My Geology Note-blog

A chronicle of my PhD journey and other geology writings

Category: Teaching

The Role of Scientist as Entertainer

A poetic prologue: 

BLAZING FRUIT
(or The Role of the Poet as Entertainer)
by Roger McGough

During dinner the table caught fire.
No one alluded to the fact
and we ate on, regardless of
the flames singeing our conversation.

Unaware of the smoke
and the butlers swooning,
topics ranged from Auden
to Zefferelli. I was losing
concentration however, and being
short on etiquette, became tense
and began to fidget with the melting cutlery.

I was fashioning a spoon
into a question mark
when the Chablis began to steam
and bubble. I stood up,
mumbled something about having left the gas running
and fled blushing
across the plush terrain of the carpet.

The tut-tut-tutting could be heard above
the cra-cra-cracking of the bone china.

Outside, I caught a cab
to the nearest bus stop.
While, back at the table,
they were toying with blazing fruit
and discussing the Role of the Poet as Entertainer,
when the roof fell in.

(poem from Holiday on Death Row by Roger McGough (Jonathan Cape, 1979).

 

I tried to resist titling this piece “The Role of the Scientist as Entertainer” but it still feels most apt even if not the best, not least because what I’m going to talk about is less the scientist as entertainer than the lecturer as entertainer. But, the Scientist as Entertainer invokes something of the theatre and flare of the old public lectures given by distinguished scientists of the Royal Institution, the class room lectures with standing room only, where the charisma of the speaker is somehow still eclipsed by the science itself.

But this is not the image of the modern lecture or even, to be honest, the reality. Although I defy anyone to try and fall asleep in Nottingham University’s famous Thunder and Lightening lecture, the lectures of undergraduate courses? That’s often a different matter.

A key question to begin with would probably be what is the goal of a lecture? In the case of an undergraduate course it would appear that the primary task is to impart knowledge within a framework whereby the student can pass their exams and obtain a degree. This is in contrast to what could be considered the goal of the RI’s Christmas Lecturers (as an example) who’s primary goal appears to be to open up people to new ideas and enlighten but no necessarily to teach. Even if teaching does occur it is not structured and cannot readily lead to a complete understanding of a topic.

The question is then, can there be an overlap? Can structured teaching be delivered through the means of the sort of skills and showmanship employed by those who give public talks?

I support one key area that is always missed out in public lectures is the “dry stuff”. The grunt work that is needed to properly understand and build to big ideas is glossed over in favour of surface explanation so that the “big idea” can be understood if not necessarily digested to the point that it can be built into true knowledge. But then what exactly is “dry stuff”? Is it possible then to turn “dry stuff” into equally engaging information?

One of my favourite lecturers from during my undergraduate degree was an brilliant performance lecturer. She always recorded her lectures as podcasts which made revision a joy because I could basically follow along on her lecture slides and sit through her entire lecture again. In the first year she taught us geological hazards and her lectures were always peppered with anecdotes, quips, asides, references to her own research and more. Now you could argue that geological hazards is a pretty fun subject to cover but within it was some serious science too. There had to be, it was a degree course after all!

In the second year she taught us part of geophysical methods which was a far more technical and meaty module than what she taught us in first year but it was still engaging and interesting. She also started several classes off with showing us some resent seismic data she had received from a fracking site that she was working on to illustrate the issues of pin-pointing earthquakes within the crust.

One of the other things that I loved about her lectures throughout my time as her student is that she opened up a world of scientific debate and intrigue. She taught me to question, to be skeptical and to always check the saturation values on a colour map of data. She was the one who taught me that a straight line on a log-log plot didn’t mean a necessarily linear relationship between variables as anything plotted on a log-log graph produces a straight line. She highlighted how the slightest change in starting conditions can create either stable, chaotic or short lived systems. She is probably one of my biggest scientific influences despite the fact that she holds controversial scientific views and is considered by others in the scientific community with skepticism not least because she switched from one side of a particular debate to the other with a level of humility rarely seen in academic circles. She recognised that the theory didn’t fit the facts so she went in search of new theories. She grabbed my attention from day one and it didn’t let go. But I somewhat digress!

