September 28, 2004

Hitting the Ground Falling Over

Whooooo boy, the avalanche of preparation of teaching materials has hit. It is days like these that you get to experience the rich variety of metaphors (old cliches and older) that sum up this situation, by trading with colleagues: "I'm submerged.", "I'm drowning.", "I'm absolutely up to my eye-balls.", "I'm searching for a rescue dinghy.".

Today's winner is Jeremy, with "I'm trying to have my nervous breakdown but I'm having great difficulty finding the time."

Worked 57.5 hours last week (that's 164% compared to so-called normal working hours), and 61.5 (175%) the week before. There must be a life-raft around here somewhere.

September 24, 2004

Exam Quotes

Some quotes from an exam:

  • [in response to a question asking for the definition of a multimedia system] "Multimedia systems are those systems that have been developed for purposes mainly involving marketing."
  • "Hypertext are weird documents which could mess up your system, if not evaluated and looked into properly."
  • "A cookie trail should also be used to let the user see which page he is in."

September 21, 2004


As you might guess, I mean this sort of Unispeak, not this one nor the language in this film. For lossy, see previous post.

September 20, 2004

"It's SUPPOSED to be like that" (Rant)

There's one type of situation that is particularly effective at driving me up the wall, which occurs at regular intervals. This is when you find some non-trivial problem (usually originating with one of the administrative sections of the University), take the trouble to carefully inform the relevant person politely, and then said person defends the problematic situation and says that there isn't a problem.

Guess what happened to me today?


I'm not expecting a big apology, mind you. I'm not expecting the person in question, to say something like "Oh my goodness, you're right, I'm so sorry!" in an apologetic fashion, or a "Thanks for letting me know, I'll see if we can do something about it". Even a surly "I'll look into it" would be something. But no, what really drives me up the wall is when the person defends the situation and tries to argue that the problem isn't problematic at all, it's supposed to be like that, particularly when they're implying that they know a lot more about a computing area than I do, which, as a computing academic, grates rather.

Today's particular incident was rather distinctive and certainly not preserving of anonymity, so I'll give you an example from a few months ago to illustrate:

The printing department were issuing copies of a logo to be used in University documentation, both printed and electronic copies (e.g. for web pages). The electronic copies they issued were of very small size and in the JPEG format. Now if you know anything about graphics file formats, you'll know that JPEG was designed for photographs and doesn't do too well with logos; it's lossy (loses some data) and with logo-like images you see little bleeds of colour around the supposed-to-be-sharp edges. In other words, having the logo as a JPEG resulted in poor quality. Not only that, but having surreptitiously got hold of a GIF image of the logo, the GIF image was not only higher quality (not lossy for this image) but also a smaller file size! Yet it was the JPEG version that we were mandated to use. Not only that, but they wouldn't supply higher resolution copies of the image to use for printed documents. Our secretaries had to resort to ingenuity to produce copies of the logo for documents, and they looked terrible because of the poor resolution.

So I went to talk to the relevant person at the printing department. After politely asking for copies at higher resolution and a more sensible format, this person just point blank refused to accept the idea that providing the JPEG only was a problem. Even when I pointed out that the GIF format provided a smaller file size and better quality, she said "Oh well that's just your subjective opinion". Excuse me? 14K versus 16K ? Subjective? She might not have heard of the poor quality of JPEG for logos and not be aware that the difference in picture quality wasn't subjective either, but the difference in file size? And even if she did think it was my subjective opinion, then the opinion she was disagreeing with was the opinion of the person who probably knew more about graphics file formats than anyone else in the entire University! I went away fuming.

You do get some knowledgable administrators, mind you, and some academics who should know more than they do, but it never ceases to amaze me how there are several administrators who won't even entertain the idea that an academic might actually know more than an administrator on a subject that the academic specializes in! There are lots of other areas where the administrators refuse to ask for or take the advice of the computing department in their design and running of University systems: databases, interface design, data integrity, web technologies, I could go on and on. The University has a tubful of computing experts right on site and does it use them? Does it coco.

Anyway, I managed to get a small crumb of satisfaction out of all this: I set a data compression exam question where I asked students to discuss the choice of JPEG format for a logo. I do so love using real examples in my teaching. :-)

September 17, 2004

1st year courses

Michael Arnsen over at PEDABLOGUE (I'd say "Pedablogue" but for someone forcibly trained in the art of pedantry by programming language compilers, that is too case insensitive) has some interesting things to say about the dangers and challenges of getting jaded in teaching 1st year classes. His article Back to the Front refers to English composition courses, and it set me thinking about our 1st year programming courses, which are the bread and butter of undergraduate computer science degrees.

