Reflective

About the process of doing a PhD and perhaps being an early-career researcher.

Moving on : New job news!

Cartoon of a penguin carrying a bindel

The Friday after next will be my last day with the University of Hull; after a bit over 3.5 years, I’m moving on and fulfilling the ambition that I’ve had for a while to move back to Scotland.

In my time here I’ve kept a programme running, with positive evaluations, through a pandemic and then an overnight tripling of student numbers, as programme director and while teaching three modules. I’m proud of that, but it has come at a cost – both to my research trajectory and to my health.

I’ve learned a lot at Hull, and worked with some great people, many of whom I hope to continue collaborating with. Hopefully this will all help me in my new role, as Assistant Professor of Energy Technology at Heriot-Watt University. More specifically, I’ll be based at their Orkney campus, where I’ll be heading up the MSc Renewable and Sustainable Energy Transition. I have history there, as it’s where I did my PhD, so it’ll be nice to go “home”, and I’m excited to work with my new colleagues – both those I know from before, and those who have arrived there more recently. The intention is that I will also spend a portion of my time at the main campus in Edinburgh, so for central belt people out there I won’t be far away for all of the time!

I don’t have a Heriot-Watt email address yet, but I’m always available by the routes on the Contact page.

Before I leave Hull I’ll be attending Global Offshore Wind on their behalf – so if you’re going to be there next week and would like to meet up, give me a shout!

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective, 0 comments

Graduation! (not mine)

Today was my department’s winter graduation ceremony, and despite three years as a lecturer it was the first one I’ve attended in which I wasn’t receiving a degree (first everybody had Covid and so we had no graduations, and then I had Covid last summer and missed that one).

I went in without too much in the way of expectations – I’d had an unproductive day for mental health reasons (no big deal, it happens sometimes) so I wasn’t in a great mood, and I was anticipating a slightly boring ceremony, but wanted to support the students.

I was wrong. It was a joyous affair. It was wonderful to see my former students cross the stage and stand in front of their friends and families with proud smiles on their faces. Wonderful to see those who had excelled throughout, and those who had struggled a bit along the way. In the reception afterwards I was able to congratulate them in person (sometimes with difficulty – the music was loud!); many of them introduced me to their families, took selfies with me, etc.. Graduation selfies have worse lighting than field trip selfies, but much smarter clothes 😉

I left after some hours with a big happy smile on my face, lifted up by other people’s celebration. So now I shall look forward to future graduations… and if any of today’s students are reading this, congratulations again!

Posted by simon in Professional updates, Reflective

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

I try to keep this blog focused on the professional, or at least the energy-related, and so I doubt that I’ve ever mentioned my love of speculative fiction (a broader term for what might, in the past, have been named “science fiction and fantasy”). But in the last few days, after many recommendations, I’ve been reading Becky Chambers‘s “A Psalm for the Wild-Built“, and that deserves mention here. So here’s this blog’s first book review. Sort of.

The book is short, and enjoyable, an easy read, and excellent in many ways that I won’t get into here. I’m not going to discuss most of its themes, nor even its plot; what has made me post is the world in which it’s set. It’s “bright green”, but beyond bright green. It’s what some would now call “solarpunk”. It’s a society that has de-industrialised and become sustainable, and has completely changed in order to do so, but rather than doing that by reverting to a pre-industrial way of life it has done something new: it has retained technology, but without consumer culture or (we assume) mass production.

“It was a good computer, given to them on their sixteenth birthday, a customary coming-of-age gift. It had a cream-coloured frame and a pleasingly crisp screen, and Dex had only needed to repair it five times in the years that it had travelled in their clothes. A reliable device built to last a lifetime, as all computers were.”

This is, I assume, the kind of world that many environmentalists yearn for – especially those who want to decentralise, for villages to live locally and within their means, and so forth. This is sometimes expressed, at least by those in the first world, as a yearning for the past, for pre-industrial society, which is something that I can’t get behind for fairly obvious reasons. But some also see it as a brave new future, as something that hasn’t been tried before. The huge missing piece is usually a plan to get from here to there…

Anyway. The book is lovely, and provided me with a calm and enjoyable few hours. You should read it, not just for the setting but also for the many other things it explores.

“Farmers and doctors and artists and plumbers and whatever. Monks of other gods. Old people, young people. Everybody needed a cup of tea sometimes. Just an hour or two to sit and do something nice, and then they could get back to whatever it was.”

