The teaching of cell biology in a School of Biological and Chemical Sciences – Part II

Summary – here I continue a previous comment on the same subject with a new twist to the story. Introducing 400 students to a major subject in biology during a full term is a significant task, especially if their education is to be at a higher level. It took me three years of guided preparation before I was asked to teach the full Cell Biology module single-handedly at Queen Mary University of London. I was then sacked because I opposed dubious management practice so someone else (sadly with fewer qualifications) was recruited and asked to perform this teaching instead. The student body protested in their evaluation forms and the newly recruited lecturer didn’t get her contract renewed. Here I summarise what followed her departure.

One measure of excellence for any university department is the number of academics it hosts for sabbatical leave and how frequently its own members move to other institutions for scientific and cultural interactions. Sabbatical leave is a period of time, sometimes every seventh year, where the academic is supported to work at a different institution from the one she is affiliated normally.

Building institutions that attract researchers who wish to pursue their experiments, consult their libraries or archives and collaborate with their constituents is a remarkable, often historical, achievement.

The reverse measure (the frequency of sabbatical use by academics) reflects the wealth of the institution who can support the exchange, including the existence of expertise and the willingness of colleagues to cover teaching programmes during an expert’s absence, but mostly the seriousness of its academic body over the mission to provide a learning environment of high quality, as there is no better way to culture knowledge through personal interactions between the different traditions.

I had the pleasure to hear a position similar to the one stated above from Professor John Allen when we were colleagues based at Queen Mary University of London and there were ongoing discussions of how to improve our College.

John makes a brief mention to this idea in his published opinion under the title Research and how to promote it in a University. He enjoyed a period of Sabbatical leave for the academic year starting in the fall of 2012 – the first year after my dismissal. One of the requirements to apply for Sabbatical leave had been to ensure the agreement of colleagues to replace one’s teaching duties, and John was lecturing in many different modules. In a climate that was becoming increasingly unfriendly due to the introduction of a metrics-based evaluation system coupled with open hostility to academic values, it became a significant gesture when his threatened with dismissal colleagues accepted to perform his lectures during the period granted for John to focus on his research.

As many readers of this post will know, John and I had made a public disclosure in May 2012 in a letter to the Lancet of our deep concern over the unfairness of a restructuring exercise (restruction). Besides serious concerns over the process and its negative effects for the School, we also disclosed that the person who was setting metric criteria, the Head of School (I will call him ME for his initials), was failing to pass his own-set thresholds but claimed that he did. Pointing out the irony, we wondered whether he would use a mirror to interview himself as he had asked to interview other staff who wouldn’t pass the metric thresholds.

ME did indeed hold a meeting with himself, but this was later on, when John was away for Sabbatical leave, with an HR person taking notes of the event. The details of that meeting are not directly relevant to this story, except to mention that after a University committee ruled that John had not sought to bring ME in disrepute when we wrote the Lancet letter (following a disciplinary procedure initiated at the request of ME according to Human Resources), ME pursued other actions against John including invitations to assess poor performance during the period of his leave!

ME was happy to meet with himself and have an HR employee take lengthy notes over his concerns (here the publications of ME and of John Allen from Google Scholar to compare who was being made assessor of the other man’s performance).

As John and I had pointed out in the Lancet letter: “But, one might ask, is it not high time to weed out slackers? It might help if one had any way of knowing who they are. Sadly, the “restructuring” hits exactly the wrong targets in many cases, and leaves unproductive academics unscathed. The reason is simple—the Head of School and HR have neither interest in, nor understanding of, individuals’ research, still less their research potential”.

Later, ME denied that he chose thresholds of metrics to ensure he could dismiss me by reason of redundancy (how flexible the English language can become under certain circumstances is admirable to this observer) and I commented previously on the consequences for the teaching I used to perform in Cell Biology.

In September 2013, John Allen returned to Queen Mary to pick up his duties.

ME told him that his teaching had been delivered very successfully by his colleagues and asked him to teach instead the first year module of Cell Biology.

Some communication amongst these lines had occurred by email in the Spring of 2013, when I understand John had indicated that he was very well prepared to teach on his area of expertise (not cell biology).

When the perversity of the new way of making teaching allocations started taking up his time he also indicated that he could only discuss his teaching duties once he returned from Sabbatical as that time had been protected for focusing on research, stated in the Principal’s letter to him.

I was observing my friend and colleague closely and I was curious about what his decision would be. It seemed to me impossible for anyone to respond to such a teaching challenge in so short a time. I wondered whether he felt that he was being loaded with my task as a punishment for having supported me when ME arranged to have me sacked. Neither I nor John could explain why all his expertise and preparation in teaching certain subjects seemed not to matter; this led me to conclude that ME was acting unreasonably, but John would not comment. I was wondering about the colleagues who had been asked to replace some of his lectures and were now being asked to take them on again (they wrote to him letters saying that this had not been their understanding or intention).

My inner voice was telling me that if I were in John’s shoes, I would refuse to take up this teaching and I would argue openly that ME was being vindictive acting in an unacceptable manner. There were many parallel stories of dysfunction in the School whispered to me, as it had become clear that dissent was no longer tolerated and dissenters would be persecuted. But I could see no indication that John was going to act in an outspoken manner. He had returned from his Sabbatical leave full of multiple commitments, inspired by the writing of his new papers suggesting a novel explanation of why two sexes exist in many multicellular animals and a new definition for the female sex… “it seems likely that the requirement for a lineage of quiescent, genetic template mitochondria contributed to the evolutionary origin of the female germ line.” He had also made progress on how to pursue his hypothesis over the appearance of oxygenic photosynthesis, a process that so fundamentally altered life on Earth, arguably the most dramatic event taking place on the planet when considering the past 3 billion years… But for many days in September 2013, I heard about PhD students and their progress, papers, book chapters, grants, seminars being prepared and all the familiar contributions the academic researcher pursues daily.

