Archive for William Wordsworth

Examination Times

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by telescoper

After a gloriously sunny weekend, it’s now a gloriously sunny Monday. There always seems to be good weather when students are revising for, or actually taking, their examinations. It’s Mother Nature’s special torture. The bus I was on this morning went past a large crowd of students waiting outside the Sports Hall in the bright sunshine for some examination or other.  The sight did remind me that I usually post something about examinations at this time of year, so here’s a lazy rehash of my previous offerings on the subject.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with those of  William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. On previous occasions, before I moved to the University of Sussex, I’ve bemoaned the role that modularisation has played in this process, especially in my own discipline of physics.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way modules are used in many British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of many module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

In most UK universities (including Sussex), tudents take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. In many institutions, these are split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester; there are two semesters per year. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, so the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

Such an arrangement means a heavy ratio of assessment to education, one that has risen sharply over the last decades,  with the undeniable result that academic standards in physics have fallen across the sector. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I think the system we have here at the University of Sussex is much better than I’ve experienced elsewhere. For a start the basic module size is 15 credits. This means that students are usually only doing four things in parallel, and they consequently have fewer examinations, especially since they also take laboratory classes and other modules which don’t have a set examination at the end. There’s also a sizeable continuously assessed component (30%) for most modules so it doesn’t all rest on one paper. Unusually compared with the rest of the University, Physics students don’t have many examinations in the January mid-year examination period either. Although there’s still in my view too much emphasis on assessment and too little on the joy of finding things out, it’s much less pronounced than elsewhere. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the Department of Physics & Astronomy does so consistently well in the National Student Survey?

We also have modules called Skills in Physics which focus on developing the problem-solving skills I mentioned above; these are taught through a mixture of lectures and small-group tutorials. I don’t know what the students think of these sessions, but I always enjoy them because the problems set for each session are generally a bit wacky, some of them being very testing. In fact I’d say that I’m very impressed at the technical level of the modules in the Department of Physics & Astronomy generally. I’ve been teaching Green’s Functions, Conformal Transformations and the Calculus of Variations to second-year students this semester. Those topics weren’t on the syllabus at all in my previous institution!

Anyway, my Theoretical Physics paper is next week (on 28th May) so I’ll find out if the students managed to learn anything despite having such a lousy lecturer. Which reminds me, I must get the rest of their revision notes onto the Study Direct website…

A Character

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on March 29, 2014 by telescoper

I marvel how Nature could ever find space
For so many strange contrasts in one human face:
There’s thought and no thought, and there’s paleness and bloom
And bustle and sluggishness, pleasure and gloom.

There’s weakness, and strength both redundant and vain;
Such strength as, if ever affliction and pain
Could pierce through a temper that’s soft to disease,
Would be rational peace–a philosopher’s ease.

There’s indifference, alike when he fails or succeeds,
And attention full ten times as much as there needs;
Pride where there’s no envy, there’s so much of joy;
And mildness, and spirit both forward and coy.

There’s freedom, and sometimes a diffident stare
Of shame scarcely seeming to know that she’s there,
There’s virtue, the title it surely may claim,
Yet wants heaven knows what to be worthy the name.

This picture from nature may seem to depart,
Yet the Man would at once run away with your heart;
And I for five centuries right gladly would be
Such an odd such a kind happy creature as he.

by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The Little Red Book Revisited

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , , on September 15, 2013 by telescoper

I can hardly believe it, but tomorrow this blog will be five years old; my first ever post was on September 16th 2008. I’ve decided to use this occasion as an excuse to wallow in self-indulgence by reposting some vintage items, with appropriate updates. This one was originally posted on 27th September 2008, but I’ve updated it with a picture of the eponymous little red book and a scan from one of its pages.

–0–

 

It’s now late September and there’s no sign that the Indian summer we’ve been having is going to fade. Once again, I’m sitting outside in the sunshine while Columbo daydreams. In the newspapers there’s yet more panic about the global financial crisis and the US Government’s attempts to persuade Congress to bail out the profligate bankers. The Republicans don’t want to play along, apparently because they don’t like the idea of government getting involved in the markets. I’m opposed to it for the opposite reason, which is I think those who have caused the problem should be the ones that pay for it. If the UK government decides to bail out any banks, I hope it will be at the price of public representation on their boards or even nationalisation.

