Tag Archive: teaching

Jun 06 2011

The New College of the Humanities

AC Grayling is fronting the formation of a new private institution, The New College of the Humanities (NCH) providing degree level education, based in London and charging £18k per year. The degrees will be awarded by the University of London, under an existing scheme, the University of London International Programmes, the NCH simply being a new supplier.

The New College of Humanities is heading for the prestige market with its headline fees of £18k per year, a list of celebrity professors, a Bloomsbury location and a staff to student ratio of 1:10. It’s clear from the supporting material that the celebrity professors will not be providing all of the teaching. The novelty here is that the NCH will be a private institution. The University of Buckingham has been plugging away quietly for the last 30 years or so as the UK’s only private university, it is now getting increasing company. Buckingham has achieved very good student approval ratings, and has been innovative in the way it delivers degrees, managing to offer degree courses at around £18k, so it’s going for a different unique selling point.

Returning to the NCH: as usual for stories involving universities in the UK, a comparison to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge must be made by commentators in the press (here and here, for example). These should be ignored as fatuous and ill-conceived – there’s much more to universities in the UK than Oxford and Cambridge.

I’ve been rather bemused by the reaction to NCH on twitter by the people I follow, they generally have the character of “How dare a private university be created”. This is bizarre to me, the thesis that some big names should endow an institution with prestige is wobbly, however opposing the idea that people should be free to decide how to spend their money on how they attain their degree seems to me rather illiberal. To cover some of the points thrown around:

  1. It’s not a research university. Much is made of the research / teaching link, in my experience Russell Group universities recruit lecturers on the basis of research potential (or achievement) rather than any teaching ability or teaching qualification. Having done both I can’t help thinking that if I’d spent more time learning and doing teaching I’d be better at teaching.
  2. It’ll be like Jamie’s University, a reference to Jamie’s School where celebrities were sent to teach some of our more difficult pupils with hilarious consequences. In a way we already operate this system when we recruit our top-flight researchers to teach.
  3. The professoriate are not ethnically or gender diverse. Well neither are our current institutions!
  4. It teaches to the University of London syllabus, which is unsurprising since that who’s awarding the degree!
  5. It’s narrowly parasitic, in the sense that it is taking advantage of the University of London’s “public” facilities for free. This is contradicted by statements by both the University of London and the NCH, it will pay for facilities it uses.
  6. It’s broadly parasitic. This seems to be based on the idea that people trained with public money should only serve public institutions. Not sure where this puts people trained abroad, coming to the UK, or even worse those trained here and emigrating or myself – trained by public funds and working in a private company. It does sound like indentured slavery to me. I don’t buy the idea that the UK is short of people capable of teaching at degree level.
  7. They professoriate are doing it for money. Take a look at professorial salaries in the current institutions – £80k a year is not at all bad, they’re already doing it for money.
  8. It only teaches humanities, no science. My experience is that outside the Oxbridge college system the intermingling of disciplines in universities is poor, particularly across the great divide.
  9. A GP in the neighbourhood offers complementary medicine.
  10. It’s straightforward evil because private money is involved.

There is still a “to do” list for NCH:

  • they need to finalise their relationship with University of London;
  • they need to fill a large part of the teaching roster;
  • they need to demonstrate the £18k per year price point will attract sufficient students to be economically viable;

I also see it having little wider significance to the teaching of humanities in the UK.

I must admit I quite like the idea of teaching degree level science to students at a 1:10 staff to student ratio without having to worry about all that grant application stuff – when do we get the New College of Science?

In summary, the NCH is a novel proposition based on a premise whose value is to be established – it’s ultimately about how other people wish to spend their money and, in the absence of any obvious harm to others, they should be left to get on with it. We should be welcoming new ideas in providing degree level education: like this initiative, the Open University and the University of Buckingham, not trying to put them down at birth.

Some background on Cambridge Colleges, teaching and tuition fees by me.

Jul 12 2010

How does a magnet work?

How does a magnet work? This question arose on “I’m a Scientist, Get me out of here“, a fine piece of science communication which involved putting scientists in contact with school children. This is my attempt at an answer, which says a bit more about science in general but is utterly untimely. The short answer to the question is that magnets are made from atoms which act like little magnets and in a proper magnet are all lined up, but as an answer this is somewhat unsatisfactory.

From a scientific point of view, what you’d commonly call magnets are just one group of magnetic materials – the ferromagnets. They are accompanied in early magnetism courses for aspiring physics students by paramagnetic and diamagnetic materials. A ferromagnetic material, like iron, is strongly attracted to a magnet, a paramagnetic material is weakly attracted and a diamagnetic material is very weakly repelled. Diamagnetism and paramagnetism are useful for scientific research but it is ferromagnetism where all the practical applications are found. Iron, cobolt and nickel are the only ferromagnetic elements.

