Archive for the Biographical Category

Examinations, Past and Future

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on June 7, 2023 by telescoper

No sooner is yesterday’s departmental Examination Board done and dusted (after just two and a half hours) when attention switches to school examinations. The Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate examinations both start today, so the first thing I need to do is wish everyone taking examinations the very best of luck!

Among other things, the results of the leaving certificate examinations are important for next year’s University admissions. As we gradually dispense with the restrictions imposed during the pandemic, it seems this year we just might have the results before the start of teaching at the end of September. That will make a nice change!

In the system operating in England and Wales the standard qualification for entry is the GCE A-level. Most students take A-levels in three subjects, which gives them a relatively narrow focus although the range of subjects to choose from is rather large. In Ireland the standard qualification is the Leaving Certificate, which comprises a minimum of six subjects, giving students a broader range of knowledge at the sacrifice (perhaps) of a certain amount of depth; it has been decreed for entry into this system that an Irish Leaving Certificate subject counts as about 2/3 of an A-level subject for admissions purposes, so Irish students do the equivalent of at least four A-levels, and many do more than this. It’s also worth noting that all students have to take Mathematics at Leaving Certificate level.

Overall I prefer the Leaving Certificate over the UK system of A-levels, as the former gives the students a broader range of subjects than the latter (as does the International Baccalaureate). I would have liked to have been allowed to take at least one arts subject past O-level, for example.

For University admissions points are awarded for each paper according to the marks obtained and then aggregated into a total CAO points, CAO being the Central Applications Office, the equivalent of the UK’s UCAS. This means, for example, that our main Science pathway at Maynooth allows students to study Physics without having done it at Leaving Certificate level. This obviously means that the first year has to be taught at a fairly elementary level, but it has the enormous benefit of allowing us to recruit students whose schools do not offer Physics.

As much as I like the Leaving Certificate, I have concerns about using a simple CAO points count for determining entry into third-level courses. My main concern about is with Mathematics. Since the pandemic struck, students have been able to choose to questions from just six out of ten sections. That means that students can get very high grades despite knowing nothing about 40% of the syllabus. That matters most for subjects that require students to have certain skills and knowledge for entry into University, such as Physics.

I’ve been teaching the first year Mathematical Physics course in Maynooth for about 5 years. At the start of the module I put up a questionnaire asking the students about various mathematical concepts and asking them how comfortable they feel with them. It’s been noticeable how the fraction that are comfortable with basic differentiation and integration has been falling. That’s not a reflection on the ability of the students, just on the way they have been taught. As well as making adjustments during the pandemic for online teaching, etc, I have changed various things about the teaching, in particular adjusting the way I have introduced calculus into the module. Another problem is that we have been forced to start teaching first-years a week late because of delays to the CAO process caused by the pandemic.

I’ll be on sabbatical next academic year so I won’t be teaching the first-years (or anyone else) in September. It’s time to hand these challenges on to someone else!

Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh

Posted in Biographical, Irish Language on June 5, 2023 by telescoper

Today has been (and indeed continues to be) the June Bank Holiday (Lá Saoire i mí Mheitheamh) in Ireland. It is the equivalent of the usual May Bank Holiday in the UK in that both have their origin in the old festival of Whitsuntide (or Pentecost) which falls on the 7th Sunday after Easter. Because the date of Easter moves around in the calendar so does Whit Sunday, but it is usually in late May or early June. Here in Ireland the Bank Holiday is always on the first Monday in June whereas on the other side of the Irish Sea it is on the last Monday in May.

Anyway, in a break with tradition, we have had and still are having lovely weather over the holiday long weekend. It’s not exactlly a heatwave, but as I write the temperature is a pleasant 20° C. It being warm last night, I thought it would be nice to light a big candle and sit out in the garden for a bit with a glass of wine, but I was beset by moths and had to come back inside. My concern is that the garden is bone dry, especially considering it is early June. The lawn is looking parched. Some of the plants in my garden are also struggling a bit because of the lack of rain but some others seem to be thriving so much they’re crowding out the ones that prefer the more normal damper conditions.

