Random Acts Of Selfless Kindness

The piece below features in this week’s Times Higher Education as part of an article entitled “Is these still a place for kindness in today’s harsh academic environment?“. My original title was that above, which is a play on Jack Womack‘s almost criminally overlooked “Random Acts of Senseless Violence“, a cyberpunk-esque tale of a crumbling society. Given the lack of impact of Womack’s meisterwerk, the THE sub-editors were absolutely right to re-title my contribution to the article as “Kicking Against The Me, Me, Me”. And, as ever, the piece was improved immensely by Paul Jump‘s edits. I’m posting my contribution to the article here for those who don’t have a subscription to the THE. 


It’s exactly one month to Christmas Day as I write this. Academics and students alike should be drafting their letters to Santa and looking forward to the festive season after toiling all term in lecture theatres, seminar rooms, workshops and – very occasionally – libraries.

Except that today is also the first day of the latest round of strike action by members of the UK’s University and College Union. This time, the issue isn’t just pensions: the strike is also in protest at pay, equality, casualisation and workloads. But universities’ reactions are familiar from the previous strike in 2018, with reports of draconian measures being taken against not only striking staff but also, unforgivably, students who support them.

It is clear that senior management and rank-and-file staff are unlikely to be on each other’s Christmas card lists this year. Nonetheless, in these days of ever-increasing and ever-more-infuriating corporatisation and depersonalisation of universities, it’s important not to lose sight of the collegiality that still exists, and the sense of community that is fostered when students and staff (of all stripes – from the cleaners to the professoriate) look out for each other.

This has certainly been the case during my 25 years in the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy. Indeed, the often-clueless, metrics-driven management style foisted upon us from on high results in an “us versus them” mentality that only serves to bring us even closer together. I hesitate to use the hoary old Dunkirk spirit cliché, especially in these days of Brexit-inspired Little-Englander fervour, but it certainly captures that sense of fighting back from the chalkface. In solidarity.

It’s the little things that matter most: those seemingly small acts that cultivate a culture of kindness, kicking against the me, me, me of metrics and the tediously relentless pseudostatistics of league tables. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students and staff have gone the extra mile to brighten up someone else’s day, week, month or year. Examples range from the tea-room coordinators who put aside particular fruit, biscuits and cakes because they remember just what each member of staff likes with their beverage of choice for “elevenses” (Anna, we salute you!) to the tutees who turn up with gifts, cards and messages of thanks for their tutor; the anonymous faces in the lecture theatre who take the time to nominate members of staff for various teaching awards; and the graduates who email unexpectedly, years after they finished their degrees, to describe how fondly and gratefully they look back on their time at university.

Sometimes these random acts of kindness make you smile. And other times, I’ve been moved to tears. A couple of years ago, I was in the middle of a phone call when a knock on the door interrupted the conversation.

“Just one second!” I called out, and finished the call as quickly as I could. When I opened the door, there was no one there. But at my feet there was a big box of chocolates and a card containing the simple message: “Thanks for everything”. It was from a student who was severely autistic, with whom I had communicated almost exclusively via email over the years of their degree.

Forget my latest publication, or research grant, or citation count. That simple message meant so much more.

 

At sixes and sevens about 3* and 4*

The post below appears in today’s Times Higher Education under the title “The REF’s star system leaves a black hole in fairness.” My original draft was improved immensely by Paul Jump‘s edits (but I am slightly miffed that my choice of title (above) was rejected by the sub-editors.) I’m posting the article here for those who don’t have a subscription to the THE. (I should note that the interview panel scenario described below actually happened. The question I asked was suggested in the interview pack supplied by the “University of True Excellence”.)


“In your field of study, Professor Aspire, just how does one distinguish a 3* from a 4* paper in the research excellence framework?”

The interviewee for a senior position at the University of True Excellence – names have been changed to protect the guilty – shuffled in his seat. I leaned slightly forward after posing the question, keen to hear his response to this perennial puzzler that has exercised some of the UK’s great and not-so-great academic minds.

He coughed. The panel – on which I was the external reviewer – waited expectantly.

“Well, a 4* paper is a 3* paper except that your mate is one of the REF panel members,” he answered.

