Life at Uni: Why is my timetable a mess?

By Gordon Rugg

Every year, huge numbers of new students start university, and are surprised to discover that their timetable is very much a work in progress (and sometimes, a work of fiction). Every year, understandably, huge numbers of new students react to this discovery by wondering why universities crammed with alleged geniuses can’t sort out something as simple as a timetable. It’s not an encouraging start. This article is about the reasons for this state of affairs.

The main reason is that timetabling actually isn’t simple. In reality, it’s hideously complex. The timetable for a single university has to handle thousands of students, hundreds of modules, hundreds of academic staff, and hundreds of rooms. Very few of those students want lectures first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon, or on a Monday or Friday, so some slots are much more in demand than others.

Reconciling all of these issues is a huge, messy problem, but it could in principle be resolved by using smart software; some universities already use cutting-edge software that can perform impressively well, if other things are equal.

Unfortunately, the big spanner in the works is that other things usually aren’t equal. Here’s a classic example of why timetables are often fluid until well after the first week.

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Why Hollywood gets it wrong: Conflicting conventions

By Gordon Rugg

Movies wilfully ignore and distort facts and truth for a wide range of reasons, most of them all too familiar. The usual suspects include:

  • Cost
  • Ignorance/not caring
  • Going for even bigger special effects than the last movie
  • Soul-less studio executives over-riding the director and/or scriptwriter
  • Going for the perceived lowest common denominator/broadest audience

In this article, I’ll resist the temptation to rant at length about those reasons, and will instead look at a less obvious problem which has some interesting underlying theory. It takes us on a journey across thousands of years of art, via some detours into geometry. It’s a variant on the problem of social perspective clashing with linear perspective (which might possibly be why it hasn’t received much attention in the past). Anyway, here’s an image that incorporates some key examples, after which I’ll unpack the concepts involved, and briefly outline some of their implications for cinema and for the wider world.


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Life at Uni: Lectures versus lessons

By Gordon Rugg

A lot of things at university look very similar to things in school, but are actually very different. Lectures look like lessons to a lot of new students at university, but they’re very different beneath the surface.

One major difference is this:

  • In a lesson, the teacher is someone who knows the textbooks.
  • In a lecture, the lecturer is often the person who wrote the textbooks.

It’s a rule of thumb – some teachers write textbooks, and many lecturers don’t write textbooks, for various reasons – but it brings out a key underlying point. Lecturers do a lot of things in addition to delivering lectures, and a lot of lecturers are world class experts in their fields.

Student reactions to this vary.

  • Some students view this as an opportunity.
  • Some students view this as intimidating.
  • Most students either don’t know this, or haven’t thought about the implications.

academic muppets

Image from Twitter

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Things people think

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a wryly humorous summary of models of humanity that floats around in academia. It appears in various forms; the one below has an astute punch line that highlights the amount of implicit assumption in the early models.

Models of humankind:

  • Man the fallen creation (the Bible)
  • Man the thinker (the Enlightenment)
  • Heroic man (Nietzsche)
  • Economic man (Marx)
  • Man the rat (Skinner)
  • Man the woman (feminism)

It’s humorous, but it cuts to the heart of the matter. The models that shape our lives – political models, religious models, economic models – are based on underlying assumptions about how people think and what people want. As is often the case with models, these assumptions are often demonstrably wrong.

In this article, I’ll examine some common assumptions, and I’ll discuss some other ways of thinking about what people are really like.


Images from Wikipedia and Wikimedia; details at the end of this article

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What’s it like at Uni? The people…

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re about to start your first year at university, and you’re feeling unsure and nervous, then you’ve got plenty of company. Most new students feel that way, though not all of them show it. This is the first in a short series of articles for people in your situation, about key information that should make your life easier.

This article is about roles at university. The American cartoon below summarises them pretty accurately.

academic muppetsImage from Twitter

So what are the roles other than “Elmo the undergrad” and how are they likely to affect you?

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The Uncanny Valley, Proust, Segways and the living dead

By Gordon Rugg

I recently visited my old university town after being away for more than twenty years. It was a very unsettling experience; the town I saw was very different from the one I remembered, and those differences stirred up a lot of emotional turmoil.

I had uncomfortable visions of spending years coming to terms with those feelings, and with the deep subconscious issues that would probably be involved, about memories of my past and of days that could never be re-lived. It had all the makings of a great novel, until I mentioned it to Sue Gerrard, who said that more likely it was just a case of the uncanny valley.

She was right.

And that is why I’m now unlikely to write this century’s answer to À la recherche du temps perdu.

So what is the uncanny valley anyway, and why does it mean that the world will have to settle for this blog article instead of a literary masterpiece? The answer takes us through a surprisingly broad range of phenomena that individually look difficult to explain, but which might be explicable together as the effects of some simple cognitive processes.


Images from Wikipedia; links are at the end of this article.

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Monday mood lifter: The case of the sinister buttocks

By Gordon Rugg

Poetic justice can be a wonderful thing. Mano Singham at Freethought Blogs has a delightful account of what happens when students attempt to outwit plagiarism detection software by using a thesaurus. It doesn’t end well for them…