The Scarlet Firethorn – so called because it produces bright red berries – is growing like wildfire as well as flowering profusely. The flowers are nice, but I think past their peak so when they’re done I’ll take some remedial action. The other plants are basically wild flowers, which I like having in the garden as they tend to be rather robust. The long green leaves in the first two pictures are Montbretia, which produced bright red flowers later in the summer, and which is grown from bulbs.

My rear garden is enclosed by high walls but gets the sun in the morning, so I’ve been having breakfast and lunch out there for the last several days.

Anyway, it’s back to work tomorrow for our Departmental Examination Board so I’ll take it easy for the rest of the day off. After all, I’m an old man now…

Officially Ancient

Posted in Biographical with tags on June 4, 2023 by telescoper

So here I am, now officially ancient, although I’ll have to wait another 6 years until I qualify for a free bus pass.

I’ve always assumed I’ll feel a bit depressed when I reached 60 years old, but as it turns out it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel more grateful that I made it this far! I suppose it helps that I’m in pretty good health, we’re having lovely weather, most of the stress of the academic year is over, it’s a Bank Holiday weekend, and I have a sabbatical to look forward to.

Anyway, I’m not going to spend my birthday sitting at the computer – it’s far too nice outside – so I’ll leave it there, except to say thank you to everyone who sent birthday greetings and to ask you all if you haven’t done so already please to consider giving to my birthday fundraiser.

Birthday Fundraiser…

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , on June 2, 2023 by telescoper

My birthday is coming up and for my birthday this year I’m asking for donations to Pieta, which is a charity working to prevent suicide and self-harm. I’ve chosen this cause because their mission means a lot to me. I hope you’ll consider contributing; every little bit will help.

You can donate here by my Facebook Fundraiser. Facebook takes care of the donation processing with no fees. If you decide to give, you can choose who can see that you donated, or donate privately. The Fundraiser will stay open for a couple of weeks or so.

If you prefer you can also donate directly to Pieta here and you can do that at any time.

Pride Month 2023

Posted in Biographical, LGBT on June 1, 2023 by telescoper

It’s 1st June 2023, which means that it’s the first day of Pride Month 2023. I’m looking forward to the Pride Festival with a March and Parade in Dublin later this month, of which I’m planning to attend at least part, even if I am obviously far too old for that sort of thing. Another thing that happens this month is that I turn 60!

Incidentally, this will be the 40th anniversary of the first official Dublin Pride.

With its origins as a commemoration of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, Pride remains both a celebration and protest. It’s more necessary than ever now because of the sustained abuse being aimed at trans people from all quarters, including those in political power and those sad losers who have nothing better to do that spend all day tweeting their bigotry on social media. Bigots will always be bigots, but the lowest of the low are those that masquerade as some sort of progressive while spouting their hate and prejudice. As well as a celebration and a protest, Pride is an opportunity for us all to show solidarity against those who seek to divide us.

Though many LGBTQIA+ people in many countries – even those that claim to be more liberal – still face discrimination, hostility and violence, Pride Month always reminds me of how far we’ve come in the past 50 years. Recently my own celebration of Pride is very subdued as it tends to makes me feel old and irrelevant as well as worried that we might be headed back to the bigotry and intolerance of the past; the rights we have won could so easily be taken away. But as I get older, I find I have become more and more protective towards younger LGBT+ people. I don’t want them to have to put up with the crap that I did when I was their age.

I would like to wish all LGBTQIA+ people around the world, but especially staff and students at Maynooth University, a very enjoyable and inspiring Pride 2023!

On Whit The Marking Boycott

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on May 28, 2023 by telescoper

This is a bank holiday weekend in the United Kingdom, but not here in Ireland. Over here the old Whit Monday bank holiday is marked on the first Monday in June (i.e. a week tomorrow) rather than the last Monday in May as it is in the UK. Whit Sunday is another name for Pentecost, a moveable feast, which occurs on the 7th Sunday after Easter Sunday and therefore moves around in the calendar. Last year, Whit Sunday was actually June 5th; this year it is May 28th (today); and next year it will be on 19th May. So sometimes Ireland has a holiday on Whit Monday, sometimes the UK does, and sometimes neither.

Anyway, tomorrow may not be a holiday here on the Emerald Isle but I’ve finished marking my examinations so one major source of stress has been removed and I can get on with other things next week. Best wishes to colleagues still ploughing through their scripts.