I smiled and suppressed a giggle.

Other members of the panel were less amused. After all, the rating and ranking of academics’ outputs is serious stuff. Careers – indeed, the viability of entire departments, schools, institutes and universities – depend critically on the judgements made by peers on the REF panels.

Not only do the ratings directly influence the intangible benefits arising from the prestige of a high REF ranking, they also translate into cold, hard cash. An analysis by the University of Sheffield suggests that in my subject area, physics, the average annual value of a 3* paper for REF 2021 is likely to be roughly £4,300, whereas that of a 4* paper is £17,100. In other words, the formula for allocating “quality-related” research funding is such that a paper deemed 4* is worth four times one judged to be 3*; as for 2* (“internationally recognised”) or 1* (“nationally recognised”) papers, they are literally worthless.

We might have hoped that before divvying up more than £1 billion of public funds a year, the objectivity, reliability and robustness of the ranking process would be established beyond question. But, without wanting to cast any aspersions on the integrity of REF panels, I’ve got to admit that, from where I was sitting, Professor Aspire’s tongue-in-cheek answer regarding the difference between 3* and 4* papers seemed about as good as any – apart from, perhaps, “I don’t know”.

The solution certainly isn’t to reach for simplistic bibliometric numerology such as impact factors or SNIP indicators; anyone making that suggestion is not displaying even the level of critical thinking we expect of our undergraduates. But every academic also knows, deep in their studious soul, that peer review is far from wholly objective. Nevertheless, university senior managers – many of them practising or former academics themselves – are often all too willing, as part of their REF preparations, to credulously accept internal assessors’ star ratings at face value, with sometimes worrying consequences for the researcher in question (especially if the verdict is 2* or less).

Fortunately, my institution, the University of Nottingham, is a little more enlightened – last year it had the good sense to check the consistency of the internal verdicts on potential REF 2021 submissions via the use of independent reviewers for each paper. The results were sobering. Across seven scientific units of assessment, the level of full agreement between reviewers varied from 50 per cent to 75 per cent. In other words, in the worst cases, reviewers agreed on the star rating for no more than half of the papers they reviewed.

Granted, the vast majority of the disagreement was at the 1* level; very few pairs of reviewers were “out” by two stars, and none disagreed by more. But this is cold comfort. The REF’s credibility is based on an assumption that reviewers can quantitatively assess the quality of a paper with a precision better than one star. As our exercise shows, the effective error bar is actually ± 1*.

That would be worrying enough if there were a linear scaling of financial reward. But the problem is exacerbated dramatically by both the 4x multiplier for 4* papers and the total lack of financial reward for anything deemed to be below 3*.

The Nottingham analysis also examined the extent to which reviewers’ ratings agreed with authors’ self-scoring (let’s leave aside any disagreement between co-authors on that). The level of full agreement here was similarly patchy, varying between 47 per cent and 71 per cent. Unsurprisingly, there was an overall tendency for authors to “overscore” their papers, although underscoring was also common.

Some argue that what’s important is the aggregate REF score for a department, rather than the ratings of individual papers, because, according to the central limit theorem, any wayward ratings will “wash out” at the macro level. I disagree entirely. Individual academics across the UK continue to be coaxed and cajoled into producing 4* papers; there are even dedicated funding schemes to help them do so. And the repercussions arising from failure can be severe.

It is vital in any game of consequence that participants be able to agree when a goal has been scored or a boundary hit. Yet, in the case of research quality, there are far too many cases in which we just can’t. So the question must be asked: why are we still playing?

Pressure vessels: the epidemic of poor mental health among academics

This post takes its title from a talk that will be given by Liz Morrish here at UoN next week. (5:00 pm on May 21 in The Hemsley.) Here’s the outline:

Liz Morrish will present findings that show how staff employed at Higher Education Institutions/ Universities are accessing counselling and occupational health services at an increasing rate. Between 2009 and 2015, counselling referrals have risen by 77 per cent, while staff referrals to Occupational Health services during the same period have risen by 64 per cent. This attests to an escalating epidemic of poor mental health among the sector’s employees. I will consider some of the factors which weigh on the mental health of academic staff: escalating and excessive workloads; the imposition of metric surveillance; outcomes-based performance management; increasing precarity and insecure contracts. Universities have been characterised as ‘anxiety machines’ which purposefully flout legal requirements to prevent stress in the workplace. Given the urgency of the situation, I will propose some recommendations which if institutions were to follow, might alleviate some of the pressures.

