Like so many educational institutions worldwide, our college closed ten days ago and it now seems unlikely that we will see our students in person before the Autumn. Although not unexpected, the closure happened at extremely short notice and many lecturers were caught napping. For most of us, last week was a hectic week of preparing notes, tutorials and other resources that students can use for online learning. A parallel challenge was a crash course in learning to liaise with staff and students using digital tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google hangouts and Slack.
The spread of the COVID-19 virus is a very serious crisis, but I must admit that I am quite enjoying the experience of remote teaching so far. In the first instance, I am always happy to learn new digital skills, they usually turn out to be useful in all sorts of ways. More importantly, a lot of my students seem to be quite happy to get on with studying their notes. Many of our students have complained in the past that between attending labs, lectures and tutorials, there never seems to be much time to go over their notes and reflect on the material. I certainly found this myself as an undergraduate science student in UCD and I suspect it is even more of an issue in the IoT sector. So while some of my colleagues are delivering their lectures via video link, I prefer to use the crisis to try out the so-called flipped classroom, i.e., let the students study the material first and ask questions on it afterwards.
As regards the summer exams, the college authorities haven’t yet decided how to proceed; it seems likely that the exams will be done either by online assessment or by deferring to the autumn. I hope it’s the former, I hate to think of our students having to study over the summer months. Mind you, it’s not clear yet what any of us will be able to do this summer!
Last but not least, when prep for remote teaching has settled down, I suspect I will have quite a bit more time for research. I have several unfinished articles I couldn’t find time to attend to during normal termtime, I’m looking forward to getting back to them …
Just a quick post to highlight the fact that December 15th marks the deadline for submission of abstracts for the 4th International Conference on the History of Physics. The conference marks the fourth in a biennial series of meetings supported by the UK Institute of Physics and the European Physical Society that aim to bring together historians of science and physicists with an interest in the history of their subject and will take place at Trinity College Dublin on June 17th-19th. The website for the conference is here and previous iterations of the conference can be found here. This time around, a central theme of the conference will be the history of 20th century physics, from the world of the very small to the world of the very large, inspired by the centenary of the discovery of the proton and of the bending of light in a gravitational field.
I have attended all three of the previous meetings of this conference series and they were most interesting. As the conference takes place in Ireland this time around, I have been heavily involved in the preparations, from chairing the scientific programming committee to attending regular meetings of the organizing committee at Trinity College. It’s been a most interesting experience but I never quite realised how much work goes into organising such meetings! As you can see from the website and the poster above, we will have 8-10 invited speakers at the conference and we expect another 20-30 ‘contributed’ abstracts to be submitted by the deadline of December 15th. So, for those of you with an interest in the history of science, it’s time to get thinking about a topic!
Thank God for mid-term, or ‘reading week’ as it is known in some colleges. Time was I would have spent the week on the ski slopes, but these days I see the mid-term break as a precious opportunity to catch up – a nice relaxed week in which I can concentrate on correcting assessments, preparing teaching notes and setting end-of-semester exams. There is a lot of satisfaction in getting on top of things, if only temporarily!
Then there’s the research. To top the week off nicely, I heard this morning that my proposal to give a talk at the forthcoming Authur Eddington conference in Paris has been accepted; this is great news as the conference will mark the centenary of Eddington’s measurement of the bending of starlight by the sun, an experiment that provided key evidence in support Einstein’s general theory of relativity. To this day, some historians question the accuracy of Eddington’s result, while most physicists believe his findings were justified, so it should make for an interesting conference .
It was back to college this week, a welcome change after some intense research over the hols. I like the start of the second semester, there’s always a great atmosphere around the college with the students back and the restaurants, shops and canteens back open. The students seem in good form too, no doubt enjoying a fresh start with a new set of modules (also, they haven’t yet received their exam results!).
This semester, I will teach my usual introductory module on the atomic hypothesis and early particle physics to second-years. As always, I’m fascinated by the way the concept of the atom emerged from different roots and different branches of science: from philosophical considerations in ancient Greece to considerations of chemistry in the 18th century, from the study of chemical reactions in the 19th century to considerations of statistical mechanics around the turn of the century. Not to mention a brilliant young patent clerk who became obsessed with the idea of showing that atoms really exist, culminating in his famous paper on Brownian motion. But did you know that Einstein suggested at least three different ways of measuring Avogadro’s constant? And each method contributed significantly to establishing the reality of atoms.
In 1908, the French physicist Jean Perrin demonstrated that the motion of particles suspended in a liquid behaved as predicted by Einstein’s formula, derived from considerations of statistical mechanics, giving strong support for the atomic hypothesis.
One change this semester is that I will also be involved in delivering a new module, Introduction to Modern Physics, to first-years. The first quantum revolution, the second quantum revolution, some relativity, some cosmology and all that. Yet more prep of course, but ideal for anyone with an interest in the history of 20th century science. How many academics get to teach interesting courses like this? At conferences, I often tell colleagues that my historical research comes from my teaching, but few believe me!
Then of course, there’s also the module Revolutions in Science, a course I teach on Mondays at University College Dublin; it’s all go this semester!