At this point I am ashamed to admit I nearly missed out on a tortured analogy to explain magnetism but fortunately I caught myself in time! Imagine, if you will, a crowd bearing vuvuzelas. Individuals in this crowd can blow their vuvuzelas in any direction they please, however much we might wish they didn’t. In a ferromagnet groups of vuvuzela players spotting their neighbours spontaneously face the same direction to play their devilish instruments. The whole crowd may not be blowing them in the same direction but groups of them will. They can be marshalled to all blow their horns in the same direction by a band leader, and once pointing in the same direction they will continue to face that way, even in the absence of the band leader.

The individuals in this group are atoms in a material, and the vuvuzelas represent the magnetic field of a single atom. Groups of players facing in the same direction represent magnetic domains and the band leader represents an applied magnetic field. The point about ferromagnets is they massively enhance an a magnetic field applied by something like a coil of wire with a current flowing through it – this is how you make an electromagnet. The difference between a “magnet” and any old bit of ferromagnet is that in a “magnet” all the domains have been lined up to face the same way.

In paramagnetic materials vuvuzelas players ignore their neighbours and play away in random directions, they respond in a somewhat feeble fashion to the directions of the band leader.

In diamagnetic materials the crowd have no vuvuzelas but use their hands as a substitute, rather petulantly they face the opposite direction to that proposed by the band leader. In scientific language the hands represent induced magnetic dipole moments.

But why is an atom magnetic? An atom could be magnetic because the electron orbiting the nucleus acts like a little current loop, which gives it a magnetic field like a little bar magnet (posh name for “little bar magnet” is “magnetic dipole moment”) but actually the majority of the magnetic dipole moment of an atom comes from the intrinsic magnetic dipole moment of individual electrons.

We really don’t know why the electron acts as a magnetic dipole, it is ascribed to a property known as ‘spin’ but it can’t be spin as we normally define it since electrons are, as far as we can tell, point-like – nobody has every managed to measure the diameter of an electron. Therefore how can we meaningfully describe it as spinning? In a sense the origin of the electron magnetic dipole moment is not important, it exists, we know what it is and we can use the measured value in our calculations for designing magnetic materials. This question of the “why” of fundamental properties of sub-atomic particles is what string theory seeks to address. For most scientists the answer is unimportant for practical applications, but for physicists in particular it is a nagging unpleasantness that we don’t know why.

Magnetism and electricity have been known since antiquity but as two very separate phenomena, and unsurprisingly really. Magnetism is a property of some funny rocks (lodestone) whilst electricity is a property of rubbed materials, and lemons. The connection between the two is far from obvious, the link was made in the early part of the 19th century. This is a recurring theme in science, we blithely teach that such and such is true, implying that it’s truth is pretty much self-evident and elide the fact that for most of history we have not believed these things and that it has taken the painstaking work of a number of very great minds to reveal these self-evident truths. I must admit to being a little unsure of the history in this area, taught in England the key figures were Michael Faraday who did much of the experimental work in linking electricity and magnetism followed by James Clerk Maxwell who formulated a mathematical theory. In the experimental area in particular there were many other participants in the story, I suspect who takes centre stage depends on where you are taught.

So there you have it: magnets work because the vuvuzela players copy each other and play in the same direction.

Dec 17 2009

The Professionals

Lecturing is a tough business, and half the job is largely ignored.

This post is stimulated, in part by an article in Physics World on the training of physicists for lecturing, and how they really don’t like it. It turns out it is rather timely since Times Higher Education has also published on the subject, in this case highlighting how universities place little emphasis on the importance of good teaching in promotion.

I taught physics at Cambridge University: small group tutorials and lab classes – I was a little short of a lecturer. I also taught physics as a lecturer at UMIST. I should point out that the following comments are general, I think they would apply equally to any of the older universities.

Mrs SomeBeans is a lecturer in further and higher education, the difference between the two of us is that she had to do a PGCE qualification whereas I was let loose on students with close to zero training.

I did spend an interesting day in lecturer training at Cambridge, a small group of new lecturers, and similar, spent a fairly pleasant day chatting and being video’d presenting short chunks of lectures. I learnt several things on that day:
1. Philosophy lecturers use hardly any overheads.
2. Most of us found lecturing pretty nerve-wracking, one of our number wrote out her lectures in full in longhand to cope.
3. Drinking as a cure for pre-lecture nerves doesn’t work well
4. I spoke like a yokel and was slightly tubbier than I thought!

Round two at my next employers was a bit more involved. I can’t remember much from the two day event, but many of the points from the Physics World post came out. Scientists are typically taught how to lecture together as group, and their point of view is somewhat in collision with those of educationalists who seem to be able to throw out three mutually incompatible theories before breakfast and not be interested in testing any of them.

