The State of Fluffy Sciences

I don’t know yet what will become of this blog. I think there is merit to both archival and deletion. But for now, it’s a fluffy goodbye to this site, and I hope you’ll join me in my new space

Hey everyone, long time no blog!

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged on Fluffy Sciences. So long, in fact, that I have lived through a pandemic, gotten married, moved house, had a kid . . .

When I started FluffySciences, I was fascinated by the way a research methodology could impact the kinds of data you collected and the way you might answer your research question.

I have been lucky enough to pursue this passion and now I can make it my day-job. I consult on research methodologies across a wide range of research projects, and pursue my interests in science education as a senior lecturer.

I will always hold a space in my heart for Fluffy Sciences, for the times when I had a dedicated posting schedule thinking about science and knowledge, for the way it brought my my first book, and for being a home on the internet. But it’s not where I belong any more. The last few times the domain name has come up for renewal I’ve hesitated, and this year I finally made a space for me.

That space is It’s a new part of the internet for me, one where I can focus more on open-ness and reproducibility in research.

The internet is getting smaller. I think domains of your own are both valuable in terms of maintaining your own site, but also in terms of understanding how the internet works. It took an embarrassingly long time to set up, but I’m excited about where that might take me.

I don’t know yet what will become of this blog. I think there is merit to both archival and deletion. But for now, it’s a fluffy goodbye to this site, and I hope you’ll join me in my new space

Captured in Time

Some students have suffered immensely this year, their mental health declining, their performance suffering, and experiencing a year of hell. And yet some students are loving the new-found freedom and flexibility hybrid learning has offered them, their mental health has massive improved, they’re doing better in their assessments, and they never want to go back.

Early on in my lecture recording research, I came across a fascinating conflict. Students loved being able to capture something they perceived to be a valuable resource. Staff were worried the act of capture conferred artificial value to the resource. It took us time, but eventually we produced a resource bringing these two camps together, to get them to discuss where the value lay, and we saw a lot of benefits with this approach (this workshop is available for free on the QAA Scotland Focus on Lecture Recording site). 

Recently I’ve been exploring student experiences of the last academic year, to find out what we did well and what we could do better. There’s another conflict in there. Some students have suffered immensely this year, their mental health declining, their performance suffering, and experiencing a year of hell. And yet some students are loving the new-found freedom and flexibility hybrid learning has offered them, their mental health has massive improved, they’re doing better in their assessments, and they never want to go back. 

Our lecture recording workshop took a lot of work, and I’m very proud of it. As an intellectual exercise, can we do something like this to help our students resolve their disagreements regarding the covid experience?

What should not be a surprise to me is the obvious finding – people are all individuals and experience the world through their own unique lens of wants, needs and desires. We have to start from a position that neither of these experiences are Wrong. People who have suffered have absolutely suffered. And people who have thrived in this time have thrived. Both experiences are valid. 

It would be lovely if we could give both camps (and the myriad of camps in between, but this is a blog post so lets keep it simple) their own unique and tailored learning experience. Unfortunately, at least in the vet school, we don’t have the staff required to deliver that unique experience for each student. We have material which needs to be delivered, and we can’t feasibly deliver it in multi-modal approaches. So what choice do we make? 

This reminds me of the paradox of inclusivity – the idea that an affordance for one group can be a barrier for another. Say you are hosting an event, and one friend uses a seeing-eye dog. Another friend has a very severe dog allergy. Who compromises to attend the event? What’s fair to ask? We make these kinds of choices every day. When I teach I encourage students to step out of their comfort zone, I ask questions, even though I know it is uncomfortable for some students. I take steps to mitigate the discomfort, but ultimately I deliberately choose to push students whenever I teach. It is not always comfortable, because learning is not always comfortable. I take many steps to create an environment where you can recover from feeling uncomfortable, but I know for a fact they don’t work for everyone. With the tools I have right now, I still have students leaving my teaching feeling uncomfortable and stressed by their learning. So who should we make uncomfortable this coming year?

The coming academic year is set against a backdrop of trauma, loneliness, and discovery. Whatever choices we make, we will be upsetting people. I read editorials fretting about a fractured society, the remotes and the in-presences. As a society, we will need to reckon with this oncoming conflict, and we should start now. 

In this time we’ve gained the ability to make life so much more accessible. We have made conferences available regardless of travel cost (and certainly mitigating climate costs). We have made those with chronic illnesses much more capable of managing them as part of their work day. We have freed people. 