Not long ago there was talk about energy companies having a windfall tax levied upon them owing to the sudden leap in their profits arising from high oil and gas prices. This seemed like a good idea to me. A retrospective windfall tax on city bonuses to pay for any packages cobbled together to pay the financial sector’s debts appears at least as justifiable as that proposed for the energy sector.

It’s now about a year since my father died. He hadn’t left a will so I had to travel to Weymouth to tidy up his things and organise a funeral. I hadn’t seen him much in recent years and was never particularly close, since my parents split up when I was about 12 and I went to live with my mother when that happened.

My dad never really came to terms with life after the break up of the family. His business eventually went down the tubes and he left Newcastle to live in Weymouth near his sister, my Auntie Ann, who had lived there for quite a while. He had a history of heart problems so his death wasn’t really a shock, but it did bring feelings of guilt to me, for not having kept in touch very well, as well sudden and unpredictable pangs of nostalgia which I’m still a bit prone to.

Among the memories that popped uncontrollably into my mind last year was a visit we made as a family to the house of my late Auntie Vi, who I don’t think I ever met. I don’t remember when this was but it was just after she died, when I guess I was probably about seven or eight which would make it around 1970 or so. My dad was among those invited to the house to help clear it by taking away anything they wanted.

I don’t remember the house very well except that it was rather dark, decorated with Victorian designs, and cluttered with heavy old-fashioned furniture. I imagined Auntie Vi (or “Violetta”, which was her real name) to be quite scary, perhaps like a governess in some gothic novel. I don’t know much about her except that she wasn’t well liked by the rest of the family. There was talk of some scandal, but I never found out what it was. I was just intrigued how she got the name Violetta. Perhaps her parents liked opera.

Wordsworth

The only relic from that visit that I still know about was a little red book that we took home with us. It was a book of Poems by Wordsworth which my mum kept when she split up with my dad and moved out. I asked her about it last year, after my dad’s funeral, and was quite surprised to find she still had it. She gave it to me to keep, and it is on the table beside me now as I write this.

Out of curiosity last year I looked for the date the little book was published, but couldn’t find one anywhere inside. I don’t know why, but the lack of that little bit of information bothered me. I looked on the web to see if there was information about this or similar books was to be found. No luck.

I turned instead to the task of finding out whatever I could about the publisher. The book is in a series called “Canterbury Poets” which was published by the Walter Scott Publishing company (London, New York and Felling). That made be laugh. As if anyone could ever have imagined Felling to be on a par with New York or London!

I had assumed that Sir Walter Scott was the famous novelist of Ivanhoe and the Waverley novels, but digging about a little I found out that it was named for someone else entirely. This particular Sir Walter Scott was born in 1826. He had very little formal education, but became a highly successful businessman. By the 1880s he owned a large network of business interests in the North East, primarily involving engineering and construction companies. In 1882 Scott expanded his empire by buying a publishing company “The Tyne Publishing Company”, which had just gone bust. Scott built a new factory (at Felling) and established a new office in London for his new publishing house, and the Walter Scott Publishing Company was born.

I think Scott must have been a very shrewd entrepreneur because the printing business grew rapidly, primarily through its list of editions of classic works of literature that were out of copyright. The Canterbury Poets series was first published in 1884, which is also the date of their first edition of the Wordsworth. These books were extremely well made, with hard covers, fine quality paper and good stitching . They sold for a shilling, which is an astonishingly low price for books of this quality. I can’t be sure, but have a feeling that a lot of them were given as “rewards” , for good behaviour at sunday schools and the like. That market accounted for a lot of the book trade in those days.Sir Walter Scott died in 1910 and the company ceased trading in 1931. At its peak it did indeed have offices in New York, and also sold large quantities of books in Australia.