All of this reminded me that universities on the other side of the Irish Sea are currently gripped by a marking and assessment boycott called by the University and College Union (UCU) as part of ongoing industrial action over pay and conditions. This has already been going on for over a month.

I haven’t kept up very well with what’s been going on in UK universities but it looks like a deal has been struck over pensions which will result in benefits being restored to members of the USS scheme. Drastic and unjustifiable cuts imposed on the pension scheme were just one part of the UCU industrial dispute, however, and action continues with respect to the others. Accordingly, UCU has asked its members in higher education institutions which are part of the pay and working conditions dispute to cease undertaking all summative marking and associated assessment activities/duties. The boycott also covers assessment-related work such as exam invigilation and the processing of marks. 

The managers of some universities have reacted to this boycott with 100% salary cuts to staff participating in it. The gloves seem to be off and it doesn’t seem likely that a resolution will be reached any time soon. I support the industrial action, by the way, as I hope do colleagues in Ireland who are employed as External Examiners in UK universities and who should to carry out their duties which would be tantamount to crossing a picket line.

It remains to be seen what will happen to students who hope to graduate from UK universities this summer, especially those who need a specific grade to take their next step. These students have had a difficult time with both the pandemic and the industrial action, but something must be done to arrest the downward spiral of pay and working conditions for university teachers, otherwise there will no long be a higher education system worthy of the name.

Rachmaninov (×2) + Tubin at the National Concert Hall

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2023 by telescoper

Yesterday, after a nice walk through the sunny streets of Dublin, at the National Concert Hall for the final concert of the season by the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mihhail Gerts, who were joined, for the second half, by the National Symphony Chorus directed by David Young and three star vocalists. The progamme consisted of two pieces by Sergei Rachmaninov (who was born 150 years ago this year) and one by Eduard Tubin (an Estonian composer who was new to me before last night).

The Isle of the Dead, by Arnold Böcklin

The first item one the menu was The Isle of the Dead, Op. 29 by Sergei Rachmaninov,  inspired by a painting of the same name by Arnold Böcklin and written around 1908. The rhythms of the opening passage evoke the motion of a boat moving across the sea to the island, from which point the piece develops among a cloud of increasingly dense harmonic layers into a dark atmosphere full of foreboding.  It’s a darkly dramatic work that I’ve enjoyed every time I heard it and last night was no exception.

There then followed the Sinfonietta on Estonian Motifs by Eduard Tubin introduced by conductor Mihhail Gerts, who is himself from Estonia. It’s a work in three movements inspired by the folk songs the composer heard as a child growing up in Estonia. I knew that much before the performance started but didn’t realize it would turn out to be such a weighty composition. The two outer movements are rhythmically complex in a way that’s reminiscent of Stravinksy (especially Petrushka) and the overall mood is far from the pastoral tranquility I’d expected: the music is rather edgy, in fact. I suppose that’s not surprising given that it was written in 1940. I enjoyed this but it is strange how much it reminded me of other composers: as well as Stravinsky, there are clear nods in the direction of Sibelius and at times it also reminded me of Arnold Bax. You might say it is a little bit derivative. I couldn’t possibly comment.

After the interval

After the wine break we had The Bells, a choral symphony for soprano, tenor, bass-baritone, chorus and large symphony orchestra by Sergei Rachmaninov (Op. 35). The words are based on a Russian translation of the poem The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe which was very popular in Russia in the early 20th century and which clearly resonated with Rachmaninov:

The sound of church bells dominated all the cities of Russia I used to know, they accompanied every Russian from childhood to the grave and no composer could escape their influence. Most of my life was lived amid vibrations of of the bells of Moscow.

Sergei Rachmaninov

The Bells is in four movements, echoing the four stanzas of the poem, and representing the journey “from childhood to the grave”, the last movement being a Lento subtitled The Mournful Iron Bells. The three soloists sing in one part each; the third movement involves orchestra and chorus only. Ukrainian tenor Valentyn Dytiuk sang in the first movement, Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak the second and Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko the fourth. All three soloists were superb but particularly enjoyed the sinewy muscularity of Bondarenko’s baritone which gave a sense of rawness to his performance.

