Category Archives: academia & universities

Part of the union

Almost from the time I started working in academia, back in 1984 when I began my second postdoc position at Birkbeck, until 2005, I was a member of the AUT (the Association of University Teachers). I was even a member of the AUT committee at Keele for a few years. I remember that I got increasingly frustrated with them – they didn’t help us in my School when Chemistry and Physics were threatened with large scale redundancies (which thankfully never happened), but rather, got obsessed with ‘worthy’ issues like boycotting Israeli universities. When they merged with NATFHE to form the UCU in 2005/6, I simply didn’t join the new union.

Times change, however. As Acting Head of School, I am exposed and in the firing line if anything goes wrong, and the worrying news about the pension scheme at the weekend (which turned out to be exaggerated), led me to think again. UCU membership doesn’t come cheap, but they do provide an important service for their members, and they speak up for our interests in increasingly difficult times.

Anyway, the upshot is that I have joined the UCU. With it being less than a week since I re-joined the Labour Party, it does seem as if I am returning to something more like my old self, at least in political terms!

(The title of the this post is taken from the Strawbs 1973 song of the same name).

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Crazy times

This is my first blog post of 2017. I took on the role of Acting Head of my School at Keele on 1 December of last year, but the responsibilities only really started to kick in when the new semester started in late January. I have coped reasonably well with those commitments, but what has really caused me problems has been my teaching. I have been teaching a new module on Digital Forensics; very interesting, but I’ve been teaching it single handedly, and although I did a lot of advance preparation, I’ve still had to write quite a lot of material while the module has been running, which is never ideal. For example, the last two lectures, which take place next week and the week after, still have to be written, and they are on challenging topics. More about Digital Forensics in a later post, hopefully! I also had to prepare and deliver four two-hour MChem sessions on Materials Modelling, and although it is my research area, it still took time. On top of this I’m external examiner at a couple of other universities, and have had to review exam papers for them, as well as setting ones myself.

The net result of all this has been that I’ve been doing 7-day weeks, and getting in at crazy times, but still not keeping up. I was determined to write this post just to record it all, but even the time taken to write this could be spent writing some of a lecture!

We have two weeks of teaching left until Easter, and I am literally counting the days. It’s not been good, and I hope I’ll never have another time like this, with this crazy conjunction of commitments. Hopefully the next post will be more positive (:

New responsibilities

When I wrote my post on 30 years at Keele back in May, I referred to my increased responsibilities in senior roles in my School. I didn’t mention explicitly that organisational changes were afoot, with my School, Physical and Geographical Sciences, splitting into two Schools, Chemical and Physical Sciences, and Geography, Geology and the Environment. The reasons are mainly research-based. Certainly in the case of Chemical and Physical Sciences, it may sound like a more coherent unit to research funders. Of course the old School offered economies of scale, with only one of each committee needed, when now there will be two. But hopefully that issue can be worked around, at least partially.

The University have advertised externally for new Chairs who will also take on the Head of School role; the Chemical Sciences post is advertised here. But the timescale for the appointments means that Acting Heads are needed (the posts were advertised last week with a December closing date, and if interviews are held in January the earliest someone could probably start would be April/May, and probably later).

Last week I was asked if I would take on the role of Acting Head of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences. I agreed, regarding it as both a challenge and an honour. I start on 1 December. One consequence of this is my remaining teaching preparation for next semester has been compressed into November. This is mainly the Digital Forensics module, as my other modules are ones I’ve taught before. There are some MChem lectures to prepare as well though! The next couple of months certainly promise to be ‘interesting’.

Some personal reminiscences of Gurnos Jones

This post was originally written following Gurnos’s death on 3 June 2016, in response to a request for reminiscences. As far as I know it has not been published elsewhere, so I am posting it here as a more permanent record.Jones_Gurnos 90x90

I started my career at Keele in May 1986, some 30 years ago. Initially I was a postdoc in Richard Catlow’s group, but I joined the academic staff as a lecturer in 1988. Gurnos was on my interview panel as Head of Department, along with Brian Fender (Vice-chancellor at the time), and Gurnos appointed me, and was my first Head of Department.

My main recollections of Gurnos as Head of Department are that he was firm in his decision making, but always fair. We had regular staff meetings (far more than we do now), and because we were a small but nevertheless independent department, we were responsible for a lot of decisions that are now made at a higher level. For example, I remember when Biology proposed the Biochemical Engineering degree (which incidentally is still very popular) we discussed whether Chemistry should be involved, and decided against it. A decision like that would now be out of our hands!

