04 September 2020

Allocation: get it past the staff

I'd done it! I had made a schedule with every student an allocated topic of their choice. But it was rather uneven. With the process I use to get to an allocation, you can't avoid that; the students give four choices and you need to give them one of these four. But that means that if none of the students choose topics by a member of staff, they don't get students. And staff can volunteer to supervise topics they didn't come up with, but if you are in a field that the students are not very interested in, then you probably only volunteer for other projects in that sort of field, which doesn't help. So I always end up with an uneven distribution! And that tends to upset people. That had caused problems the first time around; the second time there was some grumbling but it got accepted. This year was extra difficult; I had anticipated more students than last year so had asked all staff for one more topic, but then so many students appeared from everywhere it looked like it was going to be difficult anyway, and that I had to give all biologists nine students. That wouldn't go down well! I did my best to keep things within limits; some students may be biologists but choose non-biology topics, and some non-biologists are happy supervising biology topics. So made a first attempt and ran it past the Head of School. It did manage to keep the maximum number to eight, but that was the same for all people regardless of their type of contract (not counting part-timers). He wanted a difference between the various types of staff, so I went back to the drawing board and gave the teaching-heavy people nine students and the teaching-light people seven. And I gave everyone at least one student. And then it was time to publish it to the other staff!

That was done on Friday. I published it to them and hoped for the best. And there were a few errors; I had mis-counted and gave one person one student too many, and there were some staff who were listed as willing to supervise a topic when they weren't. That was fairly easily sorted. 

Then there was the usual grumbling about the inequality. I am happy discussing the system for next year in such a way I can make a more even distribution, but this year wasn't the right year for it. And it still needs to play to people's strength. We are talking about the final piece of work for a BSc title here; I do not think that is done well if it is supervised by someone without the right expertise. We have topics like 'Bedforms in cohesive mixed mud-sand', 'Sensory organs and feeding ecology in elasmobranchs', and 'Phasing between wave energy and offshore wind'; you don't want to supervise the first one if you're not a geologist; not the second if you are not a biologist; and not the third if you're not a physical oceanographer. And you don't want a supervisor who is out of their depth! So anyone who wants to change this has quite a task on their hands. 

It might be worth pointing out, by the way, that we compensate for aforementioned inequality in two ways; one: if you have few students of your own you have to second-mark many, many dissertations. And you don't have to do the 'Science communication' module. But people still grumble! A heavy load in one module you notice; not actually teaching on another module is something it is easy to not think about. 

So now what? Well! Some people were particularly unhappy, and an exchange of views, between amicable and robust, followed. In the end I got to a distribution that at least was accepted by all. So I published it to the students! And I haven't had a single email yet. Does that mean all is well, or that the students haven't had a look yet? I don't know! Time will tell. But for now I can go back to having meetings and sorting out Welcome Week and making teaching materials and get the other module websites ready. With the allocation done, one of my least favourite tasks out of the way for the year! 

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