It was a fitting finale to the season. Congratulations to the National Symphony Orchestra for a great performance, and to the National Symphony Orchestra who were outstanding too.

Walking back to Pearse Station to get the train for Maynooth I found myself wondering when my next visit to the National Concert Hall will be. I’ll be away on sabbatical most of next year. Still, there’ll be plenty of music where I’m going…

Terms Ending

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on May 26, 2023 by telescoper

So here I am, on a fine early summer evening, waiting for the train into Dublin for the last performance of the season by the National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall. I’m looking forward to it very much, as the second half is a piece I’ve never heard before. I’ll write more about it tomorrow.

There’s an end of term feeling in other ways, too. The examination period ended earlier this week, and most students have now vanished for the summer. Quite a few staff members will be marking scripts at home too. Campus has been very quiet for the last few days. The train I’m now on, the 17.10 from Maynooth to Connolly, usually very busy on a Friday, is almost empty today.

The one exception to the general lack of activity on campus happened on Wednesday when a mysterious ferret appeared on Campus. It even tried to get into the Science Building, but failed (I suppose) because it didn’t have a swipe card. It seems this critter was a family pet that had got out and went on an adventure. It was spotted at various locations around the town before being collected by its owner and returned safely home.

Artist’s impression of the ferret.

Despite that flurry of excitement, I managed to finish marking my examinations and other assessments, but the grades still need to be checked. They then have to be approved by the Departmental Exam Board in early June. They then get a final dose of scrutiny at the University Examination Board. Students will have to wait almost another month to get their results. It’s quite a slow process, but it’s right to be careful.

Days of Invigilation

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , on May 22, 2023 by telescoper

I’ve now collected the scripts from my second examination – held on Saturday – and will spend the next day or two marking them and combining the exam grades with grades from class tests and projects to produce a final score.

When I went to collect the scripts for my first examination on Thursday at the end of the examination, I had to wait a little bit for them to be collated and sealed in their official packet. While that was going on I chatted to a member of staff who was putting out papers for the next examination. She was giving out about how students often move the desks when they leave, requiring them to be put back in position before the next examination.

The invigilator also expressed irritation about the system of ID cards. Each desk in the examination room has a card with a unique number on it placed in the right front corner (as seen by the student). During the examination, students are supposed to place their ID card on the desk so an invigilator can check the identity of the candidate. The student ID cards at Maynooth are about the same size as a credit card, as are the cards with the numbers. Apparently many students place their ID card directly over the number card, obscuring the number and requiring the invigilator to lift it up in order to do the crosscheck. As things go, it seems a mild transgression, but I suppose it makes an already boring job even longer for the invigilators.

Years ago, academic staff had to invigilate their own examinations. I had to do this in my first teaching job at Queen Mary and, later, at Nottingham but more recently the job has generally been done by support staff rather than academics. I moved from Nottingham to Cardiff in 2007 and don’t think I ever had to invigilate examinations there., so I haven’t done it for 16 years or so. Nowadays we are just expected to be “on call” to deal with any queries that arise in the Exam Hall by phone.

I’m not sorry that I no longer have to perform this task, as it was always one of my least favourite jobs, and not only because I don’t enjoy seeing people under stress. Initially I thought supervising an examination might allow me time to do something useful, but there always seemed to be some interruption, such as students wanting an extra answer book, or asking about some issue with the examination paper, or wanting to leave to go to the toilet, etc.

The most dramatic interruption I can remember was when a student who suffered from epilepsy had a seizure in the examination hall. Fortunately we invigilators had been briefed as to what to do in such an eventuality, namely to move the furniture so the student didn’t hurt themselves but otherwise not to intervene until they went to sleep – which usually happens after a minute or two. We were told that such an episode was unlikely as the student was taking medicine to prevent them occurring. It was quite when it actually happened, but happily the student recovered quickly but was perfectly OK afterwards. Apparently he had been so busy preparing for the examination that day he had forgotten to take his medication in the morning.

Having given up on the idea of doing some other work during an examination, I used to take a few crosswords to do. These are good for passing the time because you can solve a few clues at a time. Other things I used to do included walking around counting the number of right-handed and left-handed students, for example, though I never did any detailed statistical analysis of the results.

