31 December 2014

Traditional Xmas in the Netherlands

Suddenly it was time to leave for the airport, for my standard Christmas visit to the Netherlands. I just hoped I hadn't forgot anything important. I sure had a book on evolution with me, for an upcoming lecture. It immediately came in handy; upon arriving at Manchester Airport I saw I had a text message saying my flight was delayed. Oh well, that gave me time to read. But I was in the Netherlands a bit late!

My first port of call was Henco and Maaike. As I had been delayed for two hours I got there late, and could not stay long, as I wanted to get to my mother with a bit of time to spare. The next day I would spend with my sister and her family. My niece was happy to see me and gave me a spiffing drawing of a Christmas Tree. My nephews were rather busy pushing and shoving each other. Christmas holiday boredom, boy style! The evening there would be a veritable Saher-evening; we would team up with two cousins for dinner. The previous year we had done something similar, but then with only one cousin, as the other one had been too busy. That had been good, but with four it was better!

My Xmas decoration for this year!

Cousin dinner!

The next day I would see Roelof, but he had to work, so that was a 5PM thing. A chance for a longish run! And my sister lives right next to some of the loveliest nature reserves in the Netherlands, so all was perfect for the occasion. Except for the weather. And aggressive dogs. But it was beautiful! I got back drenched.

The previous evening my sister had suggested I would come rowing with her. I'd rowed for a short while as a teenager; maybe I still knew how it was done. And I had stopped as I thought it was not quite up my street; it's all control and discipline and such things, and I'm just more into brainless power. I like kayaking; not as efficient, but you don't have to think about how you propel yourself, you look where you're going, and you have brain cells left for enjoying what you do. When you row, you have to think so hard (if you're a beginner, that is) you can only row, and that's it. But as an exception I was happy to come along! I figured it would be more rain, so I borrowed a dry shirt but left the rest on.

You don't have a boat in the water in a minute. A lot of faffing needs to happen before you get to that stage! And I was still rather wet; I was very cold. I was really happy we could leave at some point. As soon as we were gaining some speed I got warm again. Fortunately. And I pulled it off! But it was rather mentally tiring.

Rowing with my sister

Then it was time to go to Amsterdam. It would this time be only Roelof, Micha and me. Not busy but quite nice! I had been sleeping in strange beds again, of course, and I was tired. It was great to see them and catch up. Roelof was having all sorts of thoughts on his career! And Micha interrogated me about love. A difficult topic.

The next day I was back in the realm of shoving nephews; I would visit my father, but so would my sister with her entire family. It would be a boisterous day. I didn't get to talk with my parents that much. But maybe they'll come visit in the new year!

The patchy city wall of Harderwijk, with some relatives walking past

 A monument to commemorate the numerous British bombers that were shot down in this region during WWII

Boxing day was for my mother. That was nice! I did another run, but the rest of the time we just caught up. There was a lot to talk about; the past semester of teaching had left its imprint on me. And some of my mother's friends also popped in for a coffee or a beer, and some Christmassy chat.

 Some Amersfoort lake I knew nothing of but came across during my run

 The front of my old school; there was building work going on there. What would happen to it?

The last day would be exciting; like the cousin dinner, another nascent tradition, started last year. I would have coffee with Floor. The year before, I had barely been able to eat for a week. It would be interesting to see if I would somehow cope better. And I did! He still is like a 16 Tesla magnet to me, but I managed without physical damage. A good thing; I still have two years left on my contract so for two years I know I'll have to put him out of my head. And by the end of these two years it's a lot more likely that Floor has a new girlfriend than that I will be able to find a job in the Netherlands. The situation there is dire! But one can dream.

The wintery view from my mother's windows the next morning

Beautiful wintery Amersfoort

An alley leading onto the Hof, the main square

I recovered with my old friend Monique. That's always a good idea! She might visit me in the new year too. But now we ended up at her place; that always means lots of affection from non-human mammals. One can't have enough of that. But then time was up. Time to go back to the airport. This time I would not be delayed. And I could look back on quite some family interaction. And some reconnecting with friends. And some useful knowledge on evolution. And I could look forward to eating Dutch style; I, of course, had lots of cheese in my bag. And nasi spice mix. And a survival package from my dad. I might organise another Dutch night...

