October 27, 2004


I was going to post something on procrastination. But I'll leave that to another day.


October 20, 2004

Not a Red Letter Day I

Today was not a red letter day. Reasons why:

  • Had to get up at 6am in order to get sufficient work done in time for a meeting.
  • The people who convened the first meeting turned up 40 minutes late. Yes, I could have use 40 minutes more sleep.
  • I don't know what was more depressing, the fact that the first meeting was conducted entirely using University acronyms, or that I understood all the acronyms. At least, I think I did.
  • Students banging on my door all day when meetings are going on.
  • Similarly telephone calls. I never remember that the plug in the telephone socket is removable until too late.
  • Students turned up for project meetings having not done any work. At least some of them were honest about it.
  • Being forced to present something to Very Senior People in a Very Important Meeting and being scared I would say something stupid. I didn't, but I managed to interrupt in several wrong places.
  • A meeting where I was called on the carpet by senior colleagues to explain my checking of a test paper they had written. They were explaining to me what the questions meant, and I'm thinking "Don't explain to me! Explain to the students taking the test! Write the test paper better!"
  • Because of all the meetings, I had to miss out on a meeting of the sports club I go to, and write a sheet for a practical session instead. How to do Drag and flippin' drop. Whoopee doo.

Maybe I should perceive a clue here. Day has lots of meetings. Day doesn't go so well. Hmmmmm, connection?

October 14, 2004

Red Letter Day I

Sometimes you get a whole cluster of nice things happening to you on one day. Today was one of those days. Firstly, one colleague brought me a really nice resource that can be used by students on a course that I organise. Secondly, another colleague offered me some teaching next term that will reduce my workload. Thirdly, one of my project students had done some really nice work on his project, and brought some lovely little examples for me to look at. I love seeing students get really interested in their projects and looking at the results of their work.

October 13, 2004

The Devil is in the Detail

There are lots of topics I do know something about, but one thing I know very little of is English literature. I have no idea about quotations, and I can't cite who might have said "the devil is in the detail", but it is certainly true when it comes to writing programming worksheets, one of today's tasks. One little error in the details of the information given on the sheet, and you can spend many minutes in the lab paying for it (as will all the other poor tutors that have to teach from it).

For example, ask students to use a certain function to solve a problem, then if you forgot to tell them that it already exists and all they need to do it use it, then you'll be faced with lots of students looking blank, as they try to define the function for themselves.

Give the wrong location for a file that they need to access for the work, and they'll all tell you "I can't find the file" individually at 2 minute intervals. If you attempt to circumvent this by telling them en masse, this refrain will change to "Where did you say that file was again?", and if you attempt to circumvent that by additionally writing it up on a nearby whiteboard, the refrain will change to variations along the lines of "What did you say earlier?" or "Is that an 'a' or a 'd'?". All of this could have been avoided if you'd got the location of the file right in the first place!

The dratted thing is that even when you attempt to go through the sheet with a fine tooth-comb, to weed out mistakes, you can't find many of them, because you're not looking at the sheet from the perspective of someone new to the material, you're looking at it from the perspective of the author who knows all the stuff on the sheet and is fed up of it by now. Really you'd need to leave it at least a week before checking it, to try and get more of a fresh perspective. But rarely do we manage to find the luxury of that amount of time in advance of the practical session itself.

October 12, 2004

Roulette Results, Autumn 2004

No technology mishaps. No misbehaving computers in practical labs. No double bookings. As predicted in the First Week Roulette entry, that little roulette ball found an entirely new slot to inhabit.

When my first lab session was full to bursting, rather than be flattered, I was suspicious. Rightly so! Because of a quirk of the room bookings system, lots of students had the wrong information on their timetable, and three groups of students were all listed as being allocated to the first group. Not only that, but I don't have access to see the students' personal timetables, so it was an error I couldn't have detected beforehand. And when I contacted the timetabling people to complain that students were being given wrong information, I got back a load of codswallopy excuses about how it's supposed to be like that. Grr! How would they like it if they got sent to a meeting that occurred at a different time from that advertised?

I hate it when other people make you look really badly organised.

October 11, 2004

When exam rules are flouted

A few months ago there was talk of banning calculators in exams (some students find calculator cases perfect for hiding notes in). Mobile phones are already banned, of course, because of their texting facilities, though I daresay assorted naff ring tones don't do anything for concentration on binary arithmetic, either.