I have an insight which may help scientists in these situations: outside science the idea of a “theory” has quite a different meaning from that inside science. This paradox is also found in management training. Non-scientists use a “theory” as a device to structure thought and discussion, not as a testable hypothesis. Therefore multiple contradictory, or apparently incompatible theories, can be presented together without the speaker’s head exploding. They’re not generally tested in any sense a scientist would understand, very few people attempt to quantify teaching Method A against teaching Method B. The thing is not to get hung up on the details of the theory, the important bit is being brought together to talk about teaching.

I enjoyed parts of teaching: physics tutorials for second years at Cambridge was something of a steeplechase with the not particularly experienced me, hotly pursued by rather cleverer undergraduate students over problems for which the lecturers did not deign to supply model answers. Exceedingly educational for all concerned. Practical classes were also fun: the first time a student presents you with a bird’s nest of wires on a circuit board it takes about 15 minutes to work out what the problem is, the second time you immediately spot the power isn’t connected to the chip – and students think Dr Hopkinson is a genius.

Lecturing I found pretty grim, except on the odd good day when I got an interesting demonstration working. I was faced with 80 or so students, many of an unresponsive kind. I ploughed through lecture notes on PowerPoint which I found interesting when I was writing but in the lecture theatre I found painfully long winded. Lecturing is the most nerve-wracking sort of public speaking I’ve done, and I suspect many lecturers find it the same. I remember one of my undergraduate lecturers was clearly a bag of nerves even in front of the small and friendly course to which I belonged (and I’m not good at picking up such things).

In a sense lecturing is a throwback, there are so many other ways to learn – and I fear we only teach via lecturing because that’s what we’ve always done. Nowadays it’s easy, although time consuming, to produce a beautiful set of printed lecture notes and distribute the overheads you use: but is it really a good use of time to go through those overheads (which I am sure is what nearly everyone does)? Nowadays I learn by reading, processing and writing (a blog post) or a program.

There’s another thing in Physics World article:

At universities the task is often performed by academics who are much more interested in research and therefore regard teaching as a chore.

This is absolutely true, in my experience. I’ve worked in three universities post-undergraduate, I’ve been interviewed for lectureships in a further six or so. And in everyone the priority has been research not teaching, which is odd because if you look at funding from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills something like £12billion is directed at teaching and something like £5bn at research.

So why did I write this post: perhaps it’s a reflection of opportunities missed and a time spent chasing the wrong goals. If I did it all again there seem to be so many more ways to talk to other lecturers about teaching. On twitter, in blogs.

Oct 09 2009


This is a little post about superconductivity, lecturing and liquid nitrogen.

The lecture I remember most clearly was when I first demonstrated the Meissner effect in a superconductor. You can buy a little kit to help with this. It contains a little powerful magnet, a disk of a high temperature superconductor and a polystyrene dish. Put superconductor in dish, add liquid nitrogen to dish, wait for bubbling to subside then drop small magnet onto superconductor and this happens:

(A video is better, see here)
The little magnet just sits there, suspended above the superconductor, if you give it a prod it’ll spin around on it’s axis. It’s magic! Now the first time I did this was live in a lecture theatre in front of fifty students. I’d not had a chance to try it out in advance, and I must admit I was a bit underwhelmed by the equipment provided. So I did the tippy-out-the-liquid-nitrogen and wotnot, and my first words thereafter were “Bloody hell – it works!” – the students seemed impressed too. Much poking of the little magnet with the plastic tweezers was done, and we also splashed around the liquid nitrogen for more fun. I did the demonstration the following year, but it wasn’t the same without my genuine surprise and excitement.

Lecturing is a bit of performance (quite literally), I struggled with the format because I found it hard to get meaningful feedback from a large group of students. If you do it passionately and enthusiastically it comes across to the students, but that’s difficult to sustain for lecture after lecture. If you get it spot on, it’s brilliant but usually its just a chore (for both student and lecturer).

Just to explain a little more about superconductors: a superconductor is a material which conducts electricity perfectly – it’s resistance is zero (not just small, zero). A light bulb, an electric fire or kettle would be utterly useless with a superconducting element, the electric current would flow through it without emitting any light or heat. Heike Kamerlingh Onnes discovered superconductivity in 1911 (having first worked out how to liquify helium to cool his samples). More recently a bunch of so-called high temperature superconductors have been discovered, the weird thing is these materials are ceramics – they don’t conduct at all at room temperature and yet cool them down to liquid nitrogen temperature (-196degrees centigrade) and they conduct really well. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, superconductors are used for the making of big magnets and there are also some applications in very sensitive detectors. In principle they would be great for electrical power transmission, but the requirement to cool everything down to at least liquid nitrogen temperatures has meant they’ve not been economically viable.

Laboratory scientists take liquid nitrogen for granted but it’s an utterly alien material, like furiously boiling water but at the same time deep-bitingly cold. It hisses as it’s poured into a new vessel, wreathed in clouds of condensing water vapour. Liquid nitrogen splashed on a laboratory floor will chase dust bunnies around with distinct droplets of fiercely boiling liquid, like tiny hovercraft. The droplets vanish without a trace.