January 28, 2005

Top ten ways to make an academic happy

10. Free Danish pastries available in the staff kitchen at 11 o' clock!

9. A student says something really complimentary about your teaching on their course evaluation form.

8. You get that research grant you applied for. (Modest joy, because administrative hassles lie ahead...)

7. That student who caused you endless administrative hassles has just completed a degree and left the University.

6. You manage find a car parking space in the nearer of the car parks to the department building, when you arrive at work well after 9am.

5. Your paper gets accepted to a prestigious journal, with only minor corrections required.

4. Your research student passes the PhD viva with flying colours.

3. Your application for a sabbatical is successful.

2. Undergraduate teaching finishes for the summer.

1. The sword of the internal teaching quality audit passes overhead, choosing to impale some other department in the university instead.

January 27, 2005

Quality Schmality

Here I am procrastinating. I should be getting on with writing a "Quality Strategy". I hate writing these sorts of documents. I suppose the idea is initially to plan, planning that the department will do all sorts of great things of great quality, and then those plans are put into practice over the next couple of years. This might sound all well and good, but from my perspective it is complete nonsense. Why? You can't often plan what you want in advance. You end up putting something down on paper that looks good, and this seems to be for two purposes:

Firstly, beforehand, the university high-ups can look at the strategy and think how wonderful it is that the department is going to do all these quality things. Secondly, after the department fails to do these things, it's a stick to beat the department with and give them less money next time, because they failed to meet their quality objectives.

This failure is because the writer of the strategy isn't clairvoyant, and everyone else in the department has different ideas about what things of quality should be done. So they get on and do their quality things, usually very well, and usually very cheaply too, because you didn't mention their plans in the quality strategy so they didn't get any funding for it.

The result? Department does things of quality, and gets penalised for it. Like I said, I hate writing quality strategies.

January 20, 2005

Verbal explanations when caught plagiarising

Universities up and down the country seem to be plagued with plagiarism, right across the spectrum of degree subjects. In fairness to students who do work hard on their programming assignments and well deserve their marks, I take various anti-plagiarism measures against those who cheat, both preventative and punitive. Not that it ever stops them, but still. When similarities are detected and plagiarists caught, there are several standard responses that crop up again and again. Here are some of the most common that I've seen:

But I didn't copy!

"Yes, he helped me...but I didn't copy!"
"Yes, I looked at his code.... but I didn't copy!"
"Yes, he did explain bits to me... but I didn't copy!"
"Yes, I borrowed his code... but I didn't copy!"

[This seems to be a particularly rampant excuse when the program code is identical, character-for-character. It is very bizarre hearing students say several things that indicate that they are guilty of plagiarism, whilst also denying it at the same time. Apparently just because they are learning programming doesn't mean that they can do logic.]


Blaming everyone that the student can think of. Blaming the lecturer in charge of the course, blaming the tutors, blaming the lack of other help (even if help was in plentiful supply and well-advertised). Also can come with extra topping: accusing the lecturer who discovered the plagiarism of creating a bad atmosphere on the course by discovering evidence of plagiarism.

[Oh yes, blaming the lecturer for discovering plagiarism is really going to help.]

The black-is-white approach

Deny deny deny, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. Student claims that yes this was his program, and yes it produced those outputs. This is even though the program doesn't even compile and therefore can't run and produce any outputs whatsoever.

Naive innocence

"Yes, I gave her a copy of my code.... but I never dreamed that she'd copy it."

[Yes, you said that last time we caught you for collusion. Do you think we were born yesterday?]

Stream of random excuses

Student goes off into excuses about how he was moving house and he has dyslexia and he's been really stressed and he had flu and then he broke his arm and he doesn't understand English very well and didn't realise when the deadline was and he is really desperate and please please don't penalise him.

The best one.

"Yes, I did it. It was wrong. I shouldn't have done it.I'm really sorry."

The only attempt at explanation I like. At least the student has the decency to minimise the hassle involved.

January 18, 2005

The students return...

Once more, it is time for first week roulette. I'll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, for your entertainment, I give you a first week roulette result from some time ago...

The University has quite a nifty system for registering students on the computer, to give them their new usernames and passwords. Students sit at the computer, type in some special guest username at the login screen, it then grills them with a few questions to see who they are, and then it tells them their name and password. Quite a handy system, when it works, much better than distributing little slips of paper to individual students, and much better than relying on students to have obtained their own login ID before their first programming practical lab.

So there I was, starting the practical session, with students all tappity tap tapping away, trying to get their brand new usernames. The registration system wouldn't let them on. What the F***?

It turned out that someone had turned the system off. Why? You might well ask. Someone decided to impose 9am-5pm hours on the system, and my practical class was in the evening. I ended up having to go and drag some poor IT support staff member who was working late in his office along to the computer lab, and he ended up sorting them out manually.

It baffles me. A University that regularly puts on a whole raft of courses in the evening, and someone just decided, at a stroke, to make it impossible for programming students to have their first class. Furthermore, the IT support staff had already been reprimanded a few days earlier for the very same thing! They had the registration system turned off at the weekend, when some other class was starting!

And don't even get me started about the difficulties of trying to get IT support in the evenings. How a University can not only insist that courses be taught in the evening but also insist that IT support will not be provided in the evening for said courses, well words fail me.

January 17, 2005

Writing papers with other authors

January seems to be the season for research paper deadlines in the field of computing, for some reason. This January I have some papers with colleagues to write, in contrast with the single-author papers I sometimes produce. Collaborating with colleagues to write papers has certain advantages.

My writing skill for creating formal papers for journals or conferences is such that when writing on my own, I need at least ten iterations of "revise phrasing; wait at least two days before revisiting this section of writing" to transform my initial gibberish into something approaching polished explanation in English. As such, collaborating with colleagues makes writing much easier and less time-consuming. Instead of having to wait a while so that I can see my own writing with fresh eyes, my colleagues can much more easily see where my writing needs improvement, and I can provide fresh eyes for my colleagues' writing. I think overall the quality of the submitted paper is much improved.

Then again, maybe I just like the idea that when the paper-in-preparation trundles back and forth between the various collaborators, there are occasions when it is blessedly absent from my in-tray :-)

January 11, 2005


But not for long. Still, it is nice to have a few quiet moments before the students get back, and with the admin piles sunk to levels that you can almost manage to peer over.

Can I fit in a quick bit of time for some research? Yes! That's assuming I can manage to remember what it was I was doing before the last relentless procession of teaching work happened, before the next one arrives.