I found this all out quite easily, because the Walter Scott Company turned out to be quite famous for the role it played in the story of working class literacy, but it didn’t tell me about the specific edition I had. However, I did discover that a scholarly work had been published in 1997 that contained a complete biliography of all the works it published until the company finally went down the tubes. Quite apart from the connection with my peculiar Aunt, I found the whole story quite fascinating. I sent off for the bibliography, which is basically a kind of catalogue that painstakingly records the size, typeface, cover design, and printers colophons for all known editions. (It’s quite boring to read, as you can imagine). I searched through it to find references to William Wordsworth. Number 99c is the entry for the “Poems” of William Wordsworth.

With a bit of work I established that the specific edition I have was first published in 1892 but reprinted many times after that. Details of the book, however, indicate that my version was actually printed in 1902. Among the clues is the fact that the colophon states “The Walter Scott Publishing Co, Ltd.” and it didn’t become a limited company until 1902. The company also moved its London and New York offices a couple of times which helps pin down the date, as these changes are noted on the imprint.

So there you have it. The little red book was printed in Felling in 1902, which happens to be the same year that my little house in Pontcanna was built, just after the death of Queen Victoria. I don’t know how old Auntie Vi was when she died, but she must have been a young girl when she got it and had obviously kept it all the rest of her life. That fits with the way her name is written in pencil, in what looks like a child’s hand, inside the front cover.

The book isn’t particularly valuable. A lot were printed and it’s not particularly rare. I’m not sure Wordsworth is very collectible nowadays either. I am still amazed, though, how well it had withstood the passage of time. Today’s books are cheaply bound and printed on chatty paper. Most modern paperbacks are in bad condition only a few years after you buy them. They made things to last in those days.

It seems appropriate to end with one of Wordsworth’s poems, of which (I forgot to mention) I’m very fond indeed. I’ve picked the start of the Ode “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”, partly because there’s a wonderful setting of this work to music by Gerald Finzi which was performed at this years Proms.

I think it’s apt enough. Here is the first verse as it appears in the Little Red Book:

wordsworth_intiminations

 

Heiliger Dankgesang

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2013 by telescoper

Not much time to post these days, what with one thing and another, but music is always a good standby. In fact I’ve had this at the back of my mind for some time; hearing it on the radio last week gave me the nudge I needed to post it. I always feel a but uncomfortable about posting just a movement from a classical piece, but I think it is justifiable in this case. This is the 3rd Movement of String Quartet No. 15 (in A minor) by Ludwig van Beethoven (Opus 132).

The third movement is headed with the words

Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart

I take the liberty of translating the first two words, using my schoolboy German, as “A Holy Song of Thanksgiving”; Beethoven wrote the piece after recovering from a very serious illness which he had feared might prove fatal. The movement begins in a mood of quiet humility but slowly develops into a sense of hope and deeply felt joy. The most remarkable  thing about this movement to me, though,  is that the music possesses the same restorative powers that it was written to celebrate. This music has a therapeutic value all of its own.

I don’t know if William Wordsworth (of whose poetry I am also extremely fond) ever had the chance to hear Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15 , and in Tintern Abbey he was writing about the therapeutic power of nature rather than music, but surely the  “tranquil restoration” described in that poem is exactly the feeling  Beethoven achieves in his music:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration: — feelings too

Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on, —
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Examination Period

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on January 14, 2013 by telescoper

Up early this morning as I have to chair my final meeting of the Board of Studies in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University before heading off to the Sussex-by-the-Sea for a three days of lectureship interviews and related matters. I’ll therefore probably only have time for brief posts over the next week or so.

Today is also the start of our mid-year examination period which goes on for a fortnight at Cardiff University. It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, whether in Cardiff or elsewhere, especially those who are further on in their courses and for whom these papers have greater importance.

I’m a bit too busy for anything new so I thought I’d just post a rehash of a rehash of an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. The biggest bane of physics education is the way modular degrees have been implemented in this respect…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way we teach modules in British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Our students take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

This means that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen in physics. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…

Authentic Tidings of Invisible Things

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 5, 2013 by telescoper

One of my very first blog posts (from way back in 2008) was inspired by an old book of poems by William Wordsworth that I’ve had since I was a child. I was reading it again this evening and came across this short excerpt, near the end of the book, from The Excursion, and entitled for the purposes of the book The Universe a Shell. It struck me as having a message for anyone who works on the science of things either too big or too small to be sensed directly on a human scale, so I thought I’d post it.

