Category Archives: Uncategorized

Only the name of the airport changes

The conference that I attended last week was in Reno, Nevada and, on my way to it, I stopped over in Dayton, Ohio and visited the US Air Force Research Laboratory to present the results from our research project supported by their European Office of Aerospace Research & Development (EOARD).  The journey from Liverpool to Dayton, via Manchester and Altanta airports, took 17 hours; however, that was short compared to the journey from Dayton to Reno, via Chicago and San Francisco airports, which took 24 hours door-to-door or rather hotel-to-hotel.  ‘Only the name of the airport changes’ is a quote from Italo Calvino describing the city of Trude in his book ‘Invisible Cities‘; but it also described how I felt looking out from my window seats at successive airports over the four days that I travelled from Liverpool to Reno.

We arrived at Dayton airport at 5am for a 7am flight to be told that it was cancelled and we were re-booked on a flight leaving at 5.18pm.  We tried to re-rent the rental car that we had just returned but were told every car was booked; so, we were stuck in Dayton airport for 12 hours.  Your perspective of time changes in these circumstances.  At 5am with nothing much to do, 12 hours seemed like infinity; but at 5pm when we were about to board our flight, the same 12 hours seemed short – almost as if we had only arrived at the airport an hour or so earlier.  Augustine observed that our consciousness is based on memory and anticipation such that time is entirely present in our minds as memory and as anticipation.  While Aristotle considered time to be the measurement of change.  Hence, since I was anticipating no change during my 12 hours of waiting, my perception of time was of it passing very slowly.  Whereas, when I was boarding my flight 12 hours later, my memory was of having done the same things that I would usually have done while waiting for a flight [reading and editing draft manuscripts from my research group]; and hence my perception of the elapsed 12 hours was compressed into the usual 2-hour period spent at an airport prior to a flight.  The apparent unchanging view out of the plane’s window, both in flight and, to a lesser extent, on the ground also tended to distort my perception of the passage of time.

Sources:

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, Penguin Vintage Classics, 1997.

Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Penguin, 2019.

 

Feedback is a gift

In academic life you get used to receiving feedback, including plenty of negative feedback when your grant proposal is declined by a funding agency or your manuscript is rejected by the editor of a journal.  We are also subject to annual performance reviews which can be difficult if all of your proposals and manuscripts have been rejected.  So, how should we respond to negative feedback?

The Roman philosopher, Marcus Aurelius is credited with the saying ‘Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact’, which perhaps implies we should not take the negative feedback too seriously, or at least we should look for some evidence.

Tasha Eurich has suggested we should mine it for insight and harness it for improvement but without incurring collateral damage to your self-confidence.  He recommends a five-point approach, based on empirical evidence:

  1. Don’t rush to react
  2. Gather more evidence
  3. Find a harbinger
  4. Don’t be a lonely martyr but engage in dialogue
  5. Remember that change is not the only option; you can accept your weaknesses, share them and work around them.

If you are the one giving the negative feedback then it is worth remembering the stages of response to bad news are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Hopefully, the feedback will not induce the full range of response but, when it does, you should not be surprised.

See earlier posts on giving [‘Feedback on feedback‘ on June 28th, 2017] and receiving student feedback [‘Deep long-term learning‘ on April 28th, 2018].

 

Source: Tasha Eurich, ‘The right way to respond to negative feedback’, HBR, May 31st, 2018.

Feed your consciousness with sensory experiences

Our senses are bombarded in modern life.  When our ears are plugged with sound from the mobile phone to which our eyes are glues, our brain tends to be overloaded with stimuli and we barely register the signals from our other senses: smell, taste, touch.  Our smart phones can deliver so much data to our brains that there is little time to savour experiences.  Yet, some neuroscientists have suggested that the significant function of consciousness is to provide us with sensory pleasure and a reason to live.  In our busy lives, we need to pay attention to the small things in life, such as the taste of your home-made granola at breakfast and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or the feel of a shell or pebble that you keep on your desk [‘Pebbles – where are yours?’ on September 27, 2017].  So, tune into all of your senses and give your mind a break from the digital world.  It should make you feel better.

On a similar theme see also: ‘Listening with your eyes shut‘ on 31st May 2017 and ‘Slow down, breathe your own air‘ on December 23rd, 2015.

Sources:

Ken Mogi, The little book of ikigai, London: Quercus Editions Limited, 2018.

Nicholas Humphrey, Soul dust: the magic of consciousness,Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.

Laboratory classes thirty years on

Henry Lea Laboratory, The University of Sheffield in the 1960s

I have happy memories of teaching laboratory classes at the University of Sheffield in the mid 1980s and 1990s in the Henry Lea Laboratory.  The laboratory was crammed full of equipment for experiments in mechanics of materials.  We conducted the practical classes on a limited selection of test machines that stood around a set of benches in the centre of the laboratory on which were a series of bench-top experiments for undergraduates.  The outer reaches of the laboratory were packed with test machines of various shapes and sizes that were the domain of the research students and staff.  So, undergraduate students were privileged to conduct their laboratory classes surrounded by research activity – this was one of the advantages of attending a research-intensive university to study engineering.  However, this is not the experience that modern students gain from laboratory classes.  Sheffield, like Liverpool, and many other research-intensive universities has purpose-built teaching laboratories that provide modern spacious facilities for teaching and learning but also segregate undergraduates from the research business of the university.  In the UK, the increase in student numbers, as we moved towards 50% participation in higher education, was probably a prime driver for the design and construction of these facilities.  However, often the growth in student numbers exceeds the planned capacity of the teaching laboratories and the student experience is reduced by being in a group of five or six with only one or two of them being able to get hands-on experience at the same time.  To overcome this problem, I have used practical exercises as homework assignments that can be performed in the kitchen at home by first year students.  These were initially designed for the MOOC on thermodynamics that I developed a few years ago but they work equally well for undergraduate students and allow individuals to gain experience of conducting a simple experiment, recording and processing data, and write a short report about their findings [see post on ‘Blending learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018 and ‘Slow down time to think [about strain energy]‘ on March 8th, 2017].  I have found that the participation rate is about the same as for traditional laboratory classes but different because students can learn from their mistakes in private and acquire some experimental skills [1].  However, it is a long way from conducting labs for small cohorts in a laboratory where world-class research is in progress.

Reference:

1. Patterson EA, Using everyday examples to engage learners on a massive open online course, IJ Mechanical Engineering Education, doi: 10.1177/0306419018818551, 2018.