I grew increasingly nervous as the date of the first lecture for Cell Biology in 2013 was fast approaching – what would happen, what could happen?

At one level this was John’s responsibility (by diktat) and at another level management had to ensure the students would have a lecturer present at the agreed time and place.

Then, very near the opening series of the Lectures, John put himself to the task to prepare them with full power. On the morning of the first lecture he went eagerly to teach. He arrived 10 minutes early to the Perrin Lecture hall and set up his presentation.

A few minutes later ME arrived on the spot. He told John that he should not give the lecture because he – John – had refused to do so. John replied that he – John – had never refused to take on this responsibility and that he intended to give the lecture as he had been asked to do.

There was no immediate agreement.

9 thoughts on “The teaching of cell biology in a School of Biological and Chemical Sciences – Part II

  1. Insiders information – your nemesis, “newly recruited lecturer” was told John Allen was coming back from sabbatical in September 2013 and would teach cell biology. Go figure!

  2. Why this obsession with newly recruited lecturer? Illogical. Presumably “lower qualifications” and the damage done to teaching of cell biology since your departure will be a line of defence at Allenses employment tribunal. Will you have documentary evidence to prove her lesser quals and the alleged damage done to High standards in your mythical world? If not libel and slander will follow at a public hearing…

  3. Ορφικός Ύμνος στην Νέμεσιν

    Ὦ Νέμεσι, κλήιζω σε, θεά, βασίλεια μεγίστη, πανδερκής, ἐσορῶσα βίον θνητῶν πολυφύλων· ἀιδία, πολύσεμνε, μόνη χαίρουσα δικαίοις, ἀλλάσσουσα λόγον πολυποίκιλον, ἄστατον αἰεί, ἣν πάντες δεδίασι βροτοὶ ζυγὸν αὐχένι θέντες· σοὶ γὰρ ἀεὶ γνώμη πάντων μέλει, οὐδέ σε λήθει ψυχὴ ὑπερφρονέουσα λόγων ἀδιακρίτωι ὁρμῆι. πάντ᾽ ἐσορᾶις καὶ πάντ᾽ ἐπακούεις, {καὶ} πάντα βραβεύεις· ἐν σοὶ δ᾽ εἰσὶ δίκαι θνητῶν, πανυπέρτατε δαῖμον. ἐλθέ, μάκαιρ᾽, ἁγνή, μύσταις ἐπιτάρροθος αἰεί· δὸς δ᾽ ἀγαθὴν διάνοιαν ἔχειν, παύουσα πανεχθεῖς γνώμας οὐχ ὁσίας, πανυπέρφρονας, ἀλλοπροσάλλας.

    Source: http://eleysis69.wordpress.com/θεών-ύμνοι/ορφικός-ύμνος-νεμέσεως/

    LX. TO NEMESIS

    A Hymn.
    Thee, Nemesis I call, almighty queen, by whom the deeds of mortal life are seen:
    Eternal, much rever’d, of boundless sight, alone rejoicing in the just and right:
    Changing the counsels of the human breast for ever various, rolling without rest.
    To every mortal is thy influence known, and men beneath thy righteous bondage groan;
    For ev’ry thought within the mind conceal’d is to thy fight perspicuously reveal’d.
    The soul unwilling reason to obey by lawless passion rul’d, thy eyes survey.
    All to see, hear, and rule, O pow’r divine whose nature Equity contains, is thine.
    Come, blessed, holy Goddess, hear my pray’r, and make thy mystic’s life, thy constant care:
    Give aid benignant in the needful hour, and strength abundant to the reas’ning pow’r;
    And far avert the dire, unfriendly race of counsels impious, arrogant, and base.

    Source: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns2.html

  4. Explain why a man of higher quals needed 3 years of guided preparation to a teach cell biology but only nanoseconds for the new recruit with “lower qualifications” (sic!) to teach a semester’s worth of newly developed cell biology module with great results.

    1. Perhaps because that is the time it takes to adjust high academic expectations to a sufficiently low level. Regrettably, UK undergraduate education is increasingly becoming little more than infotainment, with undergraduates expecting to be spoon-fed at every stage. Demanding that students read textbooks outside class would have been the norm once, but apparently that is too intellectually challenging for some of today’s undergraduates (clearly this one).

      It is also telling that the disparaging comments here and on the linked pages by “a former student” are made anonymously. Indeed one would hardly be surprised if this so-called student was a – remarkably aptly named – pseudonym for Simon Gaskell, or one of his minions. But assuming it is genuine, it highlights the core problem of student feedback as it is used in UK academia – anonymous and slanderous comments that require no evidence to back them up are used to punish academic staff – institutionalised bullying if there ever was.

      1. Disillusioned academic, another pseudonym for Fanis Miserere! Fear not, this former student just listened to lecturers, read textbooks and was enlightened. Suprised you think the former student’s comments are disparaging when you seem to be venting your spleen at someone you think stole your former Cell Biology Position. Certainly your comments are baseless and reek of schadenfreude!

        I am in agreement that majority of students at the Institution in question complain endlessly if not provided with spoon fed lectures and presented with formulaic test questions which assess recall rather than analytical ability.

  5. Thank you, Fanis!

    I find a serious factual error, and am compelled to put the record straight. As follows…

    “He arrived 10 minutes early”. It was 30 minutes. Just as well. I had some props, but also discovered I had to clear up, and hide, assorted old cardboard boxes, some clothing, and chairs strewn across the stage, as well as battle with an unfamiliar AV system.

    I cannot imagine what had been going on in there the day before.

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