The primary purpose of invigilation is to prevent cheating or other misbehaviour, and I only ever saw a few examples of that – most of them involving calculators with, e.g., graph-plotting facilities which are not allowed.

Anyway, I’m glad I no longer have to invigilate examinations, and that makes me all the more grateful for the people who do. Here in Maynooth there are three examinations per day during the Examination Period, with a brief period between to put out the next set of papers, which means a long day for those who do this job. Hats off to the dedicated staff of the Exams Office at Maynooth who carry out this thankless task three times a year!

The Hate is still Out There

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Mental Health with tags , , on May 21, 2023 by telescoper

A few days ago I mentioned on this blog the case of a gay teenager in Navan being beaten up by boys from the same school; there was a news report here. Five youths were subsequently arrested but have now been released without charge. I felt a strong sense of dismay when I heard the news of their release, as the decision to let them go seemed to declare open season on homophobic violence. It may however because the assailants have to be treated as minors.

Press coverage related to this story has generally condemned the sharing on social media of a video showing the violent assault. There are quite a few people, however, including me, who think that the Gardaí would not have taken any action at all had they not been shamed into doing so by the publicity generated by the video.

Regular readers of this blog will probably understand why this case resonates with me: a similar thing happened to me way back in the 1980s. There are differences, of course. For one thing, I was rather older – in my mid-twenties rather than mid-teens. For another, the incident wasn’t reported to the police. There wasn’t any point in those days. The Brighton police at that time were notorious for dismissing complaints of gay-bashing despite the fact it was an endemic problem. People I knew who had reported such incidents usually found themselves being investigated rather than their assailants. In those days the law did not recognize homophobic offences as hate crimes. Far from it, in fact. Attacking a gay person was, if anything, considered to be a mitigating circumstance. This attitude was fuelled by a number of high-profile cases (including a number of murders) where gay-bashers had been acquitted or charged with lesser offences after claiming their victim had provoked them.

Another difference is that I didn’t go to hospital. I had a black eye, a fat lip and a lot of bruises, and had been unconscious for a time, but there didn’t seem to be any serious physical damage. The psychological effects were far from negligible, though, and I have experienced intermittent mental health problems ever since, sometimes needing to be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. You can read about this here; a short summary is that I should have got help with this much earlier. The important thing now is that the boy who was targeted in Navan gets proper treatment and counselling. I wish him a speedy recovery.

Here’s something I wrote in 2010 after in the blog post describing my own experience of homophobic violence:

Now fast-forward about 20 years. Attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe.

Recently, there are increasing signs of a backlash against LGBT+ people, most obviously in America but also here in Ireland. Much of this is fueled by toxic rhetoric of the Far Right who seem to want to target trans people. Social media, especially Twitter are awash with transphobic abuse and threats of violence for the reason that trans people are perceived to be easy targets. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure this strategy does not work.

I worry that the rights that the LGBT+ community has taken so long to win, could so easily be taken away. If we are complacent and pretend that everything is fixed because we have equal marriage then we will soon see those rights being eroded. LGBT+ people have to remain active and visible, show solidarity with one another, and keep pushing against all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying wherever it happens. And the first step in doing that is to raise awareness that there is a serious problem.

I was reflecting on my own encounter with violence the other day. I try not to think about that very much, but I found myself wondering where the four guys who attacked me are now. They were about the same age as me, so will be around 60 now. Do you think the hate they expressed with their fists back in the 1980s has gone away? More importantly, do you think it reasonable that I should believe that? I don’t. The hate is still out there and will find its expression at the slightest provocation.

The reference to hate crimes in the above quote relates to the UK, of course. I was a little surprised to see that until very recently there was no legal definition of a hate crime in Ireland. Legislation has only just been introduced on this subject, with cross-party support. Among other provisions:

The new legislation will criminalise any intentional or reckless communication or behaviour that is likely to incite violence or hatred against a person or persons because they are associated with a protected characteristic. The penalty for this offence will be up to five years’ imprisonment.

The protected characteristics in the new legislation are: race; colour; nationality; religion; national or ethnic origin; descent; gender; sex characteristics; sexual orientation; and disability.

It remains to be seen how the new law works in practice.