 

Recently I was made aware of the following quote by Michael Faraday, venerable Royal Institution member:

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Borrowed from https://twitter.com/dallascampbell/status/938862489978179584

Perhaps this speaks into the crux of the matter. It is not the content but the character delivering the content that matters.

Patrick Stewart reading PTA minutes will always be engaging where as that boring bloke you met at a family get-together that time reading the opening soliloquy from Richard III will be the most painful experience in your life.

Capture

Yes, this is a picture of Patrick Stewart reading the minutes of the last PTA meeting. To see it in its original context click here for a Zero Punctuation episode about Dishonored (apologies in advance for excessive swearing in the linked content)

 

I mentioned in my previous post that I have been teaching seminars on professional engineering skills. It’s been a battle to make the content engaging, let me tell you. For one, it’s been difficult to fully express the value of covering things like reflective thinking and CV writing so early in their degree and the other stuff, academic integrity especially, has felt like I’m already punishing them for a crime they haven’t committed by subjecting them to such dry material. I tried my best, I really did, but I am early in my teaching career so I know that it all probably sounded like the very definition of “being lectured to”. Not everything in life is fun and games (if it was doing the washing up and hoovering certainly wouldn’t exist) but I did feel bad that they were potentially going to miss out on future important information because I had bored them previously. (Although, as I say, not everything in life is fun and games and sometimes the bitter pill is good for you).

So, in conclusion, what is a lecturer’s role as entertainer?

I think at the end of the day there is no way to please everyone with a lecturing style but I do know that you will always remember more when you were engaged and it seemed like the lecturer enjoyed the topic they were speaking about and had a full understanding of it.

So, since I am not an authority on all this I can only advice myself, and I suppose my advice to myself would be as follows:

  • know what you’re talking about
  • enjoy what you’re talking about
  • speak passionately about what you’re talking about
  • remember Michael Faraday’s advice (including dressing smartly)
  • oh, and a quip, joke or funny image to break the tension is handy

 

Epilogue:

The reference to Richard IIhas given me an excuse to use one of my favourite memes:

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The author of this article can’t quite believe that term is over…. except she knows it’s the case because another pile of marking has landed on her desk. 

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“Confessions of a semi-employed academic” or “tales from the practical: resurrection”

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This is not hyperbole, this is reality for marking University work… I’ve got over 250 items for two different assignments to mark over the next fortnight or so.

So my PhD funding reached it expected end and I’m into my fourth year.

tenor

Part of that preparation has been my teaching over the last 3 years and, until I acquire full-time gainful employment, the manner by which I can keep myself afloat. So this academic year I’ve taken on lots more teaching and dived considerably further into assisting with teaching in Engineering and not just Geography. So how’s that going? Let’s begin with a section I’m calling:

Lecturing but not “lecturing”

Depending on what discipline you are in at University what is expected of PhD students in terms of teaching can be very different. For physical sciences demonstrating will be assisting and answering questions in practical classes but for humanities it’s likely to be leading small group seminars and for all subject marking assignments will be a key use of PhD students too. But the module I’ve been helping with has transcended the usual expected discipline boundaries. It’s a seminar series teaching professional engineering skills to classes of up to 45 students (more on that number, anon) in 4 50-minute lecture slots. There’s several of use leading the seminars and between us we teach the entire first year of Engineering, nearly 800 students on a 2 week rotation in which we take 3 seminars then assist with 3. Those are pretty mind-blowing numbers. This is one of the solutions that have been used to address the problem of teaching skills that would usually be taught in small tutorial groups when the student numbers have ballooned.

When I was told that this was what my demonstrating for that module was going to be I was quite daunted. The material was being provided but I’ve never lead a full size class for an entire lecture slot before. I guess practice over the years has paid off because after a shaky first one any nerves were minimal and I fell back on some of my Youth Worker tactics to get around issues I had in class (pro tip: If a group of people are talking when you are the fasted way to make them shut up is to ask them a question. Suddenly, they don’t want to talk any more!). Still, it did feel like being thrown in at the deep-end. I hadn’t been expecting to basically lecture to a class in all but name. But it’s been a valuable experience. To quote a Latin phrase I recently learnt:

“Docendo discimus” – by teaching, we learn

I’m now going to switch to a new topic which I’m titling:

I might be jaded but I’m still finding new lows

After 3 years of teaching I thought I’d see it all. You can find reflections on such here, herehere and here. There are three things I hadn’t personally witnessed while teaching until this term, one was headphones in a lecture, one was the Thursday morning graveyard shift and the lastly was, well, we’ll get to that in a moment.

