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The first year

Today marks the first anniversary of my moving to St Andrews. What have I learned since then?

It’s a strange feel to be reflecting on a year of my life, not least because it doesn’t feel like a year. Sometimes it feels like a lot less: I still feel very attached to Ireland, and I find that I spend a lot of time comparing the Scottish experience to y experiences of the previous twelve years. But in other ways it feels a lot longer than a year, in that I think I’ve found a professional home in St Andrews that’s exceptionally well-suited to my way of researching and teaching.

So what are the differences? There are several things that spring out. Firstly there’s the size of the place — or lack of it. The university has around 6,000 undergraduate students and maybe 2,000 graduate students, so it’s significantly smaller than UCD — about the same size as Trinity College Dublin, I suppose. This has a corresponding impact on class sizes, where a 30–40 student second-year class, and maybe 10–15 (or less) in third and fourth years, is considered perfectly normal. That in turn leads to a more individual and interactive style of teaching.

The second impact of size is in research, and especially in multi-disciplinary research. St Andrews is so small that one can know everyone (or at least anyone you want to), and can find and gain access to people doing research in whatever topics there are in the university that are of interest. In the past year I’ve interacted with marine scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, geographers, psychologists, medics and others, on a basis that will probably lead to some sort of proposal for collaboration or funding. One can do that in any full-spectrum university, of course, but size does make a difference: the intimacy of St Andrews, the fact that nowhere is more than a fifteen-minute walk away, makes it so much easier to interact. In a larger institution, and one with a larger computer science contingent, there’s a strong tendency to remain within a smaller comfort zone that’s not conducive to multi-disciplinary collaborations. I think we’ll be able to leverage our smallness.

Thirdly, St Andrews takes teaching way more seriously than any other university I’ve worked in (or studied in, for that matter). All universities claim that teaching is a core part of their mission, of course, but it often doesn’t get treated with the same urgency or seriousness as research. That’s in part a function of how we’re evaluated: both individual staff promotions and the most popular global university rankings are heavily biased towards research excellence, and staff and managers inevitably respond to those incentives. But I suspect it’s more than that. St Andrews’ processes are very focused on teaching, as is the academic culture, in a way that’d uncommon in my experience (which is limited to the UK and Ireland, of course). I do all my own teaching, all my own marking, and participate in small-group tutorials both for and beyond the modules I teach myself. Moreover the processes of assessment, tracking and evaluation of students’ progress have tool support and are monitored from both the School and the centre. Other universities I’ve worked in don’t have this degree of monitoring — or indeed any monitoring. That doesn’t mean that teaching isn’t done well in those places, of course, but it does indicate where a university’s priorities lie. (In case this sounds like altruism, it isn’t: the National Student Survey results pull St Andrews up the rankings that take account of student satisfaction, and mean that the university can legitimately lay claim to offering an excellent experience to prospective students. It’s a good example of the university taking a broader and longer-term view than other institutions.)

Following on from this, Scottish universities teach degrees with a “broad curriculum” in which students take a rather general two-year sub-honours programme before specialising into a further two-year honours programme. This provides¬† a broader base for students and avoids too-early specialisation, which I think is a good idea. I hadn’t quite appreciated what a difference it makes in practice until earlier this week, when I did a lecture on the history of the internet and what its evolution means for society in terms of publishing, privacy, trust and access to information. I’ve done technical lectures like this to computer science students before — I’ve used the evolution of the internet as a case study of large-scale systems design for software engineering students, for example — but this was an introductory for first-year students from across the university, both sciences and humanities. That’s not something that happens very often these days: in fact, in twelve years as an academic I’ve never lectured a broad-ranging class like that before.

There’s something rather exciting about being able to address broader questions of technology’s impact on society, and to set essay-style questions, when one is used to the more technical style of scientific lecturing. Not only does it allow a more far-reaching and questioning style of teaching, and the associated invitation to oneself to think through the broader questions: it also feels like it might have an impact, however small and however subtle, on a wide range of students who’ll perhaps never encounter computer science again — but who will undoubtedly be affected by it profoundly as part of its impact on society. It was particularly nice to bring the recent discussions about the internet’s effects on learning to their attention, as well as to talk about sensing and its effects on privacy.

Are there any things not to like? The lack of a senior common room is a little peculiar in a university of this age, only partially made-up for by a staff dining club that meets only infrequently. There are actually very few social occasions for staff across the university, which is a shame given the effort put in to student societies and the student experience: some more activities targeted at academics and researchers would be welcome. St Andrews itself is also somewhat remote from the rest of Scotland, more so than I first thought from looking on the map, but we’ve addressed this by moving to Edinburgh, which has everything one could want from a culturally vibrant city. I’m looking forward to what the next year may bring.


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