Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Getting the bird

January 11, 2011

In which Dr Aust ponders language and its obscurities.

You lookin' at my bird?

One of Dr Aust’s current nightly rituals is reading a bedtime story to one, or both, children.

This evening we were reading a story – one of this charming series – which contained the word:


This reminded Dr Aust of an event, over a dozen years ago now, which exemplifies the problems with language (and perhaps also cultural differences) that can turn up unexpectedly in Universities.

The story concerns an exam sat by our undergraduate medical students some time in the mid to late 1990s. Back in those days we academics used to, as they say, “invigilate” all the exams ourselves. Nowadays we have special people – often retired academics – who do this, and the word “Invigilate!” instead tends to conjure up for me a vision of someone casting a spell in a Harry Potter book. But in those days, we would be there ourselves to hand out the exam papers and terrify the students with dire announcements about the consequences of cheating, or inadvertently having any notes about your person. Then we would spend a few hours patrolling the exam room trying to look grim and/or spot students with suspect programmable calculators.

Next, you need to know what sort of exam it was. This was what we called a “Case paper”, in which the students were presented with a short medical case history. The idea was that they should try and figure out what was going on, first trying to recognise so-called “cues”, and symptoms, in the history, and then suggest what kinds of tests or investigations they would order.

The particular case in this exam paper involved a man called “Mr Polly” (sic) who kept budgerigars. The birds actually appeared in the first line, which went something like:

“Mr Polly was devoted to his budgerigars, and kept several dozen in a shed at the back of his house. They were his pride and joy.”

Now, you need to know that the word “bird” appeared nowhere in the exam paper, though “budgerigar” was in there several times.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next.

A student stuck their hand up.

Dr Aust hurried over. Students sticking their hands up in exams are not unusual, since requests for extra paper, or to be allowed to visit the toilet facilities, were a regular part of invigilating then and doubtless still are. Of course, a minute or two after the exam started was a little bit early.

Dr Aust asked the student what s/he wanted.

The student replied nervously “I don’t understand this word”.

…And pointed to the word “budgerigar”.

This put Dr Aust in a bit of a quandary. He was a fairly junior academic at the time, and was not one of the people who had actually set the exam paper, so he didn’t really feel he had the authority to just tell the student that a budgerigar was a small bird. Scanning the paper, Dr Aust hunted for something else that might offer a clue. His eye fell on a passage more or less like this:

“One day, Mr Polly felt short of breath and a bit faint – walking up the stairs was an effort. Nonetheless, he was determined to attend to his budgerigars. Whilst cleaning out his aviary, he became dizzy and breathless and collapsed. His wife found him and called an ambulance”

Dr Aust pointed at this last sentence and whispered to the student:

“This sentence should help you. Look at this word. he said, underlining the word aviary.

The student, who judging by appearance and accent was clearly from outside the UK, looked panic-stricken.

“I don’t know what that word means either” s/he said.

Which is an object lesson, I guess, in being careful what words to use. And in what settings. Especially settings where it is difficult for people to ask clarifying questions.

The story does have a happy ending. After a few words with the Senior Examiner who had set the paper, we decided to make an announcement to all those in the exam hall to tell them that a budgerigar was a small parrot.

It turned out afterwards that several other students had been equally flummoxed by “budgerigar” and “aviary”, though most had not put their hands up.

Over the years I have sometimes wondered if any of those flummoxed students, now doubtless many years qualified in medicine and quite possibly GPs and consultants in the NHS, have ever again encountered the words “budgerigar” or “aviary”.


PS Mr Polly’s complaint, which I dare say all my medical readers will have guessed, goes by the common name of “Bird Fancier’s Lung”, and is a form of extrinsic allergic alveolitis or hypersensitivity pneumonitis (more here).

PPS Language and comprehension is, of course, an issue in many settings in academia, and more so in medicine. Dr Aust has always (he hopes) been reasonably good at spotting – mostly from the non-verbal cues – when people working in his lab did not understand what he was saying, and adjusting his language accordingly. Not everyone does, though. One eminent Professor I knew was famous in the Department for fixing non-English-native-speaking research assistants with his most gimlet gaze and then saying, in his slowest and loudest voice:

“Do. You. Understand?”