But yes, to the first, you read that correctly, I gave a seminar where at least 2 students sat through the entire class sat their will earphones in. One was even directly in the middle of the class so frequently in my line of sight. It made me quite cross to be honest. I know why that was the case, because nothing more blatantly says “I’m not interested in what you are saying” than having earbuds in. I think the only way for it to be worse would be someone sat with their fingers in their ears chanting “la, la, la, not listening!”.

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Now, perhaps they didn’t have music playing but still, appearances count for a lot and just because you sat at the front of the class feeling all keen that doesn’t excuse you from the moment when you fall asleep. Here’s a handy diagram:

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On to my second point, the Thursday morning graveyard shift.

For those who haven’t attended University you may not be aware that Wednesday afternoons are given over to sports practice. In reality only a small percentage of students actually take part in team sport so most use it as free or study time. After practices is also when most teams will have their socials so a lot of people go out on a Wednesday night. Wednesday night is also student night at the clubs in town so non-sports clubs will also hold socials then to take advantage of cheep entry and cheep drinks. The result? Thursday morning hangovers wipe out half of the attendance to Thursday morning classes. And that’s if you’re lucky. In the seminars I’ve lead at 11:00 on a Thursday the turn out should be 45 and I’ve regularly only had 12 people. For the other days of the week and other times the attendance has been well over half consistently so it’s definitely something about Thursday mornings.

I think I must have considered the “no one turns up on a Thursday morning” phenomena as a academic urban legend. But I have seen the face of things, my friend, and I can tell you, it is true. Now, let’s quickly move on before I start ranting about low attendance at any other time of the week.

So what is this final thing that so appalled me? What could be worse than everything else I’ve ever witnessed up to this point? Try an entire class of foundation year students talking throughout a lecture or upping sticks mid-way through and simply leaving with no regard for the lecturer. Usually students have the good grace to sit and listen when the lecturer is in full flow. Not that class. Oh no. Appalling.

So now let’s finish up with a quick, quirky section I call…

Just call me Ross Geller…

One of the unique problems with teaching across 2 departments is, ok, it’s not a unique problem at all… but it’s a pretty serious one.

Take my typical Thursday. Arrive at Bay campus, PhD work 9-11, teaching on Bay Campus 11-12, then 1-5 teaching on Singleton Campus.

This leaves less than an 1 hour to get 5 miles across town, eat and drink something and be on time to teach at 1. I currently am sans car and wouldn’t even bother with one anyway because parking costs a fortune at both ends and would add extra time to the whole process. Mercifully the busses have been on my side otherwise I would have been doing an impression of Ross Geller from Friends:

The conclusion

So that’s been my term of teaching so far. I honestly do enjoy teaching but there’s certain aspects that I’ve mentioned (and others that I won’t on a public forum) that attempt to beat the joy out of you however, sometimes there’s a ray of light….

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The author is a PhD student and junior teaching staff member at a well-known Welsh University and all opinions expressed here are her own, especially any negative ones.

If any undergrads are reading this, do me a favour, be nice to teaching staff, most of us are trying our very best.

Elitism is the enemy of merit

OK, this is going to be a knotty one….

Let me tell you a couple of quick tales before starting to provide much needed background:

The second High School I attended was a selective grammar. This was 2003 where such things were so rare as to be considered as legends along with wyvern on maps (“here be dragons”). Current plans may very well soon resurrect this mastodon but without its former social context (the training ground for the white collar work force from bank clerks to solicitors) I’m not sure what, if any, good it can do. But I digress. The point is it was an unusual educational environment (a C grade wasn’t seen as a passing mark so much as barely above failure). It gave you a warped sense of what ‘normal’ actually was let me tell you! or so I thought.

