Reading and Reflecting

Reading the sci-fi novel Coyote by Allen Steele (2002), reflecting on the political turmoil in Australia, last week, and wishfully thinking about escaping it all to the Ursa Majoris star system.

Reading

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Coyote by Allen Steele from Goodreads

I’ve recently started reading the interstellar colonization novel Coyote by Allen Steele (2002). I found it a bit difficult to get into initially, given that my previous reading (also TV series watching) had been The Expanse series which is more action-packed from the very first pages of Leviathan Wakes  (book 1). But I’m now appreciating that the Coyote series is written as fictional history, starting from a beginning point and moving forward in a linear fashion from that. Actually, now that I’ve spent the effort to get into the Coyote universe it’s becoming a most enjoyable experience.

Coyote is the destination for interstellar settlement of the Ursae Majoris system, some 46 light years from Earth. Coyote is a moon of the gas-giant planet Bear. The planets and moons of the Ursae Majoris system are named after native-American mythological icons. Coyote is smaller than Earth, but larger than Mars and has a slightly lower gravity and surface air pressure. Being a moon of a gas giant, the seasons on Coyote is more complex than on Earth, so much so as to require that the colonists invent an entirely new calendar system. Coyote and The Expanse novels both have a similar approach to the way that scientific realism is built into their respective fictional universes.

Reflection

Many of the colonists to Coyote are escaping a highly-conservative and repressive regime on Earth, called the United States Republic (USR) after a second American revolution. I’m not suggesting that political revolution is likely in Australia (or America) anytime soon, But given the political events in Australia of the week starting 19th August, originating from conservative disquiet in the Australian Liberal party and leading to the downfall of a Prime Minister, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fictional events in Coyote and the actual events being played out in Canberra.

How could a modern liberal society, like Australia or the United States turn into a right-wing authoritarian regime, like that depicted in the Coyote novels, or like that seen in numerous other places on Earth, both currently and in the past?

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Job Loss and Sense of Purpose

Me-1I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “Losing my job helped me find a sense of purpose” by Jo Stanley. Having lost my job* in the last 18 months I can sympathize. Losing a long-term job or a breakup after a long-term relationship are two of the most dispiriting experiences that you are likely to go through. You lose an anchor in your life and the knock to your confidence can easily lead you into depression and a downward spiral – no matter how much you thought you were ready for it. Particularly, in my case where I had been working in the same university teaching-research position for 28 years. Loyalty is no longer an asset, indeed it can paint a target on your back, as many people will attest to. Universities are no longer an ivory tower (if they ever were) and are rapidly catching up to being as cutthroat a working environment as anywhere in the private sector.

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The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance

I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “‘This woman is so old’: Insults hurled at academics spur survey rethink” by Henrietta Cook. This comment posted in anonymous student feedback to Sydney academic Dr. Teena Clerke. These surveys are used by universities to measure the quality of teaching in its programs.

There is no question that universities need to maintain quality teaching but there is a problem with teachers being subjected to abuse under any guise as pointed out in the cited article above. What’s more, such measures are increasingly being used to judge not only the quality of university teaching programs but also the performance of teachers and to help decide questions of whether a given academic should be re-hired, promoted or fired.

While most institutions try to take a balanced view of survey data, in regard to staff management, it potentially opens a pandora’s box of for abusive behavior, gender and racial discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment to be perpetrated by pernicious managers and supervisors (or even students against teachers). So we need assurances that the benefits of such schemes outweigh the potential risks for abuse, however isolated and infrequent such instances might be.

The recent book “The Tyranny of Metrics” by academic Jerry Muller (2018) handles these issues in a more comprehensive manner than I can do here. What I have seen over my 28 years in academia is that teaching evaluation started out as a survey consisting of 10, or so, questions plus room for comments. They were handled by teachers on a class-by-class basis and returned in a sealed envelope to the university by an appointed student.

Typically, the academic could select one or more of the survey questions from a suite of optional questions, in addition, to standardized questions. I illustrate this with my own SET (student evaluation of teaching) results from October 1998 and the Insight evaluation report from June 2015, from the same institution and from the same unit of teaching, Instrumental Analysis:

The evaluation instrument on the LHS above is for October 1998 and on the RHS for June 2015. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge the image.

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An Epiphany, or Two, of Sorts

The conversion of St Paul, artwork by Luca Giordiano.
The Conversion of Saint Paul by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy.

Has anyone else noticed that nobody really has ideas anymore? It somehow seems too pedestrian to have a mere “idea” when you can have an “epiphany” instead. I heard this on Breakfast TV this last week: “you know I’ve had an epiphany, of sorts.”  Was that you Karl Stefanovic? But epiphany on its own seems too grandiose, so as if to compensate, you add the comma and “of sorts” as an afterthought. Curious! But I caught myself saying the same thing this morning.

You see I’ve had an “epiphany, of sorts” as well. My “new” Chromebook reminded me of an “epiphany, of sorts” that I had way back, in around 2006, about Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). I’ve just connected this epiphany with a new “epiphany, of sorts” that I had this morning, about how great Chromebooks would be for personalized education. OK, this is getting ridiculous, I’ll just go back to having ideas from this point. Certainly, there was no heavenly trumpet or the presence of angels associated with having the idea. But I did have that ah-ha! experience of connecting ideas over 12-years apart.

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