29 December 2014

Getting ready to travel

I thought I'd manage to finish the marking with a bit of time to spare before I'd be off to the Netherlands. But no! The last week did contain lots of non-marking activities, such as meetings, a hospital visit, sending off of radiocarbon samples, another christmas gathering and the organisation of an upcoming trip to Edinburgh. So when I went home on Friday night it was late again, and I wasn't finished. But I wanted to not have to think about it so I continued on Saturday. And Sunday. And went to the office on Sunday to drop all the reports off, copy over my file with the marks and the files with general and individual feedback. And then I was tired, and hadn't packed yet. And I hadn't made a particularly detailed timetable for my trip to the Netherlands. But that was not necessarily a bad thing. I don't see that many different people, but I did have some time to relax! Needed that...

The quintet that festooned our work do. James went uncharacteristically frivolous in his choice of headgear.

28 December 2014

To hospital!

Don't worry! I went to hospital for pleasant reasons. One may remember we took hundreds of cores of the seas around Ireland in summer. We want to find the contact between sediments deposited by ice and those deposited after the ice retreated (generally shallow marine sediments). And we want to date these contacts to know when the ice retreated. But that's not easy; there isn't much in those sediments that you can date, and the only way of finding it is cutting up the entire core, sieving the sediments, and sending any shells or stuff like that to a lab for radiocarbon dating. But that is a lot of work, and it destroys the cores. Not ideal! It would be so much better if you could somehow see where the good stuff is. And we can! We have external X-ray vision: it's called a hospital.

I had just phoned the local hospital, on the off chance they would be willing to help us out. And to my surprise they were! So just before Christmas I borrowed a university car, drove to hospital with three sections of core in the boot, and got myself a seat in the Radiology waiting area. How would it go?

Soon a lady appeared, who asked if I was Margot. I was! And she took me to a room with a bed in it with a big machine hanging above, and a computer behind a thick glass screen. Exactly what you expect in an X-ray room. So we started zapping the cores! And it's only provisional, but we figured out what settings we need, and what sort of configuration. I'll need a metal measuring tape! It's important to see what part of the core we have in each exposure. They don't fit into one picture; one needs three or for for a 1m section.

Two sections waiting to be X-rayed

The two sections on a cassette

So making a measuring tape with metal labels and tick marks is on my to do list for early next year. And then we can go back a few times and hopefully zap all the interesting ones! We already saw it's worth it; we saw some very useful fragments, and even an amazing articulated specimen, seemingly in live position, which is screaming for being dated. This is making our work so much quicker and more efficient! Hurray for the hospital, and bring on the new year!

The articulated shell, with a paperclip as a marker

19 December 2014


My birthday fell on a Sunday. I didn't want to spend that day marking! I rather did something nice with friends. And when friends are needed: call the Thursday Nighters. And we still had our pet mine to explore to the end! The idea came from David, who is quite keen on the place, but I thought it was a good idea, so I went with it. What we wanted to do was a few-people-only job, so it would go well with a small birthday audience.

The last time we had made our way to the top, where a small ledge lead to a level that was blocked up with rubble. We wanted to have a prod at that rubble; maybe we could clear it out and go forth! And it could well end up like the dig I did with Lionel many years ago; that rubble might well be the tail end of a sheer inexhaustible debris pile. But if you don't try you don't know!

We gathered at noon, and got kitted. There were five of us; more than enough for this cramped place! I got up to the ledge where we first wanted to fix a few more bolts. We had better be properly anchored on the wall when we would start shifting tonnes of rubble. The drill came up, and I did some bolting Welsh Style. And when that was done, David came up, and we could start. Which we did! We sometimes paused to give the people below the chance to clear the way; we didn't want to be blocking our way out. And as with the Lionel dig; everything we dug out was replenished from above. But we sometimes caught a glimpse of what was beyond; it clearly went up!

A foggy Dave (there was no air circulation, so our breath made photography hard) at the pile of rubble coming out of the passage

At some point we had created such a large cavity we could stick our heads in. And it looked decidedly iffy! A lot of precariously balanced rubble ready to come down. We should not try to go through there! We decided to call it a day. I went down, and started to clean the sides of the shaft; there was a lot of rubble perching there and you don't want to come down on your head while you descend. But while I was tidying up, the rubble in our cavity started to come down and David was VERY keen to get out of there, so he shouted me down. Out we went! 