I discovered later that when it came to the pursuit of post-16 career choices my school was ahead of the curve… they believed there was one way to go about it. And that was sixth form followed by University. Out of a year group of 120 (yes I went to high school in a small town surrounded by rural villages, so sue me!) I’d say barely a handful didn’t actually carry on into sixth form (on balance we may have actually gained more students then those who left!) and everyone, and I mean everyone, was expected to get their UCAS applications done. And not just done, done for the Oxbridge deadline despite the fact that only a dozen or so people actually applied to study there. There was no doubt in my school’s mind that their students all went to university. And I’d say that, more or less, that’s how things panned out.

Now I took the road less travelled, I didn’t go straight to university. I worked as a church youth worker for a year and did a distance learning diploma as part of the job. To begin with my teachers all but had a fit. How dare I go against the grain?! Granted, they simmered down when I explained my plan and finally conceded that if I wanted to apply when I actually had my A level grades, well, at least that rid the process of so much uncertainty.

This is in complete and total contrast to others whom I know well who were the only one, or one of a small handful, from an entire year group to go to University. Chalk? Meet cheese.

There are lots of social reasons why university still is seen as a path travelled by “other people”. Just as I was embedded in a school that expected me to apply to university with no other option presented as an alternative, other schools will take the opposite approach (if they offer job and careers advice at all!)

University is seen as expensive, a debt few people earning less than the national average wage could conceive of being able to pay back (debt was a reason I nearly didn’t go to university myself). As a young person grows up they become attune to the worth of money relative to their background. £50 can mean very different amounts to people. For some, that’s a little, for others, that amount is a lot.

University is seen as elitist. Full of aging academics in funny gowns talking in some weird hybrid of English, Latin and Ancient Greek to lecture halls of quietly vegetating students. While for the most part this is very far from the truth the behaviour of certain academics in the public eye don’t break down this stereotype, they reinforce it.

Now I don’t live in a hole. I’m fully aware of the issues of controversial speakers having invites to events withdrawn, the #black-lives-matter movement hopping over the Pond to the UK, the spat between Student Union Officers at other universities and the students they are meant to represent with relation to diversity (or lack their of) and finally, the redefinition of the words sexist, racist, culture and violence.

When said-certain academics speak out against these people who wish to silence discourse their words are not heard by their target audience. They are heard by everyone else.

When Richard Dawkins created the “university is probably not for you” trend on twitter I am sure it began with wanting to tell the hyper-sensitive minority already in universities that reasoned debate and the challenging of ideas are the very point of universities. Alas, instead it will be added to a continuing list of reasons why university will be seen as something for “other people” and not a possibility for everyone.

The odd thing is is that I always thought University was for clever people. People who were smarter than me and for a lot of my schooling it was an unobtainable goal in my mind. But when I got to the applying stage it turned out I was academically good enough to apply. I didn’t think University was for the rich, middle class (of which I was not) but for the bright and hard working. With emphasis on the “hard working”.
To quote Thomas Edison: What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

(Aside: Isaac Newton attended university because he hated being a farmer but had been made to farm by his mother. Lucky for us his old school master convinced him to finish his education and then go on to university.)

Widening university access is vitally important. I’ve expressed this feeling many times before that given equal educational opportunities those with the skills and drive should achieve their fullest potential. We’re still not there yet in this country, let alone globally ,but here’s a few crumbs of food for thought which probably won’t win me any friends.

  1. Full-time university study is not the only path to a degree or even a vocation
    I was heartened to see in the news recently that a fully on the job, apprentice-style nursing course will be soon implemented within the NHS. If we are to admit as true that certain subjects are necessarily less traditionally academic and more hands-on it makes perfect sense to train people with that philosophy in mind. I would rather have a plumber who trained on the job fix my water pipes than someone who did an academic degree focused on computer simulations of fluid dynamics! (Hyperbole for rhetorical effect, don’t get cross with me!)
  2. We must avoid snobbery regarding the possession (or lack thereof) of degrees
    “Gradibus ascendimus” or “ascending by degrees” (the witty motto of Grey College, Durham) is certainly one way to get places. Indeed it should be the great social equaliser. If you have the knack, you’ll get the letters after your name. But in the same way as we shouldn’t measure success as amount of money in the bank we shouldn’t measure it by the acquisition of qualifications. Success can be measured and achieved in so may ways and for many the path of social mobility will be through university education however…
  3. University may not be the right path
    We must make sure that all paths are open to everyone.
    Monty Python says it better than I can…

There should be no disgrace in a student from a private school wanting to be a butcher in the same way as their is no disgrace in a student from a comprehensive school aspiring to be a judge. That is making sure all paths are open to everyone not making it so that university becomes the only path for everyone. To reiterate, the point of widening access and outreach is to give people choice to do what they want to do in accordance with what they are good at.