We have also locked people in tiny boxes we call “student housing”, and kept them from their families. We have not learned their names, or seen their smiles. We have made them pay extra for the ability to connect. We have badly hurt people. 

 And all of this applies to our staff too. To our families and friends, to the world we are preparing our students for. I don’t believe we can ever go back to what we were, and I worry there may be a mounting sentimentality to the past, conferring a false value to a time that didn’t really exist. If we choose to open up more, to demand face-to-face and international travel, part of that trade-off is going to be more deaths. If we choose to remain cautious, to stay hybrid, we must expect pain for many. 

So who do we make uncomfortable? To me there’s an obvious solution: we prioritise the social lives of our students. We make big outdoor, well-ventilated spaces. We close them last. We give up on in-person lectures (although oh how I miss them) to keep the student unions and societies free. We agree that students can stay near their family homes so they can spend that precious time with their people. I believe we need to make a sacrifice here – but we all need to make that sacrifice. My proposal would be that we don’t go back to offices and lecture halls just yet. But we make sure that no one spends 6 months in a single dorm-room ever again.

If we all take a little bit of the discomfort, maybe we can avoid the cruelty of the last academic year.

Gie Us a Grant?

I’ve just submitted a little grant proposal! (Everyone go ‘woo!’)

One of the things I talked about in the grant proposal was my outreach activities. I like to think of my science as quite transparent. But I am definitely less good at talking about the grant writing part of science.

Why is this? Well firstly, grant writing involves asking for money, and that’s not a terribly pleasant activity for many of us. In addition, there are often privacy concerns. Funders might not want to disclose how much money they award versus how much they were asked for. Projects of a sensitive nature (which this one might be) also require careful thought before a science blogger starts talking about the 100 grand bid they just put in.

Still, most research funding comes from public money, so all parties have a responsibility to talk about finances, and how we spend that money responsibly.

For my part, this grant is asking for some of my time, some travel costs, and some research costs. Altogether, this amounts to less than £50,000. To me this is a small sum for a research project, and I’m interested to see if there’s any feedback on the costings, either from the grant, or from you guys.

Money in academia is a hot topic right now – so I want to do my part for making this more understandable. If this gets funded, and the funders agree, I’d love to do a full breakdown of how I came to that total. And then you guys would be able to judge for yourselves whether it was money well spent . . .

All Scientists Are Awesome

There are weeks in science when even your successes feel like a failure.

That is, if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky there will be months of it. The criticisms will stretch out before you and though they may be paired with encouragements, you’ll only see the words:

  • “We’re sorry to say your application was unsuccessful”
  • “We cannot recommend this paper for publication”
  • “This was interesting but I didn’t quite understand this bit . . .”

We think the praise is there to soften the blow, because it’s how we pull our own punches when we’re trying to help.

You’ll be scored on your teaching, or on a job application, or a grant proposal . . . 3/5 they’ll say and instead of concentrating on the 3 points you got, you’ll stare at the 2 you didn’t. You’ll be given feedback on a paper and you’ll gloss over “this is interesting” and jump straight to “I disagree with this conclusion”. They’ll tell you they wanted a range of subjects on offer, you’ll hear “you weren’t good enough”.

Sometimes you might think about leaving, working for an NGO, or industry, and you’ll wonder if you’re weak, if you just can’t hack it. Maybe, sometimes, in the dark of night, you might even think that about your friends who got out, but I guarantee you won’t think it for long because you know it’s not true.

Be kind to yourself. You work in a very stressful field, one that is under unprecedented threat, and it was never that stable to begin with. You put too much pressure on yourself, and you always have.

You are awesome.

You were awesome when you stopped what you were doing to explain that thing to your colleague. You were awesome when you pulled a bunch of slides together and stood up to talk about thing no one in that room had done. You were awesome when you listened to their opinions. You were awesome when you cried because it hurt and you were awesome when you were able to shrug it off and you were awesome when you reined in your training and left good feedback for the next person.

You are awesome, and you will continue to inspire awe in me no matter what you do.

Academia, Love Me Back

If you’re a lecturer and you think your student has plagiarised something the way to deal with it is:

1) Put the work through a plagiarism checking service, e.g. TurnItIn, which is capable of recognising sequences other than words
2) If TurnItIn flags the work up as plagiarised check – because TurnItIn is way too sensitive and usually it’s a grammatical error
3) Inform the student what plagiarism is, showing them in the work the examples and show how they can quote without falling afoul of plagiarism – students must be able to change their work for the better after receiving feedback.
4) ??? profit from the improved education of your students?

Sorry this had to happen to Tiffany 🙁