The joke was that he often did this to people who came from cultures where to admit that you hadn’t understood the Great Man’s pearls of wisdom would be a terrible source of shame, and also a grave slight to the Eminent Professor. Thus the unfortunate subordinate would nod meekly, and the Great Man would depart satisfied that he had got his meaning across. Whereupon Dr Aust and the other more junior lab people would explain to the quivering research assistant what the Prof had been saying.

A slightly different problem arises for doctors who work in countries where the language is not their native one. Apart from just the language, they have to cope with regional accents and dialects. In the UK they also have to cope with the British talent for slang and euphemisms.

When Mrs Dr Aust first arrived in the UK to work as a junior doctor in a North West England-shire hospital, she was presented with a glossary of “local terms that your patients may use”. The list ran to a fair few printed pages. I suspect it may have had some similarities to the Yorkshire one here, which was discussed by the august British Medical Journal a while back.

Concentration – it’s not what you think

December 9, 2010

In which we get a glimpse of the future. And it isn’t very comforting.

Those who have been reading here recently will remember that the last post began:

“In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.”

And I also said:

“…most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.”

As the last post discussed, the axe has been seen as likeliest to fall in the arts, where the Govt proposes to cut away all tax-derived funding for teaching. But sciences will not be immune, either.

Universities Minister David Willetts (especially) and Business Secretary Vince Cable have been making a lot of noises about how the increase in direct fees (i.e. paid by the students) will make Universities take teaching more seriously, and “improve teaching’s status”.

I have to say that I have yet to meet a single person who actually works in a University who believes this.

I said as much, just the other day, in a comment on Dr Phil Yerboot’s blog:

“I know the ConDems have been saying that teaching in Univs will be “up-status-ed” by these moves, but it would be fair to say that no-one I know in a Univ who does a primarily teaching-focussed job (like me) thinks their status is actually going to rise, at least as measured by things like promotion and salary increments.

I suspect that it may develop that such things come to matter more for some courses in some institutions, but I can’t see medical schools being among them, for the simple reason that demand for places nationally is likely to always exceed supply. Thus even the medical schools that finish near the bottom in [the National Student Survey results] have no trouble filling the courses. So I wouldn’t see research losing its grip on academic career progression any time soon. Indeed, as the amount of research cash that there is to be given out decreases, the Univs will be getting more, not less, obsessed with grant-getting.”

The last sentence there is the key. One hears a lot of talk in research-intensive Universities these days about the need to “disinvest” in “less than excellent research”. Another word one hears a lot is “concentration” – which is a euphemism for what you do by “disinvesting”.

Now, over the 25 years I have worked in UK Universities it has always been true that the individuals most likely to be shed in University voluntary redundancy campaigns – and I’ve lived through at least a half dozen – are academics in the 50+ age range with primarily teaching “portfolios”. These people do not boost the research profile, goes the argument, and you can always get someone cheaper to teach the class – or you can not replace them at all, and simply make everyone who is left take on a bit more teaching.

What is new in the ConDem world is that relatively less profitable areas of research are set for the same treatment. That is, people with active labs, and probably PhD students, and possibly even grants, are going to be in the cross-hairs too.

The last time this was true was when I first came into academia; the Thatcher years of the 80s, much invoked lately by pundits seeking parallels with the current cuts.

When this kind of thing comes along, the individual character of institutions and their bosses comes to the fore. Some are more aggressive about “getting ahead of the game”, others less. Some simply opt for a voluntary redundancy scheme and hope enough people sign up to cut the wage bill by an acceptable degree. Others, especially now, will see it as a chance for “radical restructuring” – or,  in the new vocabulary, “concentration”.