We have to get away from any notion that a person’s worth is measured by external forces, especially when those measures are informed by the prejudices of others. We must accept that the brightest and best may not actually fit within the mould of universities because we know that people learn and engage in different ways. All paths are equally valid, especially if we have the choice of paths to take.
After all, there was some German bloke called Albert who disliked his schooling, refused the go into the family trade, who couldn’t get a job as a teacher and ended up worked in a patient office… and then discovered the theory of special relativity!

For anyone reading this who still thinks that a career path they’d like to take “isn’t for people like me” I’m here to tell you that because you want to follow that path, it is for people exactly like you.
To speak from the knowledge of but one path: I assist teaching at a university and I would rather be under-resourced and teach only a dozen students who battled their way to be in those classrooms than have the flashiest labs in the world and have to teach a dozen-dozen students who arrived at the university gates by taking the path of least resistance out of social expectation.

The author of this blog once again reminds the reader that the opinions expressed herein are purely her own and do not represent the university she is currently at. However, in preference, please send all hate mail to her lab so she can X-ray it before opening it. 

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Remember, if you do chose to go to university, you too can have the opportunity to have Prof. Stephen Hawking photo-bomb your pictures.

Unexpected tales from the practical class

This post comes to you, like a football match, in two parts. Part one will be a more reflective, thoughtful piece. The latter will be more of a comedic “the undergrads these days?!” Bit.

Part 1: You are not your work but it still hurts

I’m going to give this part as little context as possible so as to provide few, if any, identifying characteristics for the sake of anonymity.

Personality clashes are always tricky. On the one hand it’s just how people are, on the other, we all have to develop filters so that we can adjust our behaviour to situations. Case in point, you might swear like a sailor most of the time but you won’t do it in front of your gran.

We Brits have a terrible problem with not saying things directly to the point that those of Germanic decent appear blunt and harsh to our ears, when really it’s just because we tip-toe around things and lace our language with subtext and innuendo. Americans will sound friendly to the point of us suspecting that the speaker is disingenuous (when they probably aren’t) while our love of sarcasm makes us difficult to read. My point is, it takes all types to make a world.

But when someone so bluntly, so brazenly and publicly makes a comment about your work it’s hard to rationalise it. The individual in question is a student that myself and several colleagues have had interactions with before. Said student has been opinionated within a classroom setting but not as to contribute to the class but instead to pass judgement on the teaching of the class.

For me, this came to a head when, during an introduction to the topic at hand, (which included me addressing how the students could use the example as a way to improve their work), said student cut in stating that what we (for it wasn’t just me) were talking about was irrelevant and they wanted to get onto the important ‘actual’ stuff. It was cutting and all we could do was respond as diplomatically as possible (had we been blunt and unfiltered we probably would have told them were to go, i.e. Out of the room and not to return until they’d evaluated their behaviour).

In a teacher and student situation the control of what is deemed relevant or irrelevant is firmly in the hands of the one doing to teaching. And I think this applies regardless of the relative ages of the student or teacher. A student may disregard the teaching at a later date and make a value judgement then but in the moment to verbalise a judgement during the class is not appropriate.

The move towards student as consumer is making this kind of thing more prevalent but the fact remains, in the classroom setting those who teach are the ones with the skills and knowledge. Things that may appear to be asides or digressions may actually lead to the student becoming a more rounded individual. If, however, they want prescriptive learning with no flexibility and personal flare to the work, may I recommend just reading text books?

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Actual representation of academic textbooks…

Part 2: Via la phone-less revolution

I’m wondering whether a phone hand-in at the start of university lectures and practicals may be the way forward. Why? Oh boy…

I mentioned in my previous posting on this site my despair at the lack of attention spans of the current crop of students and it came to a head this week.

