Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Strike Three! And Being A Versatile Teacher

I'm on strike today as a member of UCU. My husband decided he couldn't walk past his colleagues on the picket line today, and so despite being on a fixed-term contract and therefore not likely to be able to benefit from union membership, he signed up for UNISON. We stood side by side on the picket line this morning outside college, and I think my students were highly amused to see me there. My hope is that they've seen that, having spent the week explaining why I'm striking, I'm not all mouth and no trousers.

I've been plagued by a black dog for a few days. In my previous jobs I'd have found it impossible to do any work, and would have been mindlessly surfing the net. That isn't an option anymore. Everyone's experience is different, and some find teaching makes it worse, but it's been a life-saver for me. I have to walk into that laboratory and teach, and I have to deal with the students, and I have to get them comfortable enough with the topics that they can cope with the exams and advance to university.

Coming out of the funk, I decided I would call the black dog Fenton. Mainly because when Paul and I see it running wild in my mind, we both sit there and cry "Oh Jesus Christ!"...

I got pissed off with the BBC News - in a story on MPs anger as science proposals are 'rejected', there was the following quote:
A survey published by the Wellcome Trust on Tuesday found too many newly qualified science teachers lacked the specialist knowledge they needed to teach the subject effectively.

The research showed that half of trainee science teachers are in fact biologists, who often struggle to pick up chemistry and physics knowledge during their one-year post-graduate teacher training courses.
I've looked at the Wellcome Trust press release, and I fail to see where they say that us biologists struggle with physics and chemistry knowledge. Seems like crap journalism to me.

I'm unimpressed with the accusation levelled at biologists. Mainly because, in my department, I am by far the most versatile of the teachers. Sure, I teach A-Level Biology, and the BTEC Level 3 Physiology, Genetics and Plant Sciences units. But I also have to teach units at level 3 (KS5, sixth form, or 11-12th grade for the colonials) on law, media studies, politics, philosophy and psychology. At level 2 (KS4, 9-10th grade), I regularly teach chemistry and physics. And I do a damn good job.

I've been tutoring AS Chemistry - my inorganic chemistry is a bit rusty, but my organic and physical chemistry is pretty fresh still. I've also started tutoring AS Physics to the same student - one of my biologists who is really struggling. I can't remember much of my quantum physics, and I rather suspect it has changed a bit in the 13 years since I studied it. However, projectiles and viscosity don't change very much, and in the space of two hours I achieved more than a colleague had in six weeks. I'm pretty sure I am just one of a large number of biology teachers who are very happy with chemistry and physics. Maybe there are biologists who shy away from maths. There are certainly physicists who find biology repulsive and respond viscerally to the thought of teaching it - every physics teacher I work with is like that. But I also know physicists who love to teach the other subjects too.

Maybe I'm lucky because I did Natural Sciences. I got to study aspects of all the sciences, and to develop a holistic view of the subject. I've done more chemistry and mathematics than pure biologists. In doing HPS as a second year subject, I learnt about philosophy, and some of the more interesting "How Science Works" bits of the course. The stress v strain and viscosity calculations I did in geophysics are beyond anything the A2 physicists have to do. Yes, at the moment I'm bragging. Because teachers are degraded and reviled at the moment, and now the BBC is trying to say biology teachers in particular are rubbish.

I'm one of many science teachers comfortable teaching any aspect of science. As Taylor Mali says, the miracle is education - I'm just the worker.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Caring For Students

One of the more hurtful comments I see from time to time about women who do not have children is that we are incapable of empathy. It is a ridiculous assumption, but it's bandied about more times than I care to recall. This week has been a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting reminder of why such assumptions are bollocks.

By the time I start teaching most of my students, they are already 18, so there are rarely any safeguarding issues. Students can therefore come to any member of staff and talk about things in absolute confidence. For many reasons - I'm one of the younger lecturers, I teach biology (making me a target for all health-related questions), and I have a reputation for being available for students out of teaching hours - students confide in me more than any other member of staff, often including their tutors.

So at the moment I'm supporting three students through some major personal difficulties. I've held up the next class at the door letting a student say what they need to say or seek advice. I've extended deadlines or forfeited homeworks altogether. I spent over two hours helping one student get to grips with AS Chemistry, though it's over 13 years since I did it myself.

On the flip side of this, I've had to discipline two A2 students for plagiarism. They say they were so worried about not having any homework to hand in to me that they resorted to copying a friend's. I had to explain to them why I was so much harder on cases of plagiarism than other teachers - that I had been a direct victim of a minor case of it, and that I had seen it cause major problems for friends. I spent an hour with these two, them licking their wounds and accusing me of hating them. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Sometimes truly caring for students means having to tell them off when they do something unacceptable, to impose sanctions on them, and to punish them if needed. Sometimes caring is giving up your free time to help them, or even just sitting there quietly with them while they sit there quietly. Sometimes it's buying Hill & Holman's "Chemistry In Context" and Muncaster's "A Level Physics" so you can fill in the gaps left by your colleagues. Not bad for someone with a barren, nulliparous womb...

The hardest thing is not losing myself. Everything I'm doing at the moment is nurturing, mothering, caring. I look after the students. I look after my garden. I look after Jabba (always able to cheer me up when I'm shattered). Paul thinks that photography might be the thing that allows me to be just me and do something for myself. The macro lens I've asked for as a Christmas present will help.

Some have said I'll worry less the more experienced I become. But I don't really like the thought of worrying less, of caring less. Though I am absolutely exhausted, and find myself lying in bed unable to sleep, thinking about these students, I think I would be a worse teacher if I didn't take such personal responsibility for their well-being.