Like many academic subjects, computing too has many academics who would prefer to teach their own pet subject, or one of the advanced topics, rather than teach the 1st years basic concepts. It is the attitude of the departments that varies, interestingly enough. From what I've heard, whilst some departments don't take any particular care over 1st year teaching, some departments will actively seek to ensure that their 1st years get taught by some of the professors, or well-known names in the field. Some other departments will try and make sure that the best and/or keenest teachers in the department get assigned to 1st year courses, on the basis that teaching beginners to program is difficult (more about that in a later post) and important, so using the best lecturers is a good plan.

What Michael says at the end of his post is very true, even if for me, the "comp" stands for computing:

For every freshman in my comp class, I am their first (and sometimes only) [...] teacher ever. I need to remember that. Likewise, these are not the same students I've taught in the past. I can probably learn quite a bit from them -- even quite a bit about teaching from them.

September 16, 2004

Working Hours

Adding it all up, the hours I worked last week were 54. I'm not counting time spent at work but not actually working, so the lunchtime surfing doesn't count. And no, neither does writing for this blog. By comparison, someone who worked Mon-Fri 9-5 with an hour for lunch each day would get counted as working 35 hours.

Last week was a bit more intense than a typical week not in teaching time. We had a visitor to our department, and as a consequence I spent a lot of time on research in addition to all the preparations I'm having to make for the forthcoming rollercoaster ride. Yes, termtime is a lot like a rollercoaster. It sweeps you along in a whirl of lectures, seminars, lab sessions, and teaching preparation preparation preparation.

If I manage to make it to the Christmas holidays without collapsing in a little heap, I'll be happy.

September 14, 2004

Creative Students

Sometimes students do surprise you in a good way.

Some time ago in a programming class, an assignment specified some tasks involved with image manipulation. The tasks were just simple basic ones, things like making the image a little lighter, darker, a red filter, etc. etc.

At the end of the assignment I'd put a creative section, where students could think of their own transformations to make to the images. Many students did some fairly unimaginative things, like green filters, enlarging the image, but one submission was memorable, with a 3D version of the original image. It did look 3D through those red & blue glasses, too. Cheered up my marking no end, that did!

Quite what my colleagues thought of the request for those red and blue glasses for marking purposes, I don't know.

September 13, 2004

Professor Ratings

Uh oh! I just found, and I'm sure it's only a matter of time before one of these makes its way over to the UK.

Not that I should worry, mind you, I've always got very complimentary evaluations from students. But somehow the very thought still makes me a little nervous. I remind myself very firmly that it's a positive thing for students to be able to find out about lecturer ratings before being taught by them, and even more positive (if somewhat publicly painful) to get feedback on aspects of teaching that could be improved.

They also have a page of funniest ratings.

September 10, 2004

Truly Amazing

A truly amazing thing happened yesterday. A student came to my office door, actually read what was on the door, which said that I was not available and that forms for signing should be left in the envelope taped to the door. And then he/she actually left the form in the envelope WITHOUT knocking on my door and distburbing me! A student who could read, and could be polite! Amazing!

Most students around here don't read the information on my door that I've put in front of their noses especially for them to read. Instead, they decide that they are too important to read the information or to abide by it, and that even though I'm unavailable, they are going to bother me anyway. If I tell them verbally the exact same thing as what it says on my door, politely, that I am busy and to leave the form in the envelope, they decide they are going to ignore what I say and bother me further, and this can repeat a few times until I lose patience and snap at them, and THEN magically they are capable of understanding what I am saying and grasping that yes, I really do mean it. I have a lot of teaching preparations to do before teaching starts, for the benefit of students, and constant interruptions make this process very slow indeed.

I resent being forced to choose between the roles of either DoorMat Lecturer, to be bothered at the whim of every passing student, or Rude Lecturer, and no there isn't a feasible way of avoiding that.

What I also resent is the way the actions of a minority of students colour the way we look at students in general. The good students, the ones who show up, do the work, hand in their work on time, who ask you questions within the lab sessions rather than demanding your attention at other times, those good students simply don't show up on the radar. Almost all the students you notice show up because they are causing trouble of some kind. So yes, my first paragraph is sarcastic, it's not really unusual that one of them actually followed instructions, but gee, most of the time it really feels like it.

September 09, 2004

International Students

I'm currently updating a handbook for one of my courses, and I'm finding it a challenge to pay attention to details that will help students for whom English is not their first language. When adverse consequences from choosing a particular phrase is pointed out to you, it's easy to see why some students struggle to understand, but spotting the potential problems in advance is tricky! Some examples:
  • Avoid using sarcasm.
  • Try to avoid phrasing something using negatives like "don't", if the overall sentence can be expressed more clearly without them. For example, instead of "If you don't sign the form then your work may not get marked." try something like "To get your work marked, make sure you sign the form." if that form ofwords is suitable for its purpose.
  • Take care when using words with two or more meanings. For example if you ask students to "submit your assignment by 5pm", "submit" can also conjure upimages of surrender, which can be rather negative for some people.
Maybe one day if I acquire any blog readers, some of them will be kind enough to leave comments adding more suggestions?