So, are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

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Simultaneous Doctor Who and Listen With Mother reference, mmmm, efficient

A friend who first trained as a lawyer before moving on to a different vocation once told me about his personal experiences of falling asleep in university classes. That is to say he managed what would usually be thought impossible and fell asleep in tutorial seminars. The set up for such classes hasn’t changed all that much and usually consists of a class of about 20 or fewer students sat in the style of King Arthur’s court with a seminar leader, usually a lecturer. The very thought of falling asleep so visibly surprised me, in a semi-dark room with 200 other students yes, but in a small group…! I am, however, fairly sure that falling asleep isn’t the go to solution for the uninterested student today, no, instead they turn to that wonder of technology, the mobile phone.

(Aside: This week a colleague of mine did witness a student fall asleep in a practical class!)

This week’s lab classes are what I would consider “fun ones”. Touring about research labs is always interesting and the students were getting three for the price of one; optics, SEM and X-ray CT. The class was split into groups of about seven students and rotated around. The reason why it was only seven-ish per group is the SEM room is small. By the by, the a fore mentioned sleeping student nodded off in the SEM room. Yeah, I know.

So I was manning the part of the tour covering the CT scanners. A quick presentation on the science, showing them the equipment, mentioning X-ray safety, showing some data, talking about the lab research and finally showing how the scanner works. I had about 40 minutes with each of the 3 groups and that was quite a lot of talking. (Aside number 2: I currently have a cold so teaching for 3 hours solid in a noisy lab didn’t done me much good, so I’ve taken a spot of sick leave this week so I could work and teach later in the week).

You would think, therefore that the attention the students would show would somehow be proportional to the effort I was making. They want to be here, right? They’re paying for it (at its most base, capitalist level). If you think that, regrettably, you are wrong. Less than half made notes, a fair few muttered and smiled between themselves as I was talking and the greatest insult, yep you guessed it, playing on their mobile phones.
Now I cannot demand respect; respect is earned and I am a PhD student most of them have met only once before. What I thought was a given was courtesy. Ha!

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I’ve used this one before… but I really like it and it fits, OK.

I fell like a broken record going on about this. In a class where you just get on with things you’re only wasting your own time if you check Facebook or whatever instead of doing the work and asking questions. But in a small group teaching scenario? Here’s my brutally honest feeling on the matter: It’s rude.

The fact is, in the moment when I clapped eyes on this one particular student stood directly in front of me on their phone I was dumbfounded. I just didn’t know what to say so I ignored it. Unfortunately that condones the student’s actions.
Now, there are perfectly good reasons to have a phone handy in a class; maybe to make notes on in lieu of a laptop or notebook, perhaps to look up information (that’s a regular thing in other classes I teach), some students did take pictures of what I showed them or maybe they need to be in contact with a family member or similar because of an emergency. Unfortunately the cynic in me doubts such noble ends for this week’s crop of students that are surgically attached to their phone.

Y’know, the wonderful thing about being taught something is you can fully engage with it and you don’t have to think about other things. Like any other performance medium, a good lecture takes you out of yourself. That’s a luxury these days. But the nano-second attention spans of some mean they are missing out on the joy of focusing completely on something.

One of the reasons I play video games is because I like getting absorbed in a world. When I’m slaying dragons in Skyrim I’m not wondering about videos on YouTube, or the EU, or the hostilities in Kashmir, or the drug war in Mexico, or the US election, or who’s in the singles charts, or what to get someone for Christmas et al because I’m slaying dragons to awesome orchestral music on the side of a snow covered mountain that is crowned with an ancient dwarf ruin! (Why yes, I did get a free download of Skyrim: Special Edition recently, how could you tell?).

Interest, I think, is key because although I can become interested to the level of fixation with trivial stuff (like video games) I also love my job and it interests me. I assume (or maybe I should hope) that that is why the students have chosen to do their degree subject. Because they are interested. Now, like everything there are less fun bits to my work: data mining on excel, editing text, general paperwork, more editing, and yes my mind will wander but I try and fight against it for the sake of the interesting bits so I can be attentive for longer and…

Oh sorry, am I boring you?

 

The author would like to point of that the closing line of this piece was a joke.
She also knows that whoever got to the end of this is probably a member of a choir in the crowd that she’s preaching to.
Futher more, she is well aware of the irony of the fact that most of this post was written on her mobile, but in her defense switching on a desktop is cumbersome when you just want to get an idea down in writing.

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#Relevant to your interests