…and here’s Liz’s bio:

Liz Morrish is an independent scholar and activist for resistance to managerial appropriation of the university. She is a visiting fellow at York St John University. She was principal lecturer and subject leader of linguistics at Nottingham Trent University until speaking out and writing about the mental health of academics brought about her resignation in 2016. She is completing a co-authored book on managerial discourse in the neoliberal academy, entitled Academic Irregularities (Routledge forthcoming) and she also writes a blog with the same name: https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/. Having exited the academy, Liz now has more time for other activities, and she now spends time as a marathon swim observer.

I met Liz a number of years ago, when she was principal lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Not so long after we met, NTU disgracefully brought disciplinary proceedings against Liz when she spoke out about the mental health of academics, ultimately causing her to resign. For the full story on NTU’s shocking behaviour — driven, of course, by its metrics-and-league-table-infected management ‘strategy’ — an exceptionally important article written for the Times Higher Education shortly after Liz’s resignation is a must-read. Here’s a taster, but you should read the entire article for deep insights into just how low a university will go in its attempts to protect its reputation and pressure its staff:

In March last year [2016], Times Higher Education republished a blog piece that I wrote on the causes of stress and threats to mental health in academic life. The piece recounted how, on University Mental Health Day, I opened up to students about some of the pressures their lecturers were under. Many readers were kind enough to retweet the link, respond under the line or email me personally to let me know that my article resonated for colleagues around the world. But after it had received 10,000 hits on my own blog and spent four days trending on THE’s website, my previous employer objected to it and I was obliged to ask for it to be taken down. This inaugurated a disciplinary process that I felt curbed my ability to write further on the topic, or to have a frank dialogue with students on mental health in universities.

I feel very fortunate indeed that I am employed by the “other” university in Nottingham. Although I have had, and continue to have, my spats with senior management here, they have not once asked me to constrain or curtail my criticism of university (and University) culture; there’s been not so much as a quiet word in my ear following even rather scathing public critiques. Thank you, UoN, for your commitment to academic freedom.

I’d very much appreciate it if those of you who are Twitter-enabled UoN academics could spread the word about Liz’s talk. (I’ve forgone that particular form of communication.)  I hope to see you there on May 21.

 

Blast from the past

While searching my e-mail archive for a message from years ago, I stumbled across this unpublished submission to the letters page of the Times Higher Education. More than a decade later, I’m still smarting a little that they didn’t accept it for publication…

From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 30 November 2008 20:48
To: letters@tsleducation.com
Subject: Comment on “‘Clever crazies quitting science” (THE 27 Nov)

Bruce Charlton of the University of Buckingham argues that modern scientists are boring because they are mild-mannered, agreeable, and socially inoffensive (News, 27 November).

What a dickhead.

Philip Moriarty, Condensed Matter Scientist

School of Physics & Astronomy
University of Nottingham
Nottingham NG7 2RD

 

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

2001-Exam-p1_trimmed.jpeg

My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

20,000 Leagues under the THE

This monstrous tome arrived yesterday morning…

THE-rankings.png

I subscribe to the Times Higher Education and generally look forward to the analogue version of the magazine arriving each week. Yesterday, however, it landed with a fulsome house-rattling thud as it hit the floor, prompting Daisy, the eight year old miniature dachshund whose duty it is to ward off all visitors (friend, foe, or pizza), to attempt to shred both the magazine and the 170 page glossy World University Ranking ‘supplement’ pictured above that accompanied it.

I should have smeared the latter with a generous helping of Cesar dog food [1] and have her at it.