Among all UK Universities, I would have said that Imperial College London  is the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a business. Early import of management practises borrowed from business, takeovers, attempts at major mergers (like the aborted one with UCL) etc etc. You can also see it in their choice of VCs/Principals and where they come from – ex-business honchos (like Richard Sykes, ex Glaxo) rather than ex-academics.

When I offered the above opinion of Imperial on a medical blog recently, I was chided by blogger Sam, who I suspect has had children attending Imperial. You can read the full exchange there if you are interested. Sam stressed Imperial’s commitment to “enterprise and entrpreneurialism”, which I think is true. I pointed to its reputation among academics for being a pretty hard-nosed employer, and fonder than most UK Universities of restructings and redundancies.

And now today I understand that a whole subsection of plant scientists are Imperial are set for the chop. There is an article about this from the Imperial College students’ paper here, and a letter from an Emeritus Professor – I’m guessing the former head of the threatened grouping – can be found here.

You will perhaps note with interest what he says about teaching, and things other than research in general.

I wonder if Messrs Willetts and Cable are following?

And finally, I am feeling a bit like Cassandra. In one of my responses to Sam I wrote that:

“The answer may well be that Imperial is a very good place to be a high-flying academic, but not a very good one to be an average academic. But all Universities actually need (perhaps slightly better than) average academics too.”

And I also said something else:

“Of course, I suspect the Conservative Govt would likely regard [Imperial] as a model”

So perhaps David and Vince will be paying attention after all.

For I  fear that what is happening at Imperial is the shape of things to come elsewhere.

Universities need arts as well as science

December 6, 2010

In which Dr Aust notes that scientists, on the whole, do not think that Universities should only have science in them.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

All right all right… I KNOW we haven’t had the Parliamentary vote on raising tuition fees yet (coming this Thursday). And I also know that, in Dr Aust’s University and in many other comparable ones, the senior brains trust is perhaps hoping that they will get to charge the students a much-increased fee which will replace the lost direct funding. I know that.

But, as many people have already noted, the cuts in the direct funding are already written into the Treasury’s spreadsheets.

And most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.

Anyway… where was I?

Oh yes.

In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.

In particular, the near-total cut of direct teaching funding for arts and many languages has people predicting that Universities will cut whole departments. The Arts Faculties are definitely nervous –and who can blame them.

Let me give you an example: I heard of one University where the science faculty declined to even circulate an announcement about the “Science is Vital “ campaign – the reason widely believed to be that the bosses didn’t want to send the University’s Arts Faculty a signal that scientists thought only science was important. Not that scientists DO think that – they don’t, on the whole – but the arts and humanities people are generally thought to be so twitchy that a “wrong signal” might spread mass panic. The “goodbye arts” idea is certainly widely prevalent among academics gossiping in places like the Times Higher Education comments threads.

Interestingly, the same pressures seem to be abroad in that bastion of the free market in University education, the USA. Conservative governments in the UK have never made any secret of their admiration for the US free market model in all things, and that definitely includes higher education. The fact that some US Universities are shutting arts programmes is thus hardly likely to bolster the confidence of arts academics in the UK.

However, there is at least one eloquent defence of arts programmes doing the rounds, spread from email inbox to twitter to email these last few weeks.

What is interesting about this one is that it comes from a scientist – the eminent enzymologist Greg Petsko, who works at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.

Petsko’s article is entitled “A Faustian Bargain”. In it he eviscerates, in a piece of sustained and forensic mockery, the President of the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany), who announced the closure of several art programmes and departments. Petsko makes many telling points, among them that a broad education, including the arts, is actually useful to scientists. He also manages to skewer the tendency of all too many University leaderships to manage by fait accompli. Here is a sample:

“You did call a [University] “town meeting”, but it was to discuss your plan [for Department closures], not let the university craft its own. And you called that meeting for Friday afternoon on October 1st, when few of your students or faculty would be around to attend…

It seems to me that the way you went about [this] couldn’t have been more likely to alienate just about everybody on campus. In your position, I would have done everything possible to avoid that. I wouldn’t want to end up in the 9th Bolgia (ditch of stone) of the 8th Circle of the Inferno, where the great 14th century Italian poet Dante Alighieri put the sowers of discord. There, as they struggle in that pit for all eternity, a demon continually hacks their limbs apart, just as in life they divided others.