Thursday, 17 November 2011


There have been two articles resurfacing (as it turns out) in the press. One of them is an opinion piece by the Chancellor of Buckingham University (link - it's so awful my college has blocked it "because the content contained prohibited words and/or phrases"). It talks about female students being a "perk" for male lecturers and professors. Read the Guardian article on the subject - it isn't blocked for porn.

The other is a short fiction article in that bastion of hyperbolic science Nature. It's entitled "Womanspace" (or there's the PDF). It passed without much comment when it was published - just goes to show no one reads Nature for the short stories. It was only when two responses were published in today's correspondence section that women in science started to prick up their ears.

Anne Jefferson has written a brilliant response: Dear Nature, You got a sexist story, but when you published it, you gave it your stamp of approval and became sexist too. And this is it - Henry Gee (@cromacrox if you're interested...) is the Senior Editor of Nature. He approved the publication of this story. He even had the nerve to gloat afterwards:
I'm amazed we haven't had any outraged comments about this story.
Well you got them now, Henry. And you probably think it's going to drive more and more traffic to you, and that there's no such thing as bad publicity. My husband @panderson1979 has suggested that a campaign to the advertisers might hit Nature where it hurts. There's a whole hashtag, #womanspace, devoted to it already. I imagine the author, @edrybicki, is waking up to some interesting replies this morning.

I commented to a friend on Twitter that so much sexism seems to be as a result of a few men thinking they're being funny. And I imagine Ed Rybicki thinks it was rather funny. And I imagine Henry Gee thought it was also funny and a jolly good wheeze. Henry Gee has prided himself on striving for equality in academia, and especially tackling institutionalised anti-semitism. Yet he approves a discriminatory fiction story because it's discriminatory against a group of which he is not a member. He would not have published a story entitled "Jewspace". One could not get away with writing the sentence, and Henry would not publish it:
"But the answer is clear: Jews can access parallel universes in order to find things, whether they do it consciously or not."
The article would be offensive if "blacks" or "gays" was substituted in for "women". From "Blackspace":
"I said, only half-joking: 'Well, blacks seem to be able to do that - maybe they’re getting into spaces we poor guys can't?'"
And from "Gayspace":
"Gays, on the other hand, gather: such that any mission to buy just bread and milk could turn into an extended foraging expedition that also snares a to-die-for pair of discounted shoes; a useful new mop; three sorts of new cook-in sauces; and possibly a selection of frozen fish."
Just to be clear, these are unacceptably discriminatory sentences. So why would Henry Gee allow these things to be said about women in his journal?

It is hard enough to be a woman in science, and sexism is rife in academia. Sexism and the enabling of sexist behaviour is one of the many reasons I am "just" an FE lecturer, when I could have been a PhD. I fear for my female students' welfare as I send them off to university each September, and hope that their enthusiasm and optimism for their future isn't eroded away too quickly.

Update: As well as Anne's post linked to above, also look at The Biology Files and Science Sushi, who have further thoughts. And for an editor and publisher's take on this, look at my awesome husband Paul's Open Letter to Nature. Paul is fortunate enough to be 50% of one of many couples that proudly show the 1950s stereotype to be utter fiction...

Saturday, 12 November 2011

A Coincidence

When two or more palaeontologists are in the same room, it is inevitable that one will suggest going for an alcoholic beverage of some description. So when real cider-lover Dave Hone stopped by for a chat and to inspect the gecko, I suggested we hit the Red Lion, home to real ales, real cider, the European pork scratchings mountain, and Eddie the cross-dressing dog. And, it would appear, pterosaurs:

It's a model of the Pterodactylus gargoyle on the front of the Natural History Museum, part of an exhibit by a local artist, Mac, who had died earlier that year. Shown, of course, with Dave for scale.

There was another Pterodactylus closer to the bar, but it was wearing a pink feather boa and wasn't so exciting (or maybe we'd just had too many pints by that point). Still, something of a fortunate coincidence to be able to take a pterosaur palaeontologist to a pub with a few pterosaur models kicking around.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Things I Learned From My Students #10: Somebody's Watching Me

I haven't done one of these for a while - nearly a year in fact. The two weeks since half-term have been absolutely mad, but that at least means some more ammunition for this.

So here's what I've learned from the little sods recently:
  1. The words "turgid" and "flaccid" are hilarious.
  2. I can still just about pass for someone in their late 20s.
  3. Everything can be expressed as "bare", "sick", "peak", "long" or a combination of any of the previous.
  4. It is a matter of some concern that a woman with my qualifications should be a teacher in an FE college.
  5. We have a child's skull in our anatomy collection.
  6. I can use this fact to extract homework from the younger students.
  7. Students may think they want to be surgeons, but they recoil in horror at a horse dissection and the autopsy scene in "Contagion".
  8. Apparently a 31-year-old, married, female biology teacher needs to be told the location of the G-spot.
  9. If your physiology class contains mostly boys, then at some point each week someone will ask about masturbation.
  10. The question biology teachers are asked most frequently is "What does this rash mean?".
  11. Supposedly mature students returning to study still think it's appropriate to refer to "poo" when writing about the digestive system.
  12. If one student misses the day of the presentation, they can have an extension. If half the class misses the day of the presentation, half the class fails.
  13. It's surprisingly difficult explaining to students how a Placebo Band works.
  14. No one teaches these kids how to draw graphs at KS3 or KS4. As a result there are 18-year-olds drawing graphs in biro without a ruler on 20% of the page.
  15. Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.
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