When I found the men waiting below, and one of them commenting on my appearance, I suddenly noticed that I was orange from head to toe. Oh dear! The men who had stayed below were looking impeccable. Fortunately, the way out is through an adit, partly flooded with clean water, so I'd get a chance to improve matters. 

The state I was in after all the digging

Half of us went out through the mine; often we come out on the high level, but it actually is more fun to go down all the ropes, ladders and chains. It was good to see it all again! And at the entrance I washed all my kit. 

Back at the cars Phil cut the cake. Pingu, who pretty much ALWAYS brings cake, had been a bit under the weather and had stayed at home, so mine was appreciated even more. It was good stuff! And I introduced it as "cacen arbennig iawn" (very special cake) as for some reason the cake tends to be festooned in Welsh terms, and that lead to Phil starting a monologue in Welsh about the situation. It was probably meant as a dialogue, but I couldn't keep up. But it's good to see there seems to be  a limit to how much longer I get away with English. In the new term I should have time to steepen my learning curve again! And then I'd happily try to forge a fitting response to such utterings.

After cake it was time to head for Blaenau Ffestiniog where Pingu lives; we would order takeaway from his place and eat it there, as a birthday meal. Of course Pingu had cake too. And tea! And a cat, which wanted to sit on Blober's lap. It was all quite nice. A birthday well spent! We didn't hang around too much; the next day would be a normal working day. And I know this was far from your standard Dutch birthday (for the non-Dutch: read about it here) but it was quite my cup of tea!

17 December 2014

Last big teaching job of the year

There's only one week of term left. Soon I'll be leaving for the Netherlands! And I was hoping there would be a bit of relatively calm time between hectic teaching and going away. But it doesn't look likely! There now is only one big teaching job to do: I have to mark the students' field trip reports. It's a big job! There were 13 groups of students, all supposed to take 100 measurements (50x a glacial striation, 50x the orientation of a clast in a glacial deposit), so that's 1300 measurements for me to check and plot (I have to see if they did it correctly) and then some 40 reports to mark. And then it's done! It's a lot of work; there are always endless many ways of plotting some data. For instance; the students were all asked to note two orientations of each item of which they measured the alignment. For a north-south facing striation or clast, they were supposed to read off both the 0° and 180° orientation. The idea behind it was to have a check on whether they did it correctly. If the measurements were 180° apart, they probably did it correctly. But there were quite some measurements that weren't. What to do with these? Take them out? Plot as is? Try to correct? And student aren't particularly candid about what exactly they did, so I often have to just guess.

Measuring the orientation of a clast. Pic by David

Glacial striations. Pic by Guy.

There were also students, of course, who recorded only one orientation and just added 180° in excel. That wasn't quite what the idea was! And one group managed to take 50 measurements, 48 of which incorrect. What will they do? 

It's a lot. But when it's done the term is over! I've done the last lecture, I've attended the last student presentation. (Except one by our own MSc student). Before I know it I'll miss all this!

15 December 2014

Xmas do

Office christmas parties! Few parties are as infamous. But I always go; it's good to have some social time with colleagues. Sometimes they are fairly boring. If it's in Norway, they may be a bit too interesting. I didn't know what to expect in Bangor, but I can do with a bit of social integration at work, so when there was mention of a christmas do I bought a ticket. I hadn't checked what day it would be on; I assumed a Friday. It turned out to be a Thursday! That was sad; I would have to skip an underground trip! But well, I was committed now.

At a quarter to six I put on a cubic metre of GoreTex and biked to the mainland, where it all would take place. I took all the GoreTex off again and got my glass of champagne, and mingled with the crowd. I felt underdressed! There were ladies in elegant dresses, gentlemen in three-piece suits, and whatnot. I knew there was a ceilidh coming up, and biking home, so I was rather pragmatically dressed. Oh well!

Shortly after 7PM we were asked to proceed to the dinner hall. And it looked great! Shiny colourful tat as far as the eye could see! We sat down, put on a silly hat, and inflated balloons. For decoration? Of course not. They were designed in such a way that if you inflated them, didn't tie a knot but let them go, they would fly rather far while making a silly sound. Now that got the party started! Scientists are all very serious and grown-up people.

