Academic Parent

November 29, 2017 - by martin

I, like many others, made note of a recent tweet by Nathan Hall, discussing the attitude of his colleagues when he prioritises family over career:

The ensuing thread revealed plenty of people who felt the same way or who had experienced the same reactions and attitudes in their own place of work.

It made me reflect upon the level of privilege I have to work somewhere where I can genuinely say that this is not my personal experience. Since my son was born, I have been working from home one day a week, in order to both save on childcare costs and to get some quality time with him. When he was a small baby, this really was working from home, punctuated by periods of playing with/feeding a small baby whenever he woke up from one of his many, many naps. As he’s got older the amount of work I do on a Friday has decreased massively, but thankfully my job is flexible enough that I can take up the slack by working longer days, or committing some time in the evenings and weekends. I now tend to spend Saturday mornings working while my wife has some time with the children, which has a double benefit of allowing me to do all the things I have missed on the Friday while also allowing my wife to get some time alone with the terrorists who rule our lives.

This has always been an informal arrangement; although my employer offers formal flexible working which I could apply for and am fairly sure I would get, I’ve never bothered. Despite this, my colleagues are supportive of my working arrangements, and I’ve never been pushed into attending a Friday meeting or been questioned on why I’m not in the office five days a week.

The message has also been given by those higher up in the University. During a training course recently, one of the pro-vice chancellors of the University made the point that at the end of the day this is only a job, and other things are more important. It’s nice to know your own view is held by the levels of upper management too.

Other people have written about the ridiculous arms race within academia to work more and work harder, and how it’s destructive for our industry, so I’m not going to go into that here


Academic Parent

November 29, 2017 - by martin

I, like many others, made note of a recent tweet by Nathan Hall discussing the attitude of his colleagues when he prioritises family over career:

The ensuing thread revealed plenty of people who felt the same way or who had experienced the same reactions and attitudes in their own place of work.

It made me reflect upon the level of privilege I have to work somewhere where I can genuinely say that this is not my personal experience. Since my son was born I have been working from home one day a week in order to both save on childcare costs and to get some quality time with him. When he was a small baby, this really was working from home, punctuated by periods of playing with/feeding a small baby whenever he woke up from one of his many, many naps. As he’s got older the amount of work I do on a Friday has decreased massively, but thankfully my job is flexible enough that I can take up the slack by working longer days, or committing some time in the evenings and weekends. The important thing is that I’ve never felt the need or pressure to work more than a ‘usual’ working week. I’m not one of these academics who feels they must work 60+ hour weeks, and I never will be. I love my work and enjoy what I do, but ultimately my family and home are far more important and far more enjoyable.

After my daughter was born we (my wife and I) rearranged our work schedules, as she was missing out on the time I had with the children on Fridays. As a result, we both now work a half day on Friday, swapping over at lunchtime. This allows us both a few hours alone time with the children, and by each working slightly longer hours the other four days of the week neither of us struggle to get our hours in and get the job done.

This has always been an informal arrangement; although my employer offers formal flexible working which I could apply for and am fairly sure I would get, I’ve never bothered. Despite this, my colleagues are supportive of my working arrangements, and I’ve never been pushed into attending a Friday meeting or been questioned on why I’m not in the office five days a week.

The message has also been given by those higher up in the University. During a training course recently, one of the Pro-Vice Chancellors of the University made the point that at the end of the day this is only a job, and other things are more important. It’s nice to know your own view is held by (at least some of) the levels of upper management too.

From the comments and discussion around Nathan’s tweet, and from speaking to colleagues around the world it seems like sadly some of my experiences of life in academia are atypical, and this is a real shame. Whether it’s a systemic structural issue to do with workloads in academia or a form of societal pressure, I do feel we can improve as a profession in supporting those colleagues for whom work is not the sole driving force.


DataJConf Debrief

August 5, 2017 - by martin

DataJConf at UCD

A month ago we held the first European Data and Computational Journalism Conference in Dublin, Ireland. This is a long overdue post about that event.

The conference idea started as all good ideas do, in the pub and with a tweet. It was at a social event during ICWSM ‘16 where I was first introduced to Bahareh Heravi, a data journalism lecturer from UCD. We talked briefly about the things we’re doing in Cardiff with the CompDJ MSc, and she spoke about her plans to introduce something similar in Dublin. A long time passed, and she got in touch over Twitter to ask if I was interested in organising a conference with her, to cover Data and Computational Journalism. Always keen to say yes to things that aren’t technically part of my day-to-day job and that will cause me a lot of work, I jumped straight in, dragging m’colleague Glyn along for the ride.

