Guest post with Andy Field, Professor of Psychology

Hi, this is Ollie here. Today on the SAGE Students’ blog we have a special guest post from Andy Field, Professor of Psychology at University of Sussex (whose blog can be found here). Last term, Andy taught me and the other second-year psychology students the Discovering Statistics module. I was pretty amazed by his eccentric style and wacky examples (which certainly made statistics lectures more exciting than I had ever known them), and I really liked how he focused on the similarities between topics, which made them far less daunting. His excellent textbook Discovering Statistics Using IBM SPSS Statistics (published by SAGE) is full of helpful characters and can be found here. I asked him some questions, and here are his answers.

Why is my evil lecturer making me learn statistics? What is it like to be the evil lecturer?

It oscillates from being inspiring, uplifting and exciting to demoralising, soul-destroying and self-loathing inducing. Often within minutes of each other!

My favourite part of teaching are those moments when you see the progress that a student has made. For example, someone who you know struggled and lacked confidence at the start of a module that 8 weeks later is writing scripts to fit models and asking you fairly technical questions. That never ceases to make me feel warm inside. Sadly, at undergrad level we teach cohorts of 300-400 so I never get that kind of experience, but I recently took over a postgraduate module with a mere 90 students(!?) and I got to do more hands-on teaching where you could more tangibly experience the progress some students made. It’s a great honour to be part of someone’s educational journey.

The flip side is it’s a difficult subject for social scientists and students get very stressed by it. They can be quite unforgiving. When you’re working 60+ hour weeks trying to give students the best experience you can, often in difficult circumstances, with constraints that are out of your control, and with oversized classes, and poor infrastructure, it can be utterly soul destroying when some students channel their frustrations at you. I tend to take these things way too personally.

Why did you choose to use characters and stories to teach statistics?

It wasn’t really a deliberate thing. I’m sort of a shy introvert who has learnt to ‘perform’ to cover the fact that I’m riddled with neuroticism and self-doubt. There are two consequences of this: (1) I really over-prepare lectures and go to town trying to include interesting examples, and things that will grab students’ attention; and (2) when I go blank from nerves I tend to say whatever is in my head to fill the space, and my head often has quite fantastical stuff in it. So, early on in my teaching career I evolved this nerve-induced teaching style where I’d suddenly start rambling on about my cat (or whatever flight of fancy was tripping through my head). When things get a good reaction you keep them, so then I started trying to connect the random monologues to examples. At the extreme I now have a few lectures that have a full narrative to them – with a story running through them.

In parallel to this, when I was writing my SPSS textbook I always liked the idea of having characters that had pedagogic functions. So, I stuck some in, and once I’d created them I started to think of little back stories for them. Then when I wrote the third edition (in 2008) I just had this crazy idea of a textbook that had a narrative running through it. Like a novel that happened to also teach statistics. I didn’t have the time to do this so instead I book-ended chapters with stories from my life (in chronological order) that vaguely connected to the chapter topic. It created a sort of story arc to the book and people seemed to love it (in general). However, it always felt like a poor substitute for the grander idea of writing a fictional story through which you teach statistics. So, after many years of planning I wrote an adventure in statistics. There’s a lot more information about how that book came about and the process I went through on my blog.

I guess the shorter answer is that I think I’m quite a visual learner, and I also live in a bit of a fantasy world. Put those things together and you end up with characters and narratives in your teaching materials. Basically, I’m weird.

Which statistical concept is the hardest to teach?

I think null hypothesis significance testing (the p-value stuff) is inherently difficult. It basically makes no sense, and is widely misunderstood by even very experienced researchers (with PhDs and professorial posts!). You could probably say the same of confidence intervals and sampling distributions. They are all quite abstract and intangible ideas, so a lot of students really struggle with them.

How do you organise your time?

Badly. I try really hard to block time. So, I try to have all of my face-to-face meetings on 1 or 2 days of the week and just accept that nothing else will get done on those days. Then the other 3 I try to lock myself away and focus on stuff. On a good day I switch email off and just check it at the start and end of the day. Email is basically the invention of Satan – I (and every other academic I know) could literally spend their entire working week just dealing with email. I’ve tried so many times to have better email hygiene, and I use task management software to try to keep things out of my inbox but it always defeats me.

How do you balance work and leisure?

Badly. I work too much. I am lucky that Sussex allow me a flexible working contract so that I can leave early to help with childcare and make up the hours when the children are in bed. It’s not uncommon that I’m working past midnight though, and frequently have spells of trying to survive on too little sleep. I play football a couple of times a week, and always make time to see bands. Since having children I refuse to work at weekends (which I used to do a lot).

Nevertheless the reality is that Universities do not see academics time as a finite resource. There is a constant stream of new initiatives and demands to improve research, improve teaching, new expectations, and nothing ever gets streamlined or removed. Stuff gets added, but things are rarely taken away. Given that I want to be a good dad, and I couldn’t contemplate a life without music, it means I end up sleeping less, which of course is really bad for your emotional and physical health.

What are your top 3 favourite books of all time?

  • Along with James Baldwin’s Going to meet the man, Malcolm X’s autobiography (written with Alex Haley) affected me very profoundly at the age of 19.
  • The Passion by Jeannette Winterson is the the most beautifully written book I have ever read. It is simultaneously fantastical, beautiful and grotesque.
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. It merges two of my favourite genres (romance and science fiction) and made me cry on a train. What more can you ask for?

What are your top 3 Iron Maiden songs of all time?

This may well be the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. Piece of Mind is my favourite album so I’d have to have something from there and I’ll go for To Tame A Land because what’s not to love about 8-minutes of prog-metal splendor based on Frank Herbert’s book Dune? Sticking with the epic tracks, I’d have The Rime of The Ancient Mariner’ from the Powerslave album because what’s not to love about 14-minutes of prog-metal splendor based on a Samual Taylor Coleridge poem! Finally, and because I should probably not have a third epic, I’d go for Wasted Years from Somewhere in Time. I remember buying the 7” single on the day it came out (I was 13). Back then a new Iron Maiden release was a monumental event and being 13 I had time to pore over the artwork, and play it repeatedly until the grooves wore out! I liked it at the time, but wouldn’t have classed it as a top 3, but over the years I’ve really come to appreciate what a great song it is (especially live) . Also, lyrics about past regrets and wasted opportunities resonate a lot more in middle age than at the age of 13!

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