We also found a sort of a pub quiz on the table. It was very Ocean Sciences-themed. It involved lots of wave physics, fish physiology, and then some christmas nonsense. Also good for some fun. And even though we had a leading wave scientist at the table (who attracted a lot of attention from people from other tables who wanted to plug into his knowledge) we didn't do very well. But first there was food. It was good!

We were second last in the quiz, but there was a raffle too; I won a voucher for a local restaurant I hadn't heard of yet. Always nice! But soon we had to vacate the tables; they had to be moved aside for the ceilidh. We went back to the bar! And then back to the dining room for some dancing. There was one chap in a kilt; he didn't need a caller, and was on the dance floor during the sound check. Soon the band was ready for the real thing. Pretty much the entire population joined. Not much space! Lots of shoving and tripping on toes followed. But it was fun! I danced with my office mate Juan; it was good I had done ceilidhs before, as you can't automatically assume a Puerto Rican knows what a do-si-do is. Now he does! It was fun.

Fun is one thing, but I was rather aware of the next working day. It would be another day of student presentations I had to mark, and then some more marking. So when there was a break in the ceilidh at around 22:30 I sneaked away. Back into the GoreTex. I later heard some people had partied on until 8AM. Not for me! But this had been a good party! And the underground trip that night turned out to have been cancelled. Good food, a few drinks, silly balloons, and some sweaty dancing. With well-dressed colleagues! Hopefully a harbinger of more social interaction with the lot in the new year!

12 December 2014

Visit of the YCC

Everyone comes to North Wales! Only weeks ago we had the PCG visiting, and now it was the YCC's turn. Or more accurately: the YCC, NYMCC and CMHS. Such a mix makes for interesting banter: the CMHS accused the YCC of consisting of mindless sports cavers, while the YCC accused the two other clubs of being softie mine explorers. There is some truth in both statements, actually.

All Yorkshiremen and -women arrived on Friday evening, but I was still swamped in marking and could do without a late, probably alcohol-fuelled night, quite possibly followed by a short, snoring-disrupted sleep. So I would arrive Saturday morning.

I got up early, packed my stuff, and drove down. Near the hut I bumped into three of the men who were heading for a cafe for breakfast. I proceeded, and soon reached the hut. Full of old friends! Very nice! Everyone was either getting up or faffing round with breakfast. I settled near the fire with a mug of coffee and was not bothered at all that we wouldn't be underground anytime soon.

After a whole lot of discussion we decided that the three running club members would go for a run, and everybody else would go to a gold mine a bit further south. So we packed ourselves and our stuff into two cars and waved the runners goodbye. Soon we were at the designated parking spot. We walked through a beautiful valley to the entrance. We saw a rope; there were more people here! Oh well, no need to have a mine to yourself.

It was a beautiful walk to the entrance!

We went in. It was rather beautiful! It had funny colours and irregular chambers and rusty carts and forests of timbers and whatnot. Where we had come in was the old part of the mine, and it showed. Within minutes all the cameras came out. There were many!

We leisurely pottered through the mine, taking lots of pictures, and checking out all corners. And soon it was time to go into the newer part of the mine, with lots of abandoned ventilation ducts, electricity cables, steel ore chutes and whatnot. There we also found the other group. Lo and behold, it was the same group we had encountered during the PCG visit! Funny, that.

We happily pottered on, taking more pictures. I knew most of the photographers we had with us were better and better equipped than me, so I had ceased taking pictures. I would wait and see what the others would come up with! (Maybe more pics will follow!)

Orange man in orange mine

After a look in the modern part of the mine we headed back up via a different route, and came out in fading daylight. The walk back to the cars was scenic if not a bit dark. In convoy we drove back, but we saw the other car turn onto the pub car park. We were more interested in food than drink! Especially me; I had initially planned to stay the night, but had changed my mind. I would go back tonight. So not much booze for me!

Upon return to the hut we found it dark; the runners were also in the pub. Oh well! We just had some calm and snug time with food preparation and some chat. Good for me! Although we all were hungry, and hoped the pub contingent wouldn't stay away too long. We wanted dinner! 