September 08, 2004

Reading Research Papers

It's nice when I get the chance to sit down and read a research paper. It's even nicer when it's well written. Some research papers seem to be written with dense technical detail and very little in the way of explanation or examples. I'm not sure whether the writers aren't trying to help the reader understand the paper, or whether they feel it looks more impressive if measured in symbols per inch. Sometimes I wonder... Anyway the paper I read the other day was a pleasant exception. It was well written, the explanations were explanatory, and I managed to read it through to the the end whilst still understanding what was going on, rather than getting lost about halfway through like I usually do. The paper presented some interesting results, a very tempting conjecture, and I really felt like I'd learnt something valuable. Would that all my research papers could be like that!

September 06, 2004

Long Hours

It seems that I'm not the only one putting in long hours. This paper Pressure Points: A survey into the causes and consequences of occupational stress in UK academic and related staff is a few years old now, but interesting reading nevertheless. A couple of quotes from the paper:

For academics, the average length of the working week during term-time was almost 55 hours, decreasing to 51 hours during the student vacation period, with approximately 40 per cent of work done during evenings and weekends.

Academic teaching staff, on average, worked the longest hours: 48% reported working more than 50 hours, whilst 13% regularly worked in excess of 60 hours per week. Professors and senior lecturers reported the longest working week, with 26 per cent and 15 per cent respectively regularly working more than 60 hours.

I doubt it's got any better since then. For me, last year was too stressful and I can't keep on working at the same rate. Over the next year I intend to keep a record of the number of my working hours per week, starting today.

September 05, 2004

Now I'm even dreaming about it!

Term is still several weeks away yet, but already teaching preparations are underway. One course I will teach is going to change its methods of assessment and include a test, and the preparations have to be just right - you don't want any mistakes in students' marks. Last night I actually dreamed about a mock test for this new test. I remember thinking, whilst still in the dream, that I'd got loads of really really useful information from this mock test in my dream, and I must try really really hard to remember it when I woke up, because it would be valuable. And what was this oh-so-valuable information? Well, I remembered two parts of it. One was noticing that students in my dream had filled in some of the multiple choice questions wrongly: instead of ticking a box, they'd written 'a' for option a. So it was really important to give students instructions so that they filled out the answer papers ok. A valid concern if we were using optical character recognition to read the papers, but we're not planning to do that. The other one was concerning keeping students' question and answer papers together, and wouldn't it be a good idea to use treasury tags. Yes, brilliant idea, O Subconscious, if there were separate question and answer papers, and for some reason the question papers needed to be kept with the relevant answer papers... but they don't! In fact there is no separate answer paper - students will put their answers on the question paper itself! Useless, Subconscious! Must Do Better. A psychologist could no doubt have a field day...

September 03, 2004

Writing Practice

One of the reasons I decided to start this blog was to get some more practice at producing writing that I don't mind other people reading. Being from a science and computing background, mandatory opportunities to produce written work weren't frequent, and when it came to writing a thesis and research papers, having to produce high quality writing came as rather a shock. Even several years later, it seems that I'm slower at writing than perhaps I could be. The ideas in my head are clear enough, but when it comes to putting them on paper, they swirl around, refusing to crystallise into words, and my first attempts at choosing words to use inevitably result in garbled sentences. There are some people who, having done the research for a paper, can just sit down and write the paper from start to finish, to produce a first draft, but I am not one of those people. Thank Google I'm living in the age of the computer, not the typewriter! Over the years, I've picked up a few pieces of advice concerning good writing, and two in particular have been very useful:
  1. Try to make your writing as compact as possible. That is, rather than omitting certain points, try and say what you have to say in as few words as possible. This seems very useful, as when I manage to follow this advice from paragraph to paragraph, the quality of the writing does seem to improve; straight to the point with less waffle, I suppose.
  2. Read your writing out loud. No, muttering under your breath doesn't count; it has to be actual reading. Somehow the very act of hearing your words allows you to spot errors or poor phrasings that simply aren't visible when reading. If you can find another person (of infinite patience) to read to, that is even better, or failing that, a pet. Dogs are good; they pay attention and won't criticise or argue with you.
(And yes, I did read this entry out loud. The wood pigeon outside my window was less than impressed. Ah well.)

September 02, 2004


Allow me to introduce myself. I live in the land of Academia, in the Computing district. Today's chores involve marking (oh joy), which, as always, throws up interesting questions concerning what goes on in some students' brains. Some examples:
  • Why, when the question says "Draw a series of diagrams to show [how a state changes] " do I find just one diagram? Did you think that you were going to run out of paper? All 8 pages of answer book?
  • Did the student who wrote "Please pass me" think that a pathetic plea will somehow increase the mark, even when the question answers have only been a quarter completed?
  • One student wrote "The website should be very clean...". Sigh. When I was talking about Flash, I didn't mean floor cleaner.