Opinion Piece

If I have a new year’s resolution for 2018, it’s to be more open to feedback. Feedback terrifies me, because it’s an opportunity to be told I wasn’t very good at something. And if I’m not very good at something, I have clearly failed at life. But I’m working on it!

I have to admit I was surprised to find that I get a lot of positive feedback too. It’s strange how trying to protect yourself from bad feedback also keeps the good feedback from sinking in too. Here’s something students say to me:

“I like hearing about your opinion, it’s nice to have the benefit of your experience.”

I get this when I’m talking about ethics, or how my personal ontology affects my research (which is a whole other post I have drafted, but is also talked about in my book – which you can still pre-order on Amazon, Waterstones , Blackwells and at the Publisher) It used to make me uncomfortable. I worried that students might take my opinion as fact, or think they had to follow my opinion to get good grades. So when I give students my opinion, I preface it with lots of wiggle words “it’s only my opinion”, “now this isn’t fact” . .  . why precisely?

I don’t want to create a horde of mini-mes when I teach. I’ve never been able to get that project past the ethics committee. But why do I shy away from my opinion? There might well be a gender bias there, and I try to soften my opinion to protect peoples’ feelings. But I think a lot of it is about the hard science bias. Try as I might, I can’t shake the idea that opinions (and those other icky subjective feelingy things) don’t have a place in real science.

But here’s the thing – students like it. They want to know what I think about these topics that they’ve chosen to study. Their studies are important to them. The people who teach them are also important to students. My research group is writing up a paper at the moment which explores aspects of the student-teacher relationship. Students want to feel respected by their teachers, and I think that (occasional) usage of opinion can be one of the ways to do that. When you share something like that with your students, you’re building trust with them. And it’s important to value their opinion too.

I absolutely love having ethics discussions with my students. I love exploring these concepts and sharing ideas. It shouldn’t be so surprising to me that my students enjoy that too.

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And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.

 

MOOCs as a mechanism for behavioural change

Have you always wanted to hear my opinions on MOOCs but been unable to bring yourself to search through the MOOCs tag of this blog (or read the papers, or look at Twitter, or . . . never mind).

Well it’s good news for you! The Human Behavioural Change for Animal Welfare conference did a great job recording all the talks, including yours truly. The full set of talks can be found here, but I would highlight Melanie Connor’s talk on the Duty of Care projefct and Anna Saillet’s talk on maintaining behavioural change.

You can watch yours truly here:

Ch-Ch-Changes

There are more changes afoot at FluffySciences! Because after six very happy years with SRUC it’s time for me to move on …

 

Yes today was, technically, my last working day at SRUC. On Monday I start a new role as a research fellow in veterinary education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies.

I’m really excited to be starting this new role. It’s a group I know well and whose work I’ve often admired, so it’s a delight to be working with them more closely. And it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for some time. But of course it’s sad to be leaving SRUC and my lovely colleagues. While we’ll still work together it’s a strange thing to be leaving a group who I’ve been working with for longer than I was in high school!

You hear a lot of horror stories as a PhD student about unsupportive and unhelpful groups. I feel like I owe it to everyone to talk about the other side of the coin. When you’re lucky enough to work with a supportive group they can help you achieve so much. They listened to me ramble about definitions of animal personality for years and their feedback was always honest and constructive. They gave me opportunities to work on MOOCs and learning objects and so many interesting little bits and pieces of research. And of course they took me to amazing conferences all around the world and bought me beer and cups of tea and cakes whenever we were all out together.

So it has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next chapter of my research career brings. FluffySciences will continue, probably with a little bit of a shift in focus, but it will remain a blog obsessed with proving that even the soft, fluffy sciences like educational science are thorough and evidence based. Keep an eye out for my application to the Higher Education Academy Fellowships, I’ll be working through Edinburgh’s programme to get there and I’ll mirror all the self-reflective work as examples on here. And of course the book will still be under development.

Goodbye, SRUC, I will always be grateful.