When they arrived we could tell they had appreciated what the pub in question had to offer. The mood immediately became rowdy. And pretty much everybody knows how unpleasant it is to be sober among the drunk. (Everybody who had travelled in the car that had come straight to the hut was pretty much sober, but we were seriously snowed under by the rest.) I needed some food, but I was keen to bugger off as soon as I could! Food was served late. I managed to get away shortly after 9. And it was no minute too soon! I needed fuel and headed for Caernarfon where I knew a petrol station, but I bumped into another one on the way I had forgot about. And I was the last person to get fuel before they closed! And they said the one in Caernarfon closed at the same time. A close escape! I probably would have made it home but it wouldn't have been relaxed driving.

I hung out my kit, unpacked my bag, had some tea and went to bed. I was glad I had left! This way I had a chance to get some work done on Sunday. But it had been a good underground trip! And maybe I find time next turn to visit Yorkshire, instead of only coming out when people visit me...

09 December 2014

Exploration to the end

Thursday trips tend to be rather spiffing, but I find them extra exciting if we are about to explore a particular part of a mine of which we have no idea what it'll bring us. This week (or rather, the previous week; the blog is suffering a bit from a time lag) we had one of those. As I explained before, we had found a mine that nobody knew much about, and we had explored its length, but not yet its depths. We had dropped from entrance level to a sublevel, and we had seen two possible ways further down, but hadn't had enough kit with us. This time we did! We rigged the place and went back to the sublevel. From there we first tried the most promising route; down a hole in the false floor. Water coming out of the ceiling chose that route too. It would be a wet abseil! But probably worth it.

We first tried to go in the direction back to the hillside. It ended in a collapse, but we knew we might be able to drop down an ore chute and get to the other side of that collapse via that route. Then we tried the other way.

The level had many side tunnels; all of these had a dead end after only some tens of metres. It didn't take that long to explore. But we found some nice features and artifacts, such as a strange puddle of white liquid, a pipe, a pocket knife (clearly postdating the working of the mine, but we knew that we were not the first people down here, although we must be some of very few) and another wheelbarrow. But it was time to go back up.

Blober and a wheelbarrow

Nice pipe!

Prussicking up with a waterfall isn't very nice; it's cold and it impedes breathing. The first two guys managed anyway, but the third struggled. He had worn himself out by the time he reached the most unpleasant height, with most water coming down on his head. It's scary if you see someone struggle, and you know you can't reach him! The only thing we could do was shout encouragements. Luckily that was enough. And then we were up rather quickly. I almost caused more trouble; prussicking is easiest if there is tension on the rope. When you're high up the weight of the rope provides that, but low down it can only be provided by someone holding the rope. David held it for me when Phil pointed out my leg was on the wrong side of the rope. No problem; I swung it around. And almost thanked David for his kindness with a clanging kick in the face, with my sturdy steel toe boots. Oh dear! Fortunately it only ALMOST happened. And by the time I came up I noticed there actually didn't seem to be that much water coming down; when I stuck my head through the hole in the floor I saw why. The men had diverted the stream! How nice. And now Dutch.

Blober getting ready to ascend again

 Off he goes!

I wondered if anybody was up for dropping the ore chute too. I was generously waved into its direction; I was welcome to see if this evidently somewhat uncomfortable drop was possible. I didn't need much encouragement!

It was an awkward drop with squeezes past, and clambers over wobbly timbers and past loose rock. I hesitated a bit but decided it was safe enough. I didn't expect anybody to follow, but soon Phil appeared too. And then Simon! And David! A veritably stellar cast.

Me staring up along the ore chute. Pic by Simon.

 How much deeper does the water get? Pic by Simon.

 Quite a lot deeper! Pic by Simon.

We admired the spade and collapsed ore chute we found, and then it was time to explore the level going further in the direction of the hillside. The water was a bit deep! And cold. And it got deeper. It ended in a collapse. This was the end of the mine. We've now seen all that is reasonably accessible! A good night. And we all got up without problems. I even thought I saw a reduction to the water coming down the chute; I think the men had re-directed it down the hole we had first dropped. Such water engineers! And were even out early enough for a half pint. This is our last regular underground Thursday night trip of the year; a good closure!

