities as businesses, competing ruthlessly in an unforgiving marketplace. In fact, most of us at the real business end of the university system (i.e. teaching and research as opposed to PR and marketing) see our competitors more as colleagues than as rivals. Long may that continue, in my opinion.

During the visit I was taken on a tour of the excellent facilities available at Edinburgh, including some really snazzy and impressive “teaching studios” the like of which I’d never seen before. I’d really love to have a go at teaching in one of those some day, as they offer a different style of education which I’m sure complements the more traditional lecture format. The students seem to like them a lot, which is the most important thing.

However, I have to say that the thing that I was most jealous about was the fact that most of their teaching rooms still have blackboards. Ours have all been replaced with horrible whiteboards that require expensive markers and are far less visible to a big audience. “Chalk and talk” is a tried and tested method and when it’s done well I still think it’s a very effective one. I’m all for innovation in teaching, but some traditional methods are actually pretty good!

Anyway, I’d like to thank everyone from Auld Reekie University for hosting this visit. It was hard work, but thoroughly enjoyable. If anyone from Edinburgh reads this I hope they will pass on my thanks to all the staff and students there for making it such a rewarding occasion! I’m just sorry I didn’t have the chance to see a bit more of the city, but the schedule was just too hectic.

What I did enjoy was staying in a nice hotel for 3 days that offered a truly splendid cooked breakfast in the mornings. I hadn’t started the day with kippers for a very long time! Might need to go on a diet for a few days though….