The Inferno is the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the great works of the human imagination. There’s so much to learn from it about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders – if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

Petsko repeatedly uses the final motif –

“- if only you had an XYZ department, which now, of course, you don’t.”

– to skewer the Albany President mercilessly. He then goes on, near the end of the piece, to say the following – which should ring a loud bell with anyone who has been following the proposed changes to teaching funding in the UK Universities:

“As for the argument that the humanities don’t pay their own way, well, I guess that’s true, but it seems to me that there’s a fallacy in assuming that a university should be run like a business. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be managed prudently, but the notion that every part of it needs to be self-supporting is simply at variance with what a university is all about. You seem to value entrepreneurial programs and practical subjects that might generate intellectual property more than you do ‘old-fashioned’ courses of study. But universities aren’t just about discovering and capitalizing on new knowledge; they are also about preserving knowledge from being lost over time, and that requires a financial investment. There is good reason for it: what seems to be archaic today can become vital in the future.”

Petsko then gives two examples, one from science and one from arts and humanities. They are virology, which was in decline in the 1970s until HIV suddenly threw the shortage of virologists into sharp relief and gave the subject a new urgency; and middle eastern languages and culture, which were sparsely taught until the events of September 11th 2001 and their aftermath.

He continues:

“I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I’ve just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today’s backwater is often tomorrow’s hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren’t too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I’m willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word ‘university’ derives from the Latin ‘universitas’, meaning ‘the whole’. You can’t be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.”


Are liberal arts degrees a solution to the UK funding problem?

Petsko makes various references to the liberal arts educational model – common in US undergraduate degrees – where students take a broad spectrum of courses. This is something my friend Prof David Colquhoun has been writing about recently as a possible part solution here in the UK.

In Petsko’s view, these set-ups provide a way that more “profit-making” subjects (or, in the UK context, ones the Govt is still going to provide some teaching funding for) could subsidise subjects which make less money. For instance, if students taking science as their “major” subject were also required to take courses like composition, and/or rhetoric, then you could have people in, for instance, Classics departments whose teaching duties might primarily be teaching rhetoric to non-classics students. There is even a sort of parallel here with “service” teaching in science departments. This is a system, common historically in UK Universities with medical schools, where some people in the science departments mainly teach subjects like physiology or pharmacology to medical and other health science students.

As the cuts have loomed larger, there have been many eloquent defences of both the intrinsic value of the arts, and also of the economic usefulness of subjects other than hard sciences. For instance, Kieron Flanagan recently pointed me to this defence of humanities and social sciences. And there is Stefan Collini’s truly magisterial deconstruction of the Browne Review, on which the Govt’s proposed changes are based, in the London Review of Books here.

However, let’s stick to science and University science teaching – on the basis that one should concentrate on talking about things one knows something about. The central point that I would make, along with Petsko, is that studying science – or, at least, studying for a modern science BSc degree – does not teach you everything that scientists need to know. You might, indeed, get some of the other stuff from things like the arts. Or from literature. Or from reading newspapers. Or from writing, and communicating, about science to non-scientists

And again; as a scientist, I find the argument that a scientific training and education is useful entirely, or even primarily, because it is “vocational” quite flawed. It is a commonplace among me and my scientific colleagues that the primary value of our degree is NOT entirely, or even particularly “vocational”, i.e. in training more scientists. The value lies in training critical thinkers who also happen to be scientists. But training critical thinkers is something that all academic disciplines hopefully do – indeed, I would see it as a key purpose of all Higher Education. I am quite certain the arts and humanities pride themselves on instilling critical thinking, as well as producing “lifelong learners”, and all the other buzzwords.