Ethical Eating Month – Meat

The Ethical Eating month doesn’t start easily. We begin with the thorny issue of eating meat.

 

When I wrote the first draft of this post it was extremely long because I wanted to outline the ethical process that led to my personal decision to eat meat. After writing it and re-reading it, I couldn’t help feeling like I was lecturing people on why my life choices are superior to everyone else’s. I mean they are, obviously, because I’m awesome, but that’s not what you come here to read about.

So that blog, and the question of ‘should we want to eat meat’ has been shelved for now, and instead I’m going to focus on the ethics of meat production. If you don’t want to eat any meat at all, that’s your choice dudes, but this is for those who enjoy a steak now and again. How can we eat ethically?

There is a Coursera course, The Meat We Eat by the University of Florida, which many of my students have recommended. And this is really a topic that we could discuss for months on its own, so I’m going to cram a lot into this little blog post.

We’ll discuss the effect meat production has on our climate in a few weeks, today we’re concentrating on the process of producing meat. How do the most common meats end up on our table?

I often hear people saying how far removed we are from our food, or say something that either has a very idyllic picture-book idea of farming, or a gross misunderstanding based on pressure group videos, outdated or misrepresented. In the age of YouTube, there’s no excuse for not knowing what a real farming environment looks like because not only are our supermarkets, levy boards and colleges putting videos up, but so are actual farmers. I’ve cherrypicked some good resources that really demonstrate what I think of as good and realistic farm environments.

 

Chicken (Broiler Systems)

The broiler chicken is the breed we eat and they have been heavily selected for, so much so that most breeds can be patented. They grow exceptionally quickly and in intensive systems are packed into sheds without much in the way of environmental enrichment to stimulate them, which may be a good thing because they often break their bones because of their quick-growing physiology. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made a really good program on this a few years ago, and here you can see a pretty damn good free range broiler system

 

The fact I call this a ‘pretty good’ system might surprise you, but it is. These birds are clean, active, and don’t look damaged. I agree completely with what Hugh says, that this should be the bare minimum standard for chicken production in the UK. A £1 extra per chicken, at the time of filming, that’s what you buy for it.

 

I try really hard not to buy chicken. It is the meat I am probably most squeamish about because I think their quality of life is pretty poor.

 

Which brings me neatly to . . .

 

Beef (Beef Cattle Systems)

If you were to reincarnate me as a production animal, I’d like to be reincarnated as a beef cow in Scotland. MrScottishFarmer on YouTube has a video showing the living conditions of beef steers (the castrated males we eat), and it’s a decent system I’d say. The steers aren’t too muddy, the straw is relatively clean, and they’re all calm and curious about the human.

 

The beef cows (remember ‘cow’ means female cattle) you’ll see out in the fields with calves are the mummys, who keep their calves with them until weaning age, typically around 7-8 months (although earlier weaning is a thing). Then the boys are grouped together and fattened up until slaughter. Beef cows will then have their next calf and the system starts again for them. The big welfare problems that have occurred in British beef farming systems have largely been man made.

 

Feedlots, which are what we call the area steers are raised, change country to country. Particularly in the Americas you’ll find much larger and more intensive systems.

Another video, which does contain some mild images of abbatoirs, comes from Quality Meat Scotland (and features quite a few SRUC researchers under our former ‘SAC’ banner). What you can see here is a very good beef handling system, watch how calm the steers are in handling. That’s a great sign.

 

 

Pork (Pig Production Systems)

Pig farming in Scotland has a large proportion of outdoor farming compared to many other countries producing pork meat, but we still have the intensive indoor systems.

 

You’ll be able to see examples of both in this QMS video

 

and in this great video from an Australian producer, showing a more intensive system:

 

 

Lamb (Sheep Production Systems)

Lamb is the meat of a sheep less than a year old, while mutton is the meat of a sheep older. Lamb is probably my least favourite meat (versus pork, which I would until the cows came home if I could).