07 December 2014

Shelf seas

One of the modules I was supposed to teach in is called "Estuary and Shelf Sea Processes". Does that sound riveting? I don't think so; that title doesn't even float my boat, and I'm quite the shelf sea nerd. My job in this module was to talk about shelf sea history. The best part! I hope I made it riveting. I was a bit surprised at how it went; I started with a recap of what I knew other people had already been lecturing about. And scores of students took notes! It was meant as a recap. But then again, I had about half the students; maybe this cohort does not have the habit of actually showing up. Although one might suspect it's pretty much always the same ones that do show up.

So what did I talk about? The interesting thing about shelf seas is that they are shallow, which might have more implications than one might think. Most of the tidal energy created by sun and moon is dissipated on the (frictional) shelves. And due to the shallowness, both tides and winds can mix the entire water column. The open ocean tends to be stratified; the upper layer is warmed by the sun, and thus less dense. Only creatures that can swim can get from the sunlit, low-density layer to the cool dark layer below, and back. And the photosynthesising types of plankton often can't, and they're the base of the food chain. So they eat the scarce nutrients there are, die, and if they then sink down into the lower layer they're out of reach. When the surface layer gets too cold it tends to pretty much sink all the way down; if you are a small plankton specimen and you get sucked along you won't be seen again any time soon. Neither will the substance you're made of.

A coccolithophorid; one type of phytoplankton

On the continental shelf you tend to sometimes get stratification and sometimes mixing of the entire water column; in summer the sun is strong enough to heat up the upper layer and get a similar situation as in the open ocean, but in autumn the winds and tides win, and whatever nutrients sank down during summer get stirred up again. And with rivers and wind-blown dust and all, you already have more nutrients to start with. So a disproportional part of global productivity happens there. And with the base of the food chain sorted the rest follows.

Most people will be indirectly aware of this pattern of stratification and mixing; ever wondered why there is such a thing as the spring bloom? Plankton is not like trees, which always have access to nutrients, and bloom when there is light and high temperature; they float around in water, and only when that contains enough nutrients while it also receives sunlight, can they go and reproduce en masse. So when does that happen? When stratification sets in. During winter all nutrients from the sea floor get stirred up, but the stirring also draws the steerless phytoplankton (the photosynthesising kind) down to dark depths where they can't function. And the turbulence will sometimes bring them back to the surface, but not long enough. The moment stratification sets in the creatures who end up in the cold dark deep layer can but say goodbye to their mortal coil, but the ones in the upper layer now get the time to eat all the nutrients floating around, while basking in the sunshine. Voila; spring bloom!

Spring bloom off Gotland. Pic by NASA

You might guess this process is rather important, and it is worthwhile to study it in the past, as you can't really understand what goes on in a shelf sea without knowing about whether your water column was stratified or mixed. So I talked about reconstructing it, and modelling it. So now they know!

It went rather well I must say. They were observant and responsive! I hope they do well on the exam. And having done these two lectures I have most of it out of the way now. Only a revision lecture on ice and oceans to go, and then the term is done! Lecture-wise, that is; there's still more than enough marking of assignments, and of student presentations. Next term will be better! I think...

04 December 2014

More exploration

We were spoilt for choice. We had two unexplored directions to go in the mine of our recent interest: ahead, or down. We could go ahead, through the chest-deep water to see what lay beyond, and we could drop to a lower level, as during the previous visit we had placed some bolts. We decided to do the latter first!

I had the privilege to go down first. Upon touch-down I immediately noticed a beautiful cart. Nice! And an equally immaculate wheel barrow around the corner. Not many people had been here, by the looks of it! And on one side a sort of timbered ore chute lead down.

The cart

The wheel barrow

In the meantime the other started to gather. I took pictures of the cart and the wheel barrow, and had a small look on the other side: there was a hole leading down to the lower level, and further on there was a collapse, but it looked like it went on. But I waited for the others. When we were all down we decided to check out the chute first; Phil went down, and reported back that it would be hard to go down to the next level from there. Wobbly timberwork in the way! But for a next time we could easily bolt the other way down I'd seen. The rock face there seemed solid. And one would expect both parts of the level to connect. 

Phil exploring an ore chute

When Phil was back up, and I had used a snagged rope as an excure to have a look too, we crossed the collapse. It didn't go very far beyond. Time to go back up and explore beyond the deep water!

