Cultural Biases: The Good Adopter

Something that has come up in a few of our lectures and in one of our Google HangOuts from the MOOC has been the idea that some people who adopt animals from shelters are motivated by the need to adopt, or save, rather than to buy.

While there’s been plenty of research on why animals get relinquished to shelters, why adoptions fail, and how humans bond with pets, there hasn’t been a great deal looking at why some of us are strongly motivated to adopt an animal. I’ll put my cards on the table, I’m very strongly motivated to adopt an animal. In fact, I felt slightly guilty for adopting Athena, a kitten, as she was a very beautiful and desireable kitten who would undoubtedly have got a home without me. There was some part of me which felt like I should adopt the animal that was less likely to be adopted. (I tell that little part of me that even beautiful, clever, charismatic kittens like Athena can come to grief, and that with me she will have the best possible life I can give her or any animal. Also she’s mine now and you can’t have her back).

I wanted to think more deeply on this, what motivates us adopters? I started with my own thought processes, and this level of introspection may reveal a little too much about myself . . . For me there’s a pride to be found in not taking the easy route. I also have some misplaced reverse snobbery, where I view buying an animal as somehow bourgeois. This is undoubtedly to do with my own values, which are definitely to the left of centre. I believe in taking care of those less fortunate than yourself. This is what underpins my belief in animal welfare, ultimately, that I have a responsibility to those under my care. So is it any wonder that it comes across in my personal attitudes towards my companion animals?

This was a difficult subject to research and after some fruitless scholar searches, I changed tact. Forget animals. Why do some people adopt children?

Deiner et al (1998) looked at why some families choose to adopt special needs children. Interestingly 96% of their 56 families reported having a religious affiliation (this seems high to me, but I wonder if it is for American audiences?) 41% considered themselves to be active in their faith. The majority of the families who had adopted a special needs child (70%) had become aware of the child through fostering them or through the fostering system. Through making an emotional bond with the child, they had then made the decision to adopt. Interestingly, these families perceived themselves to be a closer, more cohesive unit than the average family. I found this particularly interesting as previous (unpublished) work of mine shows that successful animal adoptions often have the owner perceiving the adopted animals as ‘grateful’ and speak of the strong bond between them.

Of course, another reason that people adopt children is because of infertility (Hollingsworth, 2008), although this study also picked up on whether religion was perceived as important by the adopter encouraging the adopter to adopt. Religious conviction was also noted by Glidden (1984).

I’ve often joked that politics is a religion, and my beliefs about my moral conduct are a strong part of my own being, though I’m by no means religious. While I don’t ever see myself adopting a child, perhaps because as a biologist I have a strong desire to have a blood bond with my offspring, does my need to adopt animals come from my cultural upbringing?

While my (and by extension, other peoples’) motivations for adopting are interesting, when it comes to animal welfare we must ask: how does this affect the animal’s life?

Many people can have unreasonable expectations of their pets – I mentioned a few paragraphs up that some owners expect their pets to be grateful for their new home, to be able to compare their previous life with their current life and then understand their owner is the cause of that. Those are some mental leaps animals can’t make.

My unpublished pet obituary project, stuck languishing in the hell of ‘I did this too long ago and lost the original data’, was unique because it looked at successful human-animal bonds. We have lots of research on when human-animal bonds fail. For example, we know that lack of obedience classes, lack of veterinary care, lack of neutering, cheap purchase price and lack of knowledge surrounding care needs are all risk factors for giving up a dog (Patronek et al 1996a). We know there are similar risk factors for cats, but also the weird counter finding that cats adopted as strays/adopted with minimal planning are less likely to be given up (Patronek et al, 1996b). That last point makes you think about owner expectations, doesn’t it? But we don’t really know what makes a human-animal relationship likely to work.

Prior knowledge of how to look after animals certainly helps. Having the right animal for your lifestyle. Much as I love them, I wouldn’t work well with a border collie. From my unpublished work, the only thing I could really say that was indicative of the successful outcome of the bond was that the animal was readily spoken of as being part of the family, and assigned a familial role (for example, though I hate myself for it, I can’t help but call myself ‘mummy’ to Athena. The infantalisation/maternalisation of the human-animal bond in late twenties women is perhaps a subject for another day).