Finally, there is the question on how the culture of Universities will change, if the arts are hit hard. This was, of course, where we started with Prof Petsko’s satirical tour-de-force. But I will leave the last word to an eminent British scientist and Professor I know, writing in the pages of the Times Higher Education a few months back. His short letter does not have Petsko’s rhetoric, or sustained scorn and humour, but it serves equally to make the point that scientists do not generally think that Universities should only do science:

“…..As with every time new [higher education] “world rankings” are published, I find myself scratching my head.

Am I missing something? Card-carrying professional scientist that I am, it still completely eludes me how institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology (or even our own Imperial College London [1]), which, as far as I know, have absolutely no arts faculties of any size, shape or form, can possibly be considered superior “universities” to the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, Berkeley or Yale.

Did someone change what a “university” is while I wasn’t looking?”

To which the answer seems to be:

“No, but the UK coalition government seem to be inclined to give it a try.”

I do hope, myself, that they don’t succeed.


[1] Before Alice Bell tells me off, we should say that Imperial Colege haz duz: see here.

Note: You can find a list of all Petsko’s columns, written for the journal Genome Biology, here – and a link to download a kind of eBook compendium of them (if you are an iPhone/iPod type) is here.

Stress, fighter pilots and medical students

August 31, 2010

In which Dr Aust offers, instead of bad science, a rather meandering anecdote.  Sorry.

En route back to Britain last week from our rather damp annual holiday, I couldn’t help noticing all the media coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Like all children growing up in Britain in the 60s and 70s, I guess, I became familiar early on with the story of the Battle as it has passed into British folklore (or history).  I remember my mum taking my little brother and I to see the 1969 film version during a rainy holiday (another one!) on the Isle of Wight. At the time (the tail end of the 1960s) Winston Churchill was not long dead, and we children could all recite by heart his famous line about the Battle:

“Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few”

So the picture of young RAF fighter pilots pushing themselves to the limit to keep the Luftwaffe (the German air force) at bay in a knife-edge struggle against the odds was a very potent one in those days – and of course, there were many people still alive then who had been part of the battle. The struggle and the bravery of “The Few” seemed to embody what British people felt were “the British virtues”. Perhaps that is still true – though I was interested to find, reading the modern Wiki entry on the Battle, that the historians nowadays debate the version of it that I grew up with.

Anyway, the coverage this Summer reminded me of learning about the Battle of Britain some forty years ago – but also about another context in which I have come across the story being used.

Let me fill in this other context for you.

One of the things you get used to dealing with over the years, if you are a University teacher, is students who feel under pressure. Now, for people of my vintage there is a definite tendency, I think, to see University in hindsight as a right old lark. From the perspective of ten or twenty or thirty years spent earning a living, and dealing with all of life’s other vicissitudes, it is rather difficult to see the University years as a time of stress and pressure. Indeed, I think this view is common among most people looking back at their student years. When I learnt, rather late, to drive, I had a driving instructor who used to describe his one year at University before dropping out as “the best year’s state-sponsored drinking I ever had”. And I had a good laugh at this very funny David Mitchell piece from the Guardian last week.

Now, it is fair to say that things have changed in more recent years. The state in Britain is not sponsoring students nearly as much as it used to, and nothing like it was when I was young. Many of our students now have to have part-time jobs to help with their finances – though this seems to be far less common in “vocational” degrees, like medicine, that have more fixed time commitments during the week. We set a lot more formal assignments for students to do then when I was a student, and we set students exams far more often too. And many of our students are certainly worried about getting a degree results good enough to ensure they will be competitive in the employment market. So it is, I freely admit, not like it was when I was twenty years old.

Having said all of that, the first couple of years at University must still be, I think, one of the least stressful times work-wise in most people’s lives. In most UK Universities and courses, you merely need to pass the 1st year exams. You don’t have to get 80% – or even 60%.  In the 2nd year of UK science degree courses, the exams typically count in part towards the final degree grade (classification), but usually only a bit (often contributing something like 20-25% of the final mark). Meanwhile, in professional degrees, the 2nd year is another “you simply have to pass” deal. Depending on the particular degree, the pass mark for the year (or its component units) will typically vary between around 40 and 55%. There are sometimes “Distinction Points” for those who record the top marks, but mostly it is pass/fail.