Paul and Phil looking down the hole we want to drop the next week

Only three of us (Phil, David and me; just like last time) were keen to venture on. Not everybody likes such amounts of cold water. But we went in, and on. It went! It went quite a way. We found a shaft going up; would this be the one David had dropped weeks earlier? It sure looked a bit dodgy. It did have a separate ladderway. Quite a shaft! We moved on. We explored some side tunnels that didn't go far, and went on and on. After a while there was a Y junction. To the right was a dead end; to the left, there was some stoping. With ladders! Tempting! We went all the way to the end, and then couldn't resist the ladders anymore. We went up four specimens. Solid as a rock! But it ended up in a very rainy shaft with no more ladders. There were platforms, and they were probably solid, but it was hard to see with all that water coming down. And there were people waiting for us. We went back!

Some of the ladders were leaning against each other; maybe they had originally lead higher up, but been retired.

On the way back we also clambered up a ladder I had partly climbed the previous time; this time we went all the way up. It was a bit iffy up there. We went out. 

David had gone ahead, and I followed. Coming around the corner I was suddenly faced with the soles of his boots. He was happily bobbing horizontally in the water! And why not. I grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him in the direction of the exit. I think he quite liked this new mode of transport. Next week we'll go further down; I can barely wait!

02 December 2014

Teaching: not all rosy

I am certain that the one who learned most from my Glaciology module is me. It's one thing to sit and listen to a lecture; it's a different matter to make sure you are so confident in your knowledge you are comfortable delivering that very lecture! The students also have to write an essay, and they have a choice of 7 topics, but I of course have to know all about every single one of these in order to be able to mark the work. And as I went along I also had to find out things such as: how do Blackboard (the online tool used for all things educational) and Turnitin (an online plagiarism-detecting tool) work, who is responsible for what regarding the organisation of a fieldwork, how are students supposed to submit assignments, who arranges guest lecturers in a module and how, how is one supposed to deal with students submitting late, committing plagiarism, being hampered by dyslexia, being ill, failing assignments, and what not. I had to find out where the thresholds are for pass or fail and whether that stays the same over a student's entire degree, whether you can (might? must?) publish marks, whether you should document lecture attendance, whether a lecture scheduled for 9AM is supposed to start at 9AM, where all the various buildings and lecture rooms are and how the audiovisual equipment works, and countlessly many things more.

File:University from Bangor Mountain.JPG
Bangor uni

I lecture in more moduels than my own, but the lecturing is not the difficult bit, I found out. It's when you have to make decisions yourself, barely knowing what about. The students, as I pointed out before, have to submit many assignments, and I just managed to (almost) update the documentation involved before the teaching started. And once it's published you can't change it anymore; that would be confusing. I just assumed all these assignments had been in place for years and years and honed to perfection. But they weren't!

It started with the IPCC assignment. We asked the students to find data sets that show how climate change in either the Arctic or the Antarctic is changing, and to come up with some predictions of what would happen in the chosen area between now and 2100. They then should discuss the relative importance of these predictions, and suggest mitigation options. It sounded like it was all rather self-explanatory. But when I received the work I saw it clearly wasn't. Many students wrote mini-essays, without any reference to literature that contained the data, and many forgot to limit themselves to one of the two offered regions. They also confused climate change and climate change forcing. And they used up so much text that they barely had space for a discussion! They clearly need more guidance. What did I know. I thought "give 5 bullet points" would inspire the students to give 5 bullet points. But no!

And by the time I was finished marking the IPCC work, the students had submitted their essays. I wished it wasn't that way; the marks for the IPCC work were very low, and if they'd knows that in advance, they might have made a bit of an effort on the essays. Just to give an example; we ask the students to format the reference list according to the requirements by the journal Boreas. When I write this, I've marked 12 essays; not one has done that. What is going on in the students' heads? I don't understand. And before I manage to mark this lot, they'll be submitting the field trip report. And in hindsight, I can also see room for improvement in the instructions of that piece of work too. Even with perfecly clear instructions, the students struggle. And I am afraid that this cohort either needs to be held by the hand and spoon-fed, or runs the severe risk of flunking this module. Neither is very good! And I refuse to spoon-feed, but knowing what I know now I would have used a part of a lecture to go into each of the assignments a bit more. Why do we do this, what do we want, what are evident things to avoid? It would probably help a lot. I wish I could teach this stuff again next year; it would be so much easier the second time around, and that would be good for the students and me alike...