 

We’re going travel south for this video, because in Scotland we tend to fling our sheep out into the hills and forget about them (gross exaggeration). Southern systems tend to be more intensive.

 

The girl who explains the lamb production system is very engaging (maybe Hugh should hire her). But how about a truly intensive system? Canada has us covered here:

 

Fish (Aquaculture)

And of course we can’t forget our fish! Fish are a hard one because it’s a huge range of species that you’re trying to cover, and we’re not so au fait with our understanding of their ability to feel pain, etc. (although note that our EU legislation considers all vertebrates to be sentient)

 

The Ethics of Meat?

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the ethics of eating meat – well this is the welfare of how these animals live. While welfare at death is undeniably important, overall it’s a much shorter component of the animal’s overall experience. I’m more concerned about the welfare-at-life of my meat animals.

 

Farm assurance schemes such as Freedom Food  and Red Tractor  have some, possibly basic, welfare standards.  Those are two schemes that I look for when I’m buying meat as a bare minimum. There’s also the Soil Association’s animal welfare standards  if organic is a priority for you. Just as you would check calorie information, we really should be checking farming methods too before we buy.  Take a look at the welfare standards of these organisations and decide if that’s the welfare you want your meat to have experienced when it was alive, because that is what we meat eaters must understand – these burgers were animals at one point.

 

Is meat too easy? Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (such a great name to type out) used to do a show where he took a number of bad cooks and got them to re-engage with the source of their food. In this clip, he makes the point of taking responsibility for the life and death of his chickens. Definitely worth a watch:

 

I would love to live in a world where my tenement block looked after a number of chickens in our garden, but my tenement block can’t even look after our garden. Our lifestyles encourage cheap, butchered meat. The last meat I ate was pollock  steaks that I buy frozen and keep by to make curries with when I need to make a quick cupboard meal. It’s hugely convenient.

 

Reducing the number of animals we need to farm would greatly improve the overall welfare of production animals (the welfare of the farmers however is a topic to come . . . ) But is it realistic? What about people under financial pressure? Can we ask them to stop buying cheap meat? Well, yes, we can. A Girl Called Jack blogs about cooking on a very tight budget, and the majority of her recipes are meat free.

 

These are all strangely complicated questions, featuring a lot of human behaviour and many interconnecting issues that we’ll discuss later in the month.

 

But I think the biggest step in helping production animal welfare is showing people what farms are really like, and as you can see from this post, the internet is a vast repository of resources. Really, neither side of the ethical debate has any excuse to be ignorant about what real farming is like. 

Teaching to Pass the Exam

When I was at school, I was taught to pass exams.

This is viewed very critically in the press – just take a look at these Google returns. But this is not the education I recognise in myself. From day 1 in my education, I was taught how to answer questions, how to tease a question apart into its component pieces (back in my day it was Knowledge & Understanding and Skills & Problem Solving, and every question featured both components).

I was taught how to game marking schemes, how to exploit a question’s structure to give me the most to talk about, how to use my skills when my knowledge failed me.

In news reports, we often hear that ‘teaching to pass exams’ means that university lecturers are having to re-teach the basics.

I never learned grammar at school – that might be obvious. I did poorly in the classes that drilled me on facts (I still only remember the first line of the German definitive articles, der, die, das, der, despite staring at the poster for two years straight). Even now, I ‘know’ the answer to very little. I don’t remember how many dairy cows are in the UK, or what her average milk yield is. That knowledge I outsource to Google. If you wanted a critical evaluation of dairy trends, I have the skills to deliver that, very quickly.

You might say my education was ‘curriculum led’ versus ‘item-teaching’, where I learned a subject thoroughly instead of being taught what was coming up in the test. I don’t think this is entirely true to be honest. My Highers (the big Scottish high school exam) were done way back in 2003. To prepare for my History exam, I tried my hand at answering the questions on the time frames I hadn’t been taught. I passed them. Not well, but I did pass. There was enough Skill and Problem Solving demonstrated to pass the answers.

