January 20, 2006

Appearances can be deceiving

The student sat in the back row. He didn't seem to be paying much attention to the lecture. His arms were folded, his legs splayed out, and he looked like he was catching up with some sleep.

The lecturer posed a problem involving some tricky mental arithmetic. The student didn't stir.

The lecturer asked the students for their attempts at solving the problem. Some of them had got part of the way there, but they hadn't managed it fully. A hand gradually raised in the back row.

"Yes?" The student in the back row gave the correct answer, still slumped in his chair.

Moral of the story: just because they look like they are asleep doesn't mean they aren't paying attention!

January 11, 2006

Feedback Loops and Incentives

Confessions of a Community College Dean has it absolutely right about things all being set up wrong, in this post about the lack of positive incentives.

I think of it as being a feedback loop that is set up the wrong way, to encourage negative behaviour instead of positive behaviour. The most general example of this in academia is probably that to do things properly, it takes more time (for negligible extra benefit), and that can really encourage lots of academics to cut corners they shouldn't be cutting, when workloads are high.

Some more examples:

  • One week during a lecture course, you think of something fantastic you can provide as extra for your students' benefit. In subsequent weeks, they all want it again...
  • If you are helpful towards students towards whom you have pastoral duties, advising them helpfully over their degree programme, you are rewarded with more students coming to you asking for help, and when you say "But why don't you ask your own adviser?", they say "My adviser isn't very helpful and I heard you were helpful".
  • The more helpful and timely you are at replying to students' emails, the more you end up having to deal with.
  • You have more-than-average numbers of office hours, well-advertised. You then get even more students knocking at your door, turning up at any time they feel like in the hope you'll solve their problems.
  • The lecturers who hide too much doing work at home, or who delete the contents of their stuffed inboxes have their lack of communicativeness rewarded with a lack of communication bombardment, unlike the rest of us, who get simultaneously rewarded with the need for more time spent trying to communicate with uncommunicative colleagues on essential issues.
  • If you turn up to departmental meetings (unlike some of your colleagues), then you get lumbered with more work to do. It's amazing that anyone attends meetings at all.
    (This may vary from dept to dept, it's conceivable that somewhere out there there's a department that specialises in landing work on the non-attenders.)
  • If you go to the trouble to detect plagiarism in assignments, it takes a lot of time to deal with the results of your findings, and not only that, but the overall results for that lecture course are going to be worse than if you did no detection at all, thus making you look bad. Plus if your detection rate is good, then it's going to raise eyebrows as to why all these students are plagiarising in YOUR course. *Sigh*.
  • In mid-winter, if you're working late in the office, there's probably some light seeping underneath your door. Guess who is going to get a knock on the door when someone needs some random assistance? Not the lecturer who went home at 4pm.
  • If you didn't chase up AWOL students supposed to be doing projects, you'd have fewer hours taken up by student supervisions.
  • When all the lecturers are encouraged to suggest proposals for student project work, the lecturers who do what is asked are "rewarded" by having more students to supervise, which is more work to do that is generally not compensated for.

The last of these does have a small amount of positive feedback though, in that if you suggest some interesting proposals in a timely fashion, then you are a) more likely to get good students to supervise, and b) you get to supervise work on topics which are more likely to be interesting to you because you came up with them in the first place.

This isn't to say that there aren't any feedback loops with the incentives set up correctly, it's just that in academia there seem to be an awful lot of situations where poor effort gets rewarded.

January 10, 2006

Door Programming

This morning was a hoot. Or a major annoyance. Depending on your point of view.

About half of our office doors didn't work, resulting in lots of bemused lecturers trotting around the corridors looking very puzzled that their electronic keys no longer opened their office doors.

Cue a constant stream of lecturers rushing along with their keys to a certain programmer's lair, several buildings away, where said programmer was reputed to be the One Who Programs Doors, and capable of fixing the situation. It transpired that a few years ago the programmer had been programming the doors and needed to think of an expiry date for the keys. So he picked a date nice and far into the future where he thought he wouldn't have to worry about it. It was today's date that he picked. And did he warn us about this in advance? Did he even record this date for future reference? Did he cocoa. He just left us all to waste lots of time this morning and get annoyed.

Cost of the programmer's laziness: about seven manhours altogether.

Still, it got us all talking to each other for once. The only other thing that comes close is the arrival of cakes in the coffee room.

January 09, 2006

Accidental Hiatus

Autumn 2005 wasn't quite as busy, teaching-wise, as that of 2004, but in being determined to not work every weekend this time, a lot of things piled up, with not much time for blogging, and the piles on my desk now represent about 6 week's worth of work that I should have done by now, mostly worthy but time-consuming tasks. If I have any readers left (if I ever had any to start with in the first place), I apologise to you, and I shall resolve to do better this year.

Things I have learnt today:

  • The underside of the back of my desk is surprisingly clean.
  • The underside of the radiator is filthy.
  • My skull is fractionally less wide than the back panel of the desk is off the ground.
  • The cable from the monitor to the computer is about two inches too short to put the monitor at a comfortable distance for your eyes when the computer is placed just out of range of kicking distance.
  • Those little screws which secure cables plugged into the back of the computer are irritatingly small and fiddly to operate at a distance with one hand outstretched.
  • The plug for the CD player doesn't seem to be plugged into any of the power points on the extension cables, and thus has either an amazingly long lead, or works on magic.
  • It is amazing how much miscellaneous office detritus you can pack into the space underneath the inaccessible corner of the desk.
  • It's amazing how much you can procrastinate with office tidying when there are articles and analysis to be written.