It reminds me of the story a colleague of mine tells, when she was once invigilating an exam and caught a student looking at his mobile phone. Triumphantly, she hauled the student into the nearby corridor, whereby the student pleaded that she not read the message on his phone that he had been looking at. All to no avail, of course, she read the message ... to find that it was an extremely sexy text message from his girlfriend saying what she was going to do to him later on that evening!

Poor soul. I'll bet that ruined his concentration. Such as it was.

October 08, 2004

How we lecturers set a course syllabus

In a conversation between me and another lecturer, said other lecturer being known worldwide in the field that is the very topic of this course, and also the organiser of it:


Thanks for agreeing to swap that lecture with me. I'm relieved not to be teaching that particular topic, because although I've a fair bit of practical experience with it, I don't know anything about the theoretical side of it and what the main issues are.

Other lecturer:

But you were the one who added the topic to the course, new for this year. I don't know much about it either.


Hey, it wasn't me who added it to the course, you're the organiser, you know about these things, you must have done it! Besides, I didn't even know what that acronym stood for, I had to look it up!

So how that topic got there, we have no idea. There wasn't anyone else involved in setting topics for the course. It must have wandered in of its own accord. Still, I don't mind, even if the swap did involve agreeing to write the exam questions. It's a fun topic, and I'm sure the students will enjoy it, because it will involve one of their favourite forms of bunking off.

October 07, 2004

Process Processes

That'll teach me to go to a departmental meeting. We sat there in what I can only presume was rabbit-in-the-headlights silence as our high-ups passed onto us (from their high-ups, originally emanating from the government) news of four, count 'em, four bureaucratic schemes to be implemented in addition to existing administrative, teaching and research workloads. There's schemes for: reviewing timesheet processes, reviewing people processes, reviewing teaching processes, and reviewing research processes. I fully expect (and hereby predict) that one day there will be a bureaucratic scheme for reviewing process processes. No wonder I hate managerspeak and bureaucracy.

Actually, to be fair, some of these won't necessarily have to be implemented by all of us, some other department might get the short straw, but we all know what Sod's Law says!

I'm going to shut that nasty stuff out of my mind and go and have a nice pleasant time with the mental challenge of setting a test paper that is going to be really quick to mark. Maybe I'll post about that later on in the week sometime, it's an interesting bit of pedagogy.

October 05, 2004

Keen Students

There were some nice students that I met during their first week of studying computing. They were keen to program, and hoped that there would be some challenging programming assignments set during the year. I realised, to my dismay, that I was surprised.

You see, we don't get many students who are keen to program. Not many students, I hear you ask? Surely they have chosen to study for a computing degree, and if they didn't like programming, they would have chosen a different degree? Apparently not. We get a lot of students who don't want to program, and who actively avoid courses with a heavy programming component. From what I can tell, we aren't alone in finding this with students - many universities all over the UK find this as well.

It's pretty depressing, getting students who aren't interested in the core component of their degree. Why do such students choose to study computing? Maybe they think that they will get a better job? Maybe they think that computing is all about using computers, and they expect to study stuff like "Advanced Microsoft Word" or "Excel for the Modern Business"?

But it gets worse! Not only do students who misunderstand what computing is all about come to study it, but we also lose out on the students who would really enjoy the subject, but are put off because they think computing is all about acquiring IT skills, which they find boring. They'd much rather put their brain to use solving problems, and they don't realise that computing offers that in spades.

I think we're still in the process of reaching equilibrium. From the early start of computing as a minority subject, numbers swelled as undergraduates looked at the multitude of jobs in the expanding computing market, and it was new and sexy and exciting. Now the jobs are thinner on the ground, let's hope the numbers shrink a little bit, so that students study computing because they are interested in it. Some better marketing to school children of computing as a degree subject wouldn't hurt either.

October 01, 2004

First Week Roulette

And so the first week of term approaches, and once more into the breach, you have to participate in a kind of roulette with whichever course you are in charge of: which particular administrivial details are going to lurk in wait and trip you up, and just how bad is the damage going to be?

Will it be the old classic, the double booking? Where a whole lecture might be wasted because another lecturer managed to get the room bookings people to renege on your booking of the lecture theatre 3 months ago and there isn't another room big enough?

Will it be the practical labs, which all got their computer systems updated over the summer, and nobody tested the software on it, let alone tell you that the programming environment the students all use doesn't work any more?

Will it be the technology that lets you down, as happened to a colleague of mine whose radio microphone picked up the wrong frequency and ended up broadcasting the aerobics session of a nearby gym to the whole lecture theatre?

One thing you are guaranteed: it's not going to be any of the things that happened to you before and that you carefully dodged this time. Oh no. It'll be a new one.