I rely on those old exam techniques a lot as an academic. I don’t want to beat my breast and say that students aren’t being taught right any more – but I will say there the skills animal behaviour and welfare science uses to interrogate a question are not so different from the skills an English student will use to critique a piece of work, or a History student to draw up some conclusions. Animal behaviour and welfare is a science that demands a lot of evaluative thought alongside its experimental design.

And that’s not easy to teach

Chronicles of Athena – 40 Weeks

This week a man came into the house and played about with Athena’s favourite window. He even stood on her beautiful window sill with his boots on. I am sure you can imagine just how upset she was by the whole event.

Our new flat has the most beautiful light and I couldn’t resist taking advantage of it yesterday to demonstrate a cool little quirk of feline physiology. You might have seen this demonstrated on the BBC’s wonderful ‘Secret Life of Cats‘ but hopefully this video will show you how you can demonstrate this as a teacher or parent (or just to other people if you have a cat on hand!)

Watch how, despite no change in the light levels, Athena’s pupil size changes drastically before she pounces on Mr Ducky. She opens her pupils as wide as she can before pouncing so she can take in as much information as possible. It’s very obvious once you start looking for it, and would supplement a lesson on the physiology of the eye really well.

 

 

Animal science and behaviour science isn’t always easy to demonstrate, unlike chemistry or physics where you can set up experiments with a lot of household objects. I keep meaning to collect small examples of animal behaviour that work like this, so if you think this  kind of thing is useful, do let me know.

The Utilitarian Suffering

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

This is a simplistic understanding of utilitarianism – the ethical stance which we more formally say ‘maximises utility’. That is, we do what is best for the largest number of people (or animals). The greatest benefit with the smallest cost.

Utilitarians will tolerate the suffering of mice in a cancer research trial, for example, because the benefit of being a step closer to curing cancer is greater than the suffering of the mice, especially if we actively try to guarantee those animal a good quality of life through environmental enrichment, etc.

Of course life is never quite that straightforward. We call this kind of thinking ‘cost-benefit’ analysis. The benefit is worth the cost. But who puts value on the cost, and who puts value on the benefit? Economics is a notoriously elastic thing – driven by motivation, need and demand. The utilitarian shopper may buy free range organic eggs at the start of the month, and barn eggs at the end of the month (and I should probably do a post on that conundrum later because the shopper, and most people, tend not to have the right welfare assumptions in these situations).

Most western societies are utilitarian, in countries where we consider animal welfare and have animal welfare laws, we allow animal use because it benefits most of us. But one of our MSc students asked a very interesting question recently that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

Does the utilitarian accept that there will always be suffering?

 

This is a philsophical, thinky kind of question. The kind that I, as a scientist, am not good at but that I, as an animal welfare scientist, need to consider.

If you are a utilitarian, like myself, and you accept that animals are used (i.e. will be farmed, etc.) for human good. You  might accept different levels of this. For example, you might accept the use of animals for cancer research, but not the use of animals for beefburgers. Or you might accept the use of cows for beefburgers but think it’s wrong to make kebabs from dogs. We all have differing ideas on what it acceptable and why.

I don’t think this is a question that can be answered by debating ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Instead I think you need to turn to the assumptions in that statement.

 

Always Is a Very Long Time

What is ‘always’ in this statement? I expect I’ll be eating lab grown meat in my old age, and with the reduction of food animals and the increase in replacement and reduction of laboratory animals, there will be less suffering of animals in the system we currently live in. But I also foresee a future where the system we currently live in is no more, there will be other animals, unimaginable to us, and we ourselves will no longer exist in our present form. What is the ‘always’ we discuss?

If we consider it in terms of recognisable ecosystems, so a world where humans aim to maintain or improve this standard of living, but are recognisably human with recognisably human needs and failings. We need the biological machine to test biological pathways for drugs, to produce organic materials that we like – but does that biological machine have to be attached to a system that can perceive its environment, process that, and come out with emotions? Does the sentient part of the biological machine have to be there?