Marston & Bennett (2003) reviewed dog adoptions with a view of trying  to understand why some adoptions work. They bring up a point I’m very interested in, as a photographer, that we compose familiar animals in our shots in the same way we would a human, but not necessarily other animals. They also talk about the many positive aspects of owning a pet, which I’ve already spoken about, but they note that there is a huge need to characterise adopters in more detail. Kidd et al (1992) is one of the few papers looking at it and they conclude that realistic expectations are one of the best ways to have a successful relationship.

This phrase pops up again and again. But how realistic are the expectations of the chronic adopter? And the question nobody has really answered: how do these expectations really affect the animal?

Chronicles of Athena – Thirteen Weeks

Athena likes to play on my laptop, and my phone, resetting things and sending strange, garbled messages to all and sundry. The internet really is full of cats, it seems. So if you are a cat and you want to be informed of new FluffySciences posts, you’re in luck, because we now have a facebook page here!

As a student of kitten development in the last couple of weeks, I have a handy quiz to help you decide if you are in fact a cat on the internet.


Are fridges…

A) Dangerous, cold boxes holding stuff that could poison kittens or suffocate them?

B) Fantastic forbidden boxes of mystery to climb into at every opportunity?


Is the toilet?

A) A dangerous, slipper bowl of water that might also sometimes have bleach in it?

B) Curious, forbidden bowl of water that you one day intend to thoroughly investigate?


Is bedtime?

A) One of the best times of the day where we lie quietly underneath the covers, maybe watching a YouTube video, staying nice and calm?

B) Extra playtime to bite at the creatures that live underneath the duvet (under-duvet explorations have only found feet so far but hope springs eternal)?


Is morning times?

A) A time when we have begun to rely on kitten to wake us up?

B) An excellent time to lull humans back to sleep with purrs and cuddles until she is late for work?


Is fish?

A) Really quite yummy and one of the best foods?

B) An abomination unto Bastet and we’d rather eat dry food than cod or tuna flavoured kitten food.


Are laptops?

A) Enjoyable devices to allow us to work, blog and internet?

B) Somewhat uncomfortable beds we will lie on regardless?


Are phones?

A) Wonderful little mini laptops that mean we can check our emails before getting out bed?

B) Chew toys?


Is Brussells pate?

A) Human food, get the hell away from my toast.

B) Wonderful ambrosia of the gods that must be tasted at all cost?


If you answered mostly or all Bs, you may in fact be a cat. Get off your owners laptop. You’re not helping.


Punishment is Dangerous

Last week I spoke about punishment as a training aid, and denounced the way some people say you should never punish when training.

But it’s very important to recognise that punishment is very dangerous and should be used sparingly.

I really wanted to put this in the last week’s post, but it was getting long enough. So I saved the rest in a draft which WordPress promptly went and lost. Harrumph. It’s difficult enough writing blog posts with Little Miss Princess Paws wanting constant dominion over my hands. (We are still at war over whether the laptop keyboard is a suitable place to sit).

I had written a post about dog aggression and how punishment can be dangerous when used to treat dog aggression, but now I’m faced afresh with a blank page, I think we’ll take a different tact.

Last week we talked about some of the punishments I’ve used for Athena, namely the chilli powder on the cables as positive punishment to stop her from chewing on the wires. I mentioned that the positive punishment wasn’t perceived as coming from me.

This is what I want to talk about today – the effect positive punishment has on the human-animal bond. Positive punishment is aversive, that is to say it presents the animal with a stimulus that it finds unpleasant. If the source of that stimulus is its owner, it can start to associate its owner with the unpleasant stimulus.

Inappropriate dog behaviours such as aggression to people, aggression to dogs, excessive fear and excessive excitement have been significantly associated with owners who use punishment to train their dogs (Hiby et al, 2004). Now this is a survey of owners and doesn’t distinguish between positive and negative punishment in its results. It is by no means saying that punishment causes these behavioural problems in dogs, but that owners who use mainly punishment to train their dogs report more behavioural problems. I find it particularly interesting that separation anxiety was linked with the frequency of punishment-based training methods.

