Tuesday 28 February 2012

Two Things

In Friday's Grauniad, Oliver Burkeman was asking what the two things were to know in each subject. I thought this was a useful exercise, and might set it to my students as homework. What are the two main things to know about biology?

I'd be tempted to go with the following, borrowed from Theodosius Dobzhansky and Michael Lynch:

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."


"Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics."

My students haven't really done population genetics (the A2s have done a bit, but they haven't really done it). So they might have less nuanced ideas about the "two things". Maybe to look at it in my own words I'd go for a slightly different approach.

Life is an exercise in reverse entropy.


All living organisms evolve, though the rate may vary.

What do you think about these "two things"? Would you choose different ones about biology or life sciences, or indeed the earth sciences, since I have a very earth sciencey view of biology!

Monday 27 February 2012

Pet Photoshoots

Full disclosure: In return for agreeing to review the experience on this blog, I received a free pet photo shoot. The reviews were run by FuelMyBlog.

There comes a time in every proud parent's life (and they don't have to be human babies) when it's time to record one's pride and joy for posterity. When the opportunity for a free pet photo shoot came up on FuelMyBlog I volunteered - it would be nice to have a photo of Jabba done professionally, and I was interested to see how he could be posed in case I wanted to try out a few tricks with my DSLR.

The company is Wish. They are part of a blossoming "experience" industry, and one of the things they offer is a pet photo shoot. At the time of writing its cost has been marked down to £15, usually £50. This includes a 7x5 photograph.

Upon receiving the voucher, I had to phone to activate it and make the booking. However, the main problem with this was that the phone number was only active between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday. I usually work 8am to 7pm minimum, so it was always going to be nigh on impossible to phone them. In fact it was the Christmas holiday (having received the voucher in early November) before I was actually free to phone. And the most annoying thing was that there was no information they asked for that could not have been given online. I could have done this over the internet and been sent the details of the studio that way.

So it was the new year before the studio got in touch with me to arrange Jabba's close-up. The studio in question was The Click Studios in Richmond. Again, the same problem presented itself that I had to call during normal office hours on a Monday to Friday. But somehow they managed to get hold of me at ASE (!) and then after I had finished teaching one afternoon. Jabba's portrait was duly arranged for 4th February.

Despite me giving them my name on a number of occasions, they insisted on calling me Juliet. Eventually I stopped trying to correct them and answered to Juliet each time. When we arrived for the shoot, the studio was crowded - there were at least three full families in there, waiting either for viewing or for their own photo shoot, and so we stood. We at least didn't have to wait very long. Our photographer was absolutely wonderful. She was not a fan of reptiles, but despite her nervousness around him she was professional, talented, and talked to him in a soft soothing voice. The whole shoot took about 10 minutes, and then we were invited in for viewing.

I'm always a little nervous about viewings, having had a bad experience with an unrelated agency a few years ago. I expected to be given the hard sell and sent on a guilt trip. We had none of that - the man showing us the photos accepted that we were just looking for one good photo for the 7x5 image, and he helped us narrow it down to one good one.

Nearly two weeks later I missed a call from them to say the photo was in, we could collect it, but that we should phone them before we come in. I phoned back on the Saturday, but they didn't answer. They also didn't return my voicemail. So last Saturday I phoned in my Teacher Voice. They called back within half an hour and we collected Jabba's picture.

It's a gorgeous photo. The photographer did an excellent job and she is to be commended. However, the experience was less than stellar. Simply the inaccessibility of the companies outside normal office hours (even banks do a Saturday morning) has been enough to deter me from using their services again, coupled with messages from FuelMyBlog pushing me to update them. The cost, were it £50, was a little steep for the 10-minute photo shoot and the photo.

And they have yet to refund my £20 deposit! So I may be writing a complaint letter...

I may use the studio again if I was looking to book a family or couples portrait, but even so, some of the prices look steep. For example, though it was six years ago, I paid £850 for our wedding photographer, including 300 photos and an album. I understand that studios have premises to maintain and so on, but it seems like an awfully big mark-up.

