Sunday, 28 October 2007

Job Specialization in Academia

Having attended both a small university in the US and a large university in the UK for my undergraduate degree, and now studying/researching/teaching at a different large university in the UK during my postgraduate years, I've had some exposure to different styles of educational institutions, and experienced being on both sides of the desk.

One observation that has been increasingly on my mind is the nature of the dual teaching and researching responsibilities of academic staff at the larger universities. It is fairly standard that academics do both research and teaching as a part of their job description. However, almost without exception, every big-university professor I've met identifies more as a researcher than a teacher. Teaching becomes something that they appreciate the necessity of, much like committee meetings, but is often seen as just another job responsibility which must be done before they can get down to their "real" work -- research. This is a situation that appears to benefit neither the staff nor the students. To borrow an analogy from Mitch Hedberg, it is like asking that chefs also farm, and farmers also cook. Although their work shares the central element of food, requiring practitioners to both grow it and prepare it makes little sense. Similarly, researching and teaching revolve around knowledge, but generating new knowledge (research) and disseminating existing knowledge (teaching) rely on entirely different skill sets, and I cannot see why there is not more job specialization within academia. I've seen the current system produce a fair amount of both bad teaching and bad research by academics who are drawn more to the other component.

Of course, there are teaching-focused universities in the UK -- but they are generally considered a tier below the research universities. Why not have dedicated teaching staff teach most undergrad classes at all large universities? Allow the researchers to do more research, and have specially trained teachers do the actual teaching. It seems everyone would get a better deal: the students, the researchers, and those who love to teach, but do not wish to pursue research and grants. The current professors can continue to teach postgraduate classes -- this makes sense as most postgraduate work is heavily research based, and PGs are expected to learn for themselves from original source material.

These are just my recent thoughts -- there may be factors I've not yet thought of... can anyone give me a good reason why our current system is better?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Thursday TED: VII Understanding the Brain

This is a great presentation from renowned neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran, in which he talks about how unusual brain injuries and brain structures can reveal how normal brains work. In particular, he talks about phantom limb pain, synesthesia (when people hear colour or smell sounds), and the Capgras delusion, when brain-damaged people believe their closest friends and family have been replaced with imposters. Great stuff.

I just love how he pronounces his Rs.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Blog Action Day: Local Veggie Boxes

As you may or may not know, today is Blog Action Day. (thanks earthchick!) The 15 of October is a day for bloggers to all write about a very important topic: our environment.

A fair chunk of posts on Exeterra are already about the environment, but it's time for another :)

This Saturday I went with some fellow members of the Green Society to Shillingford Organics, a local organic farm on 200-something acres. We had a great time getting a tour of their low-impact methods and trying our hands at farm work. We pulled dock, harvested more winter squash than I will eat in a hundred lifetimes, and planted garlic further than the eye can see. Here are some pictures:

Martyn shows us which yummy veggies to harvest.

We planted rows of garlic (one clove every six inches) on this strip of land, which was a few hundred metres long.

At the end, Martyn gave us as many free vegetables as we could carry. I have never seen people so ecstatic over carrots.

At the end of the day, I signed up for a weekly vegetable box. Shillingford delivers to a few hundred local households and restaurants, providing them with weekly vegetables that have been harvested no more than a day or two before arriving. You really have to taste this stuff to believe it -- there are lush flavours and sweet smells that I didn't know existed. The one bad thing I will say about their veg is that once you try it, you will never be able to eat supermarket vegetables again.

Although it is not as high-profile as automobiles, electricity use, or recycling, how our food is produced is just as environmentally important. With a local veggie box program -- or some other system of community supported agriculture -- you reach a win-win-win situation.

You win because you get the best vegetables ever delivered to you. Because there is no middle-man, the prices are comparable to supermarket prices. You actually know who grows your food, and have a connection with that person.

Your community wins because you are employing local small-scale farmers. You can also meet other like-minded people if you pick up your box from a neighbourhood delivery point. In some systems, the members spend a small portion of time working at the farm -- and believe it or not, this can be quite a lot of fun.

The environment wins because organic community supported agriculture can be very low-impact. Shillingford is within walking distance from my house, so not many food miles there. The vegetables are fertilized naturally through crop rotation (no petrochemicals in this food chain), pests are controlled biologically, and the harvest is gathered by hand. The farm supports us, but not at the expense of wildlife -- ponds, hedges, and woodland are integrated into the farm design to allow for co-existence rather than compartmentalization.

Most places in the US and UK have several organic vegetables box systems available -- try Googling it; you may be surprised at what you find. Most allow a trial veggie box so you can see if you like it -- so go ahead, give it a try! If you live in Exeter, I've already put a list together.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Science Sunday VIII: Cymatics

Cymatics is the study of wave phenomena, often sound waves' impact upon physical objects. The video below shows a variety of frequencies acting on loose table salt.

I've never seen salt look so sweet.

Regular posting will resume when possible.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Green Soc Success - And Chockas

The first Green Soc meeting was tonight, and I'd say it went pretty well. We had about 40 people show up for the meeting, and had to go to another room (ok- it was the student bar) that had room for us. Met lots of great, enthusiastic people. Our first big event is going to be at Shillingford Organics next Saturday (13 Oct). We'll get a tour and do some work - I worked for them for a weekend during the summer, and it's a great operation. About 30 people have expressed interest in going so far. Should be a great year.

In other news, Christian made a slightly disturbing poster of Chockas, in the traditional amotivational-poster style, which is now my desktop background.

Monday, 1 October 2007


Sorry to be a slack blogger - things have been picking up around here. A brief update of what has been going on:

Today was officially the first day of university classes, so there have been the usual rounds of meeting with convenors, professors, and other teaching assistants during the past week. I'm helping with the usual array of stats and psych classes, plus the stats helpdesk and I'm one of the MSc mentors. It's strange to walk around campus and see other people. And of course because 12,000 students have arrived here in the past week (the city is only 100,000 people), it means the Fresher's Flu is going around campus - I got it Saturday, but it's not too bad. Other people have been pretty busy too; I went into my office at 20:00 on Saturday, and found only 1 of the 5 people (self included) who share the office was not there working. Still, it's kind of fun to have so much stuff going on after the lull of summer.

The preparations for Green Society have been proceeding smoothly. We had a get-together of the committee members last week and made a banner and posters for the Fresher's Fair (which was Sunday.) 200 people signed up at the fair, and our first meeting will be tomorrow. Still much to do there - Green Week is in November, and we have about 20 events scheduled. This is the new Green Soc website - it's a modified blog because I didn't feel like coding raw HTML like I've done in the past - it's still pretty bare at the moment.

Our bunny Cocoa is being re-homed on Wednesday. He's a sweety, but the other bunnies bully him too much for his well-being.

Oh, and our new washing machine should arrive tomorrow. Our old one has been broken for more than a week. (!)