Given all this, you would not think students in this part of their University course (the early years) would be that stressed.

Some of them, however, are.  Or they certainly feel, and tell us, that they are.

Medical students are a special example in some ways, partly for the following reason. People who reach medical school are typically those who have been used to being the top, or near the top, of the class throughout their years in the school system. Conversely, they are not used to failing things. But obviously, the step up from school to University is a significant one. And now you are in a group where everyone has been selected as being from the top echelon at school. Anyway, there is a top of the medical school class, and a bottom. And some people do fail medical school exams in the 1st year.

The good news for them is that they get another chance.

Further good news is that, if you are going to fail one set of exams in medical school, the best ones to fail are probably the first lot that you do. Everyone knows there may be an “adjustment”, both for academic or personal reasons, in the transition from school to University. Away from home for the first time, for instance. Busy socialising, for another. Getting used to working without teachers and parents prodding you along for a third. As a result of this, you typically get cut a little slack if you are a student having a few bumps. You have to pass the resit exam, but the initial failure does not get you written off as a no-hoper, or even a problem case.

But some students take any failure very personally. And each year, at least a couple of those that have failed the first Semester exams fetch up in the Faculty offices complaining that they are having problems with stress.

Now, views on how to approach discussing this with students differ. Back in the 1950s, in the era of the Dirk Bogarde Doctor movies, such a student would no doubt be told to “Pull your socks up, work harder and stop talking such utter nonsense.”

We don’t do that any more.

We are sympathetic. Really, we are.

Indeed, we in the University are rather more sympathetic than some in the medical profession itself might be. Hardliners in medicine (which might at times include Mrs Dr Aust, for instance if she has had a bad week in the medical trenches) have been known to offer the view that if a person can’t cope with failing their 1st year medical student exams and having to resit, then they are going to be about as much use as a junior doctor (a job that undoubtedly is stressful) as the proverbial udders on a bull.

So one take on the stressed 1st year student who failed their exams is that they perhaps benefit from being gently reminded that it is a minor setback that they can hopefully address and overcome, regroup and move forward, worse things happen at sea etc etc.

So, sympathy, but also a gentle steer that failing an exam isn’t the end of the world, or really that stressful in the greater scheme of things, and you need to get things in some perspective.

Which brings me back to where I started – with the Battle of Britain.

You will see why in a minute.

At a medical school where I worked, the person who for many years saw the students having “difficulties” (including those who were feeling stressed) was called the Senior Tutor for Students. The occupant of this role was a slightly crusty (but actually very wise) Yorkshireman, honed by many years of teaching gross anatomy whilst also working as a GP in a local health centre. By the time I met him, this chap, who was one of the best medical teachers I have ever come across, was in his 50s and already a legendary figure among generations of undergraduates.

One of his more celebrated routines for talking to 1st year students who were complaining of stress problems went something like the following.


(Fixing student with deep hooded gaze over his glasses)

” Yes… well, How to look at this.”

A pause.

“Consider, if you will, A Battle of Britain fighter pilot in the Summer of 1940, fresh from training school. Solo flying hours on a Spitfire… perhaps a handful. Sleep in the last week… perhaps 20 hours in all. Chance of returning from the next day’s sorties against the German fighters, perhaps two out of three…”

Longer pause.

That (word very slightly emphasised) would be stress, I’m sure we could agree”

Another pause.

“Now…. you are a first year medical student…..”


Which is, I hope you will agree, the stuff of legends. I have certainly met doctors who could still remember, a dozen or more years later, themselves or their friends being on the receiving end of  this spiel.

And finally, with another teaching year at the University about to start, with all its inevitable minor vicissitudes – not to mention the uncertain economic future for the University sector –  I shall be taking my own advice.

I shall be doing my very, very best to keep it all in perspective.