We spent several weeks having Skype calls to discuss and plan the conference, getting a website together, releasing the call for papers, organising the programme committee, managing the reviews, selecting talks, creating the programme, and then getting tickets on sale for the conference. It was a bit of a mad rush, but by June we were starting to see tickets sold, and had an excellent line up of speakers for the day. All I had to do then was sit back and wait to see if people turned up. Bahareh had less of an easy time, as she was hosting the thing, so spent many hundreds of hours organising the logistics of the event, the catering, lanyards, bags, souvenirs and all the other things that go into making a successful conference - a huge amount of work for which we are truly grateful!

When we initially spoke about the conference, we wanted to make sure we had a mix of industry and academia, and that it really was a mix. Bahareh had had a disappointing time at another DataJ conference where an academic track was included, but kept totally separate from the industry track, which resulted in a lack of discussion between the two groups of participants. This was something we were determined to avoid at all costs. We were also unsure about whether there was an appetite for this sort of conference. Our initial aim was that if we had about 50 people turn up, we’d count it as a success. In the end, we had just over 100 people through the doors, which was amazing, and there was a real mix of people from academia and industry. There was a diverse set of talks, on a range of topics, and it was really nice to see industry types asking questions of the academics, and vice versa. We also avoided the dreaded ‘all-male’ lineup, with a majority of talks being given by females. The proceedings from the conference are now available, if you’re interested.

The conference was followed by a couple of half-day workshops: an introduction to Data Journalism, and an Unconference, both of which were received very well.

All in all, a really successful event. I met a lot of interesting people and made some good contacts for the future. There were a lot of interesting discussions and I came home full of ideas for things to introduce within our teaching and research.

It was such a good time, we’re doing it all over again. DataJConf 2018 will be held here in Cardiff. So I guess this time it’ll be Glyn’s turn to do all the running around organising things…

CompDJ Team Selfie!


Post-Graduation Thoughts

August 4, 2017 - by martin

Last month I took part in my first graduation ceremony as part of the academic procession. This is the bit where staff members from the school(s) that are graduating get dressed up in their silly robes, ‘process’ into the graduation ceremony, and sit on stage for an hour or so clapping as all their students stride across the stage to shake the VC’s hand and graduate from their degree.

It’s a lot of fun, because who doesn’t like dressing up in silly robes and a hat? But its also good for the students, I think it shows them that we genuinely care about the fact they’re graduating, and it’s nice for them to see familiar faces up there on the stage celebrating their hard work. I know I enjoyed that part of my own graduation, so I’m happy now to be able to take part myself. I actually went to two ceremonies this year; the ceremony for the School of Computer Science & Informatics, and the ceremony for the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

In both ceremonies I was really happy to see a number of students that I know and have taught. In the COMSC ceremony there were a lot of MSc students from the various programmes from my second year of lecturing the Web Apps and the Visualisation modules. There were also a couple of students whose dissertation projects I supervised, and a few undergraduates who I’ve worked with on summer projects. Then in the JOMEC ceremony this was the first year that we’ve had students from the MSc in Computational Journalism attend the graduation ceremony, which was really nice. I had a nice feeling of pride as they read out the name of the degree programme I helped create, then more as the students strode across the stage.

It’s really pleasing to see students you’ve taught start making their way in the world. Even more so when you see them creating great work and doing interesting things in ‘the Industry’. Take one of our first students Charles, who’s followed a successful stint at Trinity Mirror with a move to go push things forward at The Bureau Local. Or one of his colleagues Nikita, who’s working at one of the first data journalism outfits in India. Or last year’s grad Niko, who after a successful Google News Lab fellowship at The Guardian last year is now working on their vis team. Even this year’s students are at it before they’ve even finished: Jess is busy on a GNL fellowship for Trinity Mirror, Laura is on an internship at The Telegraph and Haluka is doing the same at The Financial Times. Four of this year’s students have job offers already, with Rae having left for the US to go run the Springfield bureau of The Daily Line.

It’s a bit weird, knowing that a few years ago we had an idea that we needed a course to train people to do a thing, and now there are people out there doing just that thing. It’s exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.


Thoughts from the CEI Learning & Teaching Conference 2017

July 5, 2017 - by martin

Yesterday was the annual ‘Learning & Teaching Conference’ of the Cardiff University Centre for Education Innovation. This year the theme was ‘To Tech or not to Tech, is that the Question?’. It’s the first time I’ve attended this conference, and I thought I’d get some of my thoughts from the day down in pixels.