Another survey of dog owners (Herron et al, 2009) asked the owners what kind of punishment they used when trying to modify the dog’s behaviour. The kinds of positive punishment used were:

  • Striking or kicking the dog
  • ‘Growl’ at the dog
  • Force the dog to release something from its mouth
  • The godawful ‘alpha roll’ (adjective mine)
  • Stare dog down
  • ‘Dominance down’
  • The ‘grab and shake’ dog.

Now depending on how you do it ‘growl’ at dog and ‘stare dog down’ are not much different than how I signal to an animal that I’m unhappy. Just like I would a child, when an animal is doing something I’m unhappy about my body language changes, I focus on them, and my expression becomes ‘arch’ or angry. This is simply human body language and works remarkably well with both pre-verbal children and animals. It’s held for a very short period and is followed by verbal cues that the individual’s in trouble if it’s not immediately heeded. (Though note it’s not immediately clear how these were defined in the survey or by the respondents).

Some of these other punishments, such as the ‘alpha roll’, have been taken down before. I was first introduced to this technique via the BBC show Dog Borstal and trainer Mic Martin. He used it sparingly, but I remember thinking at the time the show was quick to glamorise and sensationalise the technique. And I don’t think on this blog I need to go into the whole ‘dominance training techniques’ any more.

But the point is that at least 25% of the dogs which received these punishments then went on to show aggression to their owners.

Positive punishment, particularly those which involve you threatening an animal, or posing an animal a threat, present a challenge to the animal. It needs to have the cognitive ability to figure out how to remove that challenge. The idea behind positive punishment is that the challenge will be removed when you stop showing the behaviour you’re showing, but if you threaten too much, you may well provoke another behaviour in response. After all, what human relationship would remain cordial if you started to behave aggressively? After all, much of these positive punishment methods, particularly those detailed in Herron et al, are definitely aggressive.

Used inappropriately, punishment is ineffective, if not downright dangerous. The punishment should be something the animal can control (i.e. Athena can control whether or not to eat the chilli coated wire) and it should not make the animal face some kind of conflict.

In some ways this kind of punishment is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Most normal people don’t go straight to the ‘alpha roll’ for things like stealing a biscuit or chewing on the furniture. A simple ‘no’ or a diversion is usually used. But these more extreme punishments seem more suitable for more dangerous behaviour, things like aggression or serious destruction. But what is it that’s causing these behaviours? Aggression usually comes from an animal feeling challenged by its environment. Aggression is, after all, a tool used for the animal to get its way. Some animals go for that tool more often than others.

When you present this kind of animal with another challenge (from a place where it should feel safe and secure, no less), is it any wonder it uses its favourite tool to try and respond to that challenge?

So yes, positive punishment works when it’s used appropriately, but the inappropriate uses of positive punishment are rife. My handy guide for the non professional?

  • Make sure the animal has choice in experiencing the positive punishment.
  • Make sure the positive punishment isn’t exacerbating the problem (don’t fight aggression with aggression).
  • Never use positive punishment on its own.
  • Make sure that the positive punishment is IMMEDIATELY removed the moment the animal ceases the undesired behaviour.

Punishment can work, but only when used properly.

Chronicles of Athena – Twelve Weeks

I don’t know how to say this in a not-bragging way, but I think I got one of the clever ones. It’s not necessarily a good thing (unless, like me, you place an unreasonable amount of value in cleverness). At three months old Athena is very proud to have invented several different games such as the ‘I bring you this toy, you throw it over there so I can hunt it, then I’ll bring it back to you to throw it again’ (she’s working on the name). She’s figured out that my phone is a touch screen and will do stuff when she plays with it, but the laptop needs to be pawed at to do stuff (and she’s also figured out that she’s not allowed to paw at the laptop and there are specific places she can walk where I will tolerate her).

