End of Term

I’ve just finished another term, in fact the heaviest teaching load I’ve ever had at once: a twenty-six hour lecture course, three hours a week as one of several computer lab “demonstrators”, and another four hours or so per week in first-year student tutorials.

For those from outside of the Imperial system: our tutorials are small group meetings during which we go over a selection of the problem sheets handed out during the week in the lecture courses; here, like most of the UK, these are not explicitly marked, but instead the students get the solutions a week or so after they are handed out. The tutorial session is one of the few chances for any sort of discussion or feedback.

The tutorials can be fun and even challenging (but I’m glad I get to see the answers before the students). It is heartening to see the students trying — sometimes struggling — to really understand the problems. However, the fourth hour in a week going over the same problems can get repetitive; there aren’t that many different questions the students ask.

On the other hand, lab demonstrating doesn’t offer much intellectual at all. I have mostly supervised computer labs, which involves standing around while the students work their way through a “script”, writing programs and (we hope) learning about programming. I admit that I don’t think this is a particularly efficient use of my time: although considerable overall high-level organization is needed, the labs themselves could be (and indeed are, partially) monitored by graduate students. Unfortunately, they don’t get more than beer money for their trouble — and postdocs don’t get paid at all.

The best part of undergraduate teaching for me, though, is lecturing. When it goes well, it can be a remarkably effective way of communicating. Of course, it doesn’t always go well. Sometimes I’m not as well-prepared as I would like, or sometimes I don’t even understand the material as well as I need to. Sometimes the students don’t have the background that I thought they did. And sometimes the material is just hard, too hard to really get the first time through. Even problem sheets and studying for exams isn’t always enough: I certainly admit that I didn’t really understand much of the material that I now use every day until I was in graduate school, applying it in the course of my research. And some stuff I didn’t understand until I had to teach it (which implies that there is plenty of physics that I still don’t understand, so still much more to learn).

This term’s Cosmology course felt pretty good: after three years not only do I understand the material, but also I understand something about how to explain it to not-yet-expert upper-level physics students. The downside of this is that my explanations get a bit longer every year, so it gets harder and harder to squeeze in the most exciting material which inevitably has to come at the end, building on the foundation of the rest of the course.

This year, the Physics Department has an artist-in-residence, Geraldine Cox. Among her many other cool projects, she has been lurking in the back of our lecture theatres, sketching furiously. Many thanks to her for these pictures of me at the blackboard, in one of my favorite striped shirts:

Lecturing 2 Lecturing
Lecturing 1

(The graph on the upper left is labeled “Do we live in a special time?” — We seem to live at a time labeled by the vertical line, just as the Universe is transitioning from being mostly made of “matter” — the middle of the three plateaus in the graph — to mostly something very like Einstein’s cosmological constant, or the so-called “Dark Energy” — the rightmost plateau, which may go on infinitely far to the right. So we might have expected to find ourselves near a plateau rather than a one of the few times in between. This is an anthropic argument, and must be treated with care.)

As always, I welcome feedback, anonymous or otherwise, from any of my students on this course or any other. (When I asked for some comments a few weeks into the term, the most amusing came from the student who praised my voice and asked if I was a singer — which doesn’t jibe with the other, less positive, comments on my American accent….)

Finally, today was one of the high points of post-graduate teaching: one of my students, Jude Bowyer, passed his PhD viva with his thesis, Local Methods for the Cosmic Microwave Background. Well done to the soon-to-be Dr. Bowyer!