(Reading this back later, I realise what a tangent this went on. From “I’m going to review #CUCEI17” to “there are some teachers out there that could do better but I don’t know how to help them”. That was a quite a diversion, for which I apologise. For an actual summary of the conference there’s a great storify of the main discussions during the conference which I think sums it all up very nicely.)

It was a very interesting and at times thought-provoking conference. I felt the main thematic question was solved fairly early on, perhaps even before we entered the room. I think most of us realise it’s not about the tech, it’s about the teaching, and the tech is just one tool in our toolkit that helps us do that effectively. The answer to the question is therefore ‘no’ and the real question is: ‘what tech and how much?’.

The keynote was an interesting look at how technology can be embraced by a whole institution, but I think what really caught my attention during this talk (with one eye on our new building with MATHS) was the lecture theatres that are arranged for group work:

Learning Spaces

How fantastic would it be able to teach in that space - you could do so many activities beyond just standing at the front ‘lecturing’. I’m becoming more and more vehement in my belief that a traditional ‘didactic’ lecture is the wrong way to teach most topics in Computer Science, and is actually harmful to our student’s ability to learn and think independently. Breaking the link between the idea of a ‘lecture theatre’ and a ‘lecture’ would be a good start towards changing the way both staff and students think about these things we call ‘lectures’. One of the frequent comments I’ve heard (and apologies to whoever said it as I can’t remember who it was - possibly Vince or Dafydd) is “wouldn’t it be great to have lecture theatres that don’t have a ‘front’”. I can’t agree more.

But of course, this, a lecture theatre with a funky design, isn’t technology. Yes, the group tables can be tech-enabled, with power and interactive displays and all sorts of other gadgets and gizmos, but really we’re just talking here about rethinking our way of teaching to a more interactive, collaborative (and collectivist?) paradigm.

This is where I think the problem comes in. Show a lecture theatre like that to a room full of academics who have all managed to carve out the time to attend a conference on education innovation and of course they’re all going to start thinking ‘Wow, the things I could do with that’. We’re the same people who are already trying to innovate in our teaching. We used lecture capture as soon as they put webcams in our classrooms (or even before). We’ve tried out all the polls and live Q&A systems during lectures. We’re creating long-lasting communities for our students in Slack, asking them to text in questions during lectures, and open-sourcing our lecture materials. We’ve already moved past an “I’ll stand at the front and talk, you sit there and listen” model of teaching. Some have stopped ‘lecturing’ entirely, are fully committed to a flipped learning model and now spend all our contact time on interacting with students, working on activities or problems, and really delivering ‘value’. The conference in this regard was preaching to the choir. Yes, it was helping those of us keen on innovation to discover new tools for our toolkit, talk to other like-minded teachers, and to validate our own approaches, but it wasn’t really attempting to answer the big problem in our own work: How do we convince everyone else to change with us?

Because the big problem isn’t with the people who are trying to innovate. The problem is the academic who doesn’t want to do any of that stuff. The academic who thinks “well, I learnt through traditional lectures, so that’ll be fine for all these students”. I actually had a colleague say to me the other day “I learnt from a book, so I don’t need to make videos for my students. They can just read the book like me”. They generally didn’t realise the benefits that can be had by moving the passive learning to non-contact time and creating an active learning environment within their lectures.

We have stuffed universities with the kind of academics who don’t realise that they’re there because they’re the sort of academically minded studious individual who could have taught themselves off some notes scribbled on the underside of a table if they had to. Anyone who’s dragged themselves through three years of undergraduate education, a year of masters, three to five years of a PhD, and a probable multitude of short-term RA contracts on many different topics before finally reaching the relative stability of a lectureship is going to be the kind of person who can learn things themselves and quickly in whatever circumstance. They don’t know what it is to be the person who struggles in class, or who finds things difficult, or who just doesn’t respond well to a fifty minute ‘lecture’.

We have a situation where people who have no difficulty in learning are having to teach.

And I find that that means they have no desire to try to do things differently, because the way they’re doing things “worked for them”. So how do we communicate to these individuals that actually ‘it worked for me’ is not a valid argument. How do we show them that there is a better way? That they can actually engage with students in a more meaningful fashion? How do we make them understand that

Just reading from a fucking powerpoint is not education.

Those are the questions I want answered next.