These last two I rationalise as there being limited interactivity on a phone (the only thing you can touch is the touch screen after all), and the laptop keyboard as being more tactile and pleasing to play with than the laptop screen. I’m not sure how she invented fetch.

The flip side is how easily she gets bored. I have to regularly rotate her toys to keep her interested in them, otherwise she turns to playing with the loose threads in the carpets and the curtains. She’s also extremely quick to pick up on routines which means she knows what I do when I’m about to leave the house. Thankfully she’s also developing more of an independent streak and so when I leave she doesn’t spend the day curled up in her safe place. The whole flat is now her safe place and even when the evil monster Vacooooom comes out she’s more likely to go sit at the window than hide under the telly.

This week has been a real joy – even though I was plagued with migraines, Athena has been so happy and affectionate. While I was lying on the sofa, trying to keep the light from my eyes, she was playing games underneath the blanket, bringing me Mr Ducky in the hope it might tempt me to play, and generally trying to figure out why I wasn’t behaving like she expected me to. It’s been lovely to see her exploring how to interact with me, and other humans, what she expects from us.

I was baking a cake earlier and she was genuinely irritated that I wasn’t paying attention to her. Little things like this we need to work on.

But that being said, she does purr so loudly when she’s cuddled.

There's nothing Athena loves more than a good cuddle - excpet for maybe a cuddle and a head scratch
There’s nothing Athena loves more than a good cuddle – excpet for maybe a cuddle and a head scratch

Punishment is Good

Before we start, I’d like to remind you that the opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my colleagues.

With that out of the way – I think punishment gets a bad rap. Wait, wait, it’s not what you think! We’re not going into that kind of territory on this blog . . .



Skinner, of Skinner-Box fame, has framed a lot of our thinking about how we train animals. Skinner used the term ‘operant conditioning’ because he believed that the internal motivations weren’t the only things that shaped behaviour – that we learned from our environment, specifically that our behaviours influence the environment and generate consequences, and that we learn from this.

Now, admittedly, Skinner gives internal motivations short thrift. It’s worth pointing out I’ve made a career of measuring the outcome of internal x external motivations and the influence this has on the probability of behaviour. Internal motivations are important, but that’s probably a post for another day. Let’s talk about Skinner and his box first.

A rat in a box. Two levers. One lever, when pressed, gives food. The other lever, when pressed, shocks the rat. Understandably, the rat learns to press lever one and avoid lever two. The environment ‘trains’ the animal to perform certain behaviours.

At this point I’m going to take a short diversion. One of the reasons I’m doing this blog post is to try and get my head around how to teach this in a more effective way, since it always causes student confusion.

Let’s forget about Skinner for a moment and just focus on two things.

The first is ‘reinforcement‘. Whenever you ‘reinforce’ a behaviour, you’re increasing the likelihood of the animal performing the behaviour again. The second is ‘punishment‘. Whenever you ‘punish’ a behaviour, you’re decreasing the likelihood of the animal performing the behaviour.

Going back to the rat in the box. It’s showing two behaviours: it’s pressing lever one a lot, so that behaviour must be being reinforced. It’s not pressing lever two at all, so that behaviour must be being punished.

The question now is how are these behaviours being either reinforced or punished?

We use the words positive and negative to talk about this, but not in a qualitative good/bad way. Instead I think students would find it easier to think of it as ‘additive’ and ‘subtractive’, the only problem with this being that then they wouldn’t be using the same terminology as the rest of the world.

For example:

Positive Reinforcement gives the animal something to encourage the animal to perform the behaviour again. For example, when a dog sits on command it receives a treat. The behaviour being reinforced is the ‘sit’, the treat is the positive addition.

Negative Reinforcement takes something away from the animal to encourage it to perform a behaviour again. The something that we subtract has to be unpleasant for the animal so that they are rewarded by its removal (hence encouraged to do the behaviour again). A common animal example of negative reinforcement is pushing a dog’s bottom to encourage it to sit. When the animal sits (the behaviour we want to reinforce), the aversive stimulus (pushing) is subtracted.