The first job Gurnos asked me to do was to run the 2nd year Physical Chemistry Lab. As a non-experimental computational chemist this was a challenge, but Gurnos had the view that as a chemist I should be able to do it. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and the main thing I remember was that students wrote their reports in hard backed lab books, and so carrying large piles of these back to my office, or even home, to mark, was a regular experience. I also became 2nd year tutor, taking over from Andy Fitch when he moved to the ESRF in France. In those days the administrative structure of the department was much simpler: there was Gurnos as Head, and Year Tutors. Students were also allocated tutors in the department (this was long before the University started the present Personal Tutor system).

Most of my lecturing in those days was done in the main Chemistry lecture theatre, which we had almost exclusive use of. The old department office was next to this lecture theatre, and there was a door from the office into the lecture theatre, which made a dramatic entrance from the lecturer a possibility!

My main social recollection of Gurnos was his famous pancake parties, which I was invited to once I had joined the academic staff. They were gatherings of the great and good, and I remember talking to some quite senior university staff there in the informal setting of Gurnos and Pat’s house in Larchwood.

In the present environment things are so different that it is difficult to think that a small department like Chemistry could survive. But Gurnos was a good head, and steered us through some difficult times. I will always remember him with fondness and respect.

The EU Referendum: a month to go

With a month to go before the EU Referendum, I thought it would be timely to write a quick post about why it is so important to me that we vote to remain. So, if someone asked me why I think this, these are the three points I would make:

(i) from the point of view of the UK as a whole, being part of the single market is essential for our future prosperity. If we left the EU we might be able to negotiate joining it, but at a cost, and we would not be in a position to influence any decisions made by member states.

(ii) the free movement of people between countries in the EU is particularly important for education and research in the UK. Our students can spend valuable periods of time at universities in EU countries, as can teachers and lecturers, and we can conversely benefit from the equivalent people from the rest of the EU spending time in the UK. This is very important for the education sector, and has knock-on effects in terms of creating and maintaining an internationally minded workforce.

(iii) all member states of the EU contribute to a research fund, and the funds are allocated to universities, research institutions and companies by a competitive application process. The UK does very well out of this, getting more out of it than it puts in. So much important research is funded from EU research grants, and if we left, we would lose this source of funding unless we negotiated to join the scheme from outside, which would involve extra cost and potentially less favourable terms.

There are plenty of other reasons to remain, but these are my main ones. Unfortunately the debate over the referendum has descended into a mud-slinging match between opposing sides, and there is the danger that some people might be put off voting at all. I will continue to try to put a positive spin on the case to remain in the EU, and hope others will do the same!

30 years at Keele: May 1986 – May 2016

An occasion like this deserves documenting, and in the end it rather crept up on me. I knew it was coming, but with the last 3 weeks of April being so busy, I was distracted, and in the end it was thanks to a Facebook reminder that I remembered.

So, how did I, a confirmed Londoner, end up here? Well, back in 1986 I was coming to the end of a 2 year postdoctoral contract at Birkbeck College, and my previous postdoctoral supervisor, Richard Catlow had moved from UCL to Keele the previous year (he had been invited by Brian Fender, who had also recently moved to Keele as Vice Chancellor, and who knew him from their Oxford days). Richard had a postdoctoral research fellowship available that was funded by Shell, and he invited me to apply for it. It was concerned with modelling zeolites, and I had some relevant experience from my Birkbeck post, so I was qualified for the fellowship and was offered it. That saw me travel to Keele on 1 May 1986 to start my contract. In preparing this post I have looked at my rather brief diary entries from the time, which have reminded me that my early weeks at Keele consisted of a lot of travelling, initially back to London and my mother’s house in Suffolk to collect some furniture and other things, but also to Amsterdam to visit my new sponsors at the Shell labs.

My initial contract at Keele was for 2 years, and I was quite sure it wouldn’t extend beyond that time. For one thing, at the time I wanted to get back to London, and then there was the unlikeliness of the contract being renewed, or of something else coming up at Keele. How wrong I proved to be! The first thing that happened was that Richard Catlow ingeniously devised a new position for me to apply for when my Shell contract came to an end. It was partly funded by Kodak, to work on some particular materials they were interested in at the time, and partly by Keele, to set up some short courses in topics like X-ray diffraction, and it was another 2 year post. I applied and was appointed, and started the new position in April 1988. It was designated as a lectureship, and I did have some teaching as well as the other responsibilities. The short courses were planned, but never really got off the ground. However, my work with Kodak was interesting, involving a month at their labs in Rochester, NY, working with Roger Baetzold. Then, in 1989, Richard moved back to London, to the Royal Institution. Although there was the possibility of me going with him, I had become established at Keele, and while my post wasn’t permanent at the time, things looked promising. So I stayed put, and once the short courses/Kodak contract finished, I was taken on to the permanent staff as a Lecturer, probably in 1990. I then worked my way up the career ladder, getting promotions to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and Reader in 2000.