I decided to scan it in rather than copy it from elsewhere on the net, as I really love the look of that old faded  typeface on the yellowing paper, even if it is a bit wonky because it went over two pages. I’ve been fond of Wordsworth for as long as I can remember and, like a few other things, that’s something I’ll never feel the need to apologize for…

Shell-a

Shell-b

Mutability

Posted in Poetry with tags , on July 18, 2012 by telescoper

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail:
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Lines Written in Early Spring

Posted in Poetry with tags , on March 23, 2012 by telescoper

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.

The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:–
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.

The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.

If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?

by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Examination Period

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on January 16, 2012 by telescoper

Today is the start of our mid-year examination period which goes on for a fortnight at Cardiff University.It’s therefore a good opportunity to send a hearty “good luck” message to all students about to take examinations, especially those who are further on in their courses for whom these papers have greater importance.

I’m a bit too busy for anything particularly profound today, so I thought I’d just rehash an excerpt from something I posted a while ago on the subject of examinations.

My feelings about examinations agree pretty much with William Wordsworth, who studied at the same University as me, as expressed in this quotation from The Prelude:

Of College labours, of the Lecturer’s room
All studded round, as thick as chairs could stand,
With loyal students, faithful to their books,
Half-and-half idlers, hardy recusants,
And honest dunces–of important days,
Examinations, when the man was weighed
As in a balance! of excessive hopes,
Tremblings withal and commendable fears,
Small jealousies, and triumphs good or bad–
Let others that know more speak as they know.
Such glory was but little sought by me,
And little won.

It seems to me a great a pity that our system of education – both at School and University – places such a great emphasis on examination and assessment to the detriment of real learning. The biggest bane of physics education is the way modular degrees have been implemented.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to modularisation in principle. I just think the way we teach modules in British universities fails to develop any understanding of the interconnection between different aspects of the subject. That’s an educational disaster because what is most exciting and compelling about physics is its essential unity. Splitting it into little boxes, taught on their own with no relationship to the other boxes, provides us with no scope to nurture the kind of lateral thinking that is key to the way physicists attempt to solve problems. The small size of each module makes the syllabus very “bitty” and fragmented. No sooner have you started to explore something at a proper level than the module is over. More advanced modules, following perhaps the following year, have to recap a large fraction of the earlier modules so there isn’t time to go as deep as one would like even over the whole curriculum.

Our students take 120 “credits” in a year, split into two semesters. These are usually split into 10-credit modules with an examination at the end of each semester. Laboratories, projects, and other continuously-assessed work do not involve a written examination, but the system means that a typical  student will have 5 written examination papers in January and another 5 in May. Each paper is usually of two hours’ duration.

This means that the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply over the last decades with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen in physics. The system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorising chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations. A brain is so much more than a memory device. What we should be doing is giving students the confidence to think for themselves and use their intellect to its full potential rather than encouraging rote learning.

You can contrast this diet of examinations with the regime when I was an undergraduate. My entire degree result was based on six three-hour written examinations taken at the end of my final year, rather than something like 30 examinations taken over 3 years. Moreover, my finals were all in a three-day period. Morning and afternoon exams for three consecutive days is an ordeal I wouldn’t wish on anyone so I’m not saying the old days were better, but I do think we’ve gone far too far to the opposite extreme. The one good thing about the system I went through was that there was no possibility of passing examinations on memory alone. Since they were so close together there was no way of mugging up anything in between them. I only got through  by figuring things out in the exam room.

I don’t want to denigrate the achievements of students who are successful under the current system.  What I’m saying is that I don’t think the education we provide does justice to their talents. That’s our fault, not theirs…

The Rainbow

Posted in Poetry with tags , on September 4, 2011 by telescoper

It’s almost sunset, but I just saw a rainbow on the way back from the corner shop. It reminded me of this lovely little poem.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).