I am a sci-fi nerd, as we know, and I can see a possible future where we are able to create biological machines that have no sentience, and therefore animal welfare is completely circumvented. They have no suffering because they are not sentient. Some people, people who have a strong respect for nature, will find that abhorrent.

But the ‘always’ in this statement isn’t very helpful, is it?

 

The Suffering

So what is ‘suffering’? Some people say that it was advertisers who invented this belief that humans should always be happy. I often find myself thinking about this. As a scientist, I believe in the Normal Distribution. That is to say, the average is a good description of the population.

I believe the average height of a woman in the UK is a pretty good description of the height of women in the UK. Most women will be around 5″9. Now I’m 5″2. I am ‘noticeably’ short, according to my friends, so I already know that there are fewer people of my height than the average, but I also see people shorter than me. When I see someone very much shorter than me, say by a foot, I’m surprised, because they are at the very tail end of the normal distribution.

I think emotional state follows the same normal distribution. Most of us are ‘ok’. We have moments of extreme happiness and extreme sadness, but for the most part we’re floating around in the ‘ok’ feelings. In any normal system, the normal distribution appears.

What about suffering? What we’re really trying to do is make the tail end of ‘extreme suffering’ shorter, and to push the overall feeling closer to ‘good’. This is the whole idea of the Quality of Life concept of animal welfare – we want animals to have a life worth living, where the good things outweigh the bad things. The animal’s average emotional state is pushed closer to good, so there are fewer bad times.

The Scottish Government recently went a step further and said they wanted animals in Scotland to have a Good Life, not just a life worth living. They want to push that whole normal distribution further towards ‘good’ feelings.

But even if they are successful, that tail end will still exist. The capacity for suffering will still exist and where the capacity exists, it will occur – even if only in very small incidences.

 

 

The Utilitarian Suffering

So, yes. I think the Utilitarian accepts that there will always be suffering within a given system. What we’re trying to do is move the average up, and make the animals happier in general. HOW we do this is an entirely different question – and that’s where the ‘rights’ and the ‘wrongs’ come into play.

Ethics is a messy, messy subject. So I’m going to go have a cup of tea and discuss it with Athena.

Renewal Season

It’s February, and what I have come to think of as contract renewal season. I’m reasonably confident of continuing the work I’m doing, which is split between coordinating the online MSc (mostly student wrangling, as I think of it), teaching and coordinating my two undergrad modules, miscellaneous knowledge transfer activities, and any bits of research I can stick my fingers into.

There’s a part of me that’s afraid of losing out on the research forever, and wants to get a postdoc. But it’s time for a confession: I hate the postdoc lifestyle. The uncertainty and enforced nomadicity wreaks havoc on my anxiety. So on balance, I’m happier to take on student wrangling and get to foster other peoples’ research in the best way that I can.

But the big news being circulated among my colleagues this week has been the news of Bristol University veterinary lecturer who was fired for not bringing in enough research money. Now if there’s anything guaranteed to send chills down the spine of an academic, its actually being judged on the merit of your work.

I’m being facetious. I feel very sorry for the lecturer in question, and the Epigram (Bristol Uni’s student paper) has a more detailed account of the disciplinary process brought against this lecturer. It must be deeply unpleasant going through several rounds of being told you must get more money or else.

We were asked, on our MOOC, how animal behaviour and welfare research happens – it’s a constant fight for funding and the numbers of graduates wanting to go into academia far outstrips the monies available. It is a hard, hard place to be in.

Of the five animal behaviour PhD students who were around when I started, three of us are teaching, one of us supporting academic innovation and business, and the fifth has a postdoc further from her home than she would like. I think we all enjoy what we do, and I don’t know that any of us would do anything different, but there are eight behaviour PhD students I can name in our office. There are probably more I can’t name.

There is always the work, there just isn’t always the money.

I don’t know how universities are supposed to do this, but I wish they’d figure it out.

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.