Detail of Jabba's portrait, scanned in badly and used for evaluation purposes.

Picture's amazing though.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Microteaches #7: I Thought Half-Term Was A Holiday?

Half-term was last week. I thought I'd have a bit of a break, some time to lie in. Didn't happen. We had an action-packed few days celebrating my birthday, and there were builders in renovating the flats upstairs, which consisted of drilling and hammering very loudly from 8am. There was a frisson of excitement as they managed to drop a heating pipe through our ceiling on my birthday itself, and that of course was it - it was impossible to relax when wondering if any more hardware was going to pitch itself into our flat. I'm so tired that I feel like Steve.

Pissing me off massively during half-term was the article in the Indy stating "Female teachers accused of giving boys lower marks". The paper itself is available here. Sadly I don't understand enough of the statistical metrics, and indeed didn't have much time to read in detail, to be able to comment much beyond the executive summary. But the basic gist seemed to be that boys assume that their work will be marked lower by female teachers so they don't try as hard. Girls assume their work will be marked higher by male teachers so they try harder. And while female teachers confirm the boys' beliefs by marking girls more leniently, the male teachers mark boys more leniently.

So what is going on there? I don't feel that I do mark boys' work more harshly. I sometimes think I do the exact opposite. Male colleagues of mine are exceptionally hard on the boys, and on many occasions I've had blazing rows with them to try to save my boys' places on courses. If anything I allow boys more leniency than girls to compensate for my colleagues. I am but a single data point though. And to be fair, my style of teaching mostly involves revealing increments of cleavage in return for coursework.

Professional Pob impersonator and all-round fucking moron Michael Gove has delivered another slap in the face to teachers by saying "If you [teachers] love your job then there is, I think, absolutely nothing to complain about in making sure you have more of a chance to do it well" (from Huffington Post). This is in the context of expecting us to stay longer during the day and take shorter holidays.

Well, Govey, this week went as follows. On each morning I've been in at 8am - this is the earliest I am allowed to enter the premises. If I could go in at 7:30am I would. On Monday I left at 6:30pm when the college shut. On Tuesday I left at 8:45pm, yesterday at 7:45pm and this evening I ducked out early at 7pm. Tomorrow is a training day so I might get to leave at 5pm. Twelve-hour days are nothing unusual. On Tuesday and Wednesday I had to sit down at my laptop when I got home and work for another three hours. During half-term most of us went into work on at least one day of our holiday, and I will have three days taken out of my Easter break for revision purposes. So I would like very much to know what more Gove would like me to do.

This term is all about coursework, and my A2s are starting to complain that they're not doing fieldwork. They were the ones who moaned like buggery about having to do so, and now they're having to live with doing lab-based research projects. It's going to be an absolute disaster. The AS students are doing better, and some of the more interesting topics I've seen are on ageing, cirrhosis of the liver, Kawasaki disease, conservation of gorillas, testicular cancer and equine colic. We're going on a trip next week, so if you hear that a constituent college of the University of London out in Surrey has burnt to the ground, you'll know that was my lot. I predict it will be a matter of minutes after the coach pulls out of our car park before the strains of "Stop the bus I want a wee-wee" are heard...


Friday 3 February 2012

ATP Means "A Tent Pole"

The A2s started respiration this week, and by this morning we were onto oxidative phosphorylation. They didn't care much for the gorgeous diagram I had up on the IWB, and they asked me to draw it out for them. So I did.

Put it this way - they'll never forget what ATP synthase looks like, will they?

Fortunately they were all on the ball with the comments, and we had such gems as:
"We're going to be shafted in this exam!"

"I feel like a bit of a knob..."

"Miss, stop dicking around!"
Was tempting to say "Don't feel intimidated, lads, it's only 10 nanometres long!", but one of them was already regretting his decision to apply for biochemistry degrees at university, so perhaps it was just as well I didn't.
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