There was a time when you wouldn’t catch sight of this academic in Ireland over Christmas – I used to head straight for the ski slopes as soon as term ended. But family commitments and research workloads have put paid to that, at least for a while, and I’m not sure it’s such a bad thing. Like many academics, I dislike being away from the books for too long and there is great satisfaction to be had in catching up on all the ‘deep roller’ stuff one never gets to during the teaching semester.
The professor in disguise in former times
The first task was to get the exam corrections out of the way. This is a job I quite enjoy, unlike most of my peers. I’m always interested to see how the students got on and it’s the only task in academia that usually takes slightly less time than expected. Then it was on to some rather more difficult corrections – putting together revisions to my latest research paper, as suggested by the referee. This is never a quick job, especially as the points raised are all very good and some quite profound. It helps that the paper has been accepted to appear in Volume 8 of the prestigious Einstein Studies series, but this is a task that is taking some time.
Other grown-up stuff includes planning for upcoming research conferences – two abstracts now in the post, let’s see if they’re accepted. I also spent a great deal of the holidays helping to organize an international conference on the history of physics that will be hosted in Ireland in 2020. I have very little experience in such things, so it’s extremely interesting, if time consuming.
So there is a lot to be said for spending Christmas at home, with copious amounts of study time uninterrupted by students or colleagues. An interesting bonus is that a simple walk in the park or by the sea seems a million times more enjoyable after a good morning’s swot. I’ve never really holidayed well and I think this might be why.
A walk on Dun Laoghaire pier yesterday afternoon
As for New Year’s resolutions, I’ve taken up Ciara Kelly’s challenge of a brisk 30-minute walk every day. I also took up tennis in a big way a few months ago – now there’s a sport that is a million times more practical in this part of the world than skiing.
There is always a great sense of satisfaction on the last day of the teaching semester. That great moment on a Friday afternoon when the last lecture is over, the last presentation is marked, and the term’s teaching materials can be transferred from briefcase to office shelf. I’m always tempted to jump in the car, and drive around the college carpark beeping madly. Of course there is the small matter of marking, from practicals, assignments and assessments to the end-of-semester exams, but that’s a very different activity!
The last day of term at WIT
For me, the semesterisation of teaching is one of the best aspects of life as an academic. I suppose it’s the sense of closure, of things finished – so different from research, where one paper just leads to another in a never-ending cycle. There never seems to be a good moment for a pause in the world of research, just a ton of papers I would like to write if I had the time.
In recent years, I’ve started doing a brief tally of research outputs at the end of each semester. Today, the tally is 1 book chapter, 1 journal article, 2 conference presentations and 1 magazine article (plus 2 newspaper columns). All seems ok until I remember that most of this material was in fact written over the summer. On reflection, the semester’s ‘research’ consisted of carrying out corrections to the articles above and preparing slides for conferences.
The reason for this is quite simple – teaching. On top of my usual lecturing duties, I had to prepare and deliver a module in 4th-year particle physics this term. It was a very interesting experience and I learnt a lot, but preparing the module took up almost every spare moment of my time, nuking any chances of doing any meaningful research during the teaching term. And now I hear that I will be involved in the delivery of yet another new module next semester, oh joy.
This has long been my problem with the Institutes of Technology. With contact hours set at a minimum of 16 hours/week, there is simply far too much teaching (a situation that harks back to a time when lecturers taught to Diploma level only). While the high-ups in education in our capital city make noises about the importance of research and research-led teaching, they refuse to countenance any change in this for research-active staff in the IoTs. If anything, one has the distinct impression everyone would much rather we didn’t bother. I don’t expect this situation to change anytime soon – in all the talk about technological universities, I have yet to hear a single mention of new lecturer contracts.
Today marks the end of the mid-term break for many of us in the third level sector in Ireland. While a non-teaching week in the middle of term has been a stalwart of secondary schools for many years, the mid-term break only really came to the fore in the Irish third level sector when our universities, Institutes of Technology (IoTs) and other colleges adopted the modern model of 12-week teaching semesters.
Also known as ‘reading week’ in some colleges, the break marks a precious respite in the autumn/winter term. A chance to catch one’s breath, a chance to prepare teaching notes for the rest of term and a chance to catch up on research. Indeed, it is the easiest thing in the world to let the latter slide during the teaching term – only to find that deadlines for funding, book chapters and conference abstracts quietly slipped past while one was trying to keep up with teaching and administration duties.
A quiet walk in Foxrock on the last day of the mid-term break
Which brings me to a pet peeve. All those years later, teaching loads in the IoT sector remain far too high. Lecturers are typically assigned four teaching modules per semester, a load that may have been reasonable in the early days of teaching to Certificate and Diploma level, but makes little sense in the context of today’s IoT lecturer who may teach several modules at 3rd and 4th year degree level, with typically at least one brand new module each year – all of this whilst simultaneously attempting to keep up the research. It’s a false economy if ever there was one, as many a new staff member, freshly graduated from a top research group, will simply abandon research after a few busy years.
Of course, one might have expected to hear a great deal about this issue in the governments plan to ‘upgrade’ IoTs to technological university status. Actually, I have yet to see any public discussion of a prospective change in the teaching contracts of IoT lecturers – a question of money, no doubt. But this is surely another indication that we are talking about a change in name, rather than substance…