Positive Punishment gives the animal something to discourage the animal from performing the behaviour again. Similar to the above example, in order to discourage the animal the stimulus we are adding should be unpleasant. A common animal example would be jerking the leash of a dog that’s pulling. The pulling is the behaviour we want to punish (decrease), and the leash jerk is the aversive stimulus we add.

Negative Punishment takes away something from the animal to discourage the animal from performing the behaviour again. If you’ve been following along you’ve probably guessed we have to take away something that the animal would want or desire. A common animal example would be a dog that barks when it greets its owner. The owner ignores it (removes the desired attention) and the behaviour decreases.

To further confuse matters however, sometimes these are classed into ‘aversive training‘ which would include negative reinforcement and positive punishment (because the stimulus we talk about in both these cases are aversive, or unpleasant), and ‘reward-based training‘ which includes positive reinforcement and negative punishment (because the stimulus in both these cases is rewarding, or pleasant).


Where it gets really complicated, in my opinion, is where people start to believe that one type of conditioning, or one kind of training, is by far superior to the others. ‘Reward-based’ training is usually the one that most animal welfare people are keen on (for obvious reasons, I should hope!) They cite papers such as Herron et al (2008) which show that confrontational training in dogs increases aggression. This has resulted in something odd where trainers will start saying things like “aggression should never be punished”. In training terms, this means you would never reduce the incidence of aggression being shown!

Positive punishment is the ‘worst’ of the aversive training methods by this thinking – but let me give you an example I’ve been using with Athena. When she arrived she had a terrible habit of chewing electrical cables. It was very worrying. I would scold her with an unpleasant voice (positive punishment!) and I would distract her with toys, but still she would do it. I ended up slathering chilli powder and vaseline over the most attractive cables so when she would start to mouth at the cables, she would receive an immediate aversive stimuli. This is positive punishment, an aversive stimuli used to decrease the occurrence of an undesirable behaviour.

So there is definitely a place for positive punishment – where it’s applied correctly. The chilli powder example works because the aversive stimuli is encountered the moment the undesirable behaviour begins, and stopping the behaviour quickly stops the stimuli presenting itself.

I also use negative punishment with Athena. Sometimes when we’re playing she will want to bite and scratch my hand. When this happens I let my hand go limp and stop playing with her. No matter how hard she bites, I don’t resume play. Play in this case is the reward, and my attention/play is removed when she starts displaying the undesirable behaviour. With this one, something else happens too. When she calms down and behaves gently again, play resumes. The good behaviour is reinforced by adding the desired stimulus (my attention/play) when it is performed. The combination of negative punishment and positive reinforcement here means that even though she’s getting bigger, her playing remains gentle and fun for both of us.

It’s impossible for any animal (humans included) to learn without encountering all four of these aspects. Aversive training is by definition unpleasant, but it can be appropriate to use. Take my positive punishment example. The consequences of Athena continuing the cable chewing behaviour were dire. The aversive stimulus added was relatively mild (and came with warning – I think she only actually chewed a chilli cable once, for the most part the smell was enough to make her decide otherwise), and she had a huge amount of choice about the situation: there were plenty of other things to play with (and she would be rewarded for playing with those other things), the aversive stimulus was well defined (on the actual cable – no real way of accidentally getting the aversive stimulus). Importantly, the punishment wasn’t perceived as coming from me and so our bond and her trust in me was also protected. Finally I only needed to apply the paste once. Now that the behaviour has reduced, we can use an even milder positive punisher (me saying ‘no’ in a loud, stern voice), if she tries to attempt it again.

I am sure no trainer would ever say that the ‘no in a loud, firm voice’ is inhumane, but it is a positive punishment. To say all punishment is bad is to further confuse the operant conditioning theory.


Your final exam, therefore, is to tell me – in the case of the rat with the two levers, how was it being trained? 😉

Edited to add – make sure you read Kathy’s comment below, very insightful!

Chronicles of Athena – Eleven Weeks

It’s been another busy week for our Athena. Well, firstly there was a slight suspicion she may have been a boy. When we went to the vets on Monday, after some considerable genital palpitation, we decided we’re 98% certain she’s definitely a girl. Other choice quotes from our lovely vet:

“Definitely a mummy’s girl, aren’t we?” While Athena was crawling into my arms to escape the stethoscope.