A glass cup of herbal tea, presented on a hemp mat.
Photo: rawpixel.com, CC0 public domain
Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world

After Glasgow

I haven’t been following the negotiations at COP26 very closely. And I haven’t examined the eventual agreement in great detail, instead following the insight of commentators I trust. It seems, from what I’ve read, that while there are some incremental steps forward in the detail – strengthening of language, and so forth – mostly the parties have agreed to kick the can down the road another year. If readers have better insight and want to contradict that, they are most welcome to do so, but I think it’s fair to say that any climate summit that ends in its president apologizing and breaking down in tears is not what the world wanted to see.

On social media people have noted that the commentators who, two weeks ago, were talking about a “last chance for humanity” are now praising the small steps forward. Greta Thunburg has, of course, summed up her view with eloquence:

The #COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah.

@GretaThunberg / Twitter

Twelve years ago, before I had even started studying renewable energy, I wrote a blog post on another site entitled “After Copenhagen”. That was the first COP that was a mainstream media event, and the first one – thanks partly to Barak Obama’s involvement – that felt as though it might get somewhere. In the end it achieved little for various reasons, and there was a temptation to give up. I did a lot of thinking back then, and this is what I concluded:

“I’ve spent a certain amount of time thinking “If I think that the cause is hopeless, why am I wanting to work in the renewable energy and/or energy efficiency fields?”. The answer is that… every little still helps. Yes, low-lying countries are almost certainly doomed. Yes… wars will be caused and exacerbated, many will starve or die of disease… but for every bit that we can reduce our emissions, less of this will happen. The fact that the situation is so terrifying, depressing, and hopeless, even to those of us who probably won’t suffer the worst (or at least the first) of the direct effects, doesn’t mean that we can’t try to lessen it.”

I still believe this. We missed the 350ppm and 400ppm targets that were talked about at Copenhagen. It seems very likely that we will miss the 1.5°C target that is increasingly believed to be important. But it’s still worthwhile to make things better than they otherwise would be. If global efforts get us to 2.6°C, as is suggested by the current NDCs, that’s bad, but it’s better than it could be. As I wrote in some internal training materials recently, under the heading “A note about missing targets”,

“It’s too late to prevent climate change – it’s already happening. It’s probably too late to keep to 1.5°C, and 2°C looks hard as well. But this isn’t a binary thing: it’s wrong to say “we missed the target, may as well give up”. 3°C is better than 4°C, which is better than 6°C. Some harm is locked in, but we can minimise how much more.”

That’s the thought that keeps me going now, as it does on a regular basis away from the COP cycle. In the words of Mary Heglar, “home is always worth it“.

Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world

Reflections on teaching in the pandemic

During this academic year, as well as teaching through a pandemic, I have been working on a PCAP course (Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice). A few months ago, as part of the assessment of this, I had to write a number of reflective case studies about my work. These were linked together with a reflective introduction which was quite heartfelt, looking very briefly at the experience of pandemic teaching as a new starter in the context of established theories/models about early academic life. I’m not wholly ashamed of that introduction and I thought it might be of more general interest, and so I’m posting it here with minor edits. It is, of course, very basic: I am no expert in this area and make no claims to novel insight!

The early years of a lecturer’s first permanent role are generally expected to be hard, for multiple reasons: the new academic is coming to understand their new role and identity (Simmons, 2011, Wilkinson, 2018) while also learning the systems of their new institution and, often, developing a large amount of new teaching material. Kugel (1993) described new lecturers initially focusing on self, and then subject. Only later do they shift to considering students, and hence transition from a teaching-led to a learning-led way of thinking – which in turn leads to consideration of more sophisticated pedagogies.

Covid-19, and the resulting emergency shift to online teaching, has added to this load. Watermeyer et al (2021) speak, based on a large survey, of “academics bruised by their experience of emergency online transition… A story of trauma in the face of… profound professional and personal disruption… Of self-concept on trial and in tatters”. The emergency introduction of blended learning has upended Kugel’s progression by forcing staff who are in their first year of teaching, who are still developing self and subject knowledge, to engage very firmly with learning-led approaches. It is not clear whether this is beneficial for students, but it has surely increased the level of rapid adjustment and assimilation of ideas that Simmons and Wilkinson described.

This research feels quite pertinent to my own situation as a new starter. Much of the material that I have been adapting for emergency online learning is material that I have never taught before, and I have been learning to navigate the systems of a university in flux without any knowledge of how those systems work in normal times.

Goffman, as cited & described by Wilkinson (2018), discussed university teaching through a theatrical metaphor. He described “backstage” contexts in which lecturers can stop performing, and “stage talk” where they discuss performance techniques with colleagues. Wilkinson discussed differences in how much backstage space is available for a woman in a male-dominated field, but it is also interesting to consider how these concepts may differ – and how this might affect the development of professional identity – in a year when lecturers are working from home, and are connected to students and peers only during clearly designated periods when their webcams are on.

Posted by simon in Reflective