So what have been the highlights of the past 30 years?

– In the 1990s it was probably organising the Eurodim conference (European Conference on Defects in Insulating Materials) at Keele (in 1998). I was only asked to do this in 1994 when attending the previous conference in the series (in Lyon, where I am going in a couple of months!) It was well-attended and very successful.

– In the 2000s, when our Chemistry course at Keele came under fire from the senior management, I got involved in our Forensic Science course (teaching Arson and Ballistics), and have taught on it since its start in the middle of the decade. I note in passing that next year we will introduce a Single Honours version of the course, and I am once again involved in developing a new module, this time on Digital Forensics.  I should also add that Chemistry survived, and is thriving now.

– The decade beginning in 2010 has seen me take on roles like Senior Tutor for the School (Physical and Geographical Sciences), Internationalisation Director to the School (to help coordinate Keele’s drive to increase the number of international links and to internationalise its curriculum), and I’ve been asked to sit on various committees dealing with Appeals and Academic Misconduct, where no doubt my longevity at Keele is seen as an asset!

Moving into my fourth decade at the University, I see my main challenge as keeping my research going in an increasingly difficult and challenging funding climate. Looking back to when I started my career, there was a more level playing field for all universities in the UK, and funding for PhD students could be obtained without being part of a larger group of institutions, which is what is required now. But I will push on. There will be new teaching challenges as well (I mentioned Digital Forensics earlier), as well as contributions to our MChem course. But in conclusion, considering I only came here on a temporary contract, it has been a good and fulfilling 30 years. I would also like to mention my wife Angela, who I met at Keele, and who has given me so much help, support and encouragement over the years.

Goslar, Clausthal and Nottingham: research and external examining, June 2015

June has often been a busy month for me. Two years ago in June 2013, for example, I found myself doing two external examining trips and a PhD viva in a short space of time, which was made more interesting by the fact that the viva was in Amsterdam!

For the last few years I have been external examiner at two institutions at the same time; first it was Surrey and Kent, and then Kent and Nottingham Trent (NTU). Now that I have finished my four years at Kent (which I particularly enjoyed), it leaves NTU, more of which later.

I’m going through a rather lean spell of research collaborations at present. My collaboration with Brazil continues (and I’ve been hosting a PhD student from there), but I haven’t been able to work with my colleague there for some time. Hopefully we can arrange to get together before too long, but for now, our collaborative projects are effectively on hold. I was pleased therefore to be contacted by some ‘old’ collaborators from the Technical University of Clausthal in Germany, who invited me over there for discussions about a new project, and for me to give a seminar. Because of their commitments, there was a tight timeframe for the visit, and I travelled there on 2nd June, returning on the 4th.

To get to Clausthal requires some ingenuity: a flight to Hannover, then a train to the city centre, followed by another train to Goslar. Then a lift to Clausthal is required, unless you are sufficiently confident to use the local buses! Having previously had some issues with flying to Hannover with BA from London Heathrow, the last time I went there, in February 2014, I used FlyBe, who fly there direct from Manchester. It worked well then, so I did it again this time. Because the flight is in the evening, I booked a hotel at Hannover Airport. It was just as well, because the flight was two hours late in leaving Manchester (but not delayed enough for any compensation, of course). But I got there OK, and spent a comfortable night in the Maritim Hotel. The next day I travelled to Goslar and on to Clausthal as described above. The trip and seminar went well, and I am hopeful that it will lead to collaborative research and possibly some indirect funding.

Having got back from Germany, I had a few days turnround before heading to Nottingham for my external examining at NTU, from 9th – 11th June. This is my 3rd year of looking at their Forensics courses that have Chemistry/Physics content, and I am at last beginning to feel familiar with the system they operate, and what they expect from external examiners, which is different from the previous institutions I’ve served at. One of the problems with NTU is getting there; the campus I visit is located outside Nottingham (in Clifton), and the hotel they tend to use isn’t particularly close to either the city centre or the campus! So there is a lot of taxi usage, which I don’t particularly like (although of course the cost is covered). But putting that aside, it was a successful trip.

Now I am back at base. The Summer Vacation has started, but under our ‘new’ academic year, the next few weeks will be punctuated with exam boards. Unusually, I don’t have any conferences coming up. So hopefully I’ll be able to make use of this valuable time to carry out some new research, and complete some papers for publication.