Yes, it’s yet another rant about league tables, I’m afraid. I’ve never been one to hold back on the piss and vinegar when it comes to bemoaning the pseudostatistics underpinning education league tables (be they primary school OFSTED placements or the leaderboards for august higher education institutions). I’m lucky to be in very good company. Peter Coles’ annual slamming of the THE rankings is always worth reading. (He’s on especially good form for the 2019 season.) And our very own Head of School, Mike Merrifield, has described in no uncertain terms just why university league tables are bad for you.

But this time round, and notwithstanding that WB Yeats quote I love so much [2], there’s going to be a slightly more upbeat message from yours truly. We need to give students rather more credit when it comes to seeing through the league table guff. They’re a damn sight more savvy than some imagine. Before I describe just why I have this degree of faith in the critical thinking capabilities of the next generation of undergrads, let’s take a look at a few representative (or not, as the case may be) league tables.

I’ve got one more year to go (of a five year ‘gig’) as undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham. Throughout that time, I have enjoyed the healthy catharsis of regularly lambasting league tables during not only my University open day talks (in June and September) but for every week of our UCAS visit/interview days (which kick off again in mid-November).

I routinely point to tables like this, taken from the annual Graduate Market report [3]:

GraduateMarket2017-2018

Tsk. Nottingham languishing at #8. Back in 2014-2015 we were at # 2:

GraduateMarket2014-2015.png

Clearly there’s been a drop in quality to have slipped six places, right?

No. There’s nothing “clear” about that supposition at all. Universities and university departments are not football teams: it’s ludicrous to judge any institution (or department therein) on the basis of a single number.

Not convinced? Just sour grapes because Nottingham has ‘slipped’?

Well, take a slightly closer look at Table 5.8 directly above. Let’s leave the Nottingham “also-ran”s to one side, and focus on the top of the pops, Manchester. They’re an impressive #1 when it comes to employer perception…yet #28 in the Good University Guide. So which number do you prefer? Which has more credibility? Which is more robust?

Still have residual doubts? OK, let’s instead focus in on individual schools/departments rather than consider entire universities. (And don’t get me started on the university-wide Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’s gold, silver, and bronze medals…) Here’s where Nottingham stands in The Times’ Physics and Astronomy league table:

TimesTop10.png

Yay! Go Nottingham! In at #5 with a bullet. Up a whopping thirteen places compared to last year. (Incidentally, our undergraduate applications were also up by over 20%. This correlation between league table placement and application numbers may not be entirely coincidental…)

Wow. We must really have worked hard in the intervening year. Or perhaps we brought in “star world-class players” on the academic transfer market to “up our game”?

Nope.

So what was radically different about our teaching and/or research compared to the previous year that led to this climb into the Top Ten?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Feck all.

Indulge me with one last example.  Here’s the most recent (2014) Research Excellence Framework ranking for physics…

REF2014.png

Nottingham is the only school/department to remain in the Top 5 over two rounds of this national research assessment exercise. (Last time round (in 2008) we were joint second with Bath and Cambridge). Again, Yay Nottingham!, right? Or does it perhaps speak rather more to a certain volatility in the league table placements because any peer review process like the REF is very far from being entirely objective?

Both Peter Coles and Mike Merrifield (among many others) have pointed out key reasons underpinning league table volatility. I’m not about to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of rather encouraging Reddit threads I’ve read recently — and that’s not something I tend to write too often — related, at least partially, to Nottingham’s open days. The first of these Mike has very helpfully highlighted via Twitter:

 

There is indeed a lot to be said for brutal honesty and I am delighted that the pseudostats of league table placements are being questioned by open day audiences.

The responses to this rather snobbishly overwrought comment elsewhere on Reddit also made my heart sing:

Reddit.png

You can read the responses at the thread itself but I especially liked this, from ‘Matthew3_14’:

Reddit_response.png

I’d quibble with the “outside of the top 5ish” proviso (as you might expect), but otherwise “Matthew3_14” echoes exactly what I’ll be telling visiting applicants for our courses in the coming months…

If you like Nottingham, the rankings are irrelevant.

If you don’t like Nottingham, the rankings are still irrelevant.

Go to the place where you feel best.


[1] …for small, yappy-type dogs.

[2] “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

[3] Yes, it’s irritating that we now unblinkingly refer to students as a market. That’s a whole other blog post or five.