“Oh yes there’s a stool in there.” While shoving a thermometer up her bum.

“We’re clearly the runt of the litter, aren’t we.” After I explained her appetite isn’t the biggest.

“She seems pretty lively, do you want me to try her temperature again?” At the end of what was possibly the most genital-obsessed ten minutes of Athena’s life. Needless to say we didn’t bother.

Overall I’m really pleased she got the all clear from the vets after her little bout of worms and the fact she’s not the best eater in the world. Our second dose of worming does seem to have really helped her in the litter box which is great news.

One of the reasons I wanted to keep this chronicle was because I wanted a record of the relationship between us. This week she’s started to develop some of the behaviours I consider to be an integral part of the cat-human bond. She’s started weaving at my feet when I’m about to feed her, and she has a more unique ‘food’ miaow which is beginning to be distinct from her other vocalisations.

She also has her little routines, like coming to greet me at the door when I come home from work, where she’s impatient for me to put all my stuff down before picking her up for a cuddle. And then after she’s had enough cuddling she’s off to her food bowl for fresh food.

One thing she doesn’t do, which surprises me slightly, is knead. She seems to have no real drive to start making biscuits, even when she’s happy and purring and very cuddly. Strangely enough, I miss it quite a bit!

And lastly, she’s getting bigger. She’s just under a kilo now and has long, gangly legs and long, fluffy tail to go with her over-large ears. She’s now having to learn to regulate her play fighting so as not to hurt people (and this may be my imagination but I’m convinced she’s more gentle with other people than with me, which I think is a lovely sign of confidence actually).

On Monday she’ll be three months old, really no longer a baby and more of a child. While the kitten phase was very cute, this is a much more interesting part for me, where we start working out how we live together.

Athena in a bed
Feeling a little bit poorly after her vaccinations, she was quite content to sleep under a blanket.

Kill The Science

This week we’re taking a short break from the usual so I can talk about Doctor Who. Specifically, last week’s Doctor Who Episode ‘Kill The Moon’.

Before you animal lovers scurry away, let me give you a brief, spoilery synopsis. If you don’t want to know the score, look away now . . .

Continue reading “Kill The Science”

Chronicles of Athena – 10 Weeks

At ten weeks of age Athena took an upgrade in her cheekiness levels. She’s been pushing her newly established boundaries and because I’m a soft touch I expect she’s discovered that many of those boundaries are quite flexible. New habits include: scampering up my leg whenever she requires food or a cuddle, and playing the bitey game exceptionally hard when it’s time to wake up.

Incidentally, one of the courses I’m teaching on is currently discussing inadvertent training, and I had a great example in front of my eyes on Thursday night.

While we were waiting for Peaky Blinders to come back on the telly, Athena and I were having a good old play. As I’d been engaged in this for a number of hours, I decided to sit down on the sofa and relax. Athena had a good stretch on the rug, and undoubtedly realising that it felt somewhat like her scratching post, had a good scratch.

“Athena, no.”

She looked up at me with surprise, and then walked away, only to reach the edge of the rug and decide to try again.

“Athena, no. *Finger Click*”

Athena went all fluffy and scampered off to the far side of the room to play with a scrunched up bit of paper.

At this point, an idea must have formed in her head because after a moment of this, she ran back to the rug to give it an experimental claw. Predictably, I then gave her into trouble and she ran away, to run right back again. Athena had discovered a new game.

Now a number of things were happening here. My punishment for the rug, the angry voice, clicking fingers noise and occasionally me getting up to distract her were not considered aversive enough to really work for Athena, despite the fact they felt aversive to me (I don’t like giving my baby kitten into trouble). In fact I was inadvertently reinforcing the rug ripping by giving her attention every time she did it, and in this scenario, my attention was actually welcome (e.g.  the stimulus I was giving her was actually reinforcing the behaviour rather than punishing it).

As an owner, rather than a scientist, I’ve called this behaviour ‘cheeky’ and ‘gleeful’. And I’m quite happy to use those words for Athena, in the same way I’d use those words for a baby, but I don’t believe there’s any real malice or forethought in her actions. It was simply fun at the time.

But what’s interesting is that to stop the behaviour I had to give her negative punishment (i.e. withdraw my attention when she was ripping the rug) and then positively reinforce a different behaviour at the same time (i.e. I started playing with Mr Ducky on the sofa instead). And she gave it up. While we’ve been testing the rug game since then, she’s been much quicker to give it up when I tell her ‘no’.


Sponsored by Samsung, Naturally
Sponsored by Samsung, Naturally


All of this has got me thinking about blogging about training, particularly as I’ve seen how my students have been thinking about it on the course. I’ve never found it the most intuitive of subjects . . . but that’s for another time.


Another element of Athena’s development this week has been that she now has free range of the whole flat. I have noticed, coming home from work, suspiciously kitten shaped dents all over the duvet. The other day she was a little reluctant to leave her bed because it was chilly. These little glimpses of the cat she will become are very exciting, and much as I’m enjoying the kitten period, I keep seeing a sleek little cat who’s happy and confident and has never had anything to worry about in her life. I hadn’t always intended to get a kitten, but there’s something to be said for helping to shape the grown up she’ll become.

Oh – and we’re also weaning ourselves off of Royal Canin kitten food and onto Whiskas. The lamb flavour was a huge success with little growls coming from the miniature tiger hunched over her bowl.


The New Term

We’re halfway through Week Three of the new academic year.

Students, I love you. I really adore  you guys. I love helping you, I love seeing you puzzle out new ideas, I love when you challenge my thinking, I love when I can make you feel better about yourself.

But Jesus I wish you’d learn to read the course documents.

This year marks the sixth that I have been doing some form of university level teaching. In the past six years I’ve gone from the occasional lecture and lab to helping to coordinate an MSc program (admittedly that last bit has only been happening for two weeks, but it’s still pretty damned cool). I’ve come to the realisation that I really like the role of lecturer, particularly when I get to straddle the different scales from undergrad programs to masters and even helping out the odd PhD student. Which is a good thing because my wall planner looks like this now. Orange dots represent teaching days and I ran out of them so they start accounting for two towards the end of the year. Yellow stripes mean MOOC. Red stripes mean teaching at workshops:

The 2014 Wallplanner

But what really amazes me is that students, be they MOOC students, MSc students or just people who happen to catch me in the pub and receive a free lecture, never seem to read the course documents.

I’ve been writing some learning objectives for one of this year’s undergrad programs, and I was breaking the lecture up to indicate where the learning objective should have been achieved. I did this for a couple of reasons – I have a three hour lecture slot and that’s boring as hell. The learning objectives gave me a natural break. But I also did it because one of the questions I’m frequently asked is: “What should I know here?”

In some ways it makes me feel old. When I was at uni, we were only just developing this whole ‘communicating via email’ thing, and we received paper course books, which you had to look up to find a lecturer’s office. There was no way I was dragging myself into uni to ask them something I would more likely find myself in a book.

These days, however, I’m an email away from my students, and it’s easier for them to ask me where to find certain things. But it’s also easier for me to give them a reading list – I have lectures with lists of links to further reading if they want to, it really is information overload.

This is part of the learning process now, knowing what is valuable information and what is not. Part of that should be learning how to scan the course handbook, in my opinion, rather than outsourcing it to your lecturer’s knowledge, but that’s also part of the training. Students pick it up and within a few weeks it’ll all be sorted.

The thing is, I would never tell a student not to email me. I would really much rather say “As you’ll see in your handbook . . .” than have to say after an assessment “If you’d asked me I could have told you . . .” when a student’s done poorly.

Still, it’s student season right now. It’s the time when they’ll be grinding against one another in the cafeteria while you’re having a meeting with a guest. It’s the time when there will be emails at the weekend that expect to be answered. It’s the time where we gently remind them that Facebook is very nearly forever. It’s the time for tech problems, sudden